Car of the Week: 1932 Buick Special Victoria phaeton

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By Brian Earnest
Photos by Linda Cather Johnson

It’s been quite a few years now, but 92-year-old Bob Cather vividly remembers what his first thoughts were when a business acquaintance called him up out of the blue and told him about a car he was interested in selling.

“I remember a car like it in a body shop being painted. It was the only one like it I had ever seen or heard of,” says Cather, referring to his rare 1932 Buick Special phaeton two-door Victoria.  “And that had been 20 years previous. I told him I remembered seeing a car like that one time, and he said, ‘That was it!’”

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“I remembered it because it stood out to me. I didn’t know [he had it], I just remembered it from the body shop because it was so unusual… At most there are probably only a handful left of that body style.”

The car’s owner at the time was “having some heart problems” according to Cather, a longtime resident of Lincoln, Neb. The man was looking to get rid of the car, and he found a willing buyer in Cather, a certified car nut who had several other pre-war cars in his collection.

“It’s a Special phaeton, and I knew it had to be rare. It was really unusual to me and I wanted it,” he said.

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The “phaeton” name is a bit of a misnomer for Cather’s Buick. The convertible is actually a two-door, five-passenger car with a trunk — phaeton generally refers to an open car with four doors. Actually, the Victoria has two trunks — one built-in cargo area behind the rear seat, and another accessory trunk on a rack behind that. That was apparently a good arrangement for the car’s first owner. “It was bought new buy a guy in Council Bluffs, Iowa and he was a carpenter,” Cather said. “It’s a Victoria style and it’s got a trunk behind the back seat and then he put another trunk on it and he did his business out the back of his Buick. That’s my understanding, anyway. Then I don’t know at what point it was, but a fellow here in Lincoln bought it and he had a used furniture business, and I knew of him vaguely. That’s who sold it to me.”

Cather still drives the Buick regularly to his local cruise nights during the summer, but it’s unlikely many folks who see it appreciate how unique the car is. The two-door Victoria phaeton was a bit odd even for its time and was a new addition to the Buick lineup for 1932. Only 268 of the fancy Model 98 two-door phaetons were built, and Cather has never seen another one in the flesh. “I doubt there are any others left, but I really don’t know,” he concludes.

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Cather’s fleet also includes a 1929 Reo sport coupe, 1929 Model A Ford roadster, 1932 Duesenberg II, 1933 Packard convertible, 1936 Ford roadster, 1941 Packard One-Twenty sedan and 1942 and 1962 Lincoln Continentals. Like all his cars, Cather has left his Buick as original and untouched as possible. Up until recently, he believes the tires that were on the car were at least 70 years old.

“Last year I polished it up and noticed the tires — they said ‘S3’ on them,” he said. “ During World War II they had cheap tires, they were all you could buy because of the war effort. They were called S3 tires, which meant the tires that were on it were probably from the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. I thought, ‘Well, my gosh I better get tires or one of those things will blow out on me!’”

Those tires were mounted on 18-inch wheels that carried a new 134-inch wheelbase chassis on 1932 Series 90 Buicks, which was 2 inches longer than the previous year. The Series 90 overhead valve straight-eight 344.8-cid engine had its output increased to 113 hp, and the three-speed manual transmission was aided by the new “Silent Second” synchromesh. The beautiful top-line ’32 Buicks also featured a new single-bar bumper design, twin chrome horns, new twin tail lights, and vent doors on the hood sides in place of louvers. The ’32 line featured more aerodynamic fenders and a new radiator grille with a narrower base.  Wire wheels and matching dual sidemounts were standard on the top-level Buicks. The options list included a heater, clock, chrome grille guard, tire locks, tire covers, cigarette lighter, trunk and trunk rack.

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“[My car] has two windshield wipers, two ashtrays, the two sidemounts and two tail lights, which was a big deal in those days,” Cather notes.

Before any add-ons, the two-door Special Victoria phaeton carried a hefty price of $1,830 — more expensive than all the other 1932 Buicks except the four-door Series 90 seven-passenger sedan and seven-passenger limousine, and about three times more than the priciest Model A Ford. All of the 90 Series Buicks continued to be recognized as Classics by the Classic Car Club of America.

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There were plenty of more moderately priced Buicks available in 1932 as well. The base 50 Series used a 114-inch-wheelbase chassis. If buyers wanted to go bigger from there, and had the money to do so, Buick also offered 118-inch wheelbase cars in the Series 60 and 126-inch wheelbases in Series 80.  Customers shopping for a top-level Series 90 machine had nine different models to choose from, with the most popular selection being the two-door club sedan at 2,237 units. The two-door Victoria Phaeton was rare at 268 cars built, and the four-door sport phaeton (131 units) and limousine (164) even less common.

Cather admits his big convertible Buick can be a handful to drive, and it isn’t his favorite car to go joyriding in. But he has never grown tired of the car’s unusual body style and its regal look and feel.

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“I assume it had been repainted because it’s got like five different colors on it — it’s got blue and dark blue, a cream color and black,” he laughs. “It must have been reupholstered and painted and it’s still like that to this day. If that is the case, the paint job is probably 50, 60 years old … It was well done in those days. One side of the hood has checked a little bit and has some Bond-O in it I think. Other than that it’s in pretty good shape.

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“There is one year difference between my Packard and the Buick, and boy what a difference. The Buick drives like a truck. It doesn’t stop, doesn’t steer. What a difference one year makes between those models … The Buick is really tough to drive. You really have to plan your stops in traffic [laughs]. You have to plan ahead.

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“But it’s fun to drive. It’s conked out on me a couple of times, here in Lincoln. At my age, I’ve been conked out in an old car in almost every part of town over the years!”

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