1957-1958 Buick


Buick in the 1950s was as flashy and gutsy as any American cars of the era. The 1957-1958 Buicks marked several "lasts" for the Flint, Michigan, make: the end of series names dating back to 1936, the final appearance of the Dynaflow label on automatic transmissions, and the end of Buick's brief ascendancy as America's third best-selling car.

Buick Image Gallery

A complete restyle and new models like the Century Caballero hardtop station wagon were lavished on the 1957 Buick line.
A complete restyle and new models like the Century
Caballero wagon were part of the 1957 Buick line.
See more pictures of Buicks.

Some factors beyond Buick's control influenced these developments; others can be traced directly to the cars themselves, which went through one of the industry's most startling restyles in these years.

In planning its 1957 models in late 1954 and 1955, General Motors found itself in an odd position. Since the presidency of Alfred E. Sloan in the 1920s, General Motors makes had been arrayed with strict price demarcations that followed a set hierarchy.

From rags to riches, you started with a Chevrolet, moved up to Pontiac, then Oldsmobile, Buick, and finally -- if the American dream came true -- to Cadillac. Sloan's make-by-make "ladder" worked well for 30 years and became the standard on which Ford and Chrysler based their own sales strategies.

But the strategy had become obsolete by the middle 1950s. A decade of postwar prosperity, the increasing mobility of Americans moving from cities to suburbs, and a vast road-building program spearheaded by President Eisenhower's Interstate highway system created not only two- and three-car families, but families whose cars were in daily use.

Top-line 1957 Buick Roadmasters like the $4,066 convertible had four
Top-line 1957 Buick Roadmasters like the $4,066
convertible had four tacked-on "VentiPorts."

Multi-car ownership led to specialized models: personal-luxury cars like the Cadillac Eldorado; compacts like the Nash Rambler; car-based pickup trucks like Ford's Ranchero; hardtop convertibles with two and, later, four doors; utility vehicles like Chevrolet's Suburban; and, of course, the ubiquitous station wagon, that rolling symbol of 1950s American affluence.

Each manufacturer strove to exploit the market for these new vehicle types; as they did, the models within each make blossomed. When car production resumed after World War II, Ford offered five body styles in just two series; for 1957 it had 11 body styles in nine series.

Buick traditionally ranked just below Cadillac in the General Motors size-and-price hierarchy, but that did not accurately reflect its broad popularity. Buick usually outsold all General Motors divisions except Chevrolet.

Flint offered a wider spread of models and prices than its sister divisions, often aggressively chipping into Oldsmobile's price territory and occasionally into Cadillac's. Also, Buick was quicker than most makes in issuing new model variations.

The 1957 Buick Roadmaster 75 was a new half-step-up series in four- and two-door hardtop styles.
The 1957 Buick Roadmaster 75 was a new half-step-
up series in four- and two-door hardtop styles.

It was among the first in Detroit to catalogue a station wagon (1940 Super), a hardtop convertible (1949 Riviera), a personal-luxury car (1953 Skylark), hardtop sedans (1955 Special and Century) and hardtop wagons (1957 Caballero and Riviera Estate).

Though Flint never built a production sports car or commercial vehicle, it created more varieties of the passenger cars Americans wanted than any other General Motors division, certainly more than any Ford or Chrysler make.

The 1957 model year marked a major redesign for Buick models. For more on the 1957 Buick lineup, continue on to the next page.

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1957 Buick Lineup

The 1957 Buick lineup featured its traditional four-series lineup of Series 40 Special, Series 60 Century, Series 50 Super, and Series 70 Roadmaster, plus two new Roadmaster 75s, a Riviera hardtop coupe and hardtop sedan equipped with most every accessory on the division's shelves save air conditioning. Prices ranged from $2,600 to $4,500, which was a very broad range.

The Roadmaster's traditional spot atop the Buick hierarchy was usurped by the 1957 Roadmaster 75.
The Roadmaster's traditional spot atop the Buick
hierarchy was usurped by the 1957 Roadmaster 75.

Plymouth, for example, spanned only $1,900-$2,900, and Buick dealers frequently discounted below list. Small wonder that Buick had knocked Plymouth out of its traditional third place in sales during model years 1955 and 1956.

Along with the change in buyer habits typified by the increasing number of vehicle types, General Motors faced another problem that reflects on the Buicks pictured here. In 1957, for the first time since Harley Earl created the General Motors Art & Colour Studio 30 years before, thus making design an integral part of the automobile's appeal, General Motors was not the industry's undisputed styling leader.

The 1957 Buick Super convertible included power window lifts in its #3,981 base price.
The 1957 Buick Super convertible included power
window lifts in its $3,981 base price.

That mantle was wrested by Chrysler, GM's unlikely rival. For years, Chrysler had built nothing but boxy, engineering-oriented cars. Now, under the influence of design chief Virgil Exner, Chrysler products had low silhouettes, acres of curved glass, aggressive tailfins, and sleek expanses of chromeless sheetmetal. With its 1957 "Flight Sweep" fleet, Chrysler forged to the forefront of American design, claiming (for Plymouth) that "Suddenly It's 1960!"

Of course, all manufacturers planned their 1957 cars long before they knew how the public would react to them, and the 1957 Buick, like its rivals at General Motors and elsewhere, was completely restyled. In retrospect, though, there is no doubt that GM's styling strategy in this period was temporarily confused, radically shaken up for 1958, and dramatically altered for 1959.

The 1957 Buicks arrived almost simultaneously with Edward T. Ragsdale, who succeeded Ivan Wiles as division general manager in March 1956. Ragsdale had been with Buick since 1923, when he joined up as a body draftsman. His wife, Sarah, is popularly credited with suggesting the hardtop coupe, that immensely popular postwar body style combining the airiness of a top-up convertible with the all-season comfort and practicality of a closed car.

For 1957 Buick brought pillarless styling to its station wagons, like the $3,076 Century Caballero.
For 1957, Buick brought pillarless styling to its
station wagons, like the $3,076 Century Caballero.

Ragsdale had been Buick's general manufacturing manager since 1949, and he looked forward to being promoted to division chief. Calling his 1957s "the greatest value we have ever offered the motoring public," the new boss promised to hold third place in industry sales by moving nearly 700,000 of the new models with their "dream-car styling."

Given the competition, not everybody was so sure he could. Aside from the formidable all-new Chrysler products, Ford Motor Company makes were also fully redesigned for 1957, if somewhat less successfully.

Finalized at a time when the market seemed limitless for Buick's formula of multiple models covering a wide price spread, the 1957s were all that any product planner could have wished for in 1955.

For more on the 1957 Buick, continue to the next page.

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1957 Buick

Some design features of the 1957 Buick recalled the past -- bodyside sweepspears and portholes, open wheel wells -- while a lower beltline, newly hidden fuel filler (in the back bumper), and more angled A-pillars addressed the future.

Catalog copy called the 1957 Century Caballero
Ad copy called the 1957 Century Caballero "the pace
car for a brand-new line of Buick Estate Wagons."

Also new, though not at all predictive, was the four-door hardtop station wagon, available in both Special Riviera Estate and Century Caballero versions. Elaborately equipped and priced around $3,200 and $3,800, respectively, they had limited appeal because four-door hardtops, particularly wagons, never caught on nearly as much as hardtop coupes.

Buick offered hardtop wagons for only two seasons, making them rare today and, particularly in Century guise, highly collectible.

Special and Century shared General Motors' B-body with Oldsmobile; their 1957 bodyshells were new, but the 122-inch wheelbase carried over from the 1954-1956 Buicks. Similarly, Supers and Roadmasters shared a new-design C-body with Series 62 Cadillacs, with wheelbase increased a token half-inch to 127.5. Typical of the times, all models stood some 3.5 inches lower overall; Specials and Centurys grew 3.4 inches longer to reach 208.4, while Supers and Roadmasters stretched 1.7 inches to 215.3.

The 1957 Buick Super four-door hardtop was the only model to wear series identification on its bodysides.
The 1957 Super four-door hardtop was the only
model to wear series identification on its bodysides.

Replacing the previous year's 322-cubic-inch V-8 was a new-design over-square engine of 364 cid. Horsepower was higher than ever: 250 for Specials, up 30 from 1956, and 300 for other models, an increase of 45 bhp.

Highlights included wider carburetor throats, larger and higher-lifting valves, higher-capacity ports and manifolds, a new high-lift camshaft, and a beefed-up crankshaft.

Ipso facto, Buicks used more fuel than ever, too. Ragsdale pulled a boner at a debut press conference when asked about the poorer fuel economy: "Well, we have to keep the gas companies happy." (Imagine how that lead balloon would go down today.)

Other mechanical refinements involved an extra universal joint, which lowered the transmission tunnel, and adoption of ball-joint front suspension, though the cars still wallowed in turns, a penalty of soft spring and shock damping.

The 1957 Century Riviera four-door hardtop accounted for about 40 percent of all Series 60 orders in 1957.
The Century Riviera four-door hardtop accounted
for about 40 percent of all Series 60 orders in 1957.

Century remained the performance Buick, combining the hotter engine with the lighter body. Whereas Specials had a two-barrel carb and 9.5:1 compression (with the commonly ordered Dynaflow), Century, Supers, and Roadmasters had four barrels and 10:1 compression.

And if their 300 bhp wasn't enough, Buick offered a power-pack option that boosted output to 330. All 1957 Buicks were heavier than the 1956s by some 150-220 pounds (even more in the case of station wagons), but the Centurys were much quicker off the mark.

See the next page for sales information and to find out how these changes were received by the buying public.

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1957 Buick Sales

The 1957 Buick sales were troubling to the division. All Buicks, particularly the breadwinning Special, were well down on their 1956 totals.

Nearly 60,000 customers took home a 1957 Buick Special four-door sedan.
Nearly 60,000 customers took home a 1957 Buick
Special four-door sedan.

Most observers blamed styling. Customers particularly objected to the trisected backlights on Rivieras and sedans, claiming they cut down on visibility and looked weird.

In The Buick, A Complete History, authors Terry Dunham and Larry Gustin label the 1957 line "a nightmare," quoting one unnamed executive as saying, "The styling was awful ... particularly those split rear windows. Plymouth looked at them and said, 'Suddenly, It's 1949.' A dealer came in from California to see the new cars, then went back to the coast and told the other dealers to buy all the used cars they could get, because that would be all they'd sell.

"But [GM President Harlow] Curtice loved that 1957. He showed me those new cars and said, 'My God, they're beautiful!'" Another man more in the know, Buick chief designer Ned Nickles, later admitted, "We did have some off years," and said of his competition, "They were doing some things right."

Buick did offer one-piece backlights on Supers and Series 75 Roadmasters, as well as on the four-door Model 73A and two-door 76A in the Series 70 Roadmaster line. There were "three-window" alternatives to the Series 70s, the 73 and 76R, respectively. (Ironically, they enjoyed a slight edge in popularity over the full-glass versions.)

The series' best power-to-weight ratio belonged to the 1957 Buick Riviera hardtop.
The series' best power-to-weight ratio belonged to
the 1957 Buick Riviera hardtop.

The backlight divider bars on these three-window Roadmasters carried forward to the windshield header and aft down the deck as add-on chrome moldings that finished above a pair of bright trunklid lift handles. On Specials and Centurys, these roof-to-rear ribs were actually stamped into the sheetmetal, but were devoid of any bright embellishment.

Buick built about 405,000 of its 1957s, well down on predictions, so the general manager was more cautious in his forecast for 1958. As well he should have been. As Dunham and Gustin record, Ragsdale's timing "was all bad [but] possibly no manager could have turned Buick around in this period. The new models for 1957 and 1958 had already been approved, a mild recession was setting in, and the public was turning away from mammoth cars."

The recession was nowhere in sight when the 1957s were announced, but a year later its effects were beginning to be felt in the marketplace. AMC's economical Rambler, which debuted in 1950 as a stubby little Nash, had been redesigned along more conventional lines and caught the public's fancy. By the end of 1958, people were buying Ramblers by the hundreds of thousands.

This specially trimmed 1957 Buick was a portent of things to come.
This specially trimmed 1957 Buick was a portent
of things to come.

The even odder Volkswagen, a relic of the Third Reich dismissed as unsaleable in the early 1950s by such notable importers as Max Hoffman, was suddenly outselling established Detroit makes.

Almost overnight, the free-spending public became frugal-minded, more interested in mpg than bhp, and increasingly averse to the annual model change. This spelled big trouble for Buick.

Styling changes for the 1958 Buick were intended to appease customers and increase sales. For more, continue on to the next page.

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1958 Buick Styling

Although tooling had been locked up long before the 1958s went on sale, ornamentation could be altered based on immediate past experience -- and it was. Nickles began the 1958 Buick styling by erasing the controversial trisected backlights, as well as the front-fender portholes, a Buick hallmark for a decade. The sweepspear, another tradition, barely survived, trailing back from the most garish Buick face since 1949.

Traditional series names that dated back to the 1930s, like the Roadmaster, were dropped after 1958.
Traditional series names that dated back to the
1930s, like the Roadmaster, were dropped after 1958.

The 1958 grille cavity contained no fewer than 160 beveled, chrome-plated squares that looked like small kitchen-cabinet knobs. Each reflected light from four different angles to create a "dollar grin" that put Cadillac to shame. Flint marketers came up with a perfect name for this dazzle: "Fashion-Aire Dynastar Grille."

All models were advertised under the "Air Born B-58 Buick" banner, but the heavy face-lift on the 1957 bodies brought added "road hugging weight." It showed.

Specials and Centurys tacked on another 3.4 inches in length, most of it in rear overhang, and senior models grew almost four inches longer to 219.1 overall. Most models covered this added real estate with big, bright, bomb-shaped appliques ahead of redone taillamps (still reverse-slanted and chrome-encrusted).

The 1958 Buick Super series was reduced to a pair of Riviera hardtops for the year.
The 1958 Buick Super series was reduced to a pair
of Riviera hardtops for the year.

Slightly higher fender lines imparted a "finnier" look, while front fenders sprouted gun-sight ornaments and "Vista Vision" quad headlamps beneath gullwing-shaped hoods.

Glitziest of all was the successor to the Roadmaster 75, identified by a dozen chrome rear-fender hash marks instead of shiny, ribbed trim. Officially designated Series 700, it revived an old Buick name, Limited.

To understand the 1958 Limited, one has to bear in mind that it was planned three years before it appeared, at high tide in consumer demand for chrome and flash. That brought it onto the market at exactly the wrong time, though for perfectly valid reasons.

The Limited was meant to revive not only the name but the exclusive luxury of the top-line prewar Buicks. And because it was astutely priced a few hundred dollars below comparable Cadillac Series 62 DeVilles, it seemed like a sensible idea at the time.

The new, top-of-the-line Buick Limited series debuted in 1958.
The new, top-of-the-line Buick Limited series
debuted in 1958.

Today, it is routinely cited as an example of Detroit's worst period excesses. One stylist used to commute to work in a pink Limited convertible, amusing everyone who shared his parking lot at the Ford Design Center where he labored to create slick, aerodynamic shapes for the 1980s.

The 1958 Limited lived up to its name in sales. Available only as a two- or four-door hardtop and that convertible (which ousted the previous ragtop Super), it drew just under 7,500 buyers.

By the peculiar rules that govern car collecting, that makes it intrinsically appealing today, as does its status as a one-year offering, so Limiteds command rather higher prices than lesser 1958 Buicks, Roadmasters included.

For more on the 1958 Buick, continue to the next page.

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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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1957-1958 Buick Models, Prices, Production

Buick's follow-up to three stunning sales years in the mid 1950s manifested itself as more models, more chrome, and more bulk. It all met with less acclaim, however, and demand fell precipitously. Here are the specifications for the 1957-1958 Buick:

The 1958 Buick Special Riviera two-door hardtop slipped to second behind the sedan in production.
The 1958 Buick Special Riviera two-door hardtop
slipped to second behind the sedan in production.

1957 Buick Special Models, Prices, Production

Special (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan
4,012$2,66059,739
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,0412,78040,563
convertible coupe
4,0822,9878,505
Riviera hardtop coupe
3,9562,70464,425
2-door sedan
3,9552,59623,180
Estate 4-door wagon
4,2923,0477,013
Riviera Estate 4-door hardtop wagon
4,3093,167 6,817
Total 1957 Buick Special


220,242

1957 Buick Century Models, Prices, Production

Century (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan
4,137$3,2348,075
Riviera hardtop sedan 4,1633,35426,589
convertible coupe4,2343,5984,085
Riviera hardtop coupe4,0813,27017,029
2-door sedan 4,080--2
Caballero 4-door wagon4,4233,706 10,186
Total 1957 Buick Century

65,966

1957 Buick Super Models, Prices, Production

Super (wheelbase 127.5)
Weight
Price
Production
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,356$3,68141,665
convertible coupe
4,4143,9812,056
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,2713,536 26,529
Total 1957 Buick Super


70,250

1957 Buick Series 70 Roadmaster Models, Prices, Production

Series 70 Roadmaster (wheelbase 127.5)
Weight
Price
Production
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,469$4,05311,401
Riviera hardtop sedan*
4,4554,05310,526
convertible coupe
4,5004,0664,363
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,3743,9443,826
Riviera hardtop coupe**
4,3703,944 2,812
Total 1957 Series 70 Roadmaster


32,928

* Model 73A with one-piece backlight
** Model 76A with one-piece backlight

1957 Buick Series 75 Roadmaster Models, Prices, Production

Series 75 Roadmaster (wheelbase 127.5)
Weight
Price
Production
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,539$4,4832,250
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,4274,373 2,402
Total 1957 Series 75 Roadmaster


14,654
Total 1957 Buick


404,040*

* Does not include chassis or "knocked-down" cars for foreign assembly.

1958 Buick Special Models, Prices, Production

Special (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan
4,115
$2,70048,238
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,1802,82031,921
convertible coupe
4,1653,0415,502
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,0582,74434,903
2-door sedan 4,0632,63611,566
Estate 4-door wagon4,3963,1543,663
Riviera Estate 4-door hardtop wagon 4,4083,261 3,420
Total 1958 Buick Special

139,213

1958 Buick Century Models, Prices, Production

Century (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan
4,241$3,3167,241
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,2673,43615,171
convertible coupe
4,3023,6802,588
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,1823,3688,110
2-door sedan
4,189--2
Caballero 4-door hardtop wagon
4,4983,831 4,456
Total 1958 Buick Century


37,568

1958 Buick Super Models, Prices, Production

Super (wheelbase 127.5)
Weight
Price
Production
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,500$3,78928,460
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,3923,644 13,928
Total 1958 Buick Super


42,388

1958 Buick Roadmaster Models, Prices, Production

Roadmaster (wheelbase 127.5)
Weight
Price
Production
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,668$4,66710,505
convertible coupe
4,6764,6801,181
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,5684,557 2,368
Total 1958 Buick Roadmaster


14,054

1958 Buick Limited Models, Prices, Production

Limited (wheelbase 127.5)
Weight
Price
Production
Riviera hardtop sedan
4,7105,1125,571
Riviera hardtop coupe
4,6915,0021,026
convertible coupe
4,6035,125 839
Total 1958 Buick Limited


7,436
Total 1958 Buick


240,659*

* Does not include chassis or "knocked-down" cars for foreign assembly.

Sources: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Publications International, Ltd. 1996; The Buick, A Complete History, 4th edition, by Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, Automobile Quarterly, 1992.

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