Driving My 1950 Buick Special Deluxe: It’s Like 1950 All Over Again
The state of the vehicular art has indeed come a long way—and lost a bit of charm—since it was built.
Well, yes, a 1950 Buick Special Deluxe four-door sedan did come into my life recently. I confess at the outset it's not my usual fare, what with its giant hunk of a straight-eight engine and ginormous chrome grille, as well as a cow-catcher so toothy that it proposes to serve—along with a pair of cannon-shaped overriders—as a first line of defense in cases of frontal attack. It does so in place, that is, of the actual huge bumper that resides behind and over which the chrome grille slats cascade for a protuberant effect. Not unlike a '90s Oakland rapper with gold fronts and an overbite.
But as some of you will know, I've been laboring in the New York picture-car trade with my company Octane Film Cars and one of the shows we've been working on of late is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a comedy-drama about a late 1950s housewife who becomes a successful standup comedian. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded it five Emmys at the end of its first season, which it is a pretty good start. Though none was in the category of excellence in picture cars (which doesn't exist, and for which we couldn't take much of the credit, even if it did), the show has been lauded for its accurate—albeit highly stylized—depiction of the era. Cars play a big part in that and I've been honored to help out. But I'm not giving a speech here.
What I mean to talk about is this Buick. It was put to work immediately after purchase, spending three days in Tribeca the week before last, looking Fifties proud outside a "pop-up" version of the old, now defunct Stage Delicatessen. Parked next to a Ford Sunliner and a Checker cab on Lafayette Street south of Spring from Thursday through Saturday night, it was set decoration for a make-believe restaurant that served real food at real 1950s prices to the real 2018 public, with in-character actors not just portraying but serving as waiters and managers, with period décor, music, and menus, all assembled for the benefit of whoever could get in. It sold out immediately, of course. It was all done in the larger service of promoting the popular Amazon TV show in the experiential and hopefully viral pop-up way that seems unique to the 21st century. This is necessitated perhaps by the fact of so much of everything else being so basically fake. But I digress.
Getting to Tribeca meant a 75-mile round trip drive in a 68-year-old car I'd driven but once around the block before buying it and setting off for its first star turn in New York City. And in this context it is important to report that around the same time I was testing a $68,760 contemporary, a BMW 530e xDrive iPerformance, an all-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, whose specification does say something about the intervening years. Complemented by an electric motor and batteries good for 15 miles of all-electric operation, this latest 5 Series variant represented for me despite its newish tech at least a bit of a return to form for BMW, and made for quite the modern sedan offering. It thus made for a perfect comparison with a big-ass Buick that was more than respectable in its day, but now 68 years the 530e's senior.
Riding on bias-ply tires and with a lump of iron up front that looks like it got hoisted out of a tugboat, the Buick was never going to hold a candle performance-wise to the BMW, which is not just a good handling car but a good handling BMW. Driving excitement was once a given with this brand famous for its cars' dynamic abilities, but lately they've been accused with some justification of having misplaced the Ultimate Driving Machine plot. However, if the 530e is any indicator, nimbleness has commenced its return journey to its old Bavarian home and not a moment too soon.
The good feeling was confirmed on a 24-hour round-trip to Pittsburgh in the Bimmer following the delicatessen extravaganza with the Buick. After several frustrating trips this summer to my ancestral home to watch the Pirates drop games at their picturesque bandbox, PNC Park, we hoped for a change in fortune by this time visiting mighty Heinz Field, where the first-place Steelers hosted the Chargers of Los Angeles. Given our historic luck, we weren't surprised when the home team favorites blew a big lead in the second half before proceeding to choke and lose in heartbreaking fashion in the final seconds. Not that witnessing such a defeat wasn't tough, but the twin 400-mile trips that bookended the football game were surprisingly pleasant, with 31 mpg to report, comfy seats, and standout performance from the 248 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque the boosted BMW four offers. The sprint from 60 to 110 mph is particularly impressive for such a little-bitty 2.0-liter thing. Or so I am told.
Much to my surprise, the Buick had rolled down the road on its own shorter journeys with ease. Despite its old-school body-on-frame construction, there is a feeling of utter solidity that today's buyers rarely experience in this antique, owing at least partly to sheetmetal thick enough to have come from a shipyard.
You can seat six in the Special Deluxe—and probably eight in a pinch—because of a front bench that's double wide, the passenger room enhanced by the Buick's column-mounted manual shifter and utter lack of seatbelts. Speaking of that column shifter, Buick calls its three-speed the Synchromesh, but a basic familiarity with double de-clutching doesn't go unrewarded here. Nor do serious reserves of upper body strength, as the car's recirculating-ball worm and nut steering is decidedly manual despite its seeming infinite number of turns lock-to-lock. On occasion, I thought I even detected road feel but the operative driving theme was more nautical.
All that said, you motor serenely down the roads and parkways in this Buick, basking in creamy, low-down torque that few of today's machines exhibit. The distinct joys of this long-ago obsoleted type of engine are lost to time, but you discover them for yourself when blatzing around town behind an eight-in-line Buick, gently stabbing the accelerator in top gear to elicit a heightened version of the soothing blub-blub sound and smooth, steady forward motion. The 248-cubic-inch straight-eight has so much urge down low it's beautiful. But then you try to go faster and it too quickly runs out of breath, like a former Olympic weightlifter with COPD.
There's no mistaking my Buick for a modern ride. Not just because of the portholes on its front fenders, three on either side, or the three-piece rear windscreen. Heading up Manhattan's FDR Drive on the way home from the Mrs. Maisel pop-up, the Buick was holding its own, but then it began to rain. Its vacuum-operated wipers—which tend to slow down at speed and under acceleration—did not spring to attention and a defroster that couldn't fog a mirror when Jackie Robinson was playing in Brooklyn didn't help. Hydraulic drum brakes—if they weren't called Jet Puffed they should've been—were a workout that worked, but just barely. And things got even more old timey when the Buick was holding forth on some of the many sharp and less well paved corners the Drive has to offer. Here the Special Deluxe lived up to both its names. That is to say, as long-ago-departed auto writer Tom McCahill might have put it, it cornered with the sort of body roll and brake dive you'd expect to see in a drunk celebrant performing the watusi on a frigate crossing the Atlantic in a bad storm. It's like 1950 all over again.