Stopping overnight in New Orleans while driving cross country had us meandering through a series of side streets looking for our hostel. And as we turned from one old post industrial block to another, I got a little glimpse of this sky blue Buick, cast in shadow by the setting sun. We were driving off and we were still lost, so I bit my tongue, but that Buick was standing high up on an old foundation, raised on a pedestal for all to see. I wanted to leap out of the car and take its picture.
Thanks to kismet, or a confusing series of one way-streets, we drove right by the Buick once more and before I knew it, we’d stopped to bow down for a moment before the statue of American dreams and Detroit iron. It all happened so fast that the distant dreamlike car was now so present in front of me. I couldn’t quite believe it and I snapped a picture through the open door to make sure what I was seeing was real. Its big chrome face was immediate and surreal.
It was certainly strange to see this well-kept classic of America production framed by such a worn down industrial neighborhood, but the blue of the two-tone just faded straight into the blue of the sky and my mind was just reeling.
Had I the time I might have stopped to find the story of the car and learn how such a pretty old classic, such a symbol of solid nuclear optimism, grew to be a proud herald on that empty platform. There looks like there is a history to this car that can speak to the life of the neighborhood, or the life of the working class in New Orleans.
On another day I might be more prepared to take into account the sham that was automotive branding and GM’s corporate hierarchy. Though the car looks solid and plain enough, I’ve read enough on safety regulation to see the weak structural frame, the too-small brakes, the death that hangs over this car. The chrome seems at times like such a sham, and the bright wide grill looks like a con man smile, ready to take your money for some perceived prestige.
This 1956 Buick Special is a symbol of the false front of postwar consumerism, a time stamp from when the cracks started to show in the chrome and hard earned values were sold out for profit. The mid-fifties Buick Special was the brand’s lowest-priced model, and it brought with it a great deal of success. It was slightly more dear than the most expensive Pontiac, but less than a mid-range Oldsmobile, and the Special sold very well. The Special had the advantage of the Buick badge over its GM fellows within its price range, banking on a reputation of high quality and upper middle class credibility. The littlest Buick pulled the brand into the number three position in the US car market, presumably at the expense of its intra-firm competitors, Pontiac and Oldsmobile.¹
Though the car rose Buick’s sales by almost 50% over its normal rate, the Special also brought a great deal of trouble for Buick, as the firm did not have the wherewithal to keep up its standards for quality control with the booming production volume.² The 1956 Specials, like this car in New Orleans, showed off the first signs of Buick breaking under its self-imposed burden, with manufacturing quality far below the standard that gave the Special its cachet when it came to market in the first place.
But on that day, none of these thoughts stayed with me. The sun was setting in the perfect spot and the Buick stood with such resolve that it all washed over me. Such a handsome car, so gorgeous. The chrome pulled me into its little pockmarks.
1. Aaron Severson, “Skylark, Won’t You Lead Me There? The Strange Tale of the Buick/Rover 215 and the 3800 V6.” Ate Up With Motor. March 2, 2008. http://ateupwithmotor.com/compact-and-economy-cars/80-oh-skylark-wont-you-lead-me-there-the-strange-tale-of-the-buickrover-215-and-the-3800-v6.html (accessed August 1, 2011).