Buick celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1953 by putting a Motorama show car into actual production. Named “Skylark”, this limited-edition was an ultra-luxury, full-size sports convertible. It was a Harley Earl creation all the way. This stunning automobile was based on Buick's experimental sports car, the XP-300, which created a huge amount of excitement in 1952. With so many customers wanting to place orders for an XP-300, Buick banked on that interest and built the Skylark. The 1953 Skylark was one of the most expensive cars in Buick's lineup and in the collector car market; ownership of a Skylark is considered an acquisition of remarkable historic significance.
The magnificent example on display in Ken’s collection is #38 of 1,690 produced in an “off production” area of the GM plant in Flint Michigan. It was possibly built either the 2nd or 3rd day of full Skylark production.
The original purchase of the car was made in 1953 by Eugene French from a dealer in the Minneapolis, MN area. Eugene French’s name is inscribed on the original horn button. An emblem on the car indicated that it came from a dealer from Minneapolis. Sometime in the late 1960’s the now used car was purchased in Atlanta, GA from a private owner by Tom McGauley from Fond du Lac, WI. The car was one of three that the owner had at the time. Tom drove the car back to Wisconsin. He said the car drove and handled great. It was, however a little drafty as the top needed replacement and the October weather was cold.
He eventually sold the car to a friend. Who wanted to sell it back to Tom several years later. Tom asked about the condition of the car. He was told that it was under cover. When Tom went to pick up the car, he did find it under cover, under a tree in a field somewhat the worse for wear and in need of a serious attention. Tom never got around to fixing the car up and it just sat in a barn for 10-15 years. Then in 1988 he sold it to Glenn Barnett a collector and preservationist from Beaver Dam, WI along with a four door 1953 Buick Roadmaster donor/parts car.
Glenn knew his way around Skylarks, having owned a few. He undertook the restoration by completely disassembling the car. Sheet metal work was done with many pieces being hand fabricated by Glenn. The chassis and suspension were restored to showroom condition. The engine and drivetrain were rebuilt and refinished. Then, in 1999 he sold the project to Bill Oldenburg of Galena, IL. Bill continued the restoration for a client who intended it to be his personal car for the occasional cruise night and some top down driving thru historic downtown Galena. However, once the restoration was underway, the client knew it was going to be too perfect to ever drive regularly, he decided to sell it. Knowing that Ken Nagel had a collection full of number 1 cars that are preserved, well cared for, regularly maintained, and exercised, he offered it to Ken. Ken bought the car and placed it in his collection in 2006.
Jeff Baker of Jeff Baker Restorations in Yorkville, IL completed the restoration detail work in the engine compartment. He installed and properly routed the correct wiring along with making sure every screw, clamp and finish was in showroom condition. The car was on special display at the Muscle Car And Corvette Nations in Rosemont, Il on November 18 & 19, 2022.
Based on the Buick Roadmaster, Skylark was offered only as a convertible. They were the cars of the rich and famous; Milton Berle, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason were some of the better-known celebrities that drove them. Much of the body and engine work was done by hand, accounting for the $5,000 price tag. The Skylark's exclusive nature was such that Buick engraved the original owner's name on the tripartite medallion in the horn button. At $5,000 a copy the Skylark was nearly twice the price of a regular Buick convertible. Only 1,690 cars were produced.
With the convertible top in the up position, the Skylark stands less than five feet tall. The low slung appearance was achieved by lowering seat frames, steering column and chopping the windshield 4 inches. The stampings for the front fenders, rear fenders, doors, and a portion of the convertible tub were unique to the Skylark. Other body panels were mostly hand modified Roadmaster panels. The doors were sectioned in Flint and then re-welded to create the low, sweeping bodyline. This also meant that all the side glass was special to the Skylark. The “Ventiports” were shaved off the front fenders to keep the lines clean; the wheel wells were opened up and painted red or white to highlight the chrome wire wheels. The wheel arches were rounded to a sporty look to accentuate the white wall tires and wire wheels. A two-way chromed "sweepspear" began at the front wheels and dipped sharply ahead of the rear ones before "jumping" over them and ending near twin "bullet" taillights on each rear fender.
While the exterior appearance was certainly visually stunning the interior was no less than extraordinary. The interior appointments are luxurious. In addition to sumptuous leather seats, carpets and door panels, power windows were standard. The leather seats were soft-tanned cowhide. The front bench seat moved forward automatically when the front seatback was tilted to gain access to the rear compartment. The Selectronic radio with a power antenna is activated by a floor mounted button on the driver side. The convertible top, seats and power windows are all hydraulically operated. New for 1953, too, was the use of a 12-volt electrical system.
An all new "Fireball" 322-cu.in. V-8 producing 188 horsepower was the only engine available for the Skylark. With a bore and stroke of 4.0 x 3.2 inches, these well-built engines featured specially designed dome-shaped cylinder heads nicknamed “Nailhead.” The cylinder heads were engineered to concentrate the fuel charge at the precise point where its explosive force would most effectively push the piston down its bore. Each piston was custom fitted to its cylinder, which ensured longer life and quieter operation. Internally, the crankshaft featured cam-ground balancing of the counterweights. The T-Type intake manifold was another unique feature; it distributed fuel to each cylinder more evenly than the conventional Y-Type arrangement. The Skylark could cruise effortlessly all day at 100 mph. There were two different brands of four-barrel carburetors used: a Stromberg 4AUV-267, or a Carter WCFB-996S.
The only transmission used in the Skylark was a Twin Turbine Dynaflow. The Twin Turbine debuted in 1953 and used a four-element torque converter featuring two turbines interconnected through a planetary gear set. This setup gave a more positive connection between the engine and the driveshaft making for exceptionally durable and reliable gearboxes that rarely need any major repairs. With an anti-roll bar up front, coil springs at all four corners and hydraulic lever-arm-type shock absorbers, the suspension delivered superb ride and handling.
Although it was only produced in limited numbers the 1953 Skylark ushered in the era of personal sport luxury cars that would eventually be copied by almost every American manufacturer for the next 20 years. The 1954 models underwent styling changes that sacrificed some of the hand built sports car styling that made the ’53 model so captivating. Just 836 copies were made before production was discontinued. No collection of significant 50’s and 60’s automobiles would be complete without one.
1953 Buick Skylark Convertible
Feature Article from Hemmings Classic Car
April, 2008 - George Mattar