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A Car for American Sports: 1954 Buick Skylark

Published on Fri, Jun 28, 1996

By: Len Frank

Buicks have this…Reputation. You know how it goes: chrome, stodgy, dumb, portholes, marshmallow ride, no brakes, no handling, eternally slipping automatic transmissions. Best known for what the British called the “dollar grin.” Beloved of small town doctors and right-wing Republicans who also favor belt and suspender combinations. Even General Motors seems to believe in the Reputation. The Buick Division has been given the mandate to recreate the porthole, or at least its ambiance. Chevy will be good value, Pontiac will be exciting, Olds, high tech. Buick gets wide whites and velour and CRT activated air conditioning.

Alas. It was not always thus. Buick was indeed the car that Billy Durant used to found GM. And it was Buick that fielded the first racing team sponsored by GM, Louis Chevrolet at the wheel, back before WWI.

Moving smartly up into the early ‘thirties, we find Rolls-Royce building cars in Massachusetts and not having a very good time of it. Their plant manager here kept firing cables back to England asking for permission to use American components—carbs, magnetos, starters and the like—in an effort to decrease cost and increase performance and reliability. Of course the RR people back home would have none of it, firm as they were in the belief that the Roller was indeed The Best Car in the World, but sales over here were at a virtual standstill so British management came over on an inspection tour. They were astounded.

American components were superior, less expensive, more readily available, carried a better warranty. If that were not difficult enough to swallow, choked by pride as they were, they found American luxury cars better in just about all ways. The result was a decision to buy an American luxury car each year and ship it home for “study”. The luxury car they chose to buy was a Buick, at about a tenth the cost of the Rolls.

If you believe all of the legendary nonsense about pre-WWII cars, it will come as a shock, but the fastest production car before the war was a Buick, most likely a 1941 Century Sedanette with factory dual carbs and compression a couple of points higher than the norm for that era of 80 octane fuel. The Cord 812 that held the official AAA national stock car speed record (107+) for years was about as stock as an Escort series Corvette today. And as for the Duesenbergs, Mercedes 540Ks, Alfa 8C2900s, etc., an entire year’s production would fit handily into a good Buick dealer’s showroom. A well-tuned but absolutely stock Buick Century—that is, big engine, little body–any year between 1938, year of the advanced Fireball high-turbulence combustion chamber, and 1941, was good for 102/103, and was one of a very few real production cars that would break 100.

And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard an NHRA-prepared straight-eight Buick running in one of the lower stock classes a few years ago. There was something about that sound. A result of the firing order of the long 8, coupled with its turning 6000 rpm—piston speed was about double the ideal 2500 fpm—that had to be experienced. They were winners long after the old standard Ford flatheads that started it all had become passe’.

The old straight eight (there were really two inline eights the small Special and Super engine, and the big Century/Roadmaster unit) finally gave way to a V-8 in 1953 (Olds and Cadillac got their similar short-stroke, big-bore, high compression V-8s in 1949.).

Buick’s was a little different. Compared with the engines that preceded them, the Olds/Cad V-8s were light. The Buick was lighter yet, and until the aftermarket learned how to stretch the Chevy small block to 330+ cubic inches, remained the lightest-per inch stock-block available. The real difference was in combustion chamber shape and cylinder head design generally. To keep the chamber compact, the valves were vertical relative to the road plane, and the exhaust valves smaller than normal. The small exhaust valve area was compensated for by the use of radical valve timing. A nice, probably unplanned for benefit, was a wonderful exhaust note (not as good as the straight eight though), when the car was uncorked.

And uncorked they were. Buick did not have the aggressive NASCAR program that Oldsmobile did (we’re talking about 1953/54/55 now), but Buick engines seemed to find heavy favor in road racing early. It probably started with Max Balchowsky’s ’32 Ford roadster that he used to annoy the Cal Club road racers with real sports cars in the mid-‘fifties. He had been racing the thing—without much luck—powered by an old LaSalle flathead V-8. When he switched to the “nailhead” (so-called because of the small exhaust valve) V-8, things got so much better that he replaced the rest of the hot rod with the Morgansen Special. The combination became the Balchowsky Special, later known as Old Yeller I. Balchowsky beat Reventlow’s mighty Scarab in its first race, and seemed to have no trouble handling even drivers like Gurney and Shelby—them in the latest big inch Euro-machinery. When Gurney drove the car, it was near unbeatable. The car was so successful it encouraged Balchowsky to build a whole succession of Old Yellers—most of them winners. Almost as successful were Bill Murphy’s Buick Kurtises, ground shakers, road course drag racers. And a nailhead Buick even replaced a supercharged 300SL in the Porter SLS (Rebuilt from a wrecked 300SL Gullwing, the car looked like the famous 300SLR. With the Buick, it held the straightaway speed record at Riverside with something over 171 mph.).

“TV Tommy” Ivo ran a twin-engined Buick dragster, then had Kent Fuller build him a four-engined, four wheel drive car that wowed the fans in quarter-mile exhibitions. Thirty-two exhaust stacks pointing straight up, smoke boiling off of all four slicks, Ivo delivered excitement for years with the car.

Jack Dempsey, among others, ran a ’54 Century convertible on the beach at Daytona. His speed was not reported but he didn’t set any records. It was the event that counted.

Sports cars and the United States are an unlikely combination. Sports cars were the province of the heavily monied classes in Europe from the time of the King Alphonse Hispano-Suiza (supposedly the prototype of all sports cars to follow for decades) before WWI until just about now. They were designed to provide maximum speeds on narrow winding lanes and over diabolical mountain passes, sacrificing comfort, practicality, even reliability for performance (when compared with other vehicles with similarly sized engines).

Now none of that may strike you as unAmerican, particularly, but the way we would have done it—in fact, the way we did it, was to do away with displacement classes, sell gas for a quarter a gallon, straighten the lanes, make them at least four times as wide, chop holes through the mountains, level them if necessary. That’s the American way. We didn’t begin to subvert the American Way until 55 was imposed.

So it was no surprise that the average American car was faster (in a straight line) than the average European car. But the period after WWII was pretty much like the period after WWI, but more so: there was less innocence, less patience, more money, more hunger, more experience. A few Americans who had never before aspired to anything more sporting than a few-year-old Ford V-8 had experienced MGs and Alfas and FWD Citroens and even VWs on their respective home turfs, and not realizing how poorly most of them would translate to America, brought them over. Then, in May ’49, an XK-120 Jaguar ran up a road in Belgium. When it ran back, at an average of 132 and change, all of those with the automotive fever took note. And by the time Jaguar had an “M” model without fender skirts and with wire wheels, the SCCA was beginning to hold races through America’s streets and on Air Force bases (courtesy of Gen. Curtis LeMay and SAC) we all knew what a sports car looked like, and where LeMans was.

Buick had built a dream car called the XP-300, a contemporary of the GM LeSabre, in 1951/52. It had an alloy 215 high compression V-8 with a supercharger and alternative alcohol fuel for use with boost (335 hp), deDion rear suspension, transaxle, built-in hydraulic jacks, light alloy bodywork, magnesium components, all manner of great stuff. It reportedly went 140 mph at the GM proving grounds. The problem was, was, only the wrong people liked it.

Those who had seen an XK-120, who had been seduced by Ferraris and Alfas and Maseratis, who could tell a Bugatti just by the sound, those people thought the XP-300 was vulgar. Admittedly, like today, there weren’t very many of them, but, again like today, they were influential all out of proportion to their numbers.

Not that GM had any intention of putting the advanced technology showcased in the Motorama cars into production (The one exception was the 1953 Corvette, and it was hardly advanced technology), but it was GM’s interpretation of Flash Gordon styling that was in question. It was the skirted 13″ wheel crown versus the fully exposed wire wheel (the bigger, the better). GM took turns at both. Notice that for 1954, the corporate styling got more Italianate—lowered, slightly shortened hoods, less chrome, cleaner grills. That trend peaked with the 1955 Chevy, especially the Nomad wagon with its full wheel cutouts and the Del Rey two door with plain exterior and upscale interior.

What we seem to have forgotten is that the ’55 Chevy didn’t sell very well, and, in fact, the ultimate insult, was outsold by Ford. That lead to the increasingly glitzy GM cars culminating with the marvelously excessive ’59s.

General Motors advertisement for the 1954 Buick Skylark

Back to the Skylark. There was a temporary victory of the Good Taste Group (really stylist Ned Nickles) under Harley Earl, GM’s original styling overlord, that produced a whole group of what the Road & Track guys called “psuedo sports cars.” The 1953 Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Skylark both had cut down doors, Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels, were lowered. It was about as close to a Jaguar or Ferrari as either division was likely to get. But in a limited kind of way they were successful. There were 1690 Skylarks sold in 1953.

For 1954, Buick took their concept a step farther. First, it was based the first postwar re-introduction of the Century, shorter and lighter than the Roadmaster-based ’53. Styling for ’54 had actually been started in 1950—it was as close an approximation of European trends as Detroit allowed in those days.

Doors on all of the convertibles and the Riviera hardtops had Nickles’ dipped line. The portholes, a Buick trademark since 1949 and the first thing the Europhiles sneered at, again were filled. The wheel openings were cut back in conscious imitation of several different Continental designs—Abarth-Ferrari, Aston-Martin, Cisitalia, others. The chrome caps on the rear fenders allowed the eye to be fooled into believing the top line of the rear quarter paralleled the line of the new rear wheel cutout. A new rear deck was the only completely new body pressing.

The 322 “nailhead” V-8 was stock Century—200 bhp with impressive torque, multiplied by the Twin Turbine Dynaflow (For ’55, Buick upped horsepower to 236 driving through a Variable-pitch Dynaflow. Those were the days when each GM division not only had its own engines but usually its own automatic too.). The Centuries became strong runners in NASCAR but were overshadowed by Oldsmobile and the shards of Hudson, both of whom lent more factory help. But it was the performance car image that was most important, and even though only a handful of `54 Skylarks were built (The Automobile Quarterly history, The Buick, says in one place that 836 were produced, in another, 798.), it helped Buick roll toward the #3 spot in sales and production (displacing Plymouth for the first time in decades in 1955). After 1954 it was production volume that was the motivation at Flint and the Skylark, as a specialty car at least, was dead.

Ray Doig, who used to be the president of 20th Century Fox, and his friend Bruce Whiteside just like cars. They are not fanatics. They don’t remain barefoot just to be able to afford just one more junk treasure. Both have owned the usual range of luxury/performance cars, and like most of those who can afford what they want, within reason, they change rides often.

Whiteside had built model cars as a kid, customized them, entered them in shows. Doig grew up in Pasadena, a good place for car watching then (and now). He had a neighbor, “a terrible guy,” who owned a ’53 Skylark that he remembers well. His own first car was a 1957 Ford Galaxie convertible, a car remembered not too fondly but well.

Their Skylark (#614 built in ’54—Doig subscribes to the 798 figure) was something of an accident. They had gone to some of the west coast concours, had friends who were collectors or dabbled in restoration (both the dirty-hand and checkbook variety), and they were disappointed in, or bored by, the cars they had. Doig says they were at an auction, he raised his hand to leave the room and bought the Buick. Nice story but not quite the truth.

Before the bidding began, Doig had spotted the Skylark as a rare car. They had lost a 1957 Bel Air convert by stopping the bidding $800 short at another auction. The car that they really wanted was a 1947 Chrysler Town and Country hotel car, one of those dollar-grinned, half-timber and veneer-sided cars that looked so garish then, but only pleasingly outrageous now. Alas, the price.

Besides, Doig says he could never be a “serious” collector. He wants to drive what he has and not preside over a warehouse-full of unseen automotive investments. He had pointed out an Olds Starfire and an Eldorado, looked at the Skylark, then wandered off to look at a ’59 Cadillac.

That was followed by raising hand “to leave the room.” When the auction was over, the auctioneer came over and thanked Ray and Bruce, told them they had bought wisely and well. “He didn’t have to do that,” said Doig. Indeed he didn’t Ray.

The next day, when Bruce arrived to collect the car, a tire was flat, the battery was flat, the top wouldn’t go up. The pair say they probably wouldn’t buy at an auction again. Caveat emptor and all that stuff.

Still, it was a pretty nice car made much nicer by completely rebuilding the front end (they found NOS pieces still wrapped in the original 35-year old paper), had the car rewired and converted to 12 volt, still with a generator though, reupholstered in cowhide. They couldn’t find anyone to emboss the original crosshatch pattern, so had it sewn in. An electric antenna replaced the unobtainable vacuum unit, but the Delco Selectronic radio brings in the same music as it did all those years ago—only now it’s oldies-but-goodies rather than contemporary, like the Skylark itself.

Cars like this are best driven gingerly. We tend to forget how far we have come, until we suggest, wish, coax, something like the Skylark around a corner. The whole coil-sprung chassis gives new meaning to the word “understeer.” But why drive it that way? Once warmed, the engine and Dynaflow are marvelously smooth, once underway, marvelously responsive. The steering wheel seems huge—not all ’54 Buicks had power steering though all Skylarks did—the seats high, vision through the wraparound windshield is panoramic and slightly distorted, just the way we saw the world in those days of Ike and Mamie and the end of the Korean police action.

Bruce and Ray say they would like to sell “the old girl”, but are in no hurry to do so, and in the meantime what do I think about a 1941 Cadillac Fleetwood, or a convertible? Maybe yellow. Maybe.

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano

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