Buick Roadmasters: Masters Of The Road Then, Now, And Forever
Images: Vrutika Doshi
By the 1930s, the Buick marque had become very popular with the princes and the wealthier set in India, since General Motors established a manufacturing presence in the country. In 1928 General Motors built one of India’s first car factories, in Bombay, very close to the port. They began by assembling mainly Chevrolets and importing the models from Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. The pricier Cadillacs too, were also imported, and so, thanks to its exclusivity—and out of a sense of snobbery—remained a favourite of the rajas and maharajas.
Price-wise, the Buicks were the most expensive from the rest of the range, and, also because of its soft-riding coil sprung suspension (during the later years), became very popular with the princely states. In the immediate post-war scenario, before the European carmakers could start serving the market, the American brands, specifically Buick, found many enthusiastic buyers amongst princely India, thus GM began assembling the four-door Supers at their Bombay factory.
Thanks to a redesign in 1942 with flow-through fenders inspired by some of the coachbuilt French cars from the late 1930s, Buick emerged from the war in fine fettle. Whilst all the other American carmakers had to make do with somewhat dated designs from the late 1930s when production resumed in 1945, Buick’s model range was, in theory, barely a year old then. Thus, Buick was able to stretch out their ‘42 tooling to until 1949 (for the Special).
For the model year 1947, three trim levels were available from Buick: Special, Super, and Roadmaster, with the convertible on sale only as a Super or a Roadmaster. Although GM began assembling the four-door Supers at their Bombay factory, the convertible version of the Super and the flagship Roadmaster (and it’s even more exclusive convertible variant) were still imported and sold in mostly left-hand-drive configuration, offering prestige solutions for state use on many occasions.
The Roadmaster as a model had been launched by Buick in 1936, and during that period it was built on Buick’s longest non-limousine wheelbase by sharing their basic structure with Cadillacs from then, as GM decided to position Buick a notch below its flagship Cadillac range. After 1940, Buick shared its chassis with the Oldsmobile range, with the longer wheelbase version serving as Buick’s flagship model from 1946 and 1957.
Pune-based Zaheer Vakil has four Buick Roadmasters. The oldest Roadmaster in his collection is a very rare four-door convertible from 1939. Relatively more commonplace—if such a word could be used for such rare cars—is a ‘47 Convertible Coupe.
The ‘47 Roadmaster rides on a 129-inch (328cm) wheelbase and is powered by a 320 cubic inch (5245cc) straight-eight, the famous 144bhp Fireball Dynaflash Eight, famous for its almost imperceptible smoothness. Buick’s signature powerplant, one of the last of the extremely refined straight-eights had become, by then (and remains to this day), the bestselling inline eight-cylinder engine ever.
Zaheer Vakil’s Series 70 Roadmaster convertible was ordered new by Tikka Lakshman Singh, the Raja of the erstwhile princely state of Chamba, in Himachal Pradesh. The Buick convertibles—at that point of time—was one of the bestselling convertibles anywhere and over 40,000 were produced during 1947, of which a significant 11,947 were the more luxuriously-appointed Roadmaster convertibles. Yet the survival rate has been poor, and thus this Series 70 Roadmaster Convertible Coupe is a rare ‘un.
The Roadmaster model series came to an end by 1957. It would take another three decades for GM to revive the brand name for another supersize flagship variant, and the Roadmaster moniker was resurrected for the 1991 through 1996 model years. Becoming the brand's largest vehicle, the Roadmaster saloon was 25.4cm longer than the Buick Park Avenue, riding on a wheelbase that was 12.7cm longer. It was also longer in both wheelbase (by 5cm) and in overall length (15.2cm) than the Cadillac DeVille.
When the Roadmaster name came back for the 1991 model year, after a 33-year absence, it was launched with the third-generation Buick Estate station wagon remade into the Roadmaster estate. The four-door saloon—sedan, as the Americans prefer calling it—was added to the Roadmaster line-up for the 1992 model year, the first rear-wheel-drive Buick sedan since 1985.
Like its predecessor, the new Roadmaster was based on GM's full-size rear-wheel drive B-platform, which was closely related to the C and D chassis reserved for high-end Buicks and Cadillacs. The standard engine for the 1991 wagon was a 170bhp small-block Chevrolet 5.0-litre V8. It was replaced a year later by a Chevrolet 5.7-litre small-block 180bhp V8 shared by the estate and the saloon. The V8 was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.
Styled under the direction of GM veteran Wayne Kady, who was also overseeing the design of the ‘92 Skylark, the Roadmaster featured several retro cues such as a beaky, forward slanting grille inspired by the 1939 Buicks, as well as the use of ‘ventiports’ of the Buicks of yore on the sail panel of the car. The use of vinyl for the C-pillar of the car featured here gives an impression of a landaulette, with a deliberate retro touch.
Appealing to a specific segment of the market, the Roadmaster’s success was short-lived, and sales was restricted to the US mainly. Obviously, a rare one or two slipped across to India, and this may well be the only one from this generation in this country. Zaheer Vakil acquired the car from Pune-based JB Bhandari in 2012, and the car was always in very good, original condition. The total mileage of the car is a very plausible 47,406 kms. Thus, Vakil has left the car untouched, and the car is as original as can be.
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