by Bill Vance
In 1953 Buick marked its 50th anniversary, and it had a lot to celebrate. Among its achievements was the introduction of its new short-stroke, high-compression, overhead valve V-8 engine. Although first used in only the Skylark, Roadmaster and Series 50 Super, in 1954 it would be in all Buicks, replacing the overhead valve straight-eights that Buicks had used since 1931.
Overhead valves had been a Buick feature since the first 1903 Buick. Placing the valves above the pistons, rather than beside them as in a side-valve engine, gave a more compact and efficient combustion chamber. Early Buicks were known for their good power to displacement ratios.
When Buick switched to a V-8 it gave the overhead valves a different twist. To make a narrower engine, Buick engineers put the valves at 45 degrees to the cylinder bores. Thus, in a 90-degree V-type engine they stood straight up, resulting in the “vertical-valve V-8.”
This allowed a compact combustion chamber, and Buick claimed its 8.5:1 compression ratio was the highest in the industry (the Crosley Super Sport’s 10.0:1 ratio had left the scene in 1952). Power output was over a half horsepower per cubic, or 188 horsepower in the 5.3 litre (322 cu in.) four-barrel Roadmaster version.
To meet increasing electrical loads GM returned 12-volt electrical systems to domestic cars for 1953; higher compression, for example, needed a stronger spark. Many imports had 12 volt systems, but they had faded from domestic cars years earlier.
The vertical valve engine was only 673 mm (26.5 in.) wide, and with a bore and stroke of 101.6 by 81.3 mm (4.0 by 3.2 in.), it was the most oversquare in the American industry. It was also 343 mm (13.5 in.) shorter and 82 kg (180 lb) lighter than the in-line eight it replaced.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary and show off its new engine, Buick wanted an outstanding new luxury model. The Skylark was the answer, inspired by Buick’s 1951 Motorama concept cars, the LeSabre and XP-300.
The Skylark, which came as a convertible only, was mounted on the 3,086 mm (121.5 in.) wheelbase Roadmaster chassis. GM claimed it was Buick’s “answer to the European sports car,” a claim that sports car aficionados found amusing.
If not a sports car, it was at least the most popular of the three new 1953 GM “image” cars, the Skylark, Cadillac Eldorado, and Oldsmobile Fiesta. And this was despite the fact the Cadillac and Oldsmobile models both had wraparound “Panoramic” windshields; Buick wouldn’t get its wraparound until 1954.
Buick’s Skylark was a big, stylish car. Its round wheel openings showed off the beautiful chrome-plated wire-spoke wheels to good advantage. Chrome spears swept from behind the headlamps almost to the rear wheels, then curved up and over and continued to the rear of the car. Lowness was emphasized by dipping the beltline gently behind the front seat.
The windshield was 102 mm (4.0 in.) lower than in the standard Roadmaster, and the stylists omitted those Buick trademarks, the phoney fender ventilation ports, officially called “Ventiports” by Buick, but portholes by everyone else.
The luxurious Skylark had power steering, brakes, seats, windows, top and antenna. The “Selectronic” radio had a foot- operated signal-seeking button, and leather upholstery and whitewall tires were standard. The owner’s name was even engraved on a gold-coloured emblem in the steering wheel hub.
Although Buick didn’t make Skylarks available to the press for testing, the performance of the Roadmaster would be similar. Mechanix Illustrated magazine’s Tom McCahill recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 13.6 seconds for the Roadmaster by starting the automatic transmission in Low and shifting to Drive. The Skylark was a little heavier than the Roadmaster, so would have been slightly slower. Tom reported a top speed of 103.4 mph (166 km/h).
In spite of a price almost a thousand dollars above a Cadillac convertible, Buick’s 1,690 Skylark sales were almost twice those of the Fiesta and Eldorado combined. Although only planned for the 1953 model year, GM’s chief stylist Harley Earl liked it so much that he insisted it continue into 1954.
For 1954, however, it was shifted to the revived Century model, which combined the big Roadmaster V-8 with the slightly smaller Special chassis to produce a kind of luxury hot rod. A tapered rear deck was added for ’54, the wheel openings were stretched back, and unfortunately, big chrome fins were stuck on the rear fenders.
The marketplace was less than enamoured with the changes, and Buick sold only 836 ’54s. The Skylark was discontinued in 1954, although the name would reappear in 1962 as a senior compact. The original Buick Skylark’s sales numbers were not a great success for General Motors, but it was, especially in the 1953 version, a styling statement and a grand image car for Buick.