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.
THE CUSTOM SCENE
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.”
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.
DETROIT KUSTOMS: THE 1953 BUICK 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.
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.
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.
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.
THE 1954 BUICK SKYLARK
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.
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.
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.
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.
FLIGHTS OF FANCY
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.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for the history of the Skylark and its ilk included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1953-1954 Buick Skylark,” HowStuffWorks.com, 15 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1954-buick-skylark.htm, accessed 7 December 2008, “1953-1966 Cadillac Eldorado,” HowStuffWorks.com, 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,” Barris.com, 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).