Northern Indiana towns are like islands in an ocean of corn. In my growing years, I hated how boring mine was. So quiet, chained with curfews and devoid of interest. But now I love it. I never regret a sojourn to my old stomping grounds, that nice, quiet, boring place – where I can leave my car doors unlocked and take a walk after dark.
So I found myself, after my first Woodward Dream Cruise, back on Charles Street in my mom’s old farm house, built somewhere around 1865. I got a text my first morning there from my friend Troy, also in town, that we would be meeting up with Lizziey, his girlfriend, and taking the Buick into town to get pizza.
I knew what Buick he meant. Owned by Lizziey’s parents, it was a 1952 Super Sedan, and Troy was in love with it. I’d seen pictures, and Troy talked about it all the time, but I had yet to see it in the Detroit steel. A quick trip in my new-to-me WRX (with Troy much obliged to drive) took us out to Lizziey’s place, and there it was.
It wasn’t perfect. In fact, it’s travelled nearly 40,000 miles since 1951, and has never had a full restoration. But Bob, Lizziey’s father, is taking the project slowly, always looking for deals on clean badges and bumpers. Still, that super was a beautiful, voluptuous thing, somehow reminding me of the year my father was born, when cars all had to be works of art or they didn’t sell.
Bob’s grandmother, I learned, bought the car in 1953, and kept it. It passed on to Bob’s mother, then to Bob, who will someday give it to Lizziey. I wondered if Troy was ever nervous borrowing a cherished, four-generation family heirloom for pizza runs, but Bob is laid-back about it, taking the “It needs to be driven,” attitude, which is always nice to hear.
We took a closer look at the car, first under the hood, which opened longitudinally to reveal the Super’s original 263 Straight Eight, which, in 1951, produced 112 hp. That’s doesn’t seem much for such a heavy car (3,750 lbs), but it was back then. In fact, the Super could eventually hit 90 on Eisenhower’s brand new interstate, and sonny, you don’t really need to go faster than that.
We climbed inside, where the time-worn upholstery covered a pair of couches, one up front, and one in the back. The dash was made of the same stick-grenade-proof steel as the body, complete with a chrome, mono, AM radio. You could have five presets, one for each of the letters in Buick, and if the stations get fuzzy, you could reach way, way up to the ceiling and twist a knob, which adjusted the antenna direction. And I don’t smoke, but that the cigarette lighter was disguised as another climate control knob was James-Dean cool.
Soon we were off, not bothering about seatbelts, because though Nash first bolted them on in 1949, Buick hadn’t bothered yet. But that was okay, because we weren’t about to get tossed around the cabin.
The Super sent all of those 112 horses to the rear wheels through GM’s Dynaflow transmission. It was an automatic of sorts, but only had two speeds, manually shifted on the column. The cruising speed used a five-element torque converter to keep things smooth. Buick seemed to have gotten the idea from the US War Department, who used Buick’s plant in Flint to build M18 Hellcat tank destroyers during World War II, and tested such autoboxes in a few of them.
Though 0-60 times weren’t worth finding, no one much minded, for two reasons. The first was the ride. Between the softer-than-Dom-DeLuise seats and the floaty, world absorbing suspension, the car made any drive like skimming a field of ripe wheat with the basket of a hot air balloon.
The second was control. Troy described the steering as “nautical.” There was no power steering, of course, and this made piloting the land yacht a little less than precise. “A small correction,” Troy said, “necessitates overcoming the natural play in the steering by using big motions.” And as for the brakes? “They’re terrifying. Unassisted drums all around. A panic stop is not really an option.”
Thankfully, we made it to the tiny pizza joint without incident, parked out front along the main strip (if there is such a thing in my town), and enjoyed our massive, Chicago style pie. And since it was about 70 with a high of perfect outside, we rejoined the big sedan in the fresh air.
The experience proved a little haunting. Cruising beltless without a catalytic converter or much to listen to aside from a single, crackly speaker and the grumble of that dreamy, harmonious straight eight made me wonder how much we’ve lost about the wonder of driving and the sacredness of car design. There was a time when life was slower, gas was cheaper, and small towns were smaller. It was nice to go back there.