While I find plenty of 1950s Detroit cars in quick-inventory-turnover self-service wrecking yards during my travels, they tend to be the ordinary post sedans that were built by the millions during the heyday of the three-on-the-tree manual transmission and nuclear-attack symbols on car radios. The more sought-after convertibles, coupes, and four-door hardtops are tougher to find in such yards, which makes today’s 1957 Buick Special Riviera in a yard in northeastern Colorado an A-List Junkyard Gem.
During the late 1950s, the Special ranked at the bottom of the Buick prestige hierarchy just below the more upscale Super and Century. Of course, this was the era of Alfred Sloan’s “Ladder of Success” and the lowliest Special outranked even the nicest Olds Ninety-Eight on the Swank-O-Meter. If you were the Buick-driving Joneses and your neighbors had proletarian Chevrolets, aspirational Pontiacs, or petit-bourgeois Oldsmobiles, they were failing to keep up with you… but then you’d see a new Cadillac and feel intense envy for your victorious rival. The Ladder of Success collapsed later on, when the top-trim-level Chevy Caprices began to compete against their Cadillac Calais big brother, but it was still standing tall in 1957.
The Riviera name ended up being used for its own distinct model starting in 1963 and continuing nearly into our current century, but in 1957 it was a trim level designation, used to indicate a Century or Special sedan with the then-radical pillarless hardtop design.
This car listed at $2,780, which comes to a cool $27,630 in 2021 dollars. That price included the 364-cubic-inch (6.0-liter) Buick Nailhead V8 engine, rated at 250 horsepower and enough torque to peel 1957’s rock-hard bias-ply tires right off their rims.
The Special had a three-on-the-tree column-shift manual as standard equipment, but the original buyer of this car sprang for the extra $220 ($2,185 today) to get the Dynaflow transmission. While the shift indicator looks just like the ones on GM cars equipped with the two-speed Powerglide, the Dynaflow was an odd beast used only in Buicks; while it had gears for two forward speeds, the driver had to select low gear manually. Otherwise, a complex torque converter rig provided an experience something like today’s CVTs (though with better smoothness and much more wasted power), in which the car stayed in high gear all the time and used the torque converter to multiply as needed. This car was seriously thirsty, probably delivering single-digit fuel economy most of the time.
This Motorola AM radio shows the CONELRAD frequencies of 640 and 1240 kHz, so that the Special’s driver could tune in to the news of H-bomb-laden Tu-16 Badgers approaching and take appropriate action.
This car sat outside for years in High Plains Colorado’s harsh climate, but I’ve seen a lot worse in younger cars. A ’57 Special Riviera in nice shape can sell for five figures, but it would cost much more than that to restore a car in this condition.
There’s rust, but nothing like what you’d find a thousand miles to the east. Still, even getting this thing drivable as a ratmobile would have been a daunting and costly task compared to, say, a ’57 Chevy or Ford.
At least someone grabbed this car’s mighty bumper and imposing grille for use on a project, and I feel certain that some of the interior bits will get rescued as well. Not a happy ending, but not completely grim.