Century first appeared on Buick's roster in 1936, the same year that Buick replaced its numeric series names with something more memorable: Special, Century, Roadmaster, and Limited. Century was most meaningful of the new names because it signified the car's top speed, and the 1939 Buick Century was accomplished in other areas as well.
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Often called "the first muscle car" or "the banker's hot rod," Century combined the smaller Special body with the 120-horsepower straight eight from the bigger Roadmaster and Limited. The result was an excellent power-to-weight ratio giving a top speed in the vicinity of 100 mph and lively acceleration. At about half the price of an Auburn speedster, the Century was a performance bargain.
By 1939, the 320-cubic-inch eight was putting out 141 horsepower. That was one more than Cadillac's most powerful V-8, a fact resented by Cadillac, which thought Buick was getting above its General Motors station.
The owner of our featured car, Erik Unthank, of Santa Clarita, California, doesn't hesitate to drive his 1939 Century in traffic because of its good performance, handling, and brakes. It is one of only 850 Century convertible coupes built for 1939 at a base price of $1,343.
This car has several rare options such as sidemount spares and "streamboards," which replaced standard running boards for a more streamlined look. Unfortunately, streamboards were delicate and few have survived. A much more popular option was the heater, which was mounted under the dash, near the passenger's feet.
Buick had several firsts in 1939. The most significant was the industry's first standard turn-signal lights. Unlike modern turn signals, these were not incorporated into the taillights, but were part of the trunk medallion. Buick also offered the first pushbutton radio tuning that year. New for Buick (but not the industry) was a column shifter that left the front floor unobstructed. The convertible coupe lost its rumble seat and replaced it with interior opera seats behind the front seat.
After almost 70 years in the Buick lineup (although not continuously), the Century nameplate disappeared after the 2005 model year, replaced by the LaCrosse.