’59 & ’60 Buicks Delta-winged dishes. While snooping around the early Sixties Satellite Earth Station at Goonhilly in Cornwall, Classic American came upon two large, mysterious structures of a similar age. What could they be? Words: Nigel Boothman. Photography: John Isaac.
They look like they belong to the Space Age. That’s not the age we’re in now, when several nations are actually able to go into space at will, but the previous age. Back when only the two massive superpowers could manage a few laps of the planet for a doomed husky or a very brave pilot, and before we ever set foot on the moon. Back then, anything seemed possible. After all, we’d gone from the first powered flight to firing people out of orbit inside 60 years. When Yuri Gagarin circled the earth, there were people alive who remembered reading about the Wright Brothers in the newspaper. It’s now 53 years since the first manned space-flight, and obviously progress has slowed considerably.
Maybe that’s one of the things that made (and still makes) cars from the late Fifties and early Sixties such outrageous bits of design. If people back then were convinced that 15 or 20 years later they’d all be piloting flying cars and living like the Jetsons, they wanted that fabulous future to start as soon as possible. It could start most easily with the car. General Motors certainly got the message. We all know how American car styling went further and further into fantasy land as the Fifties went on, but let’s face it: GM won, didn’t it? Think of the 1959 output: the immortal Cadillacs, the batwing Chevys, those Pontiacs that actually managed four tail fins – two above, two below – and then the deeply OTT Oldsmobiles, plus of course the Delta-wing Buicks.
As we peer round the edge of a giant satellite dish at these two almost alien-looking craft, we try to take it all in. The leaning-over fins of the white ’1959 car were not as colossal as Chevrolet’s, but the Buick is a more integrated piece of styling, with the rear end’s upsweeps and central dip echoed at the front of the car, where the angled headlamps wore the severest eyebrows in the motor industry. The brightwork streaks run back from the front corners to the centre of the bullet-like tail-lamps, overlapping with the tail fins, (which begin by the A-pillars) by about 12ft.
Buick made sure we got the message: flight, light, speed, grace and power. It was a theme repeated by the layout of the dash, with everything bar the speedometer in pod-like circular bezels – part artificial horizon, part gunsight. And in the case of this glorious flat-top sedan, you have a candidate for the greatest ratio of glass area to pillar width in automotive history.
Just look at that extraordinary wraparound rear screen… riding in this car must be more like travelling in a motor yacht with a Bimini top than cruising in a conventional saloon.
But space race or no space race, the auto industry got self-conscious about fins even faster than it put them into production.
Almost all were toned down for the 1960 model year and Buick was no exception. The blue ’60 car seems to have been to the barber, where the front and rear quiffs have been trimmed and rounded off somewhat. Traditional Buick touches have returned, like the Ventiports and the vertically divided grille, kind of a concave echo of the old convex ‘dollar grin’.
Inside, the differences are more striking. Buick elected to make the 1960 dash the polar opposite of the ’1959 look, and it does show us the beginnings of the more minimalist approach we’d get through the rest of the decade. But it’s also clever, and the mirro-matic speedometer is typical – the speedo is printed backwards and viewed through a mirror that can be adjusted for different driver heights. Together with the stand-alone clock and the gunsight gear selector it’s very stylish.
Who are the pearly-white, all-American astronauts who pilot these projectiles? Turns out they’re a couple of mates from Cornwall, Seamus Moran and Julian Hosking. Seamus is the owner of the blue 1960 car and it was he that bought a Buick first. “It’s an Invicta,” he says, “which was the model above the Le Sabre and below the Electra, so it’s got a 401cu in V8 rated at 325bhp, plus power windows, brakes and steering. I’ve upgraded it with some Foxcraft fender skirts I found unused on eBay, still in primer, and a power front seat.”
Seamus tells us what he knows of the car’s history: “It was imported in 1996, I think by Dream Cars (see www.dreamcars.co.uk or call 01737 765050) at which point it had recently been painted. It’s stood up really well – I think there are lots of coats of lacquer. Anyway, I didn’t lay eyes on the car until 2007. I’d had a ’1957 Olds for about 10 years and I fancied a change; I always wanted a 1959 or ’60 Chevrolet Impala but it so happened that when I put the Olds up for sale, it was bought by a guy called Andy Inglis. Andy asked me what I was after and I was more general. I said I wanted a ’59 or ’60 GM car, ideally pillarless.”
Andy Inglis is a name that will crop up again in this story, but for now, we’ll wind forward a few weeks to the moment he texts Seamus to tell him about a car. “My son had just fallen out of a tree and broken his arm, and then this text arrives from Andy… I still remember this strange feeling of worry mingled with excitement.”
The young Moran was taken away to be mended and a few days later, Seamus went up from Cornwall to see the car at Andy’s place in Buckinghamshire. Andy put Seamus up for the night and by the time he left the following day, Seamus had bought a four-door, flat-top Buick. “I thought I really wanted a coupe, but it was such a good car, with a nicely redone interior and nothing really wrong with it, that I had to buy it,” says Seamus.
He had a long drive back to Cornwall through filthy weather in October 2007 and the car confirmed its initial impressions to Seamus, taking the whole journey in its stride. Since then, Seamus has performed one major piece of work: “I took the engine out to smarten up the underbonnet area and it seemed silly not to have the engine rebuilt at the same time. I ended up having it totally redone, though with hindsight it really didn’t need that much. Since then, I’ve driven it a fair bit and been to quite a few shows.”
It was at one of these shows that he saw Julian, or rather Julian saw him. They’d known each other for a while as fellow American car owners, and on this particular day Julian was in a 2006 Mustang. “I saw Seamus’s Buick and I really regretted not having something old,” says Julian. I’ve had 15 different American cars over the years, starting with a 1973 Cadillac Sedan de Ville I bought when I was 22 for £650. I decided I needed another classic.”
Seamus remembers the day when Julian called to say he’d seen a car for sale in Portsmouth. “He described this white ’59 Buick and how he was just going up to look at it, and I said ‘you’ll buy that’, and of course he did.” Julian’s version adds a little detail: “I’d seen the car advertised in Classic American for quite a while. It had also been through Andy Inglis’s hands but it was advertised by Trojan Motors (see www.trojancars.co.uk or call 02392 617444) when I saw it. This was April last year, when I was turning 40, and I fancied getting a birthday present for myself. I was actually due to go and see a ’57 Cadillac at Dream Cars on the same trip, but that was sold the night before I set off. To be honest, I probably would have bought the Buick anyway.”
It’s a Le Sabre, so makes do with wind-up windows and has a mere 364cu in under the hood, but the Dynaflow transmission is the same, as is the effortless power steering. In its brief year with Julian, it’s only the Dynaflow that’s given cause for concern. And only then because of Classic American. Well, sort of.
“On the day of the photoshoot at Goonhilly, I was about to back out of my drive, so I put the car into reverse and something went ‘bang’. No reverse gear. But I didn’t want to miss the shoot so I got a friend to tow me up the drive and then made do without going backwards for the rest of the day.” A broken reverse band anchor was to blame, and was fixed, but now with reverse slipping again Julian has to face up to entrusting the rather unusual Dynaflow mechanism to someone for an expert rebuild.
He and Seamus go out for the odd rumble round the Cornish lanes together in their Buicks and they’ve done a wedding, which must have been spectacular. Like Seamus, Julian says he wanted a coupe initially, but again like Seamus, he only has to take one look at the flat-top with its side windows wound down to recall why he loves the shape.
Julian’s day job as a driving instructor has probably been boosted by his love affair with American cars – it would tend to make you wellknown in a small town in Cornwall. For Seamus, it’s a different dynamic. His day job, or rather jobs, give him the kind of eye for design that boosts his appreciation for the car. He imports and sells art products of his own design and makes moulds for other artists’ projects, plus he creates and exhibits his own art – he was shortlisted for the £30,000 Threadneedle prize last year.
“I consider my car a piece of art. It’s a fourwheeled sculpture. Anyone who bought a new American car in 1959 or ’60 experienced the pinnacle of what it was to have an artistic statement as your daily transport.” So there it is – the designers at GM were trying their hardest to convey a sense of the future, as created by science and technology, but instead of science, they gave us art. These vast Buicks might not get you into space, but more than half a century after they were built, cars still don’t fly. And as we’re riding the same old roads, the way classics like this make us feel is more important than ever.
“Seamus remembers when Julian called to say he’d seen a car for sale in Portsmouth. I said: ‘You’ll buy that,’ and of course he did…”
Cornwall’s Space Station
You might have heard of Goonhilly – it’s a memorable name – but you may not be aware of its place in history, or its potentially exciting future. It received the first-ever transatlantic satellite TV images, broadcast by Telstar, on 11 July 1962, thereby heralding a mode of viewing that we and the rest of the world have come to take for granted over the last half century.
Nowadays, it remains fully operational as a satellite communications centre carrying business internet data and also is used as a command gateway for controlling various satellites. However, it’s set for a transformation into a new Space Science centre by a company called Goonhilly Earth Station (GES) Ltd. Goonhilly’s role is expected to include radio astronomy research, deep space communications, the creation of an Innovation Centre for advanced communications system design and manufacturing, business colocation, data centre services and emergency backup services, plus a training and education role. Have a look at www.goonhilly.org to find out more and for updates on the all new visitor centre refurbishment plans.
Owners Seamus Moran and Julian Hosking. 1960 Buicks saw Ventiports return. Seamus added the fender skirts. Dash is uber modern. ’59 back end is more extravagant than the 60’s. Fantastic pillarless styling.More conventional dash. Razor-style grille of ’60 contrasts with ’59’s which harks back to the ’58’s grille. 364cu in V8. Only one year separates them, but there are lots of differences between the two. Seamus works in the art world.