Living in Southern California, as I do, one is surrounded by nostalgia for the sort of American clunkers of yesteryear that the climate here—and the movie industry’s occasional need for period cars—encourages car buffs to indulge in restoring. Recently, I’ve felt some of that nostalgia myself, for a 1955 Buick Special convertible with a two-tone red and white paint job and a Dynaflow transmission. That Buick is a blast from my own past. It was my first car, a hand-me-down from my mother when I turned 16, and she decided to give herself a present, a new Cadillac Fleetwood.
An Auctions America sale of mostly American vintage cars that was soon to be held in Santa Monica held some promise. There were three Buick convertibles on offer, all of them close cousins of the one I had had: a 1954 Buick Skylark with the rounded rear deck, a 1957 Buick Super with a continental kit, and a 1957 Buick Century. All three had wire wheels and were much snazzier than the Buick Special I had driven. The closest to mine was the ’57 Century, because it was also a two-tone, albeit with a cream and deeper red than mine had had.
Everything about these Buicks in the auction was both classic and classier than the one I’d owned. (The only one that sold was the Super, for $53,900; neither the Century, at a high bid of $56,000, nor the Skylark, at $100,000, met its reserve price.) Because I went to a rather fancy, private boys’ prep school, a number of my classmates had the kind of cars that were “chick magnets,” as we used to say in the era before feminism. Several members of my class had Corvettes, and one especially dorky kid had an Austin-Healey. Him I envied, but only for the glamour of that car, not for the ability it may have had to attract dates.
I didn’t feel I needed a romantic car to attract the sort of teenage girls I wanted to go out with. An afternoon date to go to the art museum or to attend a muni opera performance in the park on a summer evening was what attracted the girls I liked. And then there was always a drive-in movie to go to in the summer. The trouble with a Corvette or even an Austin-Healey was that they had bucket seats. What I particularly liked about the front seat on my Buick was that it was as big and accommodating as a living-room couch.
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There were other cars in the auction that ignited memories of my past, too: a 1949 Hudson Commodore, for instance, and a 1956 Chevy Bel Air street rod coupe. The Hudson was a Commodore Six, a more elegant model than the Hornet that my grandfather owned. But like my grandfather’s, this car was sold with the ad line “Step down into a Hudson,” which tells you a lot about why Hudson disappeared after 1957. Nor was my Chevy Bel Air a street rod. A friend and I acquired the less hopped-up standard version from his uncle’s estate in the early 1960s, as a car for which we had the strictly utilitarian purpose of driving back and forth to college. Still, its two-tone red and white paint job, which the one in the auction also had, reminded me of the beloved Buick, a car I still remember fondly.