It was October 7, 1945, when Buick’s long-awaited 1946 models were announced. They weren’t much different from the 1942 cars whose production had been halted by government order three and a half years earlier. To have made major styling changes for the postwar market, especially in the Super and Roadmaster models, would have been foolish, for both had been completely restyled for the 1942 model year, when General Motors’ new C body was introduced.
The principal mechanical difference in the 1946 cars was the elimination of “compound carburetion,” the two-pot arrangement so highly touted in 1941-42. Forerunner of the modem four-barrel carburetor, the “compound” setup had raised the horsepower of the bigger Buicks from 141 to 165, 15 more than the contemporary Cadillac. Unfortunately, it had also created a number of problems for Buick owners, not the least of which was excessive fuel consumption.
So the postwar Roadmaster, fed by a single two-barrel carburetor, was rated at 144 horsepower, still a very respectable figure — nine more, in fact, than the Chrysler New Yorker.
The number of available Buick models was sharply reduced, and the Century and Limited series had been dropped altogether. Continued were the price-leading Special, traditionally Buick’s hot ticket on the sales floor, as well as the Super and Roadmaster series.
In prewar times the Special had come in eight body styles, four employing the GM A body on a wheelbase of 118 inches, and four using the B body on a 121-inch chassis. This time, however, the Special was limited to two models, sedan and sedanet — four- and two-door fastbacks, respectively — both using the larger body and the longer wheelbase.
Next up was the Super, a somewhat roomier car which shared the Special’s 248-c.i.d. engine and was offered in sedan, sedanet, convertible and Estate Wagon form. And at the top of the line was the Roadmaster, combining the Super series’ C body with a longer chassis and Buick’s powerful 320-cubic-inch straight eight. Body types were the same as the Super, except that there wasn’t a Roadmaster Estate Wagon — yet.
Buick had been something of a latecomer to the station wagon market. In prewar times most people had considered the wagon to be a utilitarian vehicle, and the field had traditionally been dominated by Ford. Dunham and Gustin, in their excellent Buick history, tell how Buick got into the game:
“The suggestion…came from Hollywood in mid-1938 during a dealer visit to the West Coast made by (several Buick executives, including President Harlow Curtice). Film director Norman McLeod and his wife Bunny had invited the group to their home for dinner and had gaily strung Buick banners all through the house — but there wasn’t a Buick in the garage. Why not? somebody asked. ‘You don’t build a station wagon and I need one,’ Bunny McLeod answered. Harlow Curtice considered that a personal challenge.” So the first Estate Wagon (a much classier title than “station wagon” appeared in mid-1940 as a member of the recently introduced Super series.
Appropriately, the prototype Estate Wagon was personally presented by Harlow Curtice to Bunny McLeod. Then two more prototypes were constructed, one each for Curtice and Harley Earl. Bodies for these early units came from the Biehl Body Company of Reading, Pennsylvania. But when the decision was made to produce the Estate Wagon on a series basis, Biehl lacked the necessary capacity. Fisher Body wasn’t interested, so the contract went to the Hercules Body Company of Evansville, Indiana.
Styling changes for 1946 were modest. There was the obligatory revision of the grille, of course, and 1946 marked the first appearance of the “bombsight” hood ornament that would be a Buick feature for a number of years. But more importantly, Super and Roadmaster models of all body styles featured the “flow-through” front fenders, first introduced on the 1942 sedanets and convertibles. Sweeping all the way to the leading edge of the rear fenders, their flow-through design accentuated the Buick’s already impressive appearance of length. Developed at GM’s corporate styling studios, this highly popular and influential styling innovation had reportedly been turned down by Cadillac before being offered to Buick.
Harlow Curtice, Buick’s progressive president and general manager, had no reservations about the flow-through fenders, seeing them as an enormously significant styling device and a potentially popular feature. As usual, Curtice’s reading of the public’s tastes was exactly correct.
The Super series was the first to start coming down the postwar assembly line, followed shortly by the Roadmaster. The popular Special, in contrast, didn’t appear until almost the end of the model year, with the result that the least expensive Buicks accounted for less than three percent of the division’s model year output — compared to 64 percent in 1941.
It appeared, initially, that Buick would be given a running start in the postwar market. Before the end of the war the company had been permitted to resume engine production on a limited basis, with a view to replacing the tired powerplants in a few hundred prewar cars. This helped Buick to get off the mark quickly. But labor problems had been simmering just below the surface during World War II, while the unions adhered to their no-strike pledge. With the cessation of hostilities overseas, conflict became apparent on the home front, and on November 21, 1945, a strike was declared by the United Automobile Workers. It was a long and bitter dispute, shutting down General Motors for nearly four months. As a result, only 156,080 new Buicks left the factory during calendar 1946, the division’s poorest record since 1935.
Changes were few for 1947. Once again there was a new grille, bolder and more impressive than the 1942 and ’46 versions, and a handsome Estate Wagon joined the Roadmaster line — the first production Buick since 1921 to bear a price tag in excess of $3,000. Otherwise, Buick was continuing to serve up warmed-over 1942 models. There was no reason to do otherwise, for Buick salesmen were receiving orders faster than the factory could produce the cars.
Once again in 1947 the Specials were the least numerous of the Buicks, accounting this time for 12.4 percent of the division’s total production. This is
not necessarily a reflection of the public’s preference. Rather, it apparently represented a shrewd policy on the part of Harlow Curtice and the Buick directors. Buyers were still standing in line for new cars, and certain raw materials, particularly sheet steel, remained in short supply. The evidence suggests that Buick was simply diverting its somewhat limited resources to the production of the more profitable Supers and Roadmasters, at the expense of the bargain-priced Specials.
As usual the bulk of Buick’s production consisted of four-door sedans. But remarkably enough, during 1947 Buick elbowed Ford and Chevrolet aside to become, for the time being, America’s leading producer of convertibles. No ragtops were produced by Frazer, Kaiser, Nash or Packard that year, and production records are not available from the Chrysler Corporation, nor from Lincoln or Pontiac. But consider the following model year totals:
- Buick – 40,371
- Chevrolet -28,442
- Ford -24,933
- Oldsmobile -10,468
- Mercury -10,221
- Studebaker -3,754
- Hudson -1,823
Not until 1949 would Ford and Chevrolet regain their traditional first and second positions in the convertible market, and even then Buick would continue to dominate the scene among medi-um-priced ragtops.
GM’s Fisher Body division developed another new C body for 1948, but oddly enough, although the new body was featured by the corporation’s other “senior” cars, Buick didn’t use it. While the Olds 98 boasted of its “Futuramic” styling, and the Series 61 and 62 Cadillacs also adopted the new design, Buick stood pat with a line of cars that looked almost exactly like the 1947 models. Two possible explanations suggest themselves. First, availability. Delays were such that the 1948 Cadillac didn’t appear until February. Such a late introduction has little appeal to any manufacturer’s dealer body.
Or, there’s another possibility. The 1947 Buicks were particularly good-looking automobiles. Thanks in no small measure to those flow-through fenders, they were sleek, elegant and impressive. In contrast, the new C body, which of course was adopted by Buick the following year, seemed — at least to some of us — slightly bulbous and a little clumsy. So possibly Buick stayed with the older design simply out of preference.
Buick was really into high-flying hyperbole in 1948, boasting of such features as “Feather-Touch” controls, “Weather-Warden” heater, “Aerobat” carburetor, “Micropause” engine balancing, “Flightweight” pistons, “Strata-Flow” cooling system — and even “A Jack for Jill,” this last suggesting that tire-changing had at last been made easy. Which of course it had not.
But however overblown the rhetoric may have been, there was a substantial element of truth in Buick’s advertising claims, for the division was building great automobiles in this, the third year of the postwar era. And if styling remained the same, there was big news from the engineering department: Dy-naflow, Buick’s first fully automatic transmission.
Back in 1938 Buick had offered a semi-automatic gearbox, confining the option to the Special Series. Although built by the Buick division, whose transmission plant had surplus capacity, this gearbox had been intended primarily for Oldsmobile, who first introduced it in mid-1937. Buick adopted it reluctantly the following year, under pressure from corporate headquarters, for in combination with the Buick’s torque tube drive it produced a jarring sensation each time there was a gear change. In contrast, Oldsmobile’s Hotchkiss drive, with universal joints at either end, tended to absorb much of the shock. The device was dropped from Buick’s option list after only one season.
For the same reason, the fully automatic HydraMatic transmission, introduced in 1940 by Oldsmobile, was not suitable for use by Buick. But during the war, Buick had been building M-18 “Hellcat” tank destroyers for the military, and the Hellcats were fitted with a torque converter type automatic transmission. Since this device provided a smooth flow of power, with no shifting of gears, it seemed ideal for use in conjunction with Buick’s torque tube drive, and work got under way on a lighter version appropriate for use in passenger cars.
This, then, was Dynaflow, introduced in 1948 as optional equipment for the Roadmaster series only. (In 1949 it became standard issue for the Road-masters, optional on the Super series, and by 1950 availability was extended to the Specials as well.) As everyone who has ever driven an early Dynaflow knows, a considerable amount of slippage is characteristic of this transmission. So in compensation, the compression ratio of Dynaflow-equipped Road-masters was increased from 6.6:1 to 6.9:1, raising their horsepower from 144 to 150.
The Roadmaster Estate Wagon of 1948 ranks as one of the rarest and most desirable of Buicks. Only 350 of these stunning automobiles were built, 344 for domestic sales and six for the export market. How many of that group came equipped, like our driveReport car. with the Dynaflow transmission, we do not know. Probably not many, and in any case, the survival rate among “woodies” isn’t usually all that high.
Our driveReport Estate Wagon was first sold to the owner of a horse ranch near Woodside, California. Evidently this lady used the car sparingly, for the numbers on its odometer at the start of our test drive readjust 33,215 miles — the actual, documented figure. In 1969 it was purchased by Bill Harrah, becoming the sixty-seventh acquisition in his fabulous collection.
For years, on his visits to the Harrah museum. Bud Juneau, our talented photographer, had admired the big Roadmaster Estate Wagon; and in 1982 he was surprised and delighted to find it advertised for sale. This was four years after Bill Harrah’s death, but prior to the three great auctions in which the bulk of the collection was sold. Bids were solicited, and it was Bud’s good fortune that his was accepted.
This is a true woodie: there is no structural metal to be found in it, anywhere. It is not, strictly speaking, a restored car, though its body — built of woods that obviously were carefully selected and matched — was stripped to the framing and revarnished, piece by piece. Metal parts were flawlessly refinished in the original Allendale Green, all cosmetic operations being performed by Alan Vi-vanco. Seats, upholstered in Bedford cord
and leather, are original and show virtually no wear. The same is true of the carpeting, which even extends up over the wheel wells. Even the seamless fabric top, a material no longer available, is original. So are the headlamps, the old-fashioned type with bulbs enclosed within the sealed beams. A few trim items have been replaced with new-old-stock pieces supplied by Harrah’s at the time Juneau purchased the car, and the bumpers have been replated.
Mechanically the Estate Wagon has been left virtually untouched. At the time Bud bought it, in fact, the Buick was so completely original that the factory spark plug wires, belts and hoses were all in place.
Like all Buicks of this era. Bud Juneau’s car is started by depressing the accelerator. Later Dynaflow-equipped Road-masters were fitted with hydraulic valve lifters, but this one has the older mechanical type. Even so, the engine is remarkably quiet.
As one might expect of a vehicle this size, the Estate Wagon is very roomy. Seats are comfortable and supportive, and front leg room is ample, even for the tall driver. There is literally stretch-out room for the rear-seat passengers. No provision is made for a third seat, and although the second seat is removable it does not fold down, after the fashion of most later wagons. Behind the rear seat is a raised, carpeted platform, under which the spare tire and tools are stowed.
We have noted before that a restored car never feels quite like a new one. This car feels brand new! Acceleration, with a certain amount of slippage in the Dynaflow, could hardly be called brisk, but it’s better
than we had anticipated. Steering is heavy; not until 1952 would Buick offer a power assist, a device that would be most welcome in the 4,460-pound Estate Wagon. Brakes, however, require only moderate pedal pressure.
Suspension is soft, producing something of a floating sensation at speeds below 50 miles an hour. But for some reason, as the needle approaches 60 the car seems to feel more secure. It would be a marvelous machine for freeway use. The Estate Wagon outweighs the Roadmaster sedan by 300 pounds, with the heavy wooden body placing most of the extra heft over the driving wheels. Cornering is not this car’s forte, and we suspect that it could profit from the use of stiffer rear suspension.
Any number of interesting details are to be found in the Roadmaster. Turn signals were still something of a novelty in 1948. Buick placed the stalk on the right side of the steering post rather than the left, confusing at first but not illogical. A knob above the windshield at the center line raises and lowers the antenna. Fresh air enters through vents coming from the grille rather than the cowl, as was the custom in the 1940s. From there the breeze can enter the car directly, or it can be routed through the heater coils. The double-hinged hood can be opened from either side, or it is easily removed for full access to the engine.
The Roadmaster Estate Wagon was literally in a class by itself in 1948. No other station wagon could even come close to it in terms of size, weight, power — or price. It was an impressive machine then, and it’s still impressive today.
The Man Who Turned Buick Around: Harlow Herbert “Red” Curtice 1948 proved to be an eventful year for Buick, in more ways than one.
- The five-millionth Buick came off the assembly line that year. No other car in the Buick’s price class could come even close to that record.
- Dynaflow Drive was introduced, the first torque converter transmission designed for passenger car use.
- And Harlow H. “Red” Curtice, president of the division since 1933, left Buick to accept the position of executive vice president of General Motors. Within five years he would become president of the corporation.
Of course, some would say that Curtice didn’t really leave Buick at all. Certainly Buick didn’t leave Harlow Curtice. He continued to take a special interest in the operations at Flint, while heads of rival divisions complained that he consistently gave Buick preferential treatment. It’s understandable, for “Red” Curtice had been responsible for rescuing Buick from the brink of disaster.
Back in 1936 Buick had been the industry’s Number Three seller, right behind Ford and Chevrolet. Production that year had totaled 266,753 cars. But then the slide had begun. By 1929 — a fabulous year for the industry — Buick sales were down 26 percent from the figure three years earlier. And by 1933 output had plummeted to 40,620 cars — a decline of 85 percent from 1926’s record total, and Buick was in eighth place. There was even talk of liquidating what had for many years been General Motors’ most profitable division.
Enter Harlow Curtice. Barely 40 years of age when he was appointed president of Buick, he had his work cut out for him. Some observers, citing his lack of experience in the manufacture of automobiles, said he wasn’t up to the job. Curtice set about to prove them wrong.
Curtice was a country kid from the little town of Petrieville, Michigan, where his father was a commission merchant. Following graduation from high school he worked his way through a two-year course at the Ferris Institute in Big Rapids. Then, after a few months with a manufacturer of steel tape measures, the young man became a bookkeeper at General Motors’ AC Spark Plug Division.
At 21 years of age Curtice was appointed AC’s comptroller, and he was on his way. Elevated to assistant manager in 1923, he was made vice president of the division four years later. And in 1929, at the age of 36, he became AC’s president.
But he had never built an automobile. Hadn’t even been particularly close to anyone who had! Could he pull Buick out of its slump? William S. Knudsen, the brilliant immigrant who, after having put Chevrolet on the map, had gone on to become executive vice president of General Motors, thought he knew the answer. In his heavy Danish accent he told his col-
leagues, “Vait and see!”
Curtice immediately set about to learn every phase of the Buick operation. He was a quick study, and an excellent judge of men as well. A hard taskmaster, he was himself what would be known in our time as a “workaholic.” The emphasis he laid upon teamwork and what would today be called “shared decision-making” did wonders for staff morale. He managed to divorce Buick’s sales organization from those of Oldsmobile and Pontiac; and then he set about to develop a more salable product.
The 1934 Buicks were nearly ready for production when Harlow Curtice took charge on October 23, 1933. Nothing could change that. But the least expensive Buick sedan, the Model 57. was priced at $1,190, and the $765 Pontiac straight-eight was eating Buick alive.
Borrowing components from other GM divisions, and adapting the basic Chevrolet body to a slightly shortened Buick chassis, Curtice produced the Series 40, soon to become known as the Buick Special. Two hundred ninety-five dollars cheaper, nearly 700 pounds lighter and a tad more powerful than the Series 50, it was brought to market in record time on May 12, 1934. Doubtless as the result of so much haste the newcomer was not without its share of teething problems, especially with the clutch and the timing chain, but it literally saved the Buick nameplate. Despite having been introduced nearly five months into the model year, it was Buick’s best-seller that season — and by a substantial margin.
But Harlow Curtice was already looking ahead, not so much to 1935 as to ’36. Approaching Harley Earl, he wanted to know what kind of car GM’s styling chief drove. Predictably, the response was “Cadillac.” Curtice challenged him. then, to “Design a Buick that you would like to own.”
Meanwhile, under the direction of chief engineer Ferdinand “Dutch” Bower, a new engine was under development for the senior Buicks. Ready to go by the time the 1936 cars were introduced, it was used to power the Series 90 Limited, the Series 80 Roadmaster, and the new Series 60 Century. Displacing 320.2 cubic inches, as first introduced it was rated at 120 horsepower, just five less than the new Series 60 Cadillac.
The 1936 Buick was a sensation. Model year production came to 168,596 units, more than triple the 1935 total. Buick’s future was assured, and so was that of Harlow Curtice.
By 1938 Buick was comfortably ahead of sister divisions Olds and Pontiac, and Curtice was ready to go gunning for a share of the luxury market. Preparations were made to produce a group of semicustom styles for 1941, fitting elegant coachwork by Brunn and Company to the 139-inch Limited chassis. It was just too much. Both Cadillac and Fisher Body complained vigorously to corporate management, and Harlow Curtice was bluntly told to stay out of Cadillac’s territory — and to forget about purchasing bodies from an outside supplier.
Still, there was nothing to stop Buick from showing Cadillac its dust. For 1941 the 320-c.i.d. engine was fitted with something called “compound carburetion,” raising its horsepower to a rousing 165. That’s 15 more than the Cadillac, five more than the most powerful Packards.
Then came Pearl Harbor, and the conversion of Buick’s facilities, under “Red” Curtice’s personal supervision, to the production of war materiel. Perhaps the most significant Buick development during this period — certainly the best-known — was the M-18 tank destroyer, popularly known as the “Hellcat.” A formidable 16-ton vehicle capable of speeds as high as 60 miles an hour, the M-18 was equipped with 76 mm cannon and machine guns. Probably it was primarily the Hellcat that prompted President Harry Truman, after the war, to award Harlow Curtice the Medal of Merit for “outstanding and meritorious conduct” in aiding military production.
Long before the war was over, however, Curtice was deeply involved in planning for the postwar market. His goal of building 500,000 Buicks a year wasn’t reached until 1950, two years after Curtice “moved upstairs,” leaving Ivan Wiles in charge at Buick. Five years later the total came to 781,296 cars, a figure well beyond Wiles’s dreams — and probably Curtice’s as well.
Richard P. Scharchburg, of the GMI Engineering and Management Institute, has written that “Curtice’s elevation to the presidency of GM marked the beginning of a new era in the company’s corporate management philosophy. Until then GM presidents had been individuals with experience chiefly in manufacturing, engineering, or production — men skilled in the mechanics of automobiles. Curtice was GM’s first professional manager, and he made a decided impact on the postwar business and industrial world….”
For Harlow Curtice brought to the General Motors presidency the same characteristics that had served him so well at Buick: his instinctive knowledge of customers’ tastes, his sense of what would appeal to the buyer, and his talent as a master salesman. Surely no man of his time did as much as he, to set the course of the American automobile industry.
Curtice was not a complicated man. He once summed up his philosophy in a speech at Olivet College: “Do it the hard way! Think ahead of your job. Then nothing in the world can keep the job ahead from reaching out for you…. Be bold, knowing that finally no one can cheat you but yourself.”
Harlow Curtice retired on August 31, 1958, sixteen days after his sixth-fifth birthday. He remained a GM director, however, until a sudden heart attack took his life, four years later.
18 Special Interest Autos #136, July/August 1993