Find Your Car

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

1956 Newfoundland Buick: For Townies & Baymen Only


General Motors of Canada Limited withdrew the McLaughlin-Buick from the domestic market in February of 1942 to concentrate on building weapons of war.  When world peace came in 1945, GM collaborated with Ottawa in promising not to reintroduce the Buick brand into the market until the massive war debt was paid off.  

The automaker ran full-page adverts in newspapers showing off the new Buick line but informed consumers that until the federal balance of payments was redressed, Buicks would not be available to Canadians.
The 1951 Buick Custom Riviera was built in Oshawa, Ontario.
The same vehicle was built and sold in the US as the
Buick Custom.
 None were built in Oshawa and only a handful was imported until the 1951 season, when production finally resumed in Oshawa. Sadly, the McLaughlin moniker was shorn from the once hyphenated Buick, the grand name relegated to history.

This 1936 McLaughlin-Buick was built for King Edward VIII.

Long favoured by the royal family and the Dominion government of Canada, Buick had a lot of ground to cover in order to catch up with other makes offered in the prestigious luxury-entry class. Competitors in that rarified echelon included Chrysler, Monarch, Hudson, Nash and Studebaker.

The automobile explosion was well underway in the country’s newest province. In the 1950s, Newfoundland and Labrador was the only province where new car automobile ownership surpassed 100 percent a year. 

The Number One Highway was under construction, knitting more and more Newfoundland communities together. Road signs would one day read, “We’ll finish the drive in ’65 with Pearson.” It would be only ten years before motorists could finally wend their way from Mile Zero in St. John’s to Port-aux-Basque on the freshly minted Trans-Canada Highway.

One of the most unique territories where Buick needed to plant its flag was Newfoundland. Terra Nova Motors Limited in St. John’s had sold Nash, Austin Bantam, Mack truck and Pontiac for many years but in 1950 General Motors changed the game. Nash and Mack were dropped and Buick, Vauxhall and GMC trucks joined Pontiac on the showroom floor. The contract gave Terra Nova exclusive rights to sales of those brands in the entire province.

1950 Pontiac

It was a solid move. Records show that Pontiac was traditionally the third best selling make in Newfoundland, after Chevrolet and Ford. Vauxhall ranked fourth in sales.

While Buick wouldn’t arrive in showrooms until the 1951 crop would bow in the fall of 1950, Vauxhall--now classified as a captive import--was sourced from GM’s British subsidiary. Prior to Confederation in 1949, Vauxhall had long been a trusted domestic make.

When the new cars were unveiled each fall, the good folks at Terra Nova would show them off proudly to the public. Since there was no road across the island, vehicles were loaded onto the train and hauled to Grand Falls and Corner Brook where the company had retail operations.

Registrations of new Buicks in 1951 added up to 97 units. In 1952 registrations rose to 104 and the figure rose to 110 in 1953.

Buick sales plateaued. Of the 3,740 new cars sold in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1955, only 110 were Buicks—representing only 1.8 percent of the provincial sales pie.

To successfully re-launch the majestic land yacht into the Newfoundland market, special measures were needed. GM, in cooperation with Terra Nova Motors Limited in St. John’s, would take them.  Donald M. Clouston owned Terra Nova. The man was a driving force within GM’s dealer body and head office took note.

More glitz and glamour was not the answer to increased sales.  Buick had those attributes a-plenty. Designers had created the breathtakingly beautiful vehicle and engineers had perfected the soft, pillowy ride that was coveted by owners but the tri-shield lacked durability when put to the test on the province’s rough, unforgiving highways and byways--most of which were still unpaved in 1955.

To report that Buick did not fare well on the province’s punishing road system is an understatement. Peter Clouston was 24 and worked in the family dealership located just off Water Street on Fort William Place. He recalls the story that unfolded in 1955.

“Folks would take the cars out of town. Once off the asphalt, their Buicks could not handle the dirt and gravel roads. Frames would bend and crack. GM had to make special repair kits for the frames. It happened so often, Dad got after GM who flew two engineers to Gander. They took the train to Clarenville, where Dad picked them up for the (182-kilometre) trip to St. John’s on the unpaved highway.

The Buick was completely uncontrollable on the rough, rocky road. Wheels bopped up and down at will, lurching from side to side. There was no control of the car at all.”

By the time the trek ended in St. John’s, thoroughly shaken engineers knew what they needed to do. They would create a Buick that could meet and exceed Newfoundland’s punishing roads.

Buick’s reputation would be restored and sales growth expanded with substantial mechanical improvements. Beef and brawn it would be.  When the engineers were finished with the task, Terra Nova Motors proudly announced the upgraded Buick for 1956.

“Last year two BUICK Engineers came to Newfoundland at the request of TERRA NOVA MOTORS LIMITED and brought with them several experimental cars as well as a quantity of testing equipment. Right here on the spot, the engineers tested these BUICKS under actual Newfoundland driving conditions. They experimented, changed design and altered equipment to match the rugged roads Newfoundlanders drive over. As a result, TERRA NOVA MOTORS LIMITED now offers a specifically engineered NEWFOUNDLAND BUICK that is not available on the mainland or elsewhere.


Throughout 1956 all BUICKS sold at TERRA NOVA LIMITED will be NEWFOUNDLAND BUICKS.

These NEWFOUNDLAND BUICKS have heavier than standard frames, specially tempered springs, unusually powerful shock absorbers, all special features planned and road tested by BUICK engineers over hundreds of miles of Newfoundland roads to give us the NEWFOUNDLAND BUICK.

The pricy pair of two- and four-door Newfoundland Buick hardtop convertibles was billed as ‘the best Buick ever’.

While research yielded no breakdown or total for 1956 Buicks registration in the fall and winter of 1955, new Buick registrations in Newfoundland and Labrador for the 1956 calendar year were recorded by month from January to June, as follows—

Month     Registrations
Jan.           1
Feb.          4
Mar.          2
Apr.          6
May          21
Jun.           27

Of the 3,817 new Buicks registered across the Dominion in 1956, the total came to at least 61 graceful and--now rugged--Newfoundland Buicks that beautified the province’s highways and byways.

Thanks to historian Paul Sparkes via Gary Hebbard and to The Telegram (St. John’s, NL) for permission to reprint the advert. Special thanks to Doug Russell, Peter Clouston, Sally Clouston Johnson and my great buddy, Glen Ryan. 

Copyright 2014 to James C. Mays

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2014 All rights reserved.

Monday, February 17, 2014

1957-1959 Ford Fairlane Fairlane 500 Skyliner


The idea of a retractable hardtop convertible first floated through Dearborn’s styling studios in 1955. Stylist Gilbert Spear worked up the plans and $2.2 million was spent to study the concept. 
1956 Lincoln Contintal Mark II.

Originally slated for corporate flagship, Lincoln Continental Mark II, it was deemed to be far too costly for such a low-production model.  The retractable study was sent down to the Ford studio where higher production numbers would better amortize the additional $18 million needed to further develop and test the concept.

Sheet metal was bulked up in the rear quarters up to accommodate the large roof.  A special .184-cubic metre (6.5-cubic foot) bin was created for luggage storage so that items stowed in the trunk wouldn’t stray and be crushed as the top came down.   
The Skyliner used the 5.1-litre (312 cubic inch) Y-block V-8 engine that was installed in police cars.

The completed Skyliner package was heavy enough to require the Interceptor V-8 engine used in police cars as standard equipment. Interiors were finished in a linen pattern Royal Scot Tweed upholstery, edged in vinyl trim.

The operation of getting the top down was a complex one, even if the driver only had to push a button on the steering column and stand back to ooh! and aah! as the magic show began.  A dash light glowed its warning as the trunk lid  opened, the package shelf rose up to deck level, the top unlocked and the roof pointed upward into the air the first 30 centimetres  (12 inches) of the roof actually folded under so that it would fit into the allotted space) and then disappeared into the cavernous trunk space.  Finally the trunk lid came down, the warning light went off and the driver was ready to roll.  In case of emergency, engineers thoughtfully provided a hand crank to finish the job.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

The impressive electrical and hydraulic system included 182 metres (600 feet) of wiring, ten power relays, eight circuit breakers, ten limit switches, three drive motors and a safety lock that prevented the mechanism from going into operation unless the car was in neutral.

Skyliners had a three-year run, from 1957 to 1959.  The first year 20,766 were built.

 The second year 14,713 units were shipped during the 1958 model year.  

1958 Ford Skyliner instrument panel.

In 1959 production dropped to 12,915 units. Skyliners were never profitable even though they retailed for 20% more than Ford’s top-of-the-line Sunliner convertibles.  

 Dealers were happy to sell Skyliners but many didn’t want to stand behind the service and warranty work. The retractable hardtops were ultimately sentenced to automobile death by  division’s president Robert McNamara,  because he hated gimmicks and loved large production numbers.

No Skyliners were built in Canada, though a few were imported and sold through Ford dealers.  Curiously enough, this is one of the rare times where a Ford model did not have a corresponding relative in the Meteor family.  No Meteor Skyliner with the retractable roof was ever sold.

Just under 60,000 of these unique land yachts were built.  If you should ever get a chance to watch a Skyliner perform, you’ll be one of a handful of lucky people who ever get to see this  classic in action.

1959 was the last year for the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner.

Copyright James C. Mays 1999 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

1948-1954 Ford Vedette

Compact 1949 Ford Vedettes roll off the line in Poissy, France.
When peace came in 1945, North Americans would be ready for smaller vehicles than before. 
1942 Willys-Overland Americar
At Ford, the first benchmark used to design its pint-sized compact car was the 1942 Willys. The dimensions of the new Ford would be similar and a competitive price was highly important. 
The 1942 Studebaker Champion Custom Club Coupe
Then executives decided to reposition the vehicle and based its small car package on the successful, but not so small Studebaker Champion.

By 1944 the project was assigned to the Engineering Planning Committee which was responsible for new products.  Since none of the existing small Fords produced anywhere in the world were suitable for the home market, a green light was given to build a new car from the ground up.

Engineers studied many different power plants.  A transverse-mounted, four-cylinder engine was tested in conjunction with front-wheel drive.  Henry Ford submitted an in-line, five-cylinder motor that he'd created in his personal lab.  Sixes, eights and fours were all examined, some air cooled while others featured aluminum blocks.   

Once the engineering package was defined, it was time for the body to take shape. Eugene (Bob) Gregorie was Ford's in-house styling guru. His efforts bore a strong family resemblance to the senior Ford line with heavy sculpturing in  a slab-sided envelope. 

By mid-year 1945, the five-cylinder engine was dumped for a V-8. A new chassis was then created from the one under development for the 1949 model year.  The car was given high priority; it was to be ready for dealers within months of the war's official end.

That is when the vehicle's drawbacks became apparent. It wasn't a small car, despite its 100-inch wheelbase. It was heavy because it used existing components right off the shelf.  Gas mileage was poor, even in the days of 15c-a-gallon gas. Price was within 20% of existing Ford products and since no one knew how the car would be accepted by the public, the project was put on hold.

Resurrected as the Light Car Program, a 106-inch wheelbase prototype was created for Ford and a 112-inch variant for Mercury dealers. Introduction was delayed yet again, this time because of severe material shortages. It looked as if the car might be dumped again when the president of Ford in France saw the production prototype during a visit to Dearborn.

The little car was shipped to the Ford factory in Poissy, France and retooled for metric specifications.  Rolling out of the factory doors as a '48 model, it was christened Vedette, which translates as 'movie star' or 'celebrity.'  The Ford name was severely downplayed on the car and in sales literature.  It was expensive to buy and expensive to run.  Despite sales to other European countries, Vedette was a poor seller.
Even the addition of a sharp convertible didn't help Ford Vedette sales in 1951.

The 1953-54 Ford Vedette was given an attractive facelift.
Introduced in 1952, the Ford Abeille carried five passengers. Its unique two-part tailgate and its 500-kilo capacity made it practical for farmers.

The 1954 Ford Vendome shared its shell with Vedette but boasted Ford's 4-litre, Mistral V-8 engine.
Ford merged its French operation into that of  Simca in 1954. The Simca Vedette Versailles (above) continued to be sold under the Ford name in countries where the Simca brand was not as well known as Ford.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2001 All rights reserved.