Classic Car Story Index
1938 Buick Roadmaster Series 80

1938 Buick Roadmaster

The Buick Roadmaster classic car, also known as the Series 80, was first introduced in 1936 and with total sales nearing one million units over a 60 year period it was one of the most popular classic cars of all times. The first Buick Roadmaster was designed by Harlow H. Curtice, who became the head of the Buick Motor Division of General Motors in 1934. It had a high torque flathead straight-eight engine that produced 120 horsepower and was called the "Fireball". The drivetrain consisted of a three-speed manual transmission featuring one of the first column shifters and rear-wheel drive. The 1936 model was one of the first vehicles to be mass produced with independent front suspension. It was as big as a Cadillac but cost 25 percent less and about 16,000 units were sold the first year.

The 1937 Roadmaster received a new grille and engine, which were standard improvements in each succeeding year. An all new double-action shock absorber was introduced in 1938 and more models were introduced in 1939 but sales dropped to about 6,000 units during those years. An all new Roadmaster, the Series 70, was introduced in 1940 with a shorter wheelbase and less weight, giving it better acceleration, and sales jumped to over 18,000 units.

1941 Buick Roadmaster

1941 Buick Roadmaster

The 1941 Roadmaster got a slightly bigger engine and sales remained strong. However by the 1942 the war effort was in full swing and steel was in high demand so production was limited to about 8,400 units. Production was eventually halted that year and did not resume until 1946.

The 1946 Roadmaster featured a war-like "bombsight" hood ornament and the engine horsepower was reduced from 165 to 144. But it was still among the strongest straight-eight engines on the market and sales rose to over 31,000 vehicles. An all new Estate station wagon was introduced in 1947 and in 1948 the new Buick Dynaflow transmission, featuring the first torque converter used in a passenger car, was introduced.

1949 to 1953 Buick Roadmaster

1949 Buick Roadmaster

In 1949 the Roadmaster got a major redo with a shorter wheelbase and larger windshield. This was the first year for the now famous "VentiPorts", those classic round holes that look like exhaust ports in the side of the front fenders. The Roadmaster received four ports on each side while other Buick products got three. The idea came from a designer who put them on his personal Roadmaster and he also installed amber lamps in the ports that were triggered by the spark plugs. Initially Buick claimed that the ports were for improved engine cooling but they were soon plugged on the inside to prevent dirt and fumes from flowing in either direction.

1950 Buick Roadmaster
Estate Station Wagon

Sales for the Roadmaster dropped slightly in 1950 due to the introduction of the now Buick Special and minimal changes occurred for the 1950 and 1951 models. In 1952 power steering became an option and a new four-barrel carburetor took the horsepower to 170. Then in 1953 an all new V-8 engine was introduced, known as the "Nailhead", replacing the 16 year old "Fireball" straight-eight engine. It put out 188 horsepower and was coupled to an all new twin-turbine torque converter, taking the Roadmaster to over 100 mph. Power steering and power brakes became standard that year, the electrical system was upgraded to 12 volts and air conditioning was introduced, years ahead of the competition. 1953 was also the last year for the Roadmaster Estate station wagon, which was the last mass-produced vehicle to have wood on the body.

1953 Buick Roadmaster Skylark

1953 Buick Roadmaster

In 1954 both Cadillac and Oldsmobile shared the same General Motors C-body with the Buick Roadmaster. Most of the other changes were cosmetic except for the engine, which reached 200 horsepower for the first time. Sales were off from 70,000 to 80,000 the previous six years to 50,000 units. In 1956 the horsepower was increased to 236 and variable-pitch vanes were used in the torque converter to improve acceleration. Sales increased to 64,500 vehicles.

1957 to 1958 Buick Roadmaster

1957 Buick Roadmaster

The 1957 Roadmaster got another significant remake with a lower body and larger windshield. The fuel filler was put in the rear bumper. A new 300 horsepower V-8 engine was adopted. A new ball-joint independent suspension system was introduced and power windows and power seats became an option. However sales plummeted to 33,000 units and as a result the Roadmaster 75 was the only model built the following year. The "75" featured dual headlights and superior iron-lined aluminum brake drums but sales continued to fall and in 1959 the Roadmaster was discontinued in favor of the Buick Electra.

1991 to 1996 Buick Roadmaster

1991 Buick Roadmaster

The classic Buick Roadmaster Estate station wagon returned in 1991 on a General Motors B-body. With an optional rear seat it would hold eight people but only 7,300 were sold. Then in 1992 a Roadmaster sedan was introduced and sales jumped to over 85,000 units. However sales were lackluster for the following four years and General Motors dropped the Roadmaster name forever in 1996. The Buick Roadmaster is a true American Classic Car.

Photo Credits: 1-Stephen Foskett, 2-Brian Snelson, 3-Morven, 4-Lars-Göran, 5-Infrogmation