American Classic: Buick Roadmaster
Most people know funny man Jay Leno for his late night talk show days but any good auto enthusiast will also tell you that, in addition to comedy, Leno is also one of the most famous collectors around—with a garage rivalled by many but matched by few. If you were lucky enough to get a tour of Leno’s digs, you’d likely be introduced to “Rosebud”—a perfectly restored 1955 Buick Roadmaster and one of Leno’s most cherished treasures.
1955 Roadmaster Gallery
Rosebud the Roadmaster
In automotive circles, Leno’s Roadmaster has become as beloved as his jokes, though you might be surprised to know that the comedian didn’t pay out his famous nose for the aforementioned wheels. No, Leno bought the 1955 Buick Roadmaster when he was still a kid trying to make it in comedy circles.
The Buick cost him $350 in 1972, though the sentimental value far exceeds the sales price—Leno drove the Buick Roadmaster on his first date with wife Mavis.
Although the car was restored in 1973, 30+ years of wear and tear inspired Leno to give the car “more than just a restoration,” as he told New York Times auto guy Jim Motavalli. “It had to be better than new.” Today the rebuilt 1955 Buick Roadmaster is a tribute to restoration.
Rosebud received a brand new DuPont paint job, new chrome, wider wheels and tires, and matching Buick hubcaps. The interior was updated and the engine was replaced—with 620 horses. Unafraid to get Rosebud a little dirty, Leno still rides these horses to work. “It’s special to me because it was my first vehicle here in California,” he says. “Now it’s better than new because we’ve brought it into the 21st century.”
There’s no doubt that Leno’s Roadmaster is a modern classic. But what about the original? Make no mistake about it, the Buick where Leno wooed his wife made plenty of drivers swoon long before Jay was telling jokes.
The Buick Roadmaster first came onto the scene in 1936 as Buick’s re-imagined Series 70. By 1936, Buick decided the Series 40, 60, 70, and 90 were old news and the Buick Roadmaster joined the Special, the Century, and the Limited as the newly redesigned members of Buick’s fleet, renamed to herald the company’s many engineering and design advancements.
Why the Buick Roadmaster?
The 1955 Buick Roadmaster was a new take on an old favourite and you could see how the model had matured with one look. Right out of the garage, the Buick Roadmaster took on a more elegant look with a simplified grille and tasteful golden hood ornaments. Vibrant bands of colour wrapped around the car, as did a broad strip of chrome on the bumper.
Above that, the 1955 Buick Roadmaster still wore four ventiports. Inside the cab, bench seats were swathed in the colour and fabric of the buyer’s choosing—and the selection ran the gamut. From the driver’s seat, the dashboard sparkled, rimmed in aluminium, with a dramatic horizontal speedometer in the spotlight. Even the trunk was carpeted!
But it was performance and style that set the Roadmaster apart. The engine, nicknamed the Fireball, was a 322 cubic inch V-8 that ran on 236 horsepower. The Fireball, with its bore and stroke of 4.00 x 3.20 inches and the compression ratio of 9.0:1, paired up with the variable-pitch Dynaflow transmission to produce impressive torque and speed.
Knee-action shock absorbers outfitted the rear suspension giving the car smoother handling—along with power steering—and Buick’s standard hydraulic-servo drum brakes stayed another year. The car also came standard with backup lamps, custom wheel covers, and an electric clock.
When all was said and done, the Roadmaster was one of the most well-appointed cars on the market, thanks in large part to the car’s redesign. Buick’s hard work paid off—64,527 Buick Roadmasters were sold in 1955.
Buick continued working hard to sustain the enthusiasm generated by the 1955 Buick Roadmaster, but it was unable to match the car’s popularity in the years to follow.
The car underwent another redesign in 1957 with executives crossing their fingers that the car’s market would bounce back. It didn’t. Engineering upgrades in the 1958 model year did little to stir the Buick Roadmaster’s sleeping sales. (The “jukebox” effect, created by a thick application of chrome, didn’t help, either.) So, in 1959, the Buick Roadmaster was quietly retired and replaced by the Buick Electra.
Electra-flying the Road(master)
The Electra cured a few of the Buick Roadmaster’s ills. Its engine was vastly more impressive—a 401 cubic-inch V-8 boasting 325 horsepower. And the car’s styling begged to be gaped at. It was dramatic—scene-stealing, really—and a big departure from the Buick Roadmaster’s more conservative design. Electra buyers could take the pick from a 4-door sedan, a 2-door coupe, or a 2-door convertible.
With the Electra, the Buick Roadmaster looked to have forever faded into automotive history—until 1991, when Buick brought back the Roadmaster name for its Estate station wagon. Over 30 years after the Roadmaster was retired, drivers could once again cruise the street in one, know named the Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagons.
Buick Roadmaster station wagons had also been popular choices back in 1953. Five years later, Buick retired the Roadmaster for the last time—the last station wagon was produced in 1996.
Today the Buick Roadmaster is best remembered as a classy little car that didn’t need to shout its value to the customer because its style and performance specs spoke for themselves.
Roadmasters are commemorated in fiction—a favourite of Janet Evanovich’s and Saul Bellow’s—as well as film in movies like Mulholland Falls. And, of course, we know the 1955 Buick Roadmaster has found itself on television quite a few times, thanks to the collecting comedian, Jay Leno. Where will the Buick Roadmaster reappear next?