If everything had gone according to plan, Buick would have had an all-new Super and Roadmaster for 1948, debuting around the same time as the 1948 Cadillacs and the new Oldsmobile Futuramic 98. However, Buick management had reservations about the new direction. Even without Cadillac’s fins, the 1948 C-body was a considerable departure from GM’s previous forties cars. For one, it was smaller — since it had been intended as the B-body, the new shell was shorter than the outgoing body in both wheelbase and overall length, the latter by up to 6 inches (152 mm). Glass area was more than 20% greater than before and the C-body also featured GM’s first curved two-piece windshield, still a novelty at the time. (Although Chrysler had pioneered the curved one-piece windshield on the CW Airflow Imperial Custom back in 1934, its cost had discouraged any imitators. When stylist Jules Andrade proposed the curved glass for the 1948 Cadillac, Harley Earl was initially skeptical that it was even feasible for mass production.) Meanwhile, the flowing front fender theme of the prewar body had given way to a rather slab-sided look, with a higher fender line running just below the beltline.
None of these features seems particularly noteworthy today, but for the postwar era, they were fairly radical moves, particularly for a division whose success hinged in large part on its image of dependable middle-class values. Although Buick was doing well in the forties, running comfortably ahead of both Oldsmobile and Pontiac, general manager Harlow Curtice had not forgotten the division’s brush with death in the early thirties, which he had been brought in to reverse. The existing prewar bodies, designed under the auspices of Buick studio chief Henry Lauve, had been very successful (indeed, they were be the styling target for Hudson’s 1948 “Stepdown” line) and Curtice was not eager to tamper with a winning formula.
Curtice was also unenthusiastic about the styling mockups for the all-new 1948 Buicks. Aside from the controversial features already described, the new Super and Roadmaster were to have a considerably softer front end treatment than had been the Buick norm, exacerbated by a rather vacant new grille with only nine ‘teeth’ rather than the previous 21. Nonetheless, time was short and development proceeded apace. By the spring of 1947, the new models were already being tooled for production, catalog illustrations had been prepared, and Buick stylists had moved on to the 1949 and 1950 models.
In mid-1947, Ned Nickles succeeded Henry Lauve as head of the Buick studio, at which point Harlow Curtice slammed on the brakes. According to stylist Richard Stout, the story around the office was that Curtice had had a disturbing dream that convinced him the new Buick would be a commercial disaster like the Chrysler Airflow. In response, Curtice ordered Nickles to redesign the hood and grille, even though it meant delaying production even more. As it was, the all-new Cadillac and Oldsmobile 98 didn’t arrive at dealers until March 1948 and the new Buick would be pushed back to the fall. In the meantime, the 1947 Super and Roadmaster would carry over for 1948. The only significant change would be the addition of the new Dynaflow torque converter automatic, optional on Roadmasters.
The all-new Buick Super and Roadmaster finally arrived late that year as 1949 models. Along with a revised grille and bolder hood, the big Buicks sported one more last-minute styling change: “VentiPorts,” decorative portholes in the front fenders. These were directly inspired by a gimmick Ned Nickles had added to his own 1948 Roadmaster convertible. Harlow Curtice was very taken with them and insisted on adding them to the 1949 models (except the Special, which didn’t get them until 1950). They would quickly become a Buick trademark.
At launch, the senior Buicks were offered in four body styles: a four-door sedan, the two-door fastback sedanet, a convertible, and the wood-bodied Estate Wagon. The most newsworthy addition, the new Riviera hardtop, would not arrive until later in the model year.
THE 1949 BUICK ROADMASTER RIVIERA, CADILLAC COUPE DE VILLE, AND OLDSMOBILE 98 HOLIDAY
Popular legend attributes GM’s hardtop coupes to Ed Ragsdale, who was Buick’s assistant chief engineer through most of the forties and became the division’s general manufacturing manager in 1949. In 1954, Ragsdale claimed that he suggested the concept to Harley Earl in 1947 following a conversation with Ragsdale’s wife Sarah, who loved convertibles, but always insisted on driving with the top up, lest the wind disturb her expensive coiffure.
In fact, the pillarless hardtop had been developed nearly two years earlier by Ned Nickles and Jules Andrade, then working in a separate special projects studio originally created to do development work for GM’s European subsidiaries. (It had been in that studio that Frank Hershey had conceived the first iteration of what became Cadillac’s famous tailfins, first seen on a 1944 Vauxhall concept.) According to Nickles, Ragsdale did see their model and remark that the hardtop roof would be perfect for his wife, but Ragsdale didn’t actually suggest the idea.
We’re not sure if Nickles and Andrade were influenced by either the Typhoon or the Town & Country Custom Club Coupe, although if Nickles was correct about the first models being built in 1945, we tend to doubt it. Harley Earl would almost certainly have been aware of both the Town & Country prototypes and the Armstrong Siddeley — he attended most of the major European auto shows and in those days, Detroit automakers typically had a good idea of what their rivals were doing. However, Nickles’ account suggests that the scale model was created before the Typhoon was even developed and before the apocryphal new Town & Country line was announced. In any case, the hardtop was a straightforward enough idea and it’s entirely possible that all three were conceived independently.