1958 Buick

Obscured by all the ballyhoo about 1958 Buick styling are certain technical developments for which Buick deserves credit -- and maybe condemnation.

Laurel Mist paint lends a rosy glow to a 1958 Buick Century two-door hardtop.
Laurel Mist paint lends a rosy glow to a 1958
Buick Century two-door hardtop.

The most praiseworthy improvement was the air-cooled, finned aluminum front brake drums, with cast iron linings for rapid heat dissipation. These brakes had actually been used on 1957 Roadmaster 75s, but were standard across the board for 1958.

Dunham and Gustin credit this development to Charles Holton and Frank Daley of Flint's brake engineering section; Walter Boehm, a metallurgist at the foundry; and Berlin Brambaugh, a brake-lining engineer at General Motors' Inland Division. Granted, they weren't as good as Chrysler's (or Crosley's) short-lived disc brakes of the early 1950s, but Buick's were the best brakes in Detroit at the time.

A less important and shorter-lived 1958 addition was "Air-Poise" suspension, actually a Cadillac system comprising a double rubber bellows filled with pressurized air. Pressure was controlled by valves that operated to maintain a level ride stance front and rear.

Jan Norbye described the air springs as occupying "the same space normally reserved for the coil springs. A rod rising from the rear suspension radius arm had a piston at its top end. The piston acted against a diaphragm inside the bellows, which then reacted to restore the balance.

"Few Buick buyers opted for Air-Poise," Norbye continued, "but those who did usually found trouble. The system tended to leak. And loss of air meant loss of springs." As a result, Air-Poise was available only at the rear for 1959, then vanished completely.

Hardtop station wagons like the Century Caballero made their last stand at Buick in 1958.
Hardtop station wagons like the Century Caballero
made their last stand at Buick in 1958.

Nineteen fifty-eight was the last year for the Dynaflow name on Buick's automatic transmission, which was standard on the Limited and Roadmaster, and optional on other models as "Flight-Pitch Dynaflow." For 1955, Buick had added a variable-pitch stator to its torque converter to produce "Variable-Pitch Dynaflow."

Instead of being fixed, stator blade angles were varied through a mechanical linkage corresponding to throttle position. The idea was to provide extra torque to avoid a mechanical gear change. The more acute the blade angle, the greater the torque multiplication.

Flight-Pitch was a further evolution with three turbines instead of two, so as to increase torque output even more, but it was expensive to manufacture, problem-prone, and wasteful of gas.

Buick stayed with what it called "Triple Turbine automatic" only through 1959, then dropped it for cost reasons in favor of the Twin Turbine transmission. "It almost broke us," one executive exaggerated.

Not so fast! As Norbye points out, it was Dynaflow "that enabled Buick to use engines ... with peak torque readings at two-thirds of peak-power rpm rather than one-third of crankshaft speed at the point where maximum power was generated. Using three-speed synchromesh transmissions with such engines would require unacceptably high final drive ratios, or lead to unacceptably high rates of clutch wear." (Three-speed manual gearboxes were, in fact, standard on Specials through 1958, but were rarely seen, as more than 97 percent of Buick customers were by then ordering automatics.)

The controversial three-section backlight was dropped for the 1958 Buick, giving cars like the Special sedan better visibility.
The three-section backlight was dropped for 1958
Buicks, giving the Special sedan better visibility.

With a line of cars almost precisely wrong for a changed marketplace, Buick sold fewer than a quarter-million of its 1958 models, falling behind Oldsmobile into fifth place in the production sweepstakes. Of course, 1958 was a tough year for every American producer except American Motors, but middle-priced makes like Buick took the hardest hits.

In a way, Buick in 1958 was much like Edsel, the year's brand-new marque that was also conceived on the basis of things as they were in 1955. But Buick had advantages Edsel didn't: a long-established name, a broad army of reliable dealers, and a loyal clientele.

Today we laugh at the mistakes Ford made with the Edsel, forgetting that Buick made the same errors, but got away with them. History is written by the winners.

Continue on to the next page to find models, prices, and production for the 1957-1958 Buick.

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