Curbside Classic: 1956 Buick Century Riviera Four Door Hardtop

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1956 buick century riviera four door hardtop

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.

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  • Decg31 Decg31 on Mar 12, 2010

    Interesting discussion. But while the last US pillarless ht sedan was the '78 Chrysler, there were several JDM vehicles built in this bodystyle long afterwards. My guess is the last pillarless ht sedan built was the 1991 Y31 series Nissan Cedric & Gloria. Also, I strongly suspect the actual inspiration for the CLS was the 1962 Rover P5 3 Litre Coupe. But in a way I suppose that links it to the 4dr ht configuration as I believe that Rover had originally intended the Coupe to be pillarless but between them and Pressed Steel, they couldn't figure out how to engineer the body.

  • Andre1969 Andre1969 on Jun 29, 2010

    Interesting thread...I've always loved 4-door hardtops, although I've only owned one, a 1969 Pontiac Bonneville that was pretty beat-up by the time I got ahold of it. As far as I know, the last "true" 4-door hardtop was the 1978 New Yorker and Newport. A friend of mine had a Newport back in the 1990's. It was lost when an early 1990's Accord tried to cut him off to make a last-minute turn into a parking lot, and he T-boned it. He probably punched in that Accord about two feet on the passenger side. His car was made un-driveable, but for fairly minor reasons. First, the fender buckled just enough to encroach on the front tire, and after that Accord got impaled on the front of his car, they hopped a curb and it bent his back axle pretty severely. It's a miracle nobody got hurt, even though there was a passenger in the front seat of the Accord! Did the Japanese ever make a "true" 4-door hardtop with no B-pillar? I've seen some of them where they look like a hardtop, with frameless windows, but they do have a thin B-pillar. With tinted windows, or glare from the sun, it could obscure the pillar. I googled some pics of the Nissan Cedric and Gloria, and they actually look like those "thin pillar" models. Oh, one other tidbit...Chrysler actually did have a full line of 4-door hardtops in 1956, from Plymouth to Imperial. However, they didn't have the funds to make a whole new body, so they just took the B-pillar and window frames out of the 4-door sedan, and made do. It had some advantages, such as good headroom and roomy interior, but they tended to leak and rattle. Ford and Mercury had 4-door hardtops in 1956 as well, but I don't think Lincoln would get one until 1957. Nash also got a hardtop sedan out for 1956, both as a Rambler and a big Nash, which was probably a pretty quick reaction time for an independent maker.

    • See 2 previous
    • Decg31 Decg31 on Aug 16, 2010

      Yes, there were several Japanese true 4 door pillarless hardtops in the 70's and 80's, with no concealed B pillar. The ones from the 80s have roof mounted 3 point seatbelts. I think you are looking at the Y32 and onward Cedric and Gloria, which did have concealed B pillars. Witness this ad for the Cedric:

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