The Kalifornia Kustom Comes to Detroit: The 1953-1954 Buick Skylark

We said in the conclusion of our article on the multicylinder Cadillacs that the era of custom bodywork was fading away by 1940, but that wasn’t exactly true. The era of bespoke bodies for elite luxury cars was ending, but a new age of customized cars was only beginning. By the mid-1950s, the trend had spread back to Detroit, leading to a curious array of “factory customs” like this one: the 1953-1954 Buick Skylark.

1954 Buick Skylark badge


As early as the 1920s, hot-rodding — modifying and racing hopped-up street cars on back roads or dry lake beds — became a popular pastime among speed-crazed teenagers. During Prohibition, it was also practiced on a semi-professional basis by bootleggers and bandits of various stripes; there’s nothing like the desire to avoid prison to inspire mechanical ingenuity and heroic driving feats.

Although early hot-rodders became expert at coaxing more power out of production cars, they were more concerned with speed than looks. Unnecessary fripperies like fenders, windshields, or roofs were likely to be removed in the interest of saving weight. Any modifications focused on improving performance — the California rake, for example, altering the suspension for a nose-down stance, was originally intended to increase weight transfer to the rear wheels on a fast start.

By the 1930s, there was a growing interest in custom styling. Unlike the custom-bodied prestige cars of the era, the subjects of this customization were usually inexpensive makes, like Fords, Chevrolets, and Mercurys. Since the owners of these cars didn’t have vast amounts of money to spend, many of the modifications were fairly rudimentary: substituting grilles, bumpers, or lights from other models; adding or subtracting chrome; or lowering the body, sometimes by the simple expedient of adding weights under the hood and in the trunk. The custom craze rapidly evolved into distinct subcultures. Mexican-American pachucos, for example, favored radically lowered and appropriately decorated Chevrolets, the ancestor of the modern lowrider.

Although the pachuco look became popular almost anywhere that had a significant Mexican-American population, prewar custom cars were primarily a California phenomenon. As early as 1935, pioneers like Harry Westergard were setting up shops in places like Sacramento and Los Angeles, turning a hobby into a business. During and after World War II, the widespread movement of servicemembers and returning veterans helped to spread the trend to areas that might otherwise have never seen it. By 1948, the first national hot-rodding and custom magazines had appeared and the custom car was becoming a cottage industry.

By the early 1950s, the custom car had developed its own unique design vocabulary. A chopped car had its roof pillars, windshield, and windows shortened to lower the roof. A sectioned custom had a horizontal section cut from the body panels, doors, and fenders to lower the beltline. A channeledcar had its floorpan altered to cause the body to sit lower on the frame. Headlights, taillights, or antennas might be Frenched — recessed slightly into the surrounding body panel — or trim, badges, and other hardware shaved. The suspension might be raised or lowered to create either a rake or the tail-dragging look favored by the pachuco set. All of these changes were typically capped by a startling array of what customizer George Barris dubbed “Kandy Kolors.”

1952 Chevrolet DeLuxe convertible front
1952 Chevrolet DeLuxe convertible rear
This early-fifties Chevrolet (we believe it’s a 1952) has been nosed and decked — that is, all badges, trim, and hardware, including the trunk handle, have been removed both front and rear. The resulting gaps were filled with lead or some other body filler and then painted over.


The stylists at the major automakers were hardly oblivious to this trend. Indeed, many senior stylists — particularly at GM — had customized cars of their own, often built by their subordinates and maintained at company expense. GM design chief Harley Earl was from California, so if he hadn’t been hired by General Motors in 1926, it’s not hard to imagine him becoming a customizer in the mode of impresario George Barris.

The influence of the custom (or, as Barris styled it, “kustom”) scene on mainstream design was seldom acknowledged directly. Senior auto executives were deeply conservative and the young people who made up the custom and hot-rodding scenes were hardly respectable — not least because many of them were not white. The notion of marketing directly to such consumers was still a decade or so away. Nonetheless, each year, the major automakers displayed modified and customized versions of production cars on the auto show circuit and it’s no coincidence that those dream cars began to borrow cues from the customs.

In 1951, Ned Nickles, head of styling for GM’s Buick division, customized his own convertible along the lines of Buick’s recent XP-300 show car. Ivan Wiles, Buick’s general manager, took a fancy to Nickles’ car and suggested making it a limited-production model to commemorate Buick’s 50th anniversary. Clay models were quickly prepared and a running prototype was ready by the spring of 1952. Dubbed Skylark, after a 1942 Hoagy Carmichael song, it was shown on the auto show circuit that summer to assess public reaction. In October, Wiles announced that Buick would respond to popular demand by offering a production version of the Skylark.


When the 1953 Buick Skylark bowed at the Waldorf hotel in New York City in January 1953, it was joined by similarly customized models from Oldsmobile and Cadillac, dubbed Holiday and Eldorado respectively. All three were lavishly trimmed convertibles and GM alleged that they were Detroit’s answer to European sports roadsters. That was faintly ludicrous — the closest the bulky Skylark and Eldorado would ever get to an MG or a Jaguar XK-120 would be in a parking lot. What the new GM cars were was “Kalifornia Kustom” styling, toned down ever so slightly for mainstream tastes.

1953 Buick Skylark front 3q © 2009 Rex Gray (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
This 1953 Buick Skylark shows off its cut-down doors, lowered fenders, cutout wheel wells, and altered side trim. Like the customs it emulates, the Skylark is a “lead sled,” with a great deal of lead filler to smooth out the largely hand-crafted bodywork. As a result, it is somewhat heavier than the Roadmaster convertible on which it’s based. (Photo: “1953 Buick Skylark – blue – fvr” © 2009 Rex Gray; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Mechanically, the first Buick Skylark was a Buick Roadmaster convertible, sharing the Roadmaster ragtop’s hefty platform frame with cruciform bracing. Under the hood was Buick’s brand-new “Nailhead” V8, displacing 322 cu. in. (5,272 cc) and making 188 gross horsepower (144 kW). The Skylark came standard with most of the accessories in the Buick catalog, including power steering, power brakes, the Twin Turbine Dynaflow transmission, leather upholstery, and a set of attractive Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels.

What distinguished the Skylark was its styling. The doors were cut down, with a rearward taper that created a pronounced dip in the beltline, just behind the doors. The front and rear fenders were re-contoured to match. Where other Buicks had rear fender skirts, the Skylark’s wheel wells were cut to expose the gleaming wire wheels. The windshield and side windows were chopped, making the car about two inches lower than a standard Buick. (To maintain headroom, the seat frames and steering column were also lowered slightly.) To accentuate the revised side profile, the chrome side spear was extended to follow the curve of the rear wheelhouse, rather than ending ahead of it, as on other Buicks. Finally, the front fenders were “shaved,” stripping them of their customary Venti-Ports. For some reason, the Skylark lacked the crowning touch of the Fiesta and Eldorado: their dramatic “Panoramic” wraparound windshield.

1954 Buick Skylark headlamp
The headlamps of 1953-1954 Buicks, including the Buick Skylark, were inspired by the XP-300, a 1951 show car. They were one of the few external features not customized for the Skylark.

Seen through modern eyes, the 1953 Buick Skylark looks like any other fifties Buick. Its impact is diluted by the fact that many of its unique styling features were quickly propagated through the rest of the line. At the time, however, the Skylark and its Oldsmobile and Cadillac siblings were quite dramatic. The prospect of a factory-built car that looked like a tasteful, well-finished custom was an enticing one, which is why the three cars drew huge crowds at the auto shows.

1954 Buick Skylark front
Like other ’54 Buicks, the 1954 Buick Skylark had a significantly lower hood than before. It greatly improved visibility, allowing the driver to see the fenders from the driver’s seat for the first time. The Skylark still lacks Venti-Ports; Specials and Centuries had three in each front fender, the Roadmaster four. All Buicks now had the new Panoramic wraparound windshield. A year or so earlier, Harley Earl and the windshield vendor, Libbey-Owens-Ford, had to hire an optometrist from Cornell University to address persistent distortion problems.

Where the Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Fiesta, and Cadillac Eldorado all fell down was on price. The heads of each division saw them as top-of-the-line, flagship models and all three had prices to match. The Skylark was the cheapest, if you can call it that; at $5,000, the 1953 was nearly twice the price of a Buick Special convertible and 50% more than the Roadmaster ragtop on which it was based. The Olds and Cadillac were even more expensive, at $5,715 and $7,750, respectively. The Skylark sold better than the others, but sales amounted to only 1,690 units, well under half of 1% of Buick’s total production. Because each Skylark involved a good deal of additional hand labor, it was not terribly profitable, despite the high price.

After selling a dismal 458 units, Oldsmobile dropped the Fiesta, but Wiles decided to continue the Skylark for another year. It was even promoted to a separate series rather than being part of the Roadmaster line. The Eldorado also continued, although for 1954, it was far more like any other Cadillac.

1954 Buick Skylark rear side
All 1954 Buicks now had the extended chrome side spear, which kicks up to follow the curvature of the rear wheel well. The 1954 Buick Skylark, now riding the nominally shorter Century chassis, actually had a half-inch-longer wheelbase than before, although overall length was 1.2 inches (30 mm) shorter. With a full tank of fuel, it weighed close to 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg).


The entire Buick line was redesigned for 1954, growing significantly in size. The Skylark was moved from the Roadmaster chassis to that of the smaller Century, but the Century had been enlarged to the point that it was almost as big as the previous year’s Roadmaster. Power of the 322 cu. in. (5,272 cc) “Nailhead” was up to an even 200 (149 kW) and a number of suspension changes improved handling, although agility was still not a Buick strong point.

1954 Buick Skylark rear3q
This angle shows off the 1954 Buick Skylark’s unique ridged decklid with its high-mounted backup lights; on other Buicks, the backup lights are set at the lower edge of the decklid.

From the front, the 1954 Skylark looked less distinctive than before, sharing the same wraparound windshield as other Buicks. It retained its cut-down doors, but other Buick models now had the same beltline “dip” as the 1953 Skylark. Normal Buick hardtops also inherited the 1953 Skylark’s cutout wheel wells, so the new Skylark got scalloped wheelhouses, which Buick accentuated on some cars by painting them red. (The scalloping is less obvious on our all-black photo subject unless you look closely at the shape of the wheel wells.) From the rear, the Skylark was much easier to spot, thanks to its wild-looking triangular chrome fins, which were not shared with any other Buick.

1954 Buick Skylark tailfin
The 1954 Buick Skylark’s curious, chrome-encrusted fins are flashy, but they seem poorly integrated with the Skylark’s generally bulbous styling. Other Buicks of this era did not really have fins except in the most vestigial sense. Buick did not really embrace the fin craze in a dramatic way until the bizarre, bat-winged 1959 models.

The Buick Century had a reputation as a hot car, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 10.6 seconds and a top speed of about 110 mph (175 km/h). Because the Skylark weighed 210 pounds (95 kg) more than a standard Century convertible, it was somewhat slower: 0-60 mph times stretched to around 12 seconds, with top speeds of a bit over 100 mph (160 km/h), still not bad at all for 1954.

1954 Buick Skylark dashboard1954 Buick Skylark interior
The interior of the 1954 Buick Skylark was basically identical to that of the Century except for badges and the standard leather upholstery. Large, round speedometer reads to an optimistic 120 mph (195 km/h). The aircraft-inspired toggle switches to the right of the steering wheel are for the heater and ventilation controls.

The 1954 Buick Skylark required much less hand labor than the ’53, which enabled Buick to cut the price to $4,483. It was still too expensive for most Buick customers, however, and production totaled only 836. Wiles had been hoping to expand the line for 1955, adding a hardtop, but the low sales made it pointless. The Skylark was dropped before the end of the 1954 model year, although the name was revived in 1961 for the upscale version of Buick’s Y-body compact.

Ironically, just a few months after the demise of the Skylark, Ford unveiled perhaps the most ambitious of the “Detroit customs,” the two-seat Thunderbird. For all the fervor about the Thunderbird as an American sports car, it was essentially a heavily customized Ford convertible; shortened, chopped, channeled, and sectioned in the best custom car tradition.


Throughout the fifties, Detroit appropriated many ideas from the customizers and by 1958–1959 had begun to rival them for sheer outlandishness. It was some time before Detroit designers openly admitted the influence of the custom scene, but by the mid-sixties, the Establishment had smelled money. The emergence of the Baby Boom generation brought a new determination to court the affluent and lucrative Youth Market, sometimes cleverly, sometimes embarrassingly. By 1970, standard dealer order forms offered paint jobs almost as lurid (if not as elaborate) as any custom house.

As Detroit began more like the customs, the custom scene began to lose its creative momentum. From a mechanical standpoint, hot rodding was entering a new golden age, as were lowriders, but stylistically, many customizers became increasingly reactionary, recycling the same themes they’d been exploring since the thirties. Perhaps it was the intrusion of commerce; when companies pay for the rights to make toys and model kits of your work and Detroit hires you as a consultant to find out “what the kids are going for,” a certain conservatism begins to prevail. Rods and customs built today don’t look that much different than they did 40 years ago. Still, the design language that the custom scene developed continues to influence automotive design, as demonstrated by cars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The 1953-1954 Buick Skylark is highly collectible today, fetching prices well into the six-figure range. The customized body panels are hard to come by, making restoration challenging and expensive, but then, customs have always been more about art than practicality.

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Our sources for the history of the Skylark and its ilk included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1953-1954 Buick Skylark,”, 15 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1954-buick-skylark.htm, accessed 7 December 2008, “1953-1966 Cadillac Eldorado,”, 23 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1966-cadillac-eldorado.htm, accessed 8 December 2008, and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, The Buick: A Complete History (Kurtztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1980); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1993); “Vivid Memories: The Story of AMC’s Patrick R. Foster, ‘Big Bad Colors’ Cars,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 2000), pp. 66-76; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002), and Standard Catalog of Buick 1903-2004 Rev. 4th Ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2004); John Lee, “1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta: When the Dream Came Alive…” Special Interest Autos #106 (July-August 1988), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Oldsmobiles: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); George Mattar: Collector Buyer’s Guide: 1953 Buick Skylark,” Hemmings Classic Car #43 (April 2008), pp. 26–29; John G. Tennyson, “GM’s Glamorous Threesome: Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Fiesta,” Special Interest Autos #134 (March-April 1993), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); and Paul Zazarine, Barracuda and Challenger (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, International, 1991). Performance figures for the contemporary Buicks came from “Road Test: The Buick V-8,” Motor World 22 May 1953; “Is Buick’s 50th Year Its Best,” Motor Trend July 1953; “How the New Buick Century Performs,” Science and Mechanics June 1954; Griff Borgeson, “Road Test: Buick’s New Century,” Motor Life April 1954; and Jim Potter, “’54 Buick Special,” Motor Trend October 1954, all of which are reprinted in Buick Performance Portfolio 1947-1962, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).

Information on the history of hot-rodding and customizing came from “Lowrider History Book Chapter 1,” Lowrider, www.lowridermagazine. com, accessed 7 November 2008; “The Barris Story,”, 2004, www.barris. com, accessed 8 December 2008; Sondre Kvipt, “Harry Westergard,” Kustomrama, 7 November 2008, www.kustomrama. com, accessed 7 December 2008; an Tom Wolfe, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…” originally published in Esquire November 1963 and reprinted in Wolfe’s anthology The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).


Add a Comment
  1. Re: the conservatism of today’s customs…

    I’d say just as the import tuner scene is now the real muscle/pony car world, the absurdity that is today’s SEMA will show you a ton of customs that aren’t just the hot rods of old.

    Now, as a matter of personal taste…we can debate their merits…but that’s a different issue.

    1. [quote]
      I’d say just as the import tuner scene is now the real muscle/pony car world, the absurdity that is today’s SEMA will show you a ton of customs that aren’t just the hot rods of old.[/quote]

      That is certainly true, but the modern tuner scene, while it parallels the rise of the hot rod and custom scene, is largely an independent evolution. This is like the argument I had about the Corvair; in many respects (size, unitary construction, independent suspension, modest-size six-cylinder engine) it’s more like modern sedans than most cars of its time, but in an evolutionary sense, it was like the duck-billed platypus. None of GM’s later designs evolved from it — they had to reinvent it.

      By the same token, while there’s a modern tuner/customization scene that is parallel to that of the fifties and sixties, the evolution of the fifties and sixties custom scene basically stopped in the mid-sixties, and lingers as a hobby for aging Boomers, a kind of cultural equivalent of the alligator. That was my point.

  2. Somebody’s been reading their National Geographic.

    Good point on the lack of connection.

    In fairness, the RWD American Road Monster pretty much died after the early 70s, leaving nothing but nostalgia.

    While there are those who disparage the domestics for “retro” designs (e.g. 05 Mustang, the various Chrysler products), the counter argument is that the late 60s was the last time American cars actually looked good. They’re not re-hashing, they’re just getting back to what they should’ve done all along.

    1. Well, the dilemma with retro styling — with which Chrysler, Ford, and Volkswagen are now struggling — is that it’s an evolutionary dead end. The old car might be considered timeless, but its modern equivalent is not, and after a while, it starts to look dated. Once that happens, what do you do with it? Ford has gone from aping the ’67 Mustang (for the current Mustang) to a cautious ’69 Mach 1 look for the 2010. As for VW — well, look at the ghastly artist’s impression of the next New Beetle and judge for yourself. I’m not a fan of the new Camaro, which I think is hideous, but I have to give GM credit for not simply making it a rehash of the ’67-’69 F-bodies.

      I wonder sometimes if modern designers have simply run out of idea. The blind chutzpah necessary to build something like the Citroën DS appears to have gone from the world.

      1. There’s a difference between retro styled or having retro styling elements and being a copy of a previous style.

        The obvious examples being the 300c and the Challenger or Mustang. The pony cars look like modern copies of the previous models. The 300 just looks like it’s from that era. If Chrysler weren’t circling the drain, they’d have somewhere to go with the 300, not so with the Challenger (oddly prophetic, it seems).

        I’m going to end on a sympathetic note: it’s really too bad your eyes are going. The new Camaro is one handsome automobile.

        Oddly, it’s kind of reverse-retro: very modern styling that hearkens to the original shape. You know that thing’s a Camaro.

        1. I really dislike the new Camaro. I don’t like the concept, and the execution is full of displeasing details. It’s emphatically not my kind of car, I guess.

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