Buick Model 49 Restoration

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Sun bleached, dented, rust with rotten wood the epic began here Buick’s Model 49, the perfect ‘West Coast Woodie’ the ride of choice for MGM starlets but as wartime approached this rare model had little time to shine…. several years ago I was given the chance to follow the final months of one mega restoration project.

Silver Screen Special – 41 Buick

Timber removed with chassis in situ the body enjoyed some fresh metalThe studios of west LA enjoying the golden age of film production required the versatility of the station wagon coupled with the style their ‘matinee idols’ demanded. Buick’s Woodie became a parking lot celebrity for the likes of 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros alike, the ‘upmarket’ machine from Flint Michigan appealed to the film set; MGM even gifted one to Bette Davis. Buick having ridden the turbulence of the depression enjoyed an upturn in prosperity combined with the launch of its straight-eight power plant in 1931. Its position justified at the higher end of GM produced machines; as America prospered, so did the marque. 1940 saw the Buick Series include a ‘Woodie’ Estate Wagon and advertising featured one super star owner, Clark Cable. It would be a 1941 Model 49 that transported Paul Newman back to the chain gang and ultimately to ‘meet his maker’ in Cool Hand Luke.

Holly-Woodies

The interior had suffered immensely it resembled tornado damageBuick production for 1941 actually began 26th July 1940 and consisted of 26 different models, it would become a record year for the manufacturer with a total of 370,101 vehicles filling the dealerships. Of those the Series 40 Specials came in ‘A’ (118-inch wheelbase) or ‘B’ (121-inch wheelbase) versions. Designated Model 49, the Series 40B ‘Woodie’ six passenger estate wagon was the least produced with just 838 leaving Flint and of those only a dozen are thought to be enjoying roads today, making them highly desirable. The numbers achieved would not be repeated when events 4500 miles away changed everything; from December 7th 1941 war production would take precedence over automobile manufacture. What did the client obtain for their $1360.00 purchase price? From the bulk head rearwards, apart from the steel floor and chassis the Model 49 was purely hand crafted ash wood, minus any metal infill panels (which became the norm later), a Fisher design built by Hercules Body Company of Indiana. Canadian lumber arrived at Evansville Indiana for bodies constructed by Hercules prior to transportation, four per train boxcar onto Flint. The 1941 body had moved on from the earlier flat sided appearance offering curves, most noticeable on the doors. At just over 4 litre or 248 cubic inch Buick’s Fireball Dyna-flash straight-eight came as standard, fuel by Carter twin carbs offering 125hp pulling 3,980lbs, with 215ft lbs torque at 2000rpm. A three speed column change allowed for huge leather bench seats that easily Think Again it’s the Series 40B Special Model 49 Estate Wagon no lessaccommodate six with enough luggage compartment space to satisfy any Hollywood superstar.

When Bunny met Woodie

The tale around the creation of Buick’s Estate Wagon is certainly a good Hollywood yarn. Norman Z McLeod directed many famous ‘blockbusters’ including Alice in Wonderland and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty whilst working with the likes of Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers to name a few; plus, he liked his cars, as did his wife Evelyn (Bunny) Ward. During a West Coast dealer visit in 1938 the ‘top brass’ including Harvey Earl, GM’s Chief Designer were invited to dinner with the McLeod’s and arrived to find the house decorated in Buick flags and banners. On asking why one of the marques machines were not frequenting the couples garage Bunny said simply ‘you don’t make a station wagon and I need one’, the challenge was accepted. A daily driver with style, fit for an outdoor life, that consumed baggage with ease were Bunny’s requirements. Returning to Michigan on the ‘Super Chief’ Train of the Stars (because it ran celebrities from Chicago to LA) Earl sketched out the new Buick. Due to the limited run expected regular coachbuilders showed little interest in the concept but The Biehl Body Company of Pennsylvania accepted the project for the prototype. Buick decided this would be presented to Bunny McLeod but for 1940 the Buick Series 50 ‘Woodie’ bodies totalling 495 would be supplied via Biehl. The McLeod car with featured chrome lettering across the rear door announced ‘Bunny Bar Ranch’; the car was used as the McLeod’s mobile cocktail bar when regular joints had closed. The car was shipped in secret and presented to Bunny on stage at the Coconut Grove nightclub inside Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel. Bunny used the car regularly for many years but one day loaned it to a friend who failed to return it; the cars whereabouts is still a Hollywood mystery.

Entry via mahogany exterior and birch interior panels over ash framed doorsEl Paso to Lancing

Chassis 14239585 arrived at the RiE-Store (Restored in England) workshops in West Sussex in 2013, the gauge showed 30,000 miles travelled whilst the Hercules body number 929 looked like it had been to hell and back. Ash Dyer, a veteran of many restorations took its condition in his stride, unfazed he knew this matching numbers Series 40B Special would look a lot worse before things improved. As he explained the procedure he followed returning the Buick to its current magnificence, it didn’t take long to realise his attention to detail borders on obsessive. The ‘Bible’ he followed for the ‘Woodies’ re-birth was written by William C Anderson; the Restoration Facts for 1941 Buick’s, so in depth and exact it became the perfect companion for Ash; along with a pair of large parts manuals. Research became the key and that continued throughout the project but the first task was to organise rebuilding the heart of the ‘Woodie’, for that a coachbuilder of note would be sought. Alwyn Lee began his career with Morgan Cars and specialises in constructing new ash-frames for unique and rare vehicles. Alwyn became involved at the early stages overseeing the remnants of Hercules Body 929 Roof liners or sunroofs cannot compete against the Sistine Chapel of automobilesbeing removed; all of which could offer templates and original fitment details. Second task for RiE-Store was a strip down to the X-Frame chassis, account for what they had, then Ash could pen a list. Bob’s Auto, Cars LLC and Kanter Auto Products were three of the Stateside suppliers contacted. The straight eight was seized solid and would also require some specialist machining carried out by Board Brothers in Battersea.

The chassis would remain so Ash could rebuild the remaining steel body utilising the mounts whilst all the rolling parts that remained formed a queue for powder coat. Ash replaced both inner and outer sills and boot floor pan along with repairs to the rear wheel arches; his panel beating skills really came to the forefront at this time with virtually all parts fabricated ‘in house’; precise in size and shape. By completing with chassis mounted, Ash knew movement would be minimal and refit should offer less drama, the body was then braced prior to the blasters then onto paint. The chassis would now receive its blast/powder coat and this gave Ash time to look into the mechanicals, so that once returned assembly could begin. The completed metal-work was transported to Telford where Alwyn’s talents put the ’Woodie’ back in the Buick before returning to the south coast.

Buick’s Fireball Re-ignited

Buick’s Compound Carbs utilised the front only up to 50mph, higher speeds or hard acceleration introduced the rear unitThe straight eight motor fitted to the Model 49 had evolved from the design introduced in the mid-30s; Flints pride and joy, one correspondent wrote. Other manufacturers looked to the V configuration whilst Buick enhanced their in-line 8 with ‘domed pistons’ combined with compound carburation. Dual two barrel carbs mated with a two level intake manifold, unique to Buick, it was discontinued post-war. The Fireball for 1941 still sported Buick’s In-Valve-Head (OHV), the marques design from the turn of the century offering good performance and reliability. ‘Seized solid’ Ash confirmed ‘not surprising with water in the sump’. The block took a re-bore to five cylinders whilst three required sleeves; then came the shopping list. New Cam bearings, valve guides and springs, rocker arm shaft and pushrods. Rebuilt oil pump, head skimmed, block faced and 5 bearing crank re-ground with con rods receiving new white metal, from there all that was needed was an engine stand and some know how. Ash confirmed the rebuild went very well with no dramas and the only stage that was not straightforward was in setting up the timing. Strobe lights not required with a more ‘old school’ approach via number 7 cylinder and dial gauges; the result pleased all concerned with fire up on the first key turn.

Attention to Detail

Dash panel becomes the focal point of an interior with so much to enjoyWilliam C Anderson’s book Restoration Facts is so precise it includes many details of factory practices that RiE-Store would follow to the letter; the amount of gloss used in their black painted parts would vary from 20 to 60 degrees. Original hardware coatings included chrome, zinc, cadmium, black oxide and parkerized (egg shell black with added shine supplied by used engine oil) but with cadmium plating unavailable nowadays Ash refurbished those items in zinc. Obtaining the correct finish of aged fastenings is not straightforward and if the hidden underside of the fixing didn’t divulge, more research via parts catalogues would certainly follow. Clear coating the reverse side of bumpers for protection is an over restoration according to Mr Anderson whilst an aluminium paint finish is most suitable and closest to original factory finish. The Model 49 was heavier by 200lbs and thus the springs required left the factory with two daubs of red paint on each. The engine block is finished in Dante Red whilst the gearbox/flywheel required semi-gloss black and the twin carbs on the Series 40 were paint free apart from a 30% black gloss on the base; the single carb version was white. The four ply Firestone tyres of 16 inches must have the whitewall of 3 ¾ to four inches whilst the rubber valve is capped with a valve removing tool finished in nickel plate. Standard Buick practice was to run their engines on natural gas at production stage but removing associated parts such as distributor and manifolds to paint made no sense thus paper bags were used to cover these whilst colour was applied. The author therefore concludes: engine with slight overspray on those components are closer to original than those without. Just some examples of the phenomenal detail which Ash looked to replicate as close as possible and that challenge continued with the interior.

Timber and Hide

Buick Model 49‘Door alignment was tough’ Ash confessed, taking several days of adjustment, the 1941 ‘Woodie’ featured a curved side unlike the flat side of the previous year. The tubular seat frames are unique to the Model 49 and whilst the front was in good order, the rear required repairs in several areas before a trip to the nickel-plate bath. The Model 49 leather is a coarser, more durable grain than standard and Buick gave 3 options of colour; the seats sport the original 922 Tan finish courtesy of local trimmer Mark Thomas. Leather bound beige ‘Box Weave’ carpeting stretches from front to rear but it’s up front where the stunning dash and instruments grab your attention. The inner dials were re-copper plated whilst the outer plastics with recessed numbers took hours of patience returning them to their former glory. Figures and needles were hand finished with the smallest of modelling brushes and once reassembled with freshly chromed rings Ash confirmed this as one of the most satisfying parts of the interior. With all the glamour in the passenger’s eye line it’s easy to overlook the cathedral like roof, beautifully constructed and finished, 30 lengths of curved ash on view stretch from front to back.

Cinematic Presentation

Buick Model 49 Station WagonAn epic project, covering several years, thousands of man hours plus a fair few Dollars ensured one 75-year-old Buick enjoys another lifetime. Whilst the ‘Woodies’ heyday may have been in a different era, this Buick will attract an audience for decades to come. Superbly re-born, by a team who meticulously followed the cars original design; for Ash and RiE-Store it’s onto the next salvation but for this ‘star car’ with a big title (Buick Eight Series 40B Special Model 49 Four Door Estate ‘Woodie’ Wagon) a new life beckons. It certainly wouldn’t look out of place back on Hollywood Boulevard.

Words and Images Grant Ford

Resources;

RiE-Store (Restored in England) http://www.rie-store.com
Board Brothers Engine Machining London SW11  boardbros46@gmail.com
Mark Thomas Trimming Lancing http://www.markthomastrimming.com
Alwyn Lee Coachbuilding Telford http://www.alwynlee.co.uk
Paint by Riverside Autos West Sussex
Powder Coat by Penfold Metalising Co West Sussex
Plating by Silva Bronze Hampshire

Buick Eight Series 40B Special Model 49 Specification;

  • Engine: Straight 8/248 cu in/4064cc/OHV/Compression 7.0-1
  • Carbs: 2 x Carter twin barrel Fr WCD509S Rr WCD510S
  • Performance: 125 BHP@3800rpm/215ft lbs torque@2000rpm
  • Gearbox: 3 Speed plus reverse/column change synchro in 2nd and 3rd
  • Electrics: 6 Volt system battery Type 15E2
  • Suspension: Coil springs, double-action lever action shock absorbers Fr & Rr
  • Brakes: 4 x Cast iron drums power by self-energising hydraulics
  • Wheels & Tyres: Steel rims of 5in with Firestone 16 X 6.5 4 Ply
  • Fuel: Capacity 18 gallons/81 litres
  • Weight: 3980 lbs or 1805 kg
  • Length: 17 ½ ft. Width: 6 ft 4 in