For years, the luxury car that enticed American families to hit the open road belonged to Buick. What kind of car was the Buick Roadmaster?
The last thing you want to do is restore a car that will be more of an albatross than a real head-turner. Are Roadmasters worth the trouble? What kind of tires did they use? How much money will it cost to restore one? Are they good cars to make hot rods out of? There are so many questions and not nearly enough answers.
The Buick Roadmaster was the flagship vehicle for Buick for several years. Production occurred from 1936-42, 46-58, and again in 1991-96. The cars were large, luxury vehicles designed to meet the needs of an ever-growing populace who loved the thrill of driving.
And here it is, just sitting there in an old barn, waiting for a pair of loving hands like yours. You know that it can take some energy and a little bit of luck to restore the old beast. Are parts hard to get? Do they even make parts anymore? And if your car isn’t going to make people ooh and ah at the meet, should you even take the project on?
We are happy to report that Buick Roadmasters, even though they tend to be some of the largest vehicles Buick ever made, are worth the money. We have scoured the internet and owner forums to give you a guide to the car and see if we can answer your questions.
When Did Buick Make the Roadmaster?
The Buick Roadmaster was a part of the lineup of cars that Buick offered to the public from 1936 - 42 and from 1946 through 1958. The nameplate was resurrected again for a series of station wagons made in 1991 - 1996. Over the years, the cars went through many designs but shared large chassis and extended noses to accommodate the V8 engines that powered them.
The Early Years
The nameplate of Roadmaster originated as a result of a redesign that Buick undertook in 1935 in preparation for the following model year. Buick was in the middle of a significant reshuffle of its lineup, and they felt that their existing models, known as a “Series 60, 80, or 90 ", did not do enough to delineate between the various models. Buick felt that the models needed specific names to help reinforce the rapid engineering advancements and refinements that the manufacturer was making and provide each model with its own specific identity. So, early models (1936 - 37) earned the name Roadmaster (formerly Series 80) because the designers felt that the car was such a beast on the open road with the newly made V8 engine (a 320 cubic inch with 130 horsepower). These masters of the road vehicles were more prominent than the other GM counterparts, weighed more, and were among some of the most powerful vehicles in the GM lineup.
The Flagship of Buick - 1950s
The Buick Roadmaster became the premier vehicle for the car brand during the 1950s. Sales were buoyed by Post War soldiers and their families, who were heading home to pursue bright futures, and were falling in love with larger sedans. The World War was now over, and a spirit of American Optimism, unlike the hardships of the Great Depression, began to permeate the hearts and minds of the buying public. Families grew. Homes were built, and large affluent cars were purchased and driven. The fifties were a call to prosperity.
The invention of the Dynaflow automatic transmission allowed owners to shift without the usual lag compared to other automatic transmissions. Consumers were attracted by the “smoothness” of the shift, and manufacturers were racing to improve their transmissions. (Ford offered their Ford-O-Matic, in an attempt to catch up with GM). While the transmission tended to increase acceleration at lower speeds, it added significantly to the amount of gas consumption, decreasing fuel economy. However, during the post-war era, gasoline was cheap, so the Nailhead V8 engine and new transmission didn’t hurt sales.
Perhaps the best development came from switching from a straight eight-cylinder to a newly developed V8 engine for Buick in 1953. The new configuration, dubbed “Nailhead V8” by hot rodders (the valves had long stems and small heads which made them look like nails), instantly found a home in the larger cars that Americans seem to enjoy. (Ford had been mass-producing the Flathead V8 since 1932 with great success). The straight inline V8 was a long and tall engine and was prone to excessive piston rod failure when revved at high RPMs. The V configuration allowed four to six cylinders to be placed at 60-degree angles on either engine side. This configuration allowed for higher displacements (more power and better durability than their inline eight-cylinder counterparts.
However, during the later part of the 1950s, enthusiasm for the enormous Buick’s like the Roadmaster deteriorated. Turned off by younger buyers, a new generation began to seek sleeker cars that were faster and less cumbersome than the automobiles their parents had driven. (Many families adopted televisions for the first time and saw newer, more affluent cars on their screens with happy families. By the mid-fifties, over half of US homes had a black and white television). The Roadmaster was discontinued in 1958, as Buick retooled its design ahead of the 1959 release. The former flagship was replaced by the Le Sabre, Electra, and Invicta models with larger v8 engines (401 cu.in.).
A Nameplate Resurrected - 1991 to 1996
The Buick Roadmaster made its return tour to the car-buying public in 1991. Energized by the Chevrolet Caprice Estate station wagon, the Roadmaster Estate was longer than the Buick Park Avenue or Cadillac DeVille. Sales for the first year were dismal at best, and Buick added a sedan the following year to try and capture the frenzy for renewed interest in the family station wagon.
The engine for the 1991 model was Chevy’s small-block V8, but Buick quickly switched to the 5.7L LT1 Corvette V8 with internal sequential fuel injection for the 1994 retooled version. The engines were paired with four-speed automatic transmissions. One of the heaviest cars on the road, the Buick wagon could haul up to 5,000 lbs, making it ideal for pulling small popup camping trailers. Unfortunately, most of the buyers for the roadmaster were not young families but retirees who were now well-to-do. As the young buying public began to purchase imports like Toyota and Hondas increasingly, the market for gas-guzzling monstrosities like the Roadmaster or Chevy Caprice simply dried up.
Unfortunately, the early nineties also brought forth the emergence of a large SUV like the Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition, and families needing additional cargo room opted for the new full-size sports utility vehicles. Buick Roadmaster was a victim of lagging sales and a growing dislike of waste and inefficiency.
What Years Are the Rarest Buick Roadmasters?
Buick has several years where they didn’t seem to make very many of this beautiful vehicle.
The 1947 - 53 Woody Wagon
These wood-paneled wagons were some of the best vehicles to be sold in the American market. While Ford was the leader in wooden panels attached to the sides of vehicles, Buick was not to be outdone. For example, wood was used to accentuate the rear side windows of the 1949 Roadmaster, keeping most of the rear charisma of the car (with flanged rear fenders) intact.
To be sure, if you were a consumer in the late 40s or early 50s and you wanted wood added, it would cost you almost 50% increase in the price of the car (at the time, it was an over $1000 upgrade. The Roadmaster went for a base price of $2000).
As you can see from the table below, production for all Roadmaster wagons was minimal, and as such, they are highly sought after by collectors. If you stumble across one, particularly with wooden panels, you have found the holy grail, and you should sell everything you can to purchase the car.
The 1950 - 1951 Roadmaster Riviera Coupe
This coupe came rambling onto the American scene in 1949 and was pretty popular with the public. One of Buick's history quirks is that part of the Riviera’s appeal was the hydraulic seats and windows and convertible tops. Label as the Hydo-electric, it was a combination of electric motor and hydraulic pump located near the right front fender. As the power windows were lowered, the front seat moved back so that the driver had room to relax and talk.
A button also operated the convertible top on the left side of the dash marked “top.” Again, an electric motor, oil pump, and hydraulics were employed. This car is fun, but parts for the hydraulics can be challenging, difficult to find, and expensive to keep running.
The hardtop version is also sought after by collectors, particularly if it has four air holes on the sides of the front quarter panels. The car was powered by Buick’s fireball straight eight-cylinder (an engine they had used for twenty years).
1991 - 1996 Roadmaster Station Wagons
In an attempt not to be outdone by the Chevrolet Caprice Estate wagon, Buick brought back the Roadmaster nameplate. These old 90s station wagons are growing in value, and while they have not made the rare air of a 50s wood-paneled wagon, they will become highly sought-after collectors in a few years. (These cars are still available at reasonable prices and require minimal upkeep). They are large, cumbersome, and clunky when driven, but it is just the kind of car you want to drive to remind you of family days when nobody cared about the price of gasoline. (Yes, there were days like that. Gasoline cost was $1.11 or so).
Are Parts Hard to Get for the Roadmaster?
Parts are still readily available for most Buick Roadmasters, depending on the year. The production level of the 1990s models was limited, but plenty of parts are still around, and these are some of the best-built Buicks ever made, so they don’t break down that much. A host of companies make many aftermarket parts for various companies that can also be used in restorations. Finding parts with original matching numbers can be very difficult.
Will the Roadmaster Ever Make a Comeback?
With the push toward electricity, it seems unlikely that the Roadmaster will make a comeback any time soon. (Although, a version of a large SUV named Roadmaster made a digital return to the web and began to create quite a bit of buzz this past year).
The days of large vehicles are over for the most part, and the current cost of gasoline will continue to eat into the fuel hogs of the past. However, the Roadmaster nameplate is one of the most recognized in Buicks history and could be revived as a marketing tactic to draw attention to a third road SUV.
Have I Seen Antique Buick Roadmasters on Television?
The Roadmaster has been a staple part of television programs since the mid-1950s. Buick was the third-largest car manufacturer (GM was first, followed by Ford).
The early television show, The Highway Patrol, used 1955 Buick Roadmasters. Because the series highlighted the car's speed and durability, sales for Roadmasters shot through the roof.
The Buick Roadmaster has made several cameos in the film world as well. The car has been an icon of period pieces from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to the Oscar-winning “Rain Man.”
What is the Highest Priced Roadmaster on the Road Today?
The most recognized Roadmaster is the one that appeared in the movie Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Hoffman auctioned off the car this past year after housing it for 34 years. The winning bid was $335,000, which was well past early estimates.
Are Buick Roadmasters from the 90s Good Cars to Restore?
Once SUVs began to hit the lots of car dealers everywhere, the classic station wagon like the Buick Roadmaster got pushed out in favor of the larger vehicles. While the demand for SUVs has not stopped, there was little market for the cumbersome Buick for a long time. The value of a typical 90s Roadmaster was barely over $1200 - 1500, even with low mileage.
However, millennials with money to burn seem to be changing that trend. Lately, the Buick Roadmasters from the 90s are increasing in value as the few left are put back together for the road. Many collectors are seeking out these large cars to add to their collections, equate they realize the limited number of production units means this car will only grow in value.
Did the 90s Buick Roadmaster have a Corvette Engine?
Chevrolet decided to place the LT1 Corvette engine slightly differently, but it was the same. In their 1992 model, Buick used the 5.7 iron-block 16 valve V8 for the 1994 Buick Roadmaster. The engine produced 260 horsepower and 335 lb/ft torque. The vehicle was discontinued two years later as sales for new SUVs replaced the desire for a station wagon.
About THE AUTHOR
I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.Read More About Charles Redding