GM’s earliest hardtops typically (but not always) had black or white painted roofs for greater visual contrast, but they did not have padded vinyl tops. Leatherette or cloth roof coverings had popped up periodically since the twenties (and were standard on the Kaiser Virginian and Ford’s pseudo-hardtop 1950 Crestliner), but in this era, they tended to be dealer or aftermarket add-ons. They were not yet the national fetish that they would become by the 1970s.
What really distinguished GM’s initial hardtops from earlier efforts like the Typhoon and Virginian was not their stylistic or conceptual novelty, but GM’s marketing approach. While the Town and Country coupe would have been just another body style (much like the prewar rumble seat sports coupes) and the Typhoon was an expedient improvisation, GM positioned its hardtop coupes as the image leaders of their respective lines. Each would be lavishly trimmed, have names intended to connote wealth and luxury, and carry prices to match.
Although we’ve been unable to pin down precise introduction dates (complicated by the fact that the cars were announced to the press months before production actually began), it appears that Buick’s hardtop was the first to go on sale, midway through the 1949 model year. Dubbed Riviera, it was offered only in the Roadmaster line, with a base price of $3,203. It was not the most expensive 1949 Buick — the woody Estate Wagon listed for over $500 more — but the Riviera was some $1,400 pricier than a Buick Special and $53 more than a Roadmaster convertible.
In addition to luxurious cloth and leather upholstery, the 1949 Roadmaster Riviera came standard with a power seat and power windows. They were not electric, but hydraulic, powered by a pump under the hood. The system was shared with the convertibles, on which hydraulic power also raised and lowered the top. In 1950, the hydraulics were deleted from the regular Roadmaster Riviera to allow a lower base price, but they remained standard on the new Roadmaster Deluxe Riviera. Buyers opted for the latter by a margin of four to one.
The Riviera was followed in short order by the Oldsmobile version, bearing the cumbersome moniker of Futuramic 98 Deluxe Holiday Coupe, and Cadillac’s entry, the Series 62 Coupe de Ville. For customers whose budgets couldn’t stretch that far, Chevrolet and Pontiac announced that they would soon have their own editions. While the Chevrolet Bel Air and Pontiac Catalina wouldn’t arrive until the 1950 model year, prototypes were shown to the press in the spring of 1949, around the time the senior hardtops went into production. GM evidently had little doubt that the new style would be a hit with buyers.
In addition to a generally lavish standard of trim, the Roadmaster Riviera and other early GM hardtops (even the Chevrolet Bel Air) had strips of brightwork on the headliner, intended to look like the bows of a convertible top. Touches like these were part of the reason for the high prices of these cars — the 1949 Riviera was actually more expensive than the Roadmaster convertible. The red seat uppers, incidentally, are leather, not vinyl. The lower portions are cloth.
That confidence was not misplaced. While the late introduction and high prices limited sales, all three new models were warmly received. Both the Riviera and the Olds Holiday were somewhat overshadowed by the more glamorous Coupe de Ville, but the Buick was the bestseller of the trio with a total of 3,243 units to Cadillac’s 2,150 and Oldsmobile’s 3,006.
The introduction of the Riviera was just one facet of a very good year for Buick. Although the decision to offer carryover bodies the previous year was probably the right decision in the long run, Buick’s 1948 sales had slipped by around 47,000 units, putting it behind both Pontiac and Dodge. Despite some Buick dealers’ trepidation about the new body — even with the last-minute changes — total 1949 sales soared to nearly 400,000 units, a new record, and enough to reclaim fourth place.
All 1940s Buicks had straight-eight engines: 248 cu. in. (4,065 cc) for Specials and Supers, 320 cu. in. (5,247 cc) for Roadmasters. The 1949 Roadmaster, with its standard Dynaflow automatic, had 6.9:1 compression and hydraulic valve lifters, making 150 gross horsepower (112 kW) and 280 lb-ft (378 N-m) of torque. Before the war, Buick’s dual-carb “Compound Carburetion” setup had extracted 165 hp (123 kW) from the big engine, but Compound Carburetion proved finicky and overly thirsty and was soon dropped. In 1952, a modern four-barrel carburetor brought the big straight eight to 170 gross horsepower (127 kW), rivaling some contemporary V8s. The straight eight was replaced by Buick’s all-new “Nailhead” V8 in 1953.
SIDEBAR: The 1950 Buicks
The 1949 C-body ended up being a one-year-only design for Buick; both the B- and C-bodies were all new again for 1950. Compared to the 1949, the 1950 body shells represented something of a volte-face. The curved windshields and portholes were retained (now added to the Special, as well as the Super and Roadmaster), but the front fender lines were now significantly lower, dipping downward through the front doors — arguably a more natural evolution of the earlier style than the slab-sided ’49.
The 1950 models had actually been finalized before the 1949, having been completed during the tenure of Henry Lauve, who was also responsible for their most controversial feature, a new grille whose teeth extended downward through the front bumper, giving a rather ‘buck-toothed’ appearance.
Surprisingly, Buick elected to continue the previous year’s ‘downsizing’ of the Super and Roadmaster. Although the Roadmaster still rode a longer wheelbase than the Super — now 126.25 inches (3,207 mm), 0.25 inches (6 mm) longer than before — both now shared a stretched version of the Special’s new B-body shell. The larger C-body was reserved for a trio of long-wheelbase sedans, one in the Super series, two in the Roadmaster line.
Stretching 208 inches (5,283 mm) overall on a 125.5-inch (3,188mm) wheelbase, the 1950 Buick Super 126 Four-Door Tourback Sedan, as this body style was formally known, was 4 inches (101 mm) longer than the standard 1950 Buick Super and only 0.75 inches (19 mm) shorter than the standard-wheelbase Roadmaster, splitting the difference in price. Powered by a new 263 cu. in. (4,315 cc) straight eight, making 128 hp (95 kW) with Dynaflow, the Super 126 sedan was by far Buick’s most popular 1950 model, accounting for nearly 20% of the division’s entire volume. (Photo: “1950 Buick Series 50 Super” © 2012 Andrew Bone; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)
There was actually very little difference between the new B- and C-bodies, which had far greater commonality than had previously been the case. The extent of that commonality was not immediately evident at the time and GM’s competitors were quite shocked when they finally figured it out. As we’ve previously mentioned, Ford’s belated analysis of GM’s latest body-sharing program was one of the direct inspirations for the Edsel program.
Why didn’t Buick simply put all Supers on the intermediate wheelbase and all Roadmasters on the larger chassis, as they had prior to 1949? We suspect it came down to merchandising. The new split-wheelbase strategy allowed Buick to sell the regular 1950 Roadmaster sedan for over $100 less than the comparable 1949 model and offer a ‘big’ Roadmaster for only $5 more than the previous year’s smaller edition. Buick Super buyers, meanwhile, could now get a Roadmaster-size car for over $400 less, a lot of money in those days. At the same time, Buick was able to maximize its use of both body shells, which kept production costs low and profits high. As puzzling as this approach may be to the modern historian or catalog reader, it paid off handsomely. Buick’s 1950 sales swelled to more than 588,000, an increase of nearly 50% over the already-exceptional 1949 model year.
The 1951 Buicks retained the same toothy front end theme as the 1950s, but it was more subdued, appearing as if the grille had undergone some corrective dental work between models. Power again came from a 263 cu. in. (4,315 cc) straight eight, which had been newly introduced the previous year. With Dynaflow, which most of these cars had, it had 128 gross horsepower (95 kW). (Photo: “1951 Buick Super” © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)
The 1951 Buick Series 50-52 Super Riviera sedan rode the same wheelbase as the 1950 Super 126, but was 2.2 inches (56 mm) longer, now stretching 210.2 inches (5,339 mm) overall. Like all Buicks of this vintage, it was suspended on coil springs all around and used torque tube drive. (Photo: “1951 Buick Super” © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)
Buick repeated this strategy for 1951, but now applied the Riviera nameplate to the long-wheelbase four-door models. This was a curious decision since those models were four-door pillared sedans and Buick also continued to use the Riviera name for its pillarless hardtop coupes, which were available only on the shorter B-body. During this period, Oldsmobile and Cadillac were careful to only apply the Holiday and De Ville names to their pillarless hardtop models, presumably wary of diluting the glamour of the hardtops, but broader use of the Riviera name did Buick no great harm. The dual-wheelbase/dual-body strategy — the longer version again being called Riviera — was used to good effect through 1954, after which the Riviera name was once again applied only to pillarless two- and four-door models. That nomenclature belated disappeared after 1963 to avoid confusion with the new Riviera specialty car.
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