New streamlined styling, evident on this 1936 Buick Roadmaster, helped boost Buick sales in 1936.
1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939 Buicks
Buick president Harlow H. Curtice believed in "more speed for less money," and backed it up with an all-new 117-inch-wheelbase Series 40 for 1934. The result was a sales upturn aided by more modern, streamlined styling that broke sharply with "Roaring '20s" squarishness. Also featured linewide in '34 was GM's new "Knee-Action" (Dubonnet-type) independent front suspension, then a great step forward.
Though the 40 omitted flashy soft tops to emphasize far more popular coupes and sedans, its masterful blend of an inexpensive, Chevrolet-size platform and "important" Buick styling helped boost the division's 1934 output from some 47,000 to over 71,000. Buick then jumped way over 100,000 for model-year '36, and would reach even greater heights a few years hence.
Also in 1934, Curtice launched a $64 million factory modernization program that wasn't completed until 1940. However, plowing receipts back into facilities left little money for product improvements, so the 1935 Buicks weren't changed much. Offerings again comprised 40, 50, 60, and 90 with straight eights of 233, 235, 278, and 344 cid, respectively. There was one belated addition, though: a Series 40 convertible coupe.
More extensive changes occurred for 1936, as Buick adopted GM's all-steel "Turret Top" construction that eliminated the traditional fabric roof insert, gaining sleek all-new styling with it. The division also boasted more-potent engines with aluminum pistons. Series numbers began giving way to names that would last all the way through 1958 -- from the bottom, Special (40), Century (60), Roadmaster (80), and Limited (90). Respective wheelbases were 118, 122, 131 and 138 inches.
Styling was a big factor in Buick's 1936 resurgence. It was, of course, the work of Harley J. Earl, founder and head of GM's Art & Colour Section, the first formal styling department at a major automaker. Earl liked streamlining, and Buick had it for '36. Lines were rounder than ever, set off by more swept-back windshields, fully integrated trunks (instead of separate, detachable fixtures), and massive vertical-bar grilles. The public responded to this package by buying more than 168,000 Buicks for the model year. Calendar-1936 production reached near 180,000 as division volume returned to its pre-Depression level.
Engines choices were reduced for '36 from four to just two. Special retained its 93-bhp 233-cid eight. Other '36s carried a new 320-cid unit with 120 bhp. The latter would be a Buick mainstay through the '50s. Putting it in the lighter Special body made the new '36 Century a fast car, with genuine 100-mph top speed and 10-60 acceleration of 18-19 seconds. Besides good performance and sleek good looks, Century was attractively priced: as little as $1035 for the sport coupe and $1135 for the rakish convertible. It quickly became known as a "factory hot rod" (arguably Detroit's first) -- about the fastest thing you could buy for $1000 or so.
Such triumphs didn't imply much change for 1937. But Harley Earl wasn't satisfied, so Flint's Turret-Tops gained longer fenders with blunt trailing edges, plus horizontal grille bars and complementing side hood vents. Buick was perhaps GM's best-looking '37 car, and still an industry style-setter.
Mechanically, the bigger eight returned unchanged, but a longer stroke boosted Special's engine to 248 cid, horsepower to an even 100. Factory figures suggested a '37 Special could scale 10-60 mph in 19.2 seconds -- fine performance for the class and only a second behind the hot Century. New for all '37s were hypoid rear axle, improved generator, standard windshield defroster, front/rear antiroll bars, and a claimed industry first: a steering-wheel horn ring (Cord introduced it in '36).
The top-line Limited became almost Cadillac-exclusive in 1936-37, so it's puzzling they'd be long overlooked as collector's items. All late-'30s Limiteds were of "trunkback" configuration and carried dual spare tires in long "pontoon" front fenders. The elegant formal sedan of 1936-37 came with a glass division between front and rear compartments, plus the expected grand luxe trim.
Through 1939, the series included six- and eight-passenger sedans and a limousine. Limited chassis were supplied in fair numbers to custom coachbuilders such as Eureka, Miller, Sayers & Scoville, and Flexible for hearse, ambulance, and flower-car applications.
A new grille with fewer but thicker horizontal bars was the chief styling cue for 1938, but more mechanical changes made a good car even better. All-coil suspension -- another Buick first -- delivered a much-improved ride, aided by shock absorbers four times the typical size. Domed, high-compression pistons boosted horsepower on both engines, now dubbed "Dynaflash."
A new item for Special was a four-speed semiautomatic transmission, though it proved troublesome and was dropped after one year. Flint wouldn't attempt another clutchless drive until fully automatic Dynaflow about a decade later.
Buick by now had expanded to encompass a broad market. Prices ranged from $945 for the 1938 Special business coupe to near $2500 for the opulent eight-passenger Limited limo. For big spenders, Brunn still offered custom-bodied Limiteds, though far fewer than in the halcyon pre-Depression days.
Flint closed out the decade with lower-looking 1939 models mildly face-lifted with "waterfall" grilles, "streamboards" (optional concealed running boards), and a sunroof option on some models. Sidemount spare tires were still available, but not as frequently ordered. Special's 122-inch wheelbase (from 1937-38) shrank two inches. Other spans were unchanged from '38: 126-inch Century, 133-inch Roadmaster, 140-inch Limited.
Body choices were as plentiful as ever, prices as moderate. The natty Century convertible sport phaeton sold for just $1713, the sport coupe for $1175. Buick abandoned the increasingly unpopular rumble-seat ragtop for '39, but scored a safety innovation with flashing turn signals, installed at the rear as part of the trunk emblem. Also new were column-mounted gearshift and refillable shock absorbers.