John Courtney’s ’56 Buick convertible was nothing more than a pile of parts upon purchase. It’s now a stunning example of a vary rare breed.
The 1950s were good to General Motors. The pinnacle of this period was from 1955 to ’57, when its hugely successful Tri-Five Chevys set new standards in styling and performance, replacing the slightly stodgy offerings from previous years. Many consider the Tri-Five Chevys to be the most recognised cars in American automotive history. The 1955 Chevy, designed by Harvey Earl, broke the mould with its fresh, new, sleek styling. That was also the year General Motors released the most successful engine in automotive history, the small-block Chevy. This powerful, compact unit gave the ’55 Chevy performance to match its styling.
Earl repeated his successful formula in ’56, building on his achievements and creating an even more stylish design, with a full-width grille and acres of chrome, while the ’57 model embraced the new trend for extravagant tail fins, and introduced fuel injection to the blue-collar market. General Motors set new sales records in the ’55 to ’57 Tri-Five period, and Tri-Five Chevys, in particular the much sought-after sports coupes, hardtops, convertibles, and even the very rare Nomads, fetch impressive prices today. However, while the focus tends to centre on the Tri-Five Chevys, General Motors’ offerings from its other brands ” Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick ” are sometimes overlooked.
Though they were aimed at different market segments, General Motors built all its cars on the same platform, and family connections can be spotted throughout its entire range. Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick would all share the same glassware and rooflines across the different models. And the styling that made the Tri-Five Chevys such a runaway success can also be found in Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick models, but with their own all-important slant added to make them unique in their own way, and at least as stylish as the Tri-Five Chevys.
Buick The Beginning
The Buick Motor Company was founded in 1903 by David Dunbar Buick, but struggled until it was taken over a year later by James Whiting. Whiting had the brilliant William C Durant manage the company, and it soon became the largest car maker in America. In 1908, and flush with the profits from Buick sales, Durant began a series of takeovers of several smaller manufacturers, including Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland (later known as Pontiac). But the huge debt Durant took on meant he lost control of General Motors in 1910. The next year he co-founded the Chevrolet company with race driver Louis Chevrolet, in an effort to rebuild his reputation. By 1916 Chevrolet was making enough money for Durant to buy a majority share of General Motors, and it quickly became the largest automotive manufacturer in the world.
Durant was careful to target different market segments with different marques. Chevrolet became the sporting brand, aimed at the youth market, while Buick was aimed at the high end, with only Cadillac being more prestigious. Buick’s customers had money, but were not as wealthy as Cadillac owners and did not flaunt their wealth to the same degree. By the 1950s the lines between the models had become a little blurred, but Buick has always retained its foot-hold near the top, and does so to this day.
As was the case with the other GM brands, Buick stylists created their own distinguishing Buick features, which were carried through several decades. One of these features, which was added in the late ’40s and inspired by a custom car, was a series of portholes along the sides of the bonnet. Though GM positioned its brands in different market segments, with Buick towards the top, each brand was further segmented by its model range, much as General Motors-Holden does today via a vast array of Commodore models.
Less expensive Buicks had three portholes, while the more expensive cars had four, although this was eventually done away with and all models were standardised with the same number. Another uniquely Buick styling cue, also introduced in the ’40s, was a bold curved line that ran the length of the car. It began above the front wheel arch and gently curved downwards to the point where the rear wheel arch meets the sill, before following the shape of the rear wheel arch until it reaches the centre point at the top, from where it flows in a straight line to the rear. As with the portholes, this line was eventually phased out, but it survived until the ’70s.
Of course, many will argue that the mid-to-late ’50s was a fairytale period for Buick. That fresh, exciting, sporty styling which was prevalent in Chevys of the period flowed right through the entire GM range, including Buick. And this winning formula can be seen in our magnificent feature car, an extremely rare 1956 Buick Century convertible owned by John Courtney.
In 1954 Buick hit on a winning formula by fitting the newly reintroduced Century, sporting relatively lightweight construction, with the impressive-performing and raunchy-looking 322ci (5277cc) Buick ‘nailhead’ V8. This combination made the Buick Century a genuine 160kph-capable cruiser.
Pick Of The Bunch
Just as the Tri-Fives made the decade for Chevrolet, the mid-’50s era is Buick’s most celebrated, and today Buicks from this period are the most sought-after. The ’56 model year saw four variants of the Century produced, the hard-top coupe, hard-top sedan, Deluxe hard-top sedan, and the convertible. In all, just over 93,000 Buick Centurys were built in ’56, but only 4721 were convertibles.
John found his Buick in the collectible car bible, Hemmings Motor News, just under four years ago. Originally painted apricot and blue, the Buick came from a deceased estate, was in pieces and, having come from the rust-friendly Philadelphia area, it needed a complete restoration. But as it is such an incredibly rare car, John took the plunge and shipped it back to New Zealand. The plan for the Buick to was restore it to near original condition but, according to John, his family outvoted him on the original apricot/blue colour combo, and instead it was finished in a more palatable blue/silver, which works perfectly with the extravagant styling. The bodywork needed plenty of cancer removed.
Because it had come from the ‘rust belt’ the damage would have been bad enough in any 50-year-old car. Being a convertible it was in another league again. Fortunately, John is a plumber by trade, and ‘fabbing’ up replacement sheet metal comes pretty easy to him. He did much of the body restoration himself, including replacement floor panels, only bringing in professional panel beaters to take care of the more tricky stuff, like rolling up curves. Once the body was restored it was prepped by Phil Stokes Panel and Paint in Onehunga, which then laid down the stunning blue/silver paint. Someone had decided to attempt a restoration before John purchased the car, but had only got as far as pulling everything (absolutely everything!) to bits. This included even the smallest of mechanical parts, which John then had to try and piece back together. This was a mammoth job in itself.
The Family Influence
Wisely, John wanted to retain the originality of the Buick, so the modifications he carried out are few and far between. In the case of this car, the manufacturers got it right first time. The 5277cc (322ci) Nailhead is the original motor. Having lived its life in a cold area, the Buick only came out in the summer months, and as such it is still a low mileage car. Therefore the Nailhead only needed a freshen, which was taken care of by Rob Penman, with the help of a Nailhead rebuild kit.
The interior has been stunningly reupholstered to original by Waikumete Upholstery. Of course, even cars being restored to original always look better when they’re lowered, and John’s Buick is no exception. The shocks and springs have been replaced all round, with the whole thing lowered 50mm. A set of 15×7-inch Cragar Speed-Pro wheels and skinny whitewalls complete the picture.
John’s ’56 Buick Century convertible is a stunning piece of machinery, with timeless ’50s styling and performance to back it up. It is a credit to John and the work he has put into it. It is a wonderful car, and extremely rare ” thought to be the only example in New Zealand.
General Motors phased out Oldsmobile in 2004 due to continued falling sales, despite the brand being one of the oldest automotive companies in the world and, at that point, the oldest surviving American automotive manufacturer. Since Oldsmobile’s demise rumours have persisted that Buick might go the same way. But even if Buick does survive, it’s guaranteed it will never, ever, produce cars of the quality, excitement and styling excellence that exist in John Courtney’s magnificent ’56 Buick Century convertible.
1956 Buick Century Convertible
Engine: 5277cc (322ci) Buick Nailhead V8. tweaked cam, four-barrel Rochester carburettor
Driveline: Original Dynaflow gearbox, original diff
Suspension: Lowered 50mm (two inches)
Wheels/ tyres: 15×7-inch Cragar Speed-Pro wheels, 235/75R15 whitewall tyres.
Interior: Leather retrim, two 12-inch subwoofers
Exterior: PPG blue and silver paint
Performance: “It goes bloody well, ”according to John, “for an old bastard.”
John Courtney / Brad Courtney (John’s son)
Age: Combined age of 86!
Occupation: Petrolhead, fisherman, golf hacker
Length of ownership: 3½ years
Previously owned cars: Too many to list
John thanks: The wife, son Brad, Phil Stokes, Peter and the team at Waikumete Upholstery, Rob Penman from Penman Automotive, and Jandals
Words: Steve Holmes | Pics: Adam Croy