The current fad for “four door coupes” like the Mercedes CLS and its Passat mini-me are a revival of a trend that this Buick helped usher in: the four door hardtop. It actually arrived mid year 1955, on the junior Buicks and Olsmobiles; but just like the 1949 GM two-door hardtops caught the rest of the industry off guard, so did these. Once again, everyone had to scramble and follow GM, until the four door hardtop became the victim of safety regs and changing tastes.
It was a pretty radical idea at the time, crossing the flair and prestige of a hardtop coupe with the lowly four door sedan. Frameless windows and no B pillars created quite a different feel, especially with the windows open. With the large families of the time, and the rarity of air conditioning, this was the cool car for kids to be seen in the back seat.
The rest of GM’s divisions all fielded four door hardtops for 1956, but it took Ford and Chrysler until 1957 to fully incorporate them into both of their all-new line ups that year. From then on, the four door pillarless sedan became a mainstay through the sixties, and into the mid seventies. By about 1975, they were pretty much all gone. Does anyone know precisely which was the last one available?
The mid fifties were a banner time for Buick, having taken the number three sales spot behind Chevrolet and Ford in 1954. The Special was a big seller, a fairly affordable way to get into a Buick, which was still brimming with brand equity then.
The Special and this Century rode on the smaller 122″ wheelbase; the larger Super and Roadmaster shared a 127″ frame. The Century had a higher trim level, and shared the more powerful 255 hp 322 cubic inch V8 engine with the “senior” Buicks.
A substantial number of those horses endlessly sacrificed themselves to Buick’s Dynaflow transmission. It truly epitomized the term “slush box”; in the quest to offer a smoother alternative to the efficient but rather abrupt four-speed Hydramatic, Buick came up with what in practice was a one-speed automatic.
Its complex torque converter had enough dynamic range to start the car in high, or direct drive. That made Buicks perpetually sound like power boats: the engines burbled without ever a substantial apparent rise or drop in rpm. There was a low range, but it had to be manually engaged, and then shifted back to high. It was meant for steep hills, and for those looking for a more visceral resemblance of acceleration.
Fuel economy was also sacrificed to that quest for uninterrupted smoothness, and it was a sore spot among some Buick owners. If they were desperate enough, they could still get a stick, but that certainly wouldn’t have befitted this flashy Century.
The Wurlitzer juke-box styling details of these cars can only be appreciated for what they are: excessive ornamentation. Within a couple of years, this trend blew itself out in the garish and unpopular 1958 models. The Buicks were the worst on the market in that rock-bottom year, and it tumbled them right out of the coveted number three spot. These 1956s were already well on the way to being over the top, but folks were still lapping it up.
No fake portholes glued on here. These are cast metal, and heavily chromed. This particular car has the benefit of little blue lights in each one, which must make for a nice show at night.
What else is there to say about these big bad Buicks? Let the pictures do the talking; they’re much more eloquent than anything I could say.