1939 Buick Roadmaster 80C Sport Phaeton

This significant vehicle currently resides in the Mark Hymen Collection.

1939 Buick Roadmaster 80C Sport Phaeton

A Buick Roadmaster was selected as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500, and this car is presented in Indy 500 livery. Fitted with an impressive red interior, with black parade tonneau as well as the regular cloth top with proper boot.

Long the steady stalwart within General Motors’ “aspirational ladder” of marques and models, Buick suffered more than its counterparts in the mid-Thirties, falling behind Dodge, Pontiac and Oldsmobile in annual output. Alfred P. Sloan took the first step toward rectifying Buick’s rightful place when he appointed Harlow W. Curtice to be president of the division in December, 1933.

Faced with long design and production lead times, Curtice struggled with Buick’s stature in the mid-Thirties. But the completely redesigned 1936 eight cylinder Buicks soon helped the division regain parity with Olds and Pontiac, eclipsing both of them in 1937 and surpassing Dodge in 1938 to re-establish Buick in fourth place behind only the low-priced three: Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth.

It was an achievement made possible by concentrating on Buick’s straight-eight “valve-in-head” engines and dramatic restyling that established Buick at the forefront of American automobile design. Even while struggling with the Depression’s lingering effects, the public was willing to step up to Buicks priced 25 percent more than a Ford or Plymouth, ample indication of Buick’s inherent value and the perceived value of Buick prestige.

Buicks offered impressive specifications in 1939: overhead valve eight cylinder Inline engines, 4-wheel hydraulic brakes, full coil spring suspension, column-mounted shift linkage, integrated rear turn signals and a standard “Sonomatic” radio.

Curtice was determined to solidify Buick’s sales supremacy and kicked off 1939 with a sales meeting that set a 200,000-unit sales goal. He supported his goal not only with excellent Buicks but also with revised styling that integrated the headlights into the front fender catwalks and a distinctive, attractive split waterfall grille.

Promoting Buicks also was important. Its design concepts were highlighted in public displays of Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job, Detroit’s first concept car. Its performance was showcased in the appearance of a Buick Roadmaster Sport Phaeton as the pacesetter for the 1939 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

For 1939, Buick offered two variations of its Phaeton body style – a convertible sedan with four doors, folding top, rollup side windows and folding center posts — the standard trunk-back Model 81C and the fastback Model 80C Sport Phaeton. Curiously the latter style — sleek, balanced and refined — found only three buyers in 1939, making it one of the most rare of all Thirties Buicks, or anything else for that matter.

This example was acquired by collector Henry Lewis in the late 80s and given a comprehensive body-off-the-frame restoration that was completed in the early 90s. Completed to like-new standards without going overboard in cosmetics, presentation, materials or accessories, it is one of the most conscientiously and accurately restored examples of its era, a car done “just right” without excess.

Displayed at a few selected events since then, it earned a class award as recently as 2003 at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. It is finished in Sequoia Cream with red leather upholstery and interior trim, beige carpets, a dramatic red painted woodgrained dashboard, and black cloth top and tonneau cover. Red steel wheels with hubcaps and trim rings are mounted with purposeful black wall tires appropriate to its presentation with Indianapolis Pace Car lettering in gold leaf. The body fits are excellent. Accessories include a driver’s spotlight, dual enclosed sidemounts, radio and heater.

In recent years, it was displayed at the AACA Museum in Hershey and was featured in the May/June 2011 issue of the AACA magazine, Antique Automobile. With 141 horsepower from its 320cid overhead valve Inline eight, its performance endorses its selection as the Indy 500 Pace Car.

As it turns out, Harlow Curtice was successful in his 1939 model year sales objective, wrapping up the year with sales of 208,000 units and trailing only Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth in total sales. The concept, style and performance of the 1939 Buicks is nowhere more apparent than in this beautifully restored, multiple award-winning and exceedingly rare Roadmaster 80C Sport Phaeton.

– — By Rick Carey


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