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1950, 1951, 1952 Buick Roadmaster

The sporty 1952 Buick Roadmaster Riviera hardtop attracted 11,387 buyers. See more classic car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

"Valve-in-head, ahead in value." Buick's traditional slogan was still being touted in regard to the 1950-1952 Buick Roadmaster, although the rest of the industry (led by soul mates Cadillac and Oldsmobile) was finally coming around to the conclusion that overhead valves were going to replace side valves. Still, as recently as 1947, Chevrolet, Buick, and Nash had been the only major American producers to espouse the valve-in-head engine. By the mid-Sixties, everybody would be using it.

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"Roadmaster" -- what a wonderful name for a car! It had emerged during 1936 and would last until it was foolishly removed for 1959. It was the perfect term for the top of the Buick line, a car bordering on Cadillac price territory, preferred transport for the up-and-coming professional -- the doctor, the lawyer, and anybody else who could not quite afford a Caddy.

Buick catered to this clientele with flashy styling-far and away the flashiest of the GM divisions-plus luxury and a host of novel design ideas: the famous pop-art grille, the gun-sight hood ornament, the hardtop convertible, the sweepspear, and the porthole. The latter three all arrived in 1949, when Buick sales correspondingly increased by 50 percent, and then doubled in 1950. In that long-lost halcyon era, this was the kind of car America wanted --and bought.

At a time when the annual model change was an act of faith, Buick chief designer Ned Nickles responded in the ordained manner by adding chrome, and the early-Fifties Buicks were not as purely beautiful as Ned's '49, the first all-new postwar design. The buck-tooth grille extended down over the bumper in 1950, but this was too strange even for Buickfolk (but much coveted today), and promptly receded in 1951.

Every account of Buick in those days invariably mentions the origin of the porthole, which -- variously bent, squeezed, elongated, wiped out, and restored again -- has been part of the Buick styling tradition since '49. It was part of that design lexicon, which took inspiration from the wonderful new jot aircraft (the basic Buick shape had evolved from the propeller-driven Lockheed P-38), along with the rounded "fuselage" of car body sides, the big scoop grilles, and the aileron-like tailfins. (Buick's first "fins" came in 1952, well ahead of Virgil Exner and Chrysler.) When Nickles whimsically mounted little colored lights inside the portholes of his own Roadmaster, wired through the distributor to flash in firing order, Flint managers stared at it wide-eyed in open admiration; the wonder is that they didn't make it standard.

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The steel dashboard was one sign of the integrity of the early '50s Buick Roadmasters.
The steel dashboard was one sign of the integrity of the early '50s Buick Roadmasters.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

They 1950-1952 Buick Roadmasters were serious automobiles, built with integrity, of a quality and durability that vanished around 1955 and has not been around since. It has often been remarked that there was probably more steel in the dashboard of an early-Fifties Buick than in an entire Suburu: undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the photos reveal what's implied.

Like most other cars of 1950, 1951, and 1952, these Roadmasters were built: hoods clang down like manhole covers, doors shut with a solid clunk on bank vault-like hinges, radios wrap you in that kind of "fat" sound you just don't get from transistors. Maybe it was clumsily executed, but it is this kind of sheer integrity that makes cars like the Roadmaster appeal to people today.

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Roadmasters in all three years were offered as a four-door sedan, Riviera hardtop, convertible, and wagon, the latter making extensive use of real tree wood. (The last woodies made by anyone were built by Buick, in 1953.) In 1950 there were also Deluxe versions of the Riviera and sedan, the latter confusingly called the "Riviera" too, plus the last Roadmaster sedanets. These pretty fastbacks were dropped because of slow sales -- only 2,968 in their final '50 model year -- which renders them highly desirable by collectors today.

These Buicks also represent the last, or almost the last, of the long-running overhead valve straight eight, which still pumped out creditable horsepower in the Roadmaster. The smaller Buick Special retained its straight eight in 1953; then the entire line received V-8 power for '54.

The 1952 Buick Roadmaster Riviera hardtop, rear view.
The 1952 Buick Roadmaster Riviera hardtop, rear view.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In its final year, the straight-eight Roadmaster convertible -- the most expensive Buick save for the woody wagons -- had a base price of $3,453, which means it typically cost about $4,000, or just under $20,000 in today's money. That's quite a lot of car for the dollar.

For 1950-1952 Buick Roadmaster specifications, go to the next page.

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Dynaflow badge on an early '50s Buick Roadmaster.
Dynaflow badge on an early '50s Buick Roadmaster.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1950-1952 Buick Roadmaster achieved respectable horsepower with an overhead valve straight eight engine.

Specifications

Engine: overhead valve I-8, 320.2 cid (3.44 × 4.31); 1950-51, 152 bhp 1952 170 bhp

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Transmission: Dynaflow automatic

Suspension, front: independent, coil springs, lever shocks

Suspension, rear: live axle, coil springs, lever shocks

Brakes: front/rear drums

Wheelbase (in.): 125.2

Weight (lbs): 4150-4400

Top speed (mph): 95-100

0-60 mph (sec): 17.0 using Lo/Hi ranges

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