1946-52 Buick Buyer's Guide
Buick’s ‘Straight Eight’ engine powered many stylish post-War vehicles. The trick now is to find one that’s original or restored…
Just eight weeks before the United States’ WWII neutrality was shattered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Buick had released the most exciting new shape in its 40-year existence.
The all-new Buick featured a sloping, Cadillac-like rear roofline and mudguards that flowed voluptuously into the front doors. Where Cadillac used a single spear of mudguard chrome and a rather cumbersome egg-crate grille, the Buick’s elongated profile was emphasised by double strips of stainless steel and an elegant, vertically-barred grille design.
Wartime restrictions on civilian vehicle production meant that only 94,000 of the new Buicks were built and Australia received virtually none of the new shape until 1946. Even then, the cars assembled by General Motors retained the 4.1-litre, straight-eight engine that had been around since 1937 and produced a modest 82kW.
North American purchasers had the option of a 5.2-litre version with higher compression and 123kW. The longer stroke engine also delivered a massive 32 percent boost in torque – up from 290Nm to a bitumen-cracking 372Nm at just 2200rpm.
Australian-assembled cars came as Special and Super models with four-door bodywork and three-speed manual transmission. Buick’s North American factories produced a variety of styles including the two-door Sedanette, convertibles and ultra-rare Estate wagon.
Topping the post-1946 range was the Roadmaster, with 120mm of additional wheelbase, longer front doors and the more powerful 5.2-litre engine as standard. From 1949, the Roadmaster came with the Dynaflow automatic transmission that had been introduced as an option a year earlier and combination cloth and leather trim. By 1952, Buick was also offering power steering; adding $199 to the sedan’s $3200 base price.
Due to rationalisation to make way for Holden production, GM-H ceased local Buick and Oldsmobile assembly during 1948. Then the Commonwealth Government-imposed freeze on vehicle imports virtually halted the flow of non-British luxury vehicles into Australia.
Government itself was among the few exceptions to this regulation and many of the early-’50s Buicks that survive here were imported for official use or as consular cars.
A 1949 restyle produced a car that was noticeably lower and with front mudguards that now sat flush with the doors. Accompanying the new shape was the reintroduction of the distinctive ‘portholes’ that were actually functional in removing heat from the engine compartment.
Buick’s ‘Straight Eight’ engine had been a feature of the brand for almost 20 years but by the 1950s was looking seriously outdated against the V8s being offered by Cadillac and Lincoln and the forthcoming Chrysler ‘Hemi’.
However, the long-stroke engines’ legendary torque and silken power delivery helped ensure strong sales.
During the early-’50s the brand maintained fourth place on US vehicle charts, selling more than 400,000 cars during 1951 and 303,000 in the following year.
While mainstream models maintained the values that appealed to a conservative buyer base, Buick did allow itself a small indulgence in the shape of the two-door Riviera hardtop. Introduced during 1949, the Riviera featured pillarless styling, two-tone paint and – by 1952 – an option package including electric window and seat adjustment.
By that time, the Roadmaster engine had been upgraded to deliver 127kW, but flagging sales would not be stemmed until a V8 was introduced for the 1953 model year.
ON THE ROAD
Those who are accustomed to the cosseting accommodation and responsive controls of 21st Century cars will come away somewhat shaken from an encounter with a 60 year-old Buick. That front bench seat is more than 150cm wide, with the rear only slightly narrower. Even with the front seat adjusted to accommodate a two metre tall driver, rear legroom remains massive and the ride over virtually any surface is smooth and whisper quiet.
The only downside to this untrammeled space is its effect during a major impact or under heavy braking. There is a lot of bare metal and sharp protuberances in there and little to prevent occupants sliding off those huge and slippery seats. These cars were never designed to accommodate seat belts and most don’t have them. Installing mounts is possible but will require some serious structural modification and could prove expensive.
Starting a completely original Straight Eight is literally a one-touch operation. Under the throttle pedal is a switch, so when the pedal is pushed to prime the carburettor, the engine should instantaneously fire.
However, cars that are suffering electrical system gremlins are also prone to carburettor flooding, so adding a separate starter switch isn’t a bad idea.
The manual gearshift has a stock three-on-the-tree pattern that takes little practice to master. Once on the move and in top gear the lever rarely needs to be touched, such is the immense low-speed torque of the Straight Eight Buick engine.
Idling in top gear at jogging pace provokes no errant behaviour at all and tests of a 4.1-litre car saw 16-48km/h in top gear take an unruffled 9.4 seconds.
Low gearing limits the top speed of Australian-made cars to around 135km/h but US imports with the larger engine will reach 160km/h and 0-96km/h in 16 seconds – five seconds quicker than a manual 4.1-litre. Fuel consumption won’t worry most of today’s owners, but those planning frequent use should budget for 18L/100km.
The unassisted steering fitted to most cars in our market should deliver reasonable amounts of response and road feel. A car that wanders at speed or under brakes and has excessive steering play is likely to need a substantial front-end overhaul.
Brakes, even when new, were barely adequate for their task. US tests of a ’52 model Dynaflow found it capable of stopping from 72km/h in around 30 metres but from 96km/h that blew out to a knuckle-whitening 77 metres. Downchanging while braking in a manual car will generate engine compression and considerably reduce distances.
The market for in-line, eight-cylinder Buicks divides into several categories. Most common and – usually – the most affordable are Australian-assembled 1946-48 sedans. These start at around $10,000 for running but untidy examples, rising to more than $30,000 for a fully-restored car.
Following the example of Roadmaster owner David Trouson and importing a rare car from the USA is viable, providing some sensible precautions are followed.
"Getting an original car is probably the most important thing," David advised. "Ask for plenty of photos and look for retouched paint and especially a worn out interior as that is where you can spend a lot of money."
If buying a car in Australia, he says, get one that has been recently and properly restored as it will invariably be cheaper than buying a wreck and having it renovated.
Even in a distressed US market, rare versions of the Straight Eight Buick are expensive. Fully-restored convertibles were recently on offer and sold at auction in the US$45-65,000 range – translating into local pricing close to $100,000 – with a solitary and extremely scarce station wagon at $135,000.
I OWN ONE!
David Trouson caught the Buick bug just four years ago but now owns six including this amazingly original 1946 model Roadmaster.
The car was bought sight unseen on the internet and from just its second owner in 60 years.
"The car was delivered new in Pennsylvania in the USA, then sold to a dealer by the original owner’s estate in the late 1970s," David said. "At that stage it had travelled 26,000 miles. When I got it last year it had just reached 30,000 and still hadn’t left Pennsylvania.
"As far as we can establish it’s the only 1946 Roadmaster in Australia and in amazing condition. It’s got no rust, the interior is like new and there are even the original handbook and all the insurance documents from the original owner. The original spare tyre is still in the boot."
The only disappointment when the car arrived was bat droppings that the car’s second owner hadn’t removed before irreparable harm had been done to the original paintwork.
"People say ‘no don’t touch it’ because it will ruin the authenticity but it spoils an otherwise beautiful car so I probably will have it painted," he admitted.
Body & Chassis
Any Buick of this age that has been allowed to suffer serious chassis rust will be beyond economic repair. The frames used by these cars are massive and serious neglect will be reflected elsewhere in the car’s structure. Body rust most commonly appears around window seals, in the lower doors and floors. Boot seals frequently leak and create a habitat for rust. Dented or filled body panels can be repaired but good second-hand items are very scarce. Most brightwork is stainless steel but the bumpers can generate huge rechroming bills if dented or rusty. Reproduction glass, rubber seals and lenses are all available.
Engine & Transmission
Straight-eight engines should start easily and idle smoothly with minimal valve-train noise. Rumbling or clattering from within the engine block point to bearing or piston wear. Check that the ventilation trunking which passes through the engine bay isn’t damaged or fumes could be sucked into the passenger area. Pressure plate fingers can warp and reduce clutch travel, making first and reverse hard to select. First gear is normally noisy but difficult downchanges signal clutch or synchromesh problems. Automatic transmissions need to upshift smoothly and without vibration.
Suspension & Brakes
Jacking up a front wheel and checking for vertical movement by lifting the tyre can reveal worn king pins. Reconditioned replacements for the ‘lever action’ shock absorbers are available in Australia and ride stiffness can be adjusted simply by installing heavier oil. Brakes are a Buick weak point and must be in optimum condition to deliver even adequate performance. Make sure the car doesn’t pull significantly when the pedal is pushed and that the foot-operated parking brake fitted to later versions is operating properly and the release knob doesn’t demand excessive force.
Interior & Electrics
Standard six-volt electrics are adequate but owner David Trouson advises looking under the dash for brittle 60 year-old insulation that can cause short-circuits. New trim and carpets are available but replacing the felt headlining is difficult and relatively expensive. Australian cars had electric windscreen wipers which should maintain constant speed regardless of throttle opening which affects performance of the vacuum wipers used by US market cars.
Number built: 2.35 million
Body style: all-steel, separate body/chassis two and four-door sedan, two-door hardtop and convertible, four-door station wagon
Engine: 4.1 and 5.2-litre in-line eight cylinder with overhead valves and single downdraft carburettor
Power & Torque: 82kW @ 3600rpm, 290Nm @ 2000rpm (4.1 litre)
Performance: 0-96km/h – 22.7 seconds; 0-400 metres – 21.8 secs (4.1 litre manual)
Transmission: three-speed manual or two-speed Dynaflow automatic
Suspension: Front – independent with coil springs, wishbones, double-acting shock absorbers and anti-roll bar. Rear – live axle with coil springs, wishbones and double-acting shock absorbers
Brakes: four-wheel drum unassisted
Tyres: 6.50 x 16, 7.60 x 15 or 8.20 x 15 crossply
Price range: $5000-100,000
Contact: Buick clubs in most states
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