Buick's 1956 lineup, including this 1956 Buick Special, had its most powerful engines to date.

1954, 1955, 1956, 1957 Buicks

Along with Olds and Cadillac, Buick switched to longer, more-massively square bodies for 1954, but also revived its prewar "hot rod" with a new Century line offering the bigger Buick engine in the smaller Buick body. All models wore inverted-U grilles with fine vertical bars set under oval nacelles cradling headlamps and parking lamps. Windshields were newly wrapped as on recent GM showmobiles, and rear fenders kicked up to carry vertical pairs of bullet taillamps high in the trailing edges. Offerings regrouped to include convertibles, hardtops, and sedans in each series.

Century and Special also offered new all-steel four-door Estate wagons (remarkably with no ersatz wood). A two-door sedan was exclusive to Special, and was the price-leader at $2207.

Special belatedly received its own Fireball V-8 for '54, a 264-cid unit with 143/150 bhp. Other models carried the 322 with power ratings of 177 (manual-shift Super) to 200 (Roadmaster and Skylark). Wheelbases were realigned once more: 122 ­inches for Special/Century, 127 for Super/Roadmaster.

Skylark also returned for '54, but was much less "custom" than the '53, though that enabled Buick to trim price down to $4483. Now more Century than Roadmaster, the '54 stood apart with tacked-on tailfins and huge chrome-plated diecast taillight housings, plus the circular rear wheel openings. Overall, it somewhat resembled Buick's '54 Wildcat II show car, but was evidently less-impressive than the '53 Skylark, for only 836 were sold before the model was dropped.

Much of Buick's 1954 styling was previewed by the XP-300 and 1951 LeSabre show cars, rolling testbeds for numerous postwar GM ideas. Both used an experimental 215-cid aluminum V-8, a very special job unrelated to Buick's same-size early-'60s engine. With exactly square dimensions (3.25-inch bore and stroke), 10:1 compression, and a Roots-type supercharger, it produced over 300 bhp -- phenomenal for the day. However, it ran on a methanol/gasoline blend, not exactly common at local filling stations.

Both showpieces were futuristic. The 116-inch-wheelbase LeSabre sported a wrapped windshield and "Dagmar" bumpers. The XP-300, on an inch-shorter wheelbase, prefigured production '54 Buicks in its frontal treatment.

Speaking of production, Buick had been pushing relentlessly toward number-three, breaking its all-time record in calendar 1950 with more than 550,000 cars. The 1954 tally of 531,000 left Buick trailing only Chevrolet and Ford, a position it hadn't held since the '40s. The division's 1955 volume was another record: 781,000, nearly 50 percent higher than the previous best.

This success was owed largely to the Special, which had become one of America's most popular cars. Over 380,000 were built for 1955, Detroit's banner year of the decade, including 155,000 Riviera two-door hardtops, that season's single bestselling Buick. A deft '55 restyle kept sales booming, aided by even-more-potent V-8s delivering 188 bhp on Specials, 236 bhp elsewhere.

For mid-'55 came four-door Riviera hardtop sedans in the Special and Century series; Super and Roadmaster versions followed for '56. These (along with the Oldsmobile Holiday) were the first four-door hardtops, GM once again forcing the rest of the industry to play catch-up.

The '56 Buicks didn't sell as well as the '55s -- but then, '56 was a "breather" for most everyone. Another facelift introduced model-year designation to exterior nameplates, which Buick would abandon after 1957 amid customer complaints that it made the cars obsolete that much sooner.

The "horsepower race" was at full gallop, and the '56s were the most-power­ful Buicks yet. The Special now offered 220 bhp, other models 255. A Century could leap from 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds and top 110 mph, and every '56 Buick could do at least 100 mph.

Longer and lower new bodies arrived for '57 wearing slightly exaggerated '56 styling. Though division general manager Ed Ragsdale never said how much this makeover cost, it must have run several hundred million. Yet despite the most-sweeping alterations since '49, Buick's '57s didn't sell that well, mainly because rivals were pressing hard for industry design leadership. Chrysler, in fact, took over with its new fleet of longer, lower, glassier, and tailfinned cars created under Virgil Exner.

Still, Flint's '57s were dashing and fairly clean for the age. And horsepower was higher still: 250 for Special, an even 300 elsewhere, thanks to a bore/stroke job taking V-8 displacement to 364 cubes. Model changes were few but interesting: pillarless four-door wagons for Century and Special, plus a Series 75 Roadmaster Riviera hardtop coupe and sedan. The latter, just upmarket versions of the regular Series 70 models, had every possible standard luxury save air conditioning: Dynaflow, power steering and brakes, dual exhausts, automatic windshield washers, backup lights, clock, special interior with deep-pile carpeting, and more.

But though 1957 was a decent year for Buick, it was even better for Plymouth, which pushed Flint from third to fourth in sales for the first time in three years.

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