A Seldom-Seen Buick Light

Do you recognize this interesting and hard-to-find light we picked up the other day?

It is a reverse light for some 1958 Buick models, and it would have been found in the back bumper, directly under the tail light, as seen here on a Roadmaster 75:

Photo credit: Greg Gjerdingen from Willmar, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My Dad always referred to 1958 Oldsmobiles as “Christmas trees” due to all of the chrome ornamentation, but the Buicks of the same year are similarly bedecked. Just check out this beautiful chromed-up Buick station wagon:

Photo credit: CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz — photo credit is required if this image is used anywhere other than Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ’58 Buicks had dual headlights and an incredibly unique grille:

Photo credit: Lars-Göran Lindgren Sweden, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was described as consisting of chrome squares, like jewels, set in four rows that extended all the way across the front to the outer extremities of the car, accentuating the lowness and breadth. Each chrome square was composed of four triangular surfaces designed to reflect maximum light. I have heard it called a “drawer pull” grille, but I see what Buick was going for; it does remind me of a diamond tennis bracelet.

Believe it or not, the Roadmaster wasn’t even the Buick with the most sparkle that year; that honor went to the extra-long and luxurious Limited which was adorned with 15 vertical louvers on each rear fender. The Limited was nearly 19 feet long and weighed around 4700 pounds.

All ’58 models, the Roadmaster and Limited (as well as the Century, Special, and Super) were powered by a 364ci V-8. All series except the Special had a Quadrajet carburetor. Powertrain options included the Flight Pitch Dynaflow, standard on both the Roadmaster 75 and the Limited. Marketing focused on flight (it was the rocket age after all) and used phrases like, “It looks and feels like flight on wheels,” and, “The air born B-58 Buick.”

If it seems like something is missing, despite all of the dazzling chrome trim, your mind may be registering the lack of ventiports. That feature, practically synonymous with the Buick, was absent in 1958 and 1959. Ventiports reappeared in 1960, this time with the Electra being the top-of-the-line model and sporting four on each side.

This 1960 Electra was graced with four ventiports to distinguish it from other models.

An Armored Cadillac and an Army of Fords

In the years leading up to World War I, the United States had no large standing army and no processes in place for the building and support of such a force. For this reason, steps were taken to train civilians to be able to defend the country. One idea promoted by General Leonard Wood involved the use of military training camps for civilians, and you can read more about that here: The Plattsburg Movement and its Legacy

One of these camps was located on the shores of Lake Champlain, and, in 1915, a writer for the New York Tribune named Hank Caldwell traveled there to watch a motor train consisting of 15 vehicles pull into the camp. The motor train did not have an official title, but the officers involved, including organizer Captain Raynal C. Bolling, dubbed it the “First Motor Machine Gun Company.” The caravan consisted of trucks, ambulances, and transportation cars furnished by companies like International, Mack, and Autocar. Buick and Simplex contributed wagons with mounted machine guns, but the undisputed star of the caravan was an armored Cadillac that had recently crossed the country on a tour with cadets of the Northwestern Military Academy under the command of Colonel R. P. Davidson:

This eight-cylinder Cadillac had steel armor, a Colt machine gun, and ports for rifle fire. Gas mileage was 10 miles to the gallon, and it was said to be painted battleship gray with delicate black striping.

Credit: August 1915 issue of American Motorist

General Leonard Wood was interviewed by Caldwell during this visit and made some interesting comments about his desire for American automobile owners to organize, under the direction of the army, in defense of the nation: “As a trained body, our hundreds of thousands of motorists, with their cars, would be one of the powerful arms of our army.”

Wood noted, “The national rivalry of our motor manufacturers has brought about a great variety of cars of all sizes and descriptions,” and therefore the first step would be to form motor corps consisting of only one make of automobile to enable the interchange of parts and tires. When enough owners driving a given make of car was found, the next step would be to assemble them in a camp setting where they could be given military training.

Wood also thought that each owner should bring some friends along:

“It is possible that an owner could be induced to muster enough recruits to fully man his machine. If so, he would come into the training camp with his car and four, five, or six men, according to the capacity of his machine, and. . .in this way we should obtain enough men with every two or three hundred cars to form a regiment. To this regiment we could assign trucks, ambulances, armored cars, machines guns, and special motor vehicles. . .”

1913 Ford Model T at the Republic County Historical Society & Museum at Belleville, Kansas.

So, the United States government was contemplating outfitting the cars of citizens with machines guns; file that one under, “How times have changed.” The participants attending this 1915 camp were enthusiastic about the idea. Caldwell reported this about a Mr. Derby from North Carolina who had driven his Ford to the camp:

“Mr. Derby said that he is convinced the light car is the practical thing for army use and that upon his return to North Carolina. . .he will organize a company of 100 Ford cars, and it is his intention to mount them with machine guns and drive from North Carolina to the encampment next year. He thinks this idea should be taken up by Ford owners in all parts of the country, and next year he says we should have 700,000 Fords ready for use against the invader.”

1913 Ford Model T at the Republic County Historical Society & Museum at Belleville, Kansas.

These days, Mr. Derby, I would recommend using the Ford F-150.

The Easy-On Cap, Part of Eaton History

Eaton has manufactured parts for automobiles since the early days of the American automobile industry. The company was initially founded in 1911 by Joseph Oriel Eaton as Torbensen Gear and Axle Company to manufacture the first gear-driven truck axle. Originally located in New Jersey, the company moved to Cleveland in 1915. In 1916, it was incorporated as the Torbensen Axle Company.

The old cap pictured above is interesting for the inscription on the inside which is a part of Eaton’s history and also helps to pinpoint the date of manufacture. It is difficult to make out in the photos, but it reads, “THE EATON AXLE & SPRING CO. EASY-ON CAP DIV.”

The Torbensen Axle Company had become the Eaton Axle & Spring Company in 1923. Throughout the twenties and thirties, the company acquired other concerns involved in the automotive business, and one of those acquisitions was the Easy-On Cap Company. The Easy-On Cap had been invented by Dr. J. S. Reid of the Cleveland Health Department who had been looking for something more efficient than the threaded cap and came up with the Easy-On which was fastened by a simple half-turn. When Eaton purchased the company in July of 1928, the company was making about one million caps per month including gas, radiator, and oil caps. The Eaton company underwent another name change in 1932 when it became the Eaton Manufacturing Company, so the cap pictured must have originated sometime between the 1928 purchase of Easy-On Cap and the 1932 name change from Eaton Axle and Spring.

The Metal Polisher’s Union was apparently peeved at Easy-On for some reason in 1929, but Easy-On was in good company with Stant, Louisville Slugger and Winchester Repeating Arms also appearing on the Union’s plaintive “We Do Not Patronize” list:

The 1926 Nash came equipped with Easy-On oil and gas caps, and one automobile that featured a stock Easy-On radiator cap was the Silver Anniversary 1929 Buick.

By 1934, it was reported that one-third of American automobile manufacturers used Eaton bumpers, springs, and valves. A 1961 story about the company’s 50th anniversary said there was at least one Eaton-made part in every American-made truck and car on the road. The Eaton company underwent additional name changes before becoming the Eaton Corporation in 1971, but whatever it calls itself, it has played an important role in the history of the American automobile.

Another Old Dealership Building: Buick-Hudson

This early brick building is situated in downtown Gothenburg, Nebraska:

If you examine it carefully, and maybe squint one eye, you can just make out the words “BUICK HUDSON”:

A little research revealed that there was a car dealer in this city by the name of Orrin Hamilton Cotton who entered the business in 1915 with a Buick dealership:

1916 Advertisement

Cotton obtained the Hudson agency in 1917, and remained in the automobile business until his death in 1943.

1928 Advertisement

“When American engineers brought the automobile within reach of the many, they gave humanity the most amazing opportunity for increasing the benefits and joys of life that history has yet recorded.”

O. H. Cotton


The Inception of One-Third of the Big Three

This headline from 1910 caught my eye the other day:

The author of this story was expecting the two companies to start one of the greatest manufacturing wars ever seen, a war that would set the automobile world on end and “create sensations never before anticipated”.  Maxwell did eventually become stiff competition for GM, but certainly not in the way the author of this headline was predicting it would happen.  It all makes for an interesting story about the birth of one of the American auto industry’s “Big  Three”.

The Maxwell-Briscoe automobile came into being when Jonathan D. Maxwell, who had worked for Oldsmobile as an engineer, combined forces with Benjamin Briscoe, owner of a Detroit sheet metal manufacturing plant.  JP Morgan was an investor and the Maxwell-Briscoe became the third largest seller behind Ford and Buick.  This success was due in part to an imaginative sales manager with the decidedly east-coast name of Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey who dreamed up an unending parade of publicity stunts.

The 1910 combine that was mentioned in the headline above became the United States Motor Company (USMC) and involved both Maxwell and a company called Columbia.  Columbia was owned by the Electric Vehicle company.  This was significant, and the reason some were forecasting war, because Electric Vehicle owned the Selden patent.

In the 1870s, attorney George Selden had begun the process of obtaining a patent covering the use of an engine to propel a vehicle, but Selden kept the patent pending so long that it was not granted until 1895.  By this time, many others were creating automobiles and everything Selden claimed was already being used by others.  Regardless, Columbia paid Selden for the rights to this patent for a lump sum plus a royalty for every car produced and claimed the patent covered every gasoline-powered automobile in the country.

Many major manufacturers formed a group called the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), an organization that granted licenses to manufacture automobiles to those paying the royalty fee. The ALAM made it clear that they would not be granting licenses to all applicants, thereby keeping all the business for themselves.  The decision-makers at the ALAM made the strategic error of denying a license to the always-combative Henry Ford, and that’s when the real war began.

Ford taunted the ALAM into suing him.  Ever the master of publicity, Ford successfully portrayed himself as the underdog and made people sympathetic to his position.  Both sides took out pages of advertising to argue their case in the court of public opinion, and the actual court case drug on for years, beginning in 1903 and not ending until 1911.

The dueling advertisements often appeared side by side:

The ALAM won in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York with a judge that admittedly knew nothing about engines.  Ford appealed and the US  Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit saw things differently.  The panel of judges ruled that the Selden patent was limited to the use of a Brayton engine to propel a vehicle whereas the defendants were utilizing the Otto engine, that Selden had simply made the wrong choice and that the defendants neither legally nor morally owed him anything.  They sent the case back to the trial court to be dismissed and even ordered the court costs charged to the ALAM.

1919 Maxwell at the Classic Car Collection in Kearney, Nebraska.

1919 Maxwell brochure drawing

The United States Motor Company collapsed a year after the suit in 1912, and Briscoe left to make a new car (the Briscoe). Jonathan Maxwell reorganized and moved to Detroit where he manufactured Maxwell Fours as well as trucks and buses.  Things went well for a time, but the company was hit hard by the post-war recession.  Enter Walter Percy Chrysler.

Chrysler had started his career in the railroad industry before catching the eye of GM executives.  He went to work for GM in Detroit and was put in charge of the Buick division.  He was an indefatigable worker who operated efficiently, making judicious use of his time.  Before long, Chrysler made Buick into GM’s strongest unit.  When he arrived, Buick was making 40 cars per day, and, when he left 8 years later, 560 Buicks per day was the output.

Chrysler made the move to Maxwell in 1920, and there were many problems for him to solve.  A merger with Chalmers did not work out well, and the Chalmers automobile was phased out.  The Maxwell’s reputation had suffered due to mechanical issues, so it was revamped and rebranded  the “Good Maxwell”.

By 1924, Chrysler was ready to introduce a new car, one named after himself. The new Chrysler had a high-compression six-cylinder engine that cruised comfortably at 70 mph, hydraulic four-wheel brakes, and a reasonable price tag of $1395.   It was an immediate hit with the public that shattered records with 10,000 new Chryslers being produced and sold within the first six months. People lining up to buy Chrysler’s creation included racecar drivers like Joe Boyer and Jimmy Murphy.

It is a household name now, but advertisements at the time had to instruct people how to pronounce the name of the new automobile:


1926 was the last year for the Maxwell as it was re-made into a 4-cylinder Chrysler.


In 1928, Chrysler continued his streak by purchasing Dodge Brothers and also introducing the Plymouth.  So, the author of that 1910 story was sort of correct about Maxwell going to war with GM. It just took a number of years, a name change and the genius of Walter P. Chrysler to get there.


“Men who get very far ahead have some other qualities in addition to ordinary ability, capacity, energy and opportunity.  Some are idea-resourceful.  They possess imagination.  They dare to take a chance and be different.  They are willing to tackle anything.  They refuse to acknowledge defeat until actually licked, and even then they are thinking about their next chance.”

-Walter P. Chrysler


American Motor Car Manufacturers’ Association advertisement. Los Angeles Herald, 26 December 1909, part II p. 4.

Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers advertisement. The San Francisco Call, 24 February 1907, p.46.

“Big Auto War Expected Between Maxwell-Columbia Combine and General Motors Co. of Detroit.” The Los Angeles Record, 26 February 1910, p. 9.

Chrysler advertisement.  The Detroit Free Press, 14 September 1924, p. 47.

Chrysler advertisement.  Richmond Times-Dispatch, 28 June 1925, p. E5.

“Chrysler Six Breaks Record.” The Rutland News, 5 July 1924, p. 1.

“From Engine-Wiper to Motor Car Wizard.” The Spokesman Revie, 6 January 1924, p. 3.

Independent Automobile Manufacturers of America advertisement. The San Francisco Examiner, 29 May 1910, p. 42.

Licensed Motor Car Association of Los Angeles advertisement. Los Angeles Herald, 26 December 1909, part II p. 4.

Maxwell advertisement.  The Tennessean Sun, 20 August 1922, p. 2.

“The New Chrysler Car.”  The Tampa Tribune, 27 January 1924, p. E1.

“Selden Patent Decision Causes Furor in Auto Trade.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 January 1911, p. 3.

“Selden Patents Decision Not Particularly Important.”  Williamsport Sun Gazette,  11 January 1911, p. 5.

“Talks of Plight of Independents.”  Los Angeles Herald, 31 January 1910, p. 8.

“To Test Patent in Supreme Tribunal.” Moline Daily Dispatch, 10 January 1911, p. 5.









1931 Buick Burgundy Beauty

This 1931 Buick four-door sedan is a beauty in burgundy:

Prior to 1931, Buick had been powered by six-cylinder engines.  That all changed in 1931 when every Buick model was powered by a valve-in-head straight eight. There were four series, with the top-of-the-line being the series 90 that developed 104 horsepower and delivered a speed of around 85 mph.  Other advancements touted in ’31 were the syncro-mesh transmission which made it “virtually impossible for even a novice driver to clash gears,”, an engine oil temperature regulator that functioned similarly to a radiator and held the oil heat to an effective lubricating temperature,  and a carburetor air intake silencer to eliminate “power roar”.  What an absolute doll this one is:



A Beast of a Bumper-Grille

When Buick restyled the beautiful ’49 Buick for 1950, it made a change that continues to inspire strong emotion, both positive and negative. Buick replaced this beautiful grille . . .

. . . with this toothy beast:

The sales brochure referred to the new design as a “bumper-grille”, and it consisted of heavy-duty vertical bars that were attached to the bumper so that they both formed the grille and served as bumper guards. The bars, according to Buick advertisements, were heavy enough to absorb “normal impact” and individually replaceable to save money in the “unlikely event of damage” (now note the damage to the grille shown above).

Unfortunately, the bars each had a different part number and were not at all interchangeable, and that made stocking and replacing them relatively expensive. This diagram showing the part numbers and prices was found in the 1958 edition of Motor’s Flat Rate & Parts Manual:

Buick had advertised the bumper grille as “something that makes so much sense that it’s safe to say that it will start a new trend in styling,” but no such trend materialized and even Buick abandoned the idea for 1951.

1950 Buick Roadmaster Convertible
1950 Buick Jetback Sedans

First “Radio-ized” Fleet of Police Cars

I’ve seen articles giving Detroit credit for the first one-way radio communication with patrol cars, but according to 1928 newspaper stories, those honors should go to the police department in Berkeley, California. In January of 1928, they were the first police department to be fully equipped with radios in patrol cars:

“To Berkeley California, goes the distinction of operating the first police fleet which is completely radio-equipped. In line with his policy of providing every scientific aid for his men, Police Chief August Vollmer, well-known criminologist, sponsored installation of fixed-tune short wave sets under the rear decks of these Buicks, thereby combining quick communication and speedy pursuit in a manner which greatly increases the odds against crime. In support of Chief Vollmer’s methods, it is pointed out the Berkeley requires the smallest police force in the country, population considered.”

That’s not too surprising as Chief August Vollmer has been called the father of American policing. Apparently, a high power vacuum tube transmitter was installed at police headquarters, and this transmitter worked in conjunction with fixed tune receivers installed in the rear of the patrol cars. A red light would come on when there was a message for the police officer, and a concealed loud speaker unit would allow the desk sergeant to communicate instantly with any or all of the officers simultaneously. Tests at the time showed that the system worked perfectly at 50 mph.

Another story said Vollmer was of the opinion that the combination of radio equipment and fast pursuit machines would vastly increase the odds against crime. The “fast pursuit machines” to which he referred were a fleet of new, 1928 Buick coupes.

For 1928, Buick introduced a new hemispherical combustion chamber to allow for higher compression. Two inline sixes were offered, the Standard Six with 207 cubic inches and the Master Six with 274. One story mentioned that the Berkeley police cars were 2-passenger coupes, so they would have had the Standard Six, but with room for only two passengers I guess they were calling the paddy wagon to haul the bad guys.


“Berkely Has Radio-ized Police Fleet.” The Arizona Republican [Phoenix], 18 March 1928, sec. 5 p. 6.

“Berkeley Police Force Complete Radio System.” Modesto News-Herald, 5 February 1928, p. 10.

“Berkeley Police Get Radio Sets.” Asheville Citizen Times, 1 April 1928, p. B-7.

“Berkeley Police Use Radio Equipped Cars.” Oakland Tribune. 22 January 1928, p. O-3.

“New 1928 Buicks Come With Standard Gear Shift.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 13 August 1927, p. 3.

“New 1928 Buicks To Be Put On Display Monday Evening.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 6 August 1927, p. 2.

Buick Portholes (I Mean VentiPorts)

Buick Ad – December 1948

Here is an interesting fact about Buick portholes . . . the official term for them is “VentiPorts”. They first appeared on the 1949 Buick and were actually functional at that time. They were used, according to Buick, “for identification and cooling purposes”. The origination of the VentiPort is described this way by the GM Heritage Center:

“The idea for VentiPorts grew out of a modification Buick styling chief Ned Nickles had added to his own 1948 Roadmaster. Four amber lights were installed on each side of the car’s hood which were wired to the distributor. The lights flashed on and off as each piston fired which was supposed to simulate the flames from the exhaust stack of a fighter airplane. Combined with the bombsight mascot, VentiPorts put the driver at the controls of an imaginary fighter airplane. Buick chief Harlow Curtice was so impressed with this styling feature that he ordered that non-lighting VentiPorts be installed on all 1949 Buicks, with the number of VentiPorts (three or four) corresponding to the relative displacement of the straight-eight engine installed.”

Buick Ad -November 1948

After 1949, the VentiPorts were no longer used for cooling, some say because Buick owners were complaining about kids shoving all sorts of unwanted items into the holes. In any case, they became purely decorative like the ones on this 1952 Buick:

1952 Buick Special at the Nebraska Prairie Museum
1952 Buick Special at the Nebraska Prairie Museum
1952 Buick Special at the Nebraska Prairie Museum

This is what the VentiPorts look like off of the car:

1951-2 Buick Roadmaster VentiPort
1951-2 Buick Special VentiPort

The number of VentiPorts helped to distinguish Buick model series with the more powerful Buicks, with more chrome, having more VentiPorts . For instance, only the Roadmaster had four VentiPorts through 1954. Then, in 1955, four were placed on the Roadmaster, the Century and the Super while the Special had only three.

1955 Buick Century (Buick sales brochure)
1955 Buick Special (Buick sales brochure)

Along with the cars, the VentiPorts themselves were restyled year after year. This is a 1956 VentiPort:

VentiPorts disappeared in 1958 and 1959, but they came back with a vengeance throughout the 1960s with a new rectangular shape. The 1964 Wildcat mixed things up by featuring vertically stacked VentiPorts. This is a VentiPort from a 1969 Buick Sport Wagon:

The VentiPorts continue to be brought back from time to time. Even the compact Apollo had them during the 1970s! Maybe Buick should make better use of them today in order to stand out from a field of cars that all look the same.

Buick Ad – June 1954
Buick Ad – July 1950

Throwback Thursday: Grille Edition

Advertising for the 1936 Buick described it as  “styled for a party but powered for a thrill.”  The aesthetics were impressive, led by this high grille flanked by torpedo lights on the fenders.

1936 marked the first appearance of well-known Buick names such as Century and Roadmaster.  The Buick was available in the following models: Special (series 40), Century (series 60), Roadmaster (series 80) and Limited (series 90).

The “thrill” for all except the series 40 was provided by a valve-in-head straight-eight 120-hp engine.  Buick bragged that it would go ten to sixty miles an hour in less than 20 seconds.

The 1936 Buick was an unqualified success.  When the new cars began arriving at dealers in 1935, Buick  was aiming at a sales volume of 135,000 for the 1936 program.  According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, Buick far exceeded that goal with calendar year sales of 164,861.