1939 Buick Roadmaster. Photos: GM. Click image to enlarge
by Bill Vance
The return of the Buick Roadmaster model for 1991 marked the revival, after 33 years, of one of the most revered nameplates on the North American automotive scene. It ranked right up there with the likes of Stutz Bearcat, Jordan Playboy and Lincoln Continental in evoking an image of something special. Buick originally launched the Roadmaster model back in 1936.
After GM’s brilliant president, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., stickhandled General Motors through the worst of the Great Depression without a money-losing year, it was time for GM to blossom forth with expanded facilities, and models to meet the prosperity of the late 1930s.
1936 and 1996 Buicks. Roadmaster Collectors Edition. Click image to enlarge
When the ’36 Series 80 Roadmaster came out, it was powered by the larger of Buick’s two straight-eight, overhead valve engines. Its 5.2 litres (320 cu in.) produced 120 horsepower. The Roadmaster, which came in four-door sedan and convertible phaeton models, was one of four Buick models for 1936. In addition to their names, they were also given series numbers. The others were the Series 40 Special, Series 60 Century (said to be named for its 100 mph [161 km/h]) capability), and the giant Series 90 Limited. Weighing more than 1,814 kg (4,000 lb), the Roadmaster was a substantial automobile.
The big Buick was aided in its launch by the fact that 1936 was an important styling year. Buick got such new features as GM’s all-steel “Turret Top” body, bullet-shaped headlamps, and a steeply sloped windshield. There were significant changes underneath, too, including hydraulic brakes and an improved independent front suspension as the engineers learned more about this relatively new GM development, which Buick had adopted in 1934.
In spite of a general Buick sales increase in 1938 and ’39, the Roadmaster only accounted for approximately three per cent of those, due in part to the price having been pushed up a little too far. The answer was to move the Roadmaster back into a more popular price range, which is what Buick did for 1940 by mounting it on the smaller 3,200 mm (126 in.) wheelbase Series 70 platform. This, plus new styling features like the elimination of running boards, boosted Roadmaster sales to almost 19,000, nearly three times the previous year’s level.
The styling was not changed substantially for 1941, but under the hood it was a different story. Although other items were altered, such as higher compression, in the search for still more power, the big story was twin carburetors, or what was called Compound Carburation. The Buick Fireball eight engine had arrived, and with 165 horsepower it was the most powerful in the industry.
For 1942, Buicks were restyled with long flowing fenders, but production would cease in early 1942 because of the Second World War. The same body shape would be used for post-war Buicks when production resumed with the 1946 models.
After the war, the Roadmaster was Buick’s top model, its biggest and fastest car. The wheelbase was up to 3,277 mm (129 in.), although the twin carburetors were gone and the horsepower from the big straight-eight was down to 144.
At first glance the Roadmaster seemed to have suddenly become very popular, garnering some 20 per cent of total Buick sales. There was, however, another factor at work. New cars and the materials to build them were in short supply immediately after the war, so Buick took advantage of the situation by “enriching the mix.” If you can only make so many cars, it reasoned, and sell all you can make, why not build a larger proportion of the more profitable ones. When competition returned by about 1950, the lower priced Special regained its place as Buick’s best-selling model.
1949 Buick Roadmaster. Click image to enlarge
In 1948, the Dynaflow automatic transmission was an option on the Roadmaster. It was the first use of an automobile torque converter and it was horribly slow in acceleration, but at least it was fully automatic. Dynaflow would become standard on the Roadmaster in 1949.
This was also the year in which the Roadmaster got its all-new post-war styling, including the famous Buick Ventiports, better known as portholes. While lesser Buicks had only three on each fender, the Roadmaster sported four, making it instantly recognizable.
Apart from a garish one-year-only, over-the-bumper grille in 1950, Buick’s appearance remained fairly stable until 1953 when it was restyled. It also received Buick’s new “vertical valve” V-8 engine. This was the year in which the Roadmaster Riviera and limited edition, “50th anniversary” Skylark convertible made their debut.
Jay Leno’s 1955 Buick Roadmaster. Click image to enlarge
For 1954, Buick joined the GM march to the wraparound windshield, which would prove to be a short-lived styling gimmick.
While Buicks, like others, became more ornate and chrome-laden as the decade advanced, they also got more powerful. For 1957 the displacement went up to six litres (364 cu in.) and horsepower rose to 300.
Nineteen-fifty-eight would see an economic recession and a slip in Buick’s market position to fifth in the industry; it had stood as high as third behind Chevy and Ford. At this point, Buick decided to shuffle its model mix and the Roadmaster was considered expendable. It was a sad day for Roadmaster fans.
The nameplate would lie dormant for over 30 years before being resurrected as a Chevrolet Caprice clone for 1991. But the new Roadmaster was born into a different world. The market for large, rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame cars was shrinking; the era of the great, heavy, V-8-powered American land yachts was almost over. The revived Roadmaster would last only until the end of the 1996 model year.