A Rare Century 2-Door Sedan From California
Story / photos by Jim Maxwell
When most car enthusiasts think of vintage Buicks from the mid-1950s, often times the first thing that comes to mind are the luxurious and flashy convertible and hardtop models like the Century, Super, Riviera and Roadmaster. Wide whitewalls, lots of chrome and gobs of prestige, all packaged into one plush upscale automobile!
Buicks from this era are remembered for their classic looks and style, and today serious aficionados know that some had three Portholes (officially known as Ventiports) on each front fender, while others featured four. More on that later…
For 1955, sales at Buick dealerships were brisk! The Division has reached #3 in the industry (behind Chevrolet and Ford) with over 737,000 units rolling off the General Motors’ assembly lines during the model year run.
Featuring a fresh look from the ‘54s, these re-designed cars (Special -- Series 40, Century -- Series 60, Super --- Series 50, Roadmaster -- Series 70) were advertised as being the automotive "Forefront of Fashion, Thrill of the Year" and were further touted as the "New Thriller in Style – Power – Performance."
Among the updated features for 1955 were: Wide-Screen Fine Mesh Grille, new High Tower Taillights, available two-and tri-tone paint (with returning "Sweepspear" side moldings separating the hues) as well as revised (round) Ventiports (Three for Specials, Four on Century, Super and Roadmaster models).
Underhood power was up for the new model year as well. The Special Series 264- cid V8 now had 188 horsepower (up from the previous year’s 143 hp rating) while the bigger 322-cube V8 mill (available in Century, Super and Roadmaster models) was raised to 236 hp, thanks to its higher 9.1:1 compression ratio. And to more effectively put this newfound power to the ground, Buick engineers revised the "Dynaflow" automatic transmission, incorporating Variable-Pitch stator blades. These changes, as example, could propel a new-for-’55 Buick Dynaflow-equipped Century (from a standing start) to 60 MPH in under 10 seconds. Remember, these were 3800 pounds machines!
Here’s how the copywriters at the Buick advertising agency described
the cars in national consumer magazine advertising when the line was released
for the new model year:
We Bring You The 1955 Buick
A brightly new freshness greets your eyes and tells you: Buick’s done it again. You see it on the bold distinction of that gleaming Wide-Screen Grille. You see it in the rakish sweep of the rear-end contours. You see it in the whole fore-and- aft newness of fleetlined grace that marks Buick the beauty thrill of 1955.
New Horsepower – up to 236
You learn more when you get the power story. Up to new peaks go the horsepower of every Buick V8 engine – a walloping 188 hp in the low-price Special --- a mighty 236 hp in the Century, Super and Roadmaster. And it’s new, more responsive far abler power you can literally feel as you go.
But bigger Buick news for 1955 is something more than style and power. It’s what the "variable pitch propeller" now has done for Dynaflow drive.
Up goes performance – and gas mileage too
When you find it necessary to push the pedal to the floor board, you do more than call on the greatest high-compression V8 power in Buick history.
You do what a pilot does when he heads his plane down a runway.
You do in oil what he does in air – you cut down take-off time by using "variable pitch propellers."
In this case, the propeller blades are inside the Dynaflow unit. But they’re engineered to swivel or change their "pitch" just like plane propellers – and with the same result: one pitch for getaway, another pitch for gas-saving fuel efficiency.
And what you get in the way of instantaneous safety-surge with absolute smoothness, you can only believe when you feel it.
This one you have to try
Of course, we want you to come and see the trend-setting new Buicks – look into the betterments of gas mileage that add new thrift to these spectacular cars.
But this year, "seeing" is only the beginning. So--- while you join the crowds viewing the new Buicks this week end, make a date to get behind the wheel as soon as you possibly can. We promise you the thrill of the year.
NOW ON DISPLAY
BE SURE TO VISIT YOUR BUICK DEALER
One version of a 1955 Buick that was never mentioned in factory literature or ordering books at Buick dealerships was the 2-door Sedan "Model Number 68" --- fitted with the 322-cid V8 four-barrel powerplant. A Century engine fitted to the Special chassis with 2-door Sedan body. If you look through all the old advertisements, promotional material and dealer literature for 1955 Buicks, only Specials (which came with 264-cid V8 engines exclusively) were listed as being available with 2-door "post" body choices, while all 2-door Century models were listed as Hardtops. So to find out what a (lightest and most powerful) 1955 Model 68 Buick is, you have to look to the CHP (California Highway Patrol) and the creative efforts by Buick Motor Division to do business with them!
To replace aging 1954 patrol vehicles, CHP representatives in Sacramento, CA (headquarters) put out the word to some six car manufacturers (including Buick) to pitch a suitable vehicle that could serve as a patrol car from their product lineup.
The OEMs were urged to provide samples that would satisfy the requirements of the CHP while falling in line with the tight cost considerations of government vehicles. Buick made up a one-off, specially-built cross-bred 2-door Sedan for the CHP "shootout," and after the group of cars were subjected to extensive road, highway and city testing -- as well as side-by-side evaluations -- the decision was made to choose the Buick…which met all CHP Patrol Car needs plus came in as low bid ($2490.00). With less than 300 cars at stake, in hindsight Buick really went to a lot of effort to produce a suitable vehicle for Highway Patrol use, but they did it and soon the 3795-pound Black and White painted cars were delivered to the Golden State for immediate pursuit duty.
From the April 1955 edition of the CHP Highway Patrolman Magazine, here’s
the text that accompanied a half-page picture of CHP Commissioner Bernard
R. Caldwell inspecting one of the new Buicks, fully-equipped with regulation
identification and law-enforcement gear (door badges, front and rear-facing
red lights, whip antenna, two-way radio and siren).
270 New Patrol Cars
On March 2, 1955, a new class "A" patrol car rolled out of the Sacramento shops, bound for the Salinas area. The replacement of wornout equipment with a new vehicle was routine and not news; but the car itself was real news.
This car was the first of 270 new 1955 Highway Patrol units purchased for CHP road patrol. Low bidder among six competing firms was Buick, and the new Patrol model is a hybrid type not normally available to the retail market.
From the firewall forward, the car is a Century model and the body is that of a Special two-door sedan. A total of six firms offered units for consideration and after through testing of all units, the contract went to Buick for presenting the lowest bid among those vehicles that met all Patrol specifications.
When Patrolman slide behind the wheel of the new number, they will have real power at their disposal. The new 236 horsepower cars gave top performance compared with all other units tested in acceleration from a standing stop and also achieved the highest top speed.
Both factors are undeniably important in traffic enforcement.
During dynamometer tests the car developed 146-horsepower at the rear wheels and reached a wheel speed of 108 miles per hour against the four horsepower drag of the machine. At this point the test terminated abruptly when the rubber tread spun off the tires of one of the rear wheels that was being tested.
Tires on the new vehicles, incidentally, are the tubeless type that now come as standard factory-installed equipment.
The newly selected patrol cars also have the largest braking surface among all units tested.
The 270 vehicles, which will be equipped and delivered to the field before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, are being processed in equal numbers in Los Angeles and Sacramento. Transmissions on the new cars will be divided equally, 135 conventional and 135 Dynaflow. It is felt that this arrangement will provide conclusive evidence which transmission will be preferable for Patrol work and will be a guide for future purchases.
An interesting sidelight concerning equipment on the new cars, and one which illustrates the thoroughness of testing procedure before equipping the cars, is the fact that the sirens are mounted at right angles to the front of the automobile.
Tests proved that more sound is emitted, and the sound carries for a greater distance, when mounted on the right angle.
The Patrol’s automotive equipment testing engineer, explained that the design and construction of the front end of the Buick, including the hood and grille, allows for the release of more sound on the right angle installation. The siren winds up faster in this position, apparently because more air can be pulled, than in the former straight ahead mounting.
Considerable interest and favorable comment have been aroused by the dressy new door decals which carry the lettering, "California Highway Patrol" in white on a star that is gold, rather than bronze in color.
For the benefit of those patrolmen who termed reports about new high powered cars as grapevine gossip, it isn’t gossip at all. The new cars are on the way.
It is purported that the actual number of these unique CHP Buicks delivered to the California Highway Patrol was 268, and today only a handful of examples exist.
Les Randolph's 1955 Buick Century.|
One of the original 268 made for the CHP.
Les Randolph has been invited to show the car at a wide variety of car-and law-enforcement events and in his travels he’s met several veteran CHP officers that drove these cars during their days of service. A great many stories of the Buicks – many of which had them performing over and above the call of duty -- have been shared with the talented restorer and collector, and everywhere he takes the car he gets the obligatory "thumbs up" from civilians and peace officers alike. Onlookers are amazed with the extent of detail that the restoration involved, and the machine is always driven to the venues and has been reliable and fun to operate. When Les wheeled it to San Francisco on a joy trip from his home base in Riverside, he was overwhelmed with looks, waves and pointing fingers from people of all ages! Needless to say, this is one of the more rare cars to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge in recent years!
When photographed on one of the remaining original two-lane California Highways for the photo session, it’s easy to visualize the car in action during it’s heyday serving with the CHP some 47 years ago. A true time warp vehicle indeed!
These rare Buick law enforcement vehicles did outperform the competition on straight stretches of road for the most part, and could run with just about anything on the top end, save for a Chrysler 300 or Ford Thunderbird, and for those occasions, nothing could out perform the 2-way radios mounted on the dash boards of the Buicks.
One downfall of the hybrid Century pursuit cars was the brakes. Even fitted with the largest brakes from the Roadmaster (they came with 219 square inches of lining area), the cars had the tendency to experience brake-fading problems. And, while critiquing the overall performance, it also can be noted the Buick’s handling was a bit sloppy, and without question would have had troubles keeping up with some production cars of the era, Corvettes and Nash-Healeys as example, on tight and twisty roads like Mulholand Drive or the Ortega Highway. Here again, that’s where the CHP 2-way radios came into play!
|The original Motorola two-way radio still works !|
This is the real
Buick engine used in the Century.|
It was the fastest Detroit made in '55, a 322 cubic-inch V8
with 236 HP, thanks to its higher 9.1:1 compression ratio.
For the 30 million or so viewers that saw the weekly half-hour action documentary "Highway Patrol" TV show, perhaps their memories of vintage Buicks would revolve around the 1955 2-door sedan driven by the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense Highway Patrol Chief Dan Mathews (played by Broderick Crawford). In the early episodes of the popular television show, the fast-paced Highway Patrol dramatizations used actual CHP units (Buicks borrowed from the CHP fleet) and many of the show’s promotional photos / publicity shots were taken with the burly Crawford posing (wearing his familiar dark suit and fedora) alongside a Black and White Buick, reaching into the car talking on the mike of the 2-way radio. 2150 to Headquarters set up a roadblock at my 10-20, Code 3, 10-4. (They loved all the police radio jargon on this show!)
Broderick Crawford, (1911-1986) an accomplished actor who picked up the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance on the 1949 film "All the King’s Men, played a perfect character for the "Highway Patrol" TV series and was known for his gravel voice and being a relentless foe of crime. The classic TV show was aired in 71 countries and was dubbed in 17 languages for a worldwide audience.
Each show opened with this introduction by narrator Art Gilmore: Whenever the laws of any state are broken, a duly authorized organization swings into action. It may be called the state police, state troopers, militia, the rangers or the highway patrol. These are the stories of the men whose training, skill and courage have enforced and preserved our state laws."
There is no better source of information on this historic television show than the website www.highwaypatroltv.com and it’s jam-packed with fantastic photos / video clips and articles detailing the show, the 1955 Buick pursuit cars as well background information on Broderick Crawford personal and professional life. A visit to this site can take you to "behind-the-scenes" documents and interviews about the "Highway Patrol" TV show production as well as serving a wealth on tantalizing information on all things connected to these cars and their history.
A special thanks goes out to Mr. Gary Goltz, a long-time aficionado of the "Highway Patrol" TV series, as he provided a great deal of time and energy in the making of this article and photo shoot. Besides supplying all the historical props used in the photos and finding the nostalgic stretch of California State Highway (actually located near some of the original film locations back in the TV show), Goltz made available his entire photographic and historical document collection to aid in the article research.
Gary Goltz also owns a 1955 Buick (model 46R) that was restored by Les Randolph and is fully outfitted with the era-correct highway patrol equipment. Goltz has gone to the extent of adding the original license plate markings relating to the Crawford car as used on television. He has met numerous players from the classic TV show and had the pleasure to recently tour of United States on a Route 66 trip from Chicago and Santa Monica with Broderick Crawford’s son, Kelly, traveling the countryside in his classic Buick Patrol Car. Imagine the twisted necks and amazement with every passing motorist on that journey!