Story and photos by Clive Branson
It’s incredibly soft suspension may not give this car the best road-handling, but its size and weight secured a pillow-like sensation that induced in me an almost Merlin-like sleep as I sat in the passenger’s seat. The 1949 Buick Super Convertible was, and still is, supported by the quiet, refined and strong 248 cu. in. straight-eight engine while the cushioned experience is complemented by the once-pioneering and impressively smooth Dynaflow transmission that made the drive as steady as the HMS Queen Mary or, as the advertising boasted in its day, “the boulevard ride.” The impressive Dynaflow was ahead of its time and lasted until 1963. Chrome-plated wheels and wide, whitewall tires enhanced the smoothness.
The 1949 Buick Super Convertible was one of the company’s most enduring, influential and prestigious automobiles that has appeared from a blueprint. It rivaled Cadillac on all counts, including its lofty price tag, affordable only for members of the higher tax echelon. Unlike many of today’s sterile vacuum of individualistic presence, the 1949 Buick Super reflected the apogee of the post-World War II automotive era. The car drips in curves with well-endowed chrome bumpers and framed by a toothy, cavernous grille that resembles the mouth of a deep-sea predator that lurks 3,000 fathoms below. This style of opulence was popularly attributed to designer, Ned Nickles, who heralded the introduction of an aircraft-design theme.
“I was a kid in the 1940s and 1950s and the Buick then was a big, powerful luxury car – far beyond the means of my family,” admits Ian Smillie as he gazes lovingly at his car.
“It was the kind of car I wished we had when I was a kid. Now I have one!”
The Super, as with the Roadmaster, was famous for its gun-sight hood ornament, the jetfighter-inspired body, an interior as roomy as a bungalow’s living room, and for the trademark – side portholes known as “Ventiports” (that still appear in today’s models), that were initially designed to ventilate the engine compartment, but were eventually plugged up, contributed to a sense of futuristic grandeur.
The Super had a shorter wheelbase than its sibling Roadmaster, denoted by having one fewer Ventiport.
“As a kid, I always took an interest in new cars, goggling the newest models when they came out, but I always had a passion for older cars – maybe it was due to the popularity of film noire gangster movies,” remembers Smillie.
“My first car, bought with a friend, was a 1936 Oldsmobile hearse. We were 15 and weren’t able to drive it, so we sold it the next year. When I got my license, I bought a 1930 Chevrolet Roadster. That was my first car I owned and could drive.”
Skip forward several decades and he scans the auto trade magazines in search for the elusive car that epitomizes his youthful desire – a 1948 or 1949 Cadillac convertible.
“Once discovered, I soon realized to my disappointment that I still couldn’t afford one of those. I had to lower my expectations and resigned in finding a 1949 Buick that had essentially the same new post-war body style that I liked in the Cadillac. I looked for a year to no avail. Ironically, I spotted an ad in the ‘Ottawa Citizen’ – my hometown newspaper. After two visits with the owner, we finalized a deal. The car was in good shape with only 62,000 miles on it,” recalls Smillie, “for it had been restored in 1989 and they had done an excellent job on the chrome, paint and upholstery. It was not a body-off restoration, so the engine and transmission are basically original.”
Twenty-five boxes of parts, both used and NOS, including an additional engine and transmission came with the package.
“It was the parts that sold me as much as the car, because I was uncertain, at that stage, where I might find spares.”
Ian did some rewiring, replaced some trim, got new carpets, fuel pump, shocks, brakes, and touched it off with an added a high-quality Haartz roof. “The car’s paint job is very close to the original olive colour that can still be seen on the dash that wasn’t re-done.”
The hood, which can be opened like barn-doors from either side of the car, houses the original engine, as reliable today as it was when it left the dealership’s floor. It was rated for 115 hp at 3,600 rpms.
“When I sit behind the steering wheel, my immediate thoughts are: First, will it start? (It always does). Second, do I have enough gas to get where I’m going? This is always a calculation since the car only gets 11 miles to the gallon.”
In 1949, there were gas stations every few miles on the highway. Today, they are much further apart.
“And third, especially as I head off for a car show in another town on an early summer’s morning, a tremendous sense of elation and freedom engulfs me.”
Smillie may have initially wanted a Cadillac, but his Buick has become his pride and joy.
“It is a gorgeous car with classic lines. I know I’m biased, but I get lots of compliments and when competing, I am thrilled to be presented with the People’s Choice Award, so I know I’m not alone. However, I am always a bit sad to see how few cars from the 1930s and 1940s there are at shows these days. To me, these are the cars of real historical value and interest. Large parts of today’s car shows resemble used car lots.”
Of course, Smillie wouldn’t deny that there have been a few bumps along the way.
“I got my first cellphone in 1998 because I was terrified of having a breakdown with the car. It only happened once when a fan belt broke. I called CAA, but the car is very low and couldn’t be hauled onto the flatbed without dragging the tailpipe on the road. I discovered I had an extra fan belt in the trunk and put it on the car. Why had I not thought of that before? And off I went. I also encountered failed brakes in downtown Ottawa and a jammed accelerator whilst driving at 60 mph on the highway – those were two minor adventures.”
Though the car has become a part of Smillie and he’ll keep it for as long as possible, even he confesses, “It’s given me so much pleasure, but I don’t want to keep it beyond my own ‘best by’ date.”