Thursday, January 31, 2013

La belle L'Universelle: Workhorse at the Waldorf

There was certainly a lot to talk about in the 1955 General Motors Motorama. That annual convention of glitter, girls, and gladiolas, the celebration of the superiority of General Motors products was at its zenith in 1955. The show opened at the Waldorf in New York in January, as was its tradition, and then moved on to Miami in February, Los Angeles and then San Francisco in March, and on to a final stop in Boston in April.

In addition to showcasing the "Golden Jubilee" Chevrolet- representing the 50 Millionth GM vehicle- there were a host of concept cars on the stage for 1955. Chevrolet showed its Biscayne pillarless sport sedan, Oldsmobile unveiled a low slung coupe called the Delta. Pontiac showed its futuristic Strato-Star Coupe, and Buick its red Wildcat III sport convertible. Cadillac showed its futuristic La Salle II in sport sedan and roadster forms, and the fabulous Eldorado Brougham which would lead to a production car in 1957.

Oh, and GMC showed a panel truck.

Stop the presses. Yes, GMC did show a panel truck in 1955, but that is about one-hundredth of the story. GMC created their only Motorama concept vehicle for the 1955 show, and it was far from any ordinary truck. Named L'Universelle, the truck was a long, low, sleek vehicle with 13 inch wheels. a mid mounted V-8 engine, and a revolutionary front wheel drive system.

It was drawn by legendary GM designer Chuck Jordan and represented the most stylish and though provoking cargo hauler GM had ever imagined. A wrap around windshield and streamlined side glass, unique bi-folding cargo doors on the side and the rear, and an extremely roomy cargo area were some of the special features. And lowness- extraordinary lowness resulting from the chassis design which incorporated front wheel drive and 13 inch wheels.

Finished in copper metallic with a copper leather driver's compartment, it was the most exciting and glamorous GMC truck ever conceived, which is why the story did not end after the Motorama. The public loved it. GMC dealers were clamoring for it. And so by late 1955, GM announced plans to produce it. Almost as soon as the glamour girl made its debut at the Waldorf, chassis engineers in Detroit began building a running prototype chassis out of a Buick Roadmaster. With the fiberglass nose of a L'Universelle attached to the body of a Roadmaster, the beast was hideous to look at but before long they had the chassis dialed in and the ride and handling were nothing shy of impressive.

Unfortunately, by that point they had realized that the production projections would not pay for the unique driveline they had created, so the lovely L'Universelle was quietly shelved. Many of the styling cues appeared a few years later in the Corvair based Corvan in 1961, and it was a popular and well liked little van.

But imagine what the L'Universelle could have been...

L'Universelle in the ballroom of the Waldorf for the 1955 New York Motorama
L'Universelle in Golden Gate Park
Cutaway drawing showing the unique FWD driveline of L'Universelle
Overview of the 1955 Los Angeles Motorama. Golden Jubilee 50 Millionth Car on Lower Right.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Century Caballero- Buick's Sexy Hardtop Hauler

Ever since the first Buick production station wagons of 1940, Buick wagons were invariably referred to as "Estate Wagons." But there's a facet of Buick history in the late 1950's when the catalog offered a Buick wagon with a very exciting name- the Century Caballero. 

Now to be perfectly clear, we're talking about the Century Caballero Estate Wagon, model 69, which was introduced for 1957 flaunting its brand new looks and Buick Riviera four door hardtop styling. The focal point was a sweep spear which served as a color break for the optional two tone paint, an option which the vast majority of purchasers preferred. Several two tone combinations were popular, including the Bitterweet and Antique Ivory, Garnet Red and Dover White, and Dresden Blue with Dover White. The Century Caballero was Buick's top of the line wagon offering for 1957- the Roadmaster and Super Estate Wagons were discontinued when Buick transitioned to the all steel wagon bodies in 1954.

But solid color or two tone, the Caballero was a looker. It's interesting to note that the Caballero Estate Wagon was the only Century wagon for 1957, and was offered in both six and nine passenger versions. The lower priced Special series had both a pillared Special Estate Wagon (Model 49) and a Special Riviera Estate Wagon (Model 49-D) which had the hardtop styling but lacked the 300 HP Century engine and the luxurious interior of the Caballero.  

Not surprisingly, the handsome new Caballero was a success- despite it's healthy $3706 base price, the Caballero was Buick's best selling wagon model for 1957 with 10,196 units produced. The lower priced  Special Riviera Estate Wagon ($3167) sold 6,816 units and the base Special Estate Wagon ($3047) accounted for 7,014 orders.

All of the Buicks were extensively facelifted for 1958 and the Caballero was no exception. We'll visit the 1958 edition another time. But for today, enjoy Buick's dashing hardtop hauler- the 1957 Century Caballero:    

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lennie "Pop" Kennedy and the Buicks

Editor's Note- This article was written by Jim Bell for the Kenne-Bell Newsletter in September, 1980. We are presenting it as written -we thought it important to hear from Jim in his own words- 

Lennie "Pop" Kennedy and the 1968 GS 400
The Oldtimers say Lennie "Pop" Kennedy was the first man to run down the Pomona Drag Strip. His first Buick was a 100% pure stock 1955 Century that turned a best of 86.97 at 15.60. In those days everyone ran their cars stock before they started cheating, so I was able to witness first hand which car was really the fastest off the showroom. The Dynaflow, coupled with the old man's tremendous reflexes made it a real mystery car.

How could a Dynaflow, of all things consistently beat those '55 Chevy sticks? In 1961 I bought a '55, blueprinted (the) motor, and installed the hot gear set up for that year car- 4.44 gears from a Buick ambulance. It turned a best of 14.73 at 93 mph which was enough to handle the trick 1957 Powerglide cars from Marv Ripes A-1 Transmission and Bill's Service. There was no question that the 1955-56 Buick trans had the first high stall converter.

Next, "Pop" bought himself a '56 Century. It ran a best of 87 at 15.60- not much better than the '55. Again, in those days, the only modification was to remove the air cleaner and install duals. Headers, cheater cams, blueprinting, etc., were considered unfair by "Pops". He enjoyed beating the Chevies, Olds, Pontiacs, etc. with a stock Buick and would have no part in cheating.

The first time out with the '57, at the old San Gabriel Drag Strip, the Dynaflow laid down a 14.90 at 90 mph. The Century was a 364 cu in. 4 bbl with 3.90 gears.

The only color picture of the 1959 Invicta

Next came one of the most exciting cars in California Stock drag racing- the (1959) 401 Invicta. The stock converter had a 3500 (rpm) stall. The beast weighed 4600 lbs. yet turned 90 mph at 15.0 first time out. The 4.44 gears and shaving .030 off the heads brought it down to 14.70 and 93 mph. The Dodges of Bill "Maverick" Golden and The Flying Dutchman and Tom Ritchey's Pontiac were a few notables who fell to the big finned Buick.

The only other modification to the Invicta was Bucron tires. They replaced the Vogues as the hot tire setup in the late 50s. We didn't know what a cheater click was in those days. The '59 accumulated over 100 trophies. I purchased the car was a street cruiser when the '61 Invicta came in. I had more fun with the '59 than any car I ever owned.

Pop Kennedy, his trophies,  and the '61 Invicta in our old Showroom

The '61 got the same treatment for drag racing- 4.44 gears, ,030" off the heads and a new set of Caslers. Pete Reynolds, a local Buick dealer, was so impressed with the way the car ran that he sponsored the gas for 2 trips to Indy. "Popsy" rewarded Pete with class wins for both trip in 1961 and 1962. The Pontiacs could hardly believe the Old Man from California. The '62 turned a best of 97.70 at 14.21 with headers and 2 Speed Switch Pitch Converter and Trans.

Pop Kennedy at the 1962 Winternationals in Indy

In 1964 Buick came out with a little 300" 4 bbl motor in a 3200 lb. Skylark 2 door coupe. First time out - 14.21 at 97.8 mph. 4.44 gears (ambulances were getting rare by this time), headers, .025" off the aluminum heads and Casler cheater slicks. The new TH300 2 speed was absolutely amazing. This was our first Turbo Switch Pitch Converter. It had (a) 3000 stall with the 300 incher. 

Pete Reynolds gives Pop Kennedy the keys to the '65 Gran Sport

In 1965, Buick introduced a 400 incher (the 401" de-rated by one cubic inch to meet GM's limit of 400 inches in a small car.) The 1964 had to go. Pop bought the first one to hit California. 12.70s at 107 mph with our Switch Pitch Converter, 2 Speed Trans, Mark 3 cam kit and 11:1 pistons. The 3 Speed TH 400 picked up exactly .1 and 1 mph to 108 at 12.60 One of these cars lightened to 3300 pounds with ram air ran a best of 111 at 12.30 back in 1966. The '65 was run mostly in brackets until 1967, when Buick came out with a completely new 400 inch engine design. A GS 400 was soon getting the treatment in our garage for NHRA Super Stock. 13 years ago we ran a best of 111 at 12.10. It put out another 75 hp over the 401, but we were paying a heavy price for the horsepower. We were blowing up the 400s as fast as we could build them.

Pop Kennedy with the '65, '67 and '68 Reynolds Racers
Between burned crankshafts, we were desperately trying to test new cam profiles, manifolds, headers, and other components for an engine no one had played with before. We finally discovered the problem was insufficient oil pressure. By this time, the '68s were out. Pop discovered that the '68 had more rear fender well (width) for wider tires so he bought one.

After successfully racing the 400 inches for a year and a half we began testing 455s for the upcoming 1970 models. Standard, Stage 1, and Stage 2 heads were all evaluated on the flow bench and drag strip. I can still see the smile on Pop's face when he came back from the first run with the prototype set of Stage 2 heads. .3 and 3 mph with no other changes and it pulled strong all the way to 7000. The 455? Good for .32 and 3.3 mph over a 400.

The iconic Reynolds Buick '70 GS 455 Stage 2
The new Stage 1 was a beautiful sight. Quite a derivation from the '65, '67 and '68 gold cars. It was picked up at Reynolds Buick on Monday and driven around until Saturday nite where it proceeded to dazzle the boys with a 101- 13.9 blast just as it came off the street (plugged up, air cleaner, stock tires, etc) The primary objective was to be successful in NHRA Stock Class, where no other Buick had ever been successful. The factory was always too honest about their horsepower ratings so the cars could never be class contenders.

However, 1970 was different. We had a legal GS car running 12.0s on a 12.55 record. Furthermore, Bill Trevor and the other '70 Buicks were no where close to these times.   The Winter(nationals) were in the bag- until (the) NHRA factored the cars to 400 hp! Discouraged, and with no way to win in Super Stock, we bolted on the Stage 2s, an Edelbrock, a 1000 cfm Thermo Quad, 11" tires and our factory Stage 2 hood scoop. The MKC 113 cam came out and in went the Mark 4. 123 mph at 10.7s in 1970 was getting with it in anyone's book.

Old Popsy was 62 by then but could still handle the wheelstanding 3600 lb. 455. A couple of heart attacks and 2 or 3 strokes didn't slow him down at all. I vividly recall the Hot Rod Meet at Riverside in '69. Only one foot was working after a stroke. I thought we'd have to hook up a hand brake but he got by with "low-stalling" the converter the whole day.

Then there was the time we were running a new motor combination in the Riviera oval car. Pop's entire left side went totally numb. Not wanting to miss the race, he drank a pint of Jack Daniels to get some feeling so he could drive. We were at the races when Pop limped up through the stands. The next day he drove to the hospital in the '65. The doctor thought the story was some kind of joke. Pop spent 2 weeks in the hospital. One day after being released he was back to Orange County trying out a new manifold. At 72 he's finally retired from Kenne-Bell and talking about making a comeback. Running gas mileage tests for us is becoming a bore he says. if he returns, It'll be in the 104. 127 mph Stage 2 bracket car. I guess those fast runs are needed to keep the heart pumping.

I've watched the old man drive for 20 years and he was unquestionably one of the best. Always first out of the hole with those uncanny reaction times. I've often wondered how good he would have been at 20-  or even 40.

I think I made all of the winning and going fast sound easy. There was, of course, another side. The experimenting with the various engine components and combinations, transmissions, converters, suspensions, tires, etc. was laborious, expensive, and at times very frustrating but I wouldn't have traded those years with "Pops" for the world. Is there anything more enjoyable than racing and beating the Fords, Chevies, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Dodges, Plymouths, and Chryslers for 25 years with cars that "don't run?" And we all know Buicks don't run- particularly the old "nailheads."


For more of the Reynolds Buick racing legend, visit our Reynolds Buick Racing site.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wagon Wednesday

Our Reynolds Buick GMC Facebook Page is busier than ever with daily images, special offers, and lively conversation with Buick folks. Each day is built around a theme, such as Fast Friday for the performance minded folks and Sharing Saturday when we look at the photos all of you have sent us during the week.

One of our most popular days is Wagon Wednesday, where we look at some of the great Buick Station Wagons of days gone by. Of course, the wood bodied wagons are real crowd pleasers. They're not "Woodies" according to the Buick recordkeepers- but rather "Estate Wagons" and were offered between 1940 and 1953. At the time, Buick wagons were very popular cars among celebrities and on some of the finest Estates. Think of them as the luxury SUV of their day. 

  Here's a sampling of Buick Estate Wagons from our Reynolds Facebook Page- why don't you drop by and check it out soon?  

Buick didn't offer wagons until 1940, but that didn't stop Jim Pascoe from building his own.

This 1940 Estate Wagon was featured in the 1978 Buick brochure.

The hinged tail lamps on this 1948 Estate Wagon can be seen with the tailgate lowered.

This 1953 Super Estate Wagon has been restored in a fanciful color.

Note the detailing on the tailgate of this 1951 Estate Wagon:

This 1951 Estate Wagon outfitted with a wooden canoe.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Parade of Buicks

1959 Electra 225 Convertible
 It's New Year's Day, and in addition to wishing all of you a very Happy and Prosperous New Year, we're taking a moment to remember the glorious days when a certain parade that took place in nearby Pasadena featured lots of dignitaries riding in glamorous white convertibles.

The parade in question began on January 1, 1890 and has taken place every year thereafter on the first unless New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, in which case the parade takes place on January 2. The first football game was added in 1902, pitting Michigan against Stanford. The game was such a one sided Michigan victory that it caused the organizers to rethink the idea, and the game went on hiatus until 1916.

Now to be fair, there were several different makes represented in the Rose Parade over the many years, but somehow in our nostalgic tribute version, all of the cars magically become Buicks. Well, maybe that's not all that random after all but we hope that you enjoy our New Year's Tribute Parade, powered by Buick:

1962 Skylark Convertible

1958 Limited "Wells Fargo" Show Car and Dale Robertson

1953 Wildcat Motorama Show Car

1960 Electra 225 convertible spied by our friend Kevin

1975 Buick Le Sabre Indy 500 Official's Car

1982 Buick Riviera convertible