Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Jill Helmke has a few simple criteria for her collector cars, and the standards are pretty much non-negotiable.
The cars have to be relatively easy to drive. They have to be old – nothing after World War II, thank you.
And they have to be, uh, aesthetically pleasing. “For me, cars are either pretty, or cute. This one is a pretty car,” noted Helmke, of her stunning 1934 Buick Victoria coupe. Helmke has had her Buick for a little more than a year, and so far it is exactly what she was looking for. It’s a car that’s easy for her to handle. It’s fun to take to shows, and it’s got enough room in the back seat for grandkids.
“My husband and I have been into [Ford] Model A’s, and I wanted something that was easier for me to drive than a Model A,” Helmke said. “And this was drivable for me.
“We have a ’35 [Buick] at home, too, that I have driven before, so I knew I could drive this one… It’s so much easier to start. You don’t have to play with everything. You don’t have the gas to turn on. You don’t have the spark, the choke — you don’t have any of that stuff. And you don’t have to double-clutch it. It’s just a lot easier. I call it a ‘girly’ car.
“Its name is Chloe. I give a name to every car I have, and this just looked like a girl car.”
Male or female, a ’34 Buick coupe, with its swooping fenders, classic lines, “built-in” trunk and twin sidemounts, was a regal machine. The cars were clearly equipped to appeal to buyers who sought the amenities and ride of a Packard or Cadillac at the time, but didn’t want to swallow the same price tag.
Adding to the distinguished personality of Helmke’s Buick is the dignified, factory-correct green paint scheme. The car had originally been blue, but by the time Helmke got her hands on it ,the Buick had been restored and given the all-green makeover. “When I found out it was for sale and went down and looked at it, actually I wasn’t sold on the color at first,” she admitted. “It kind of grew on me.
“It had been in a museum, and when it was inside, the color looked a lot darker. When we got it outside, it really brightened up. It looked a lot different. I think that’s what makes it kind of girly. If it was black or dark navy or something, it wouldn’t be the same … Our other one is dark navy, and it doesn’t do it for me.”
Helmke didn’t know it at first, but she had almost crossed paths with the ’34 many years ago in her hometown. She said the car had belonged to her barber’s father, and Helmke was actually told about the car and given a chance to buy it.
“At that time we were just into Model A’s, so I told them I had a friend who was into Buicks, ‘Why don’t you tell them about it.’ And he told her, and they bought it. They didn’t keep it too long, because they needed two engines rebuilt and they traded it to a guy in exchange for rebuilding the engines. He had it for, like, 20 years and he was the one that restored it.”
The car became part of the collection at Jim Baldauf Collector Cars, a museum and restoration/repair business in Fond du Lac, Wis. “He had it in his museum for six years,” Helmke said. “It was the same car I had been told about years earlier, only now it was all restored. When I found it, I had no idea it was the same car. I didn’t have a clue. I had asked a couple people about it before I bought it, just to find out more about Buicks… and they said the car originally came from Wausau and that a barber owned it. Actually, it was the father of my barber that owned it, but it was the same car.”
Helmke isn’t clear on too many details of the car’s life prior to its days in her barber’s family, but the car somehow managed to survive, and finding a two-door Victoria from 1934 in any condition is no small feat. Only 1,934 of the handsome Series 60 coupes were built for that model year. The 60 Series was second-highest in the Buick hierarchy at the time, ahead of the Series 40 and 50 offerings, but one rung below the top-end Series 90 models. In addition to the Victoria coupes, the 60 Series included a two-door club sedan, two-door four-passenger convertible coupe, a two-door sport coupe, four-door sedan and four-door convertible phaeton.
The Victoria coupes were third in popularity for 60 Series cars, but well behind the club sedan and four-door sedan. The coupes weighed 4,213 lbs. and carried a price tag of $1,395 — nothing to sneeze at, but only about half the price of an entry-level Packard or Cadillac, although by that time, Cadillac had begun offering V-8 power. The Buick 60 Series cars carried an overhead-valve, 278-cid straight-eight with 100 hp. All Buicks carried sliding gear synchromesh three-speed transmissions and mechanical brakes.
The cars grew by an inch in wheelbase length over the previous year and now stretched 128 inches. They were equipped with “Knee Action” independent front suspension, an anti-roll bar in back and stylish 16 x 7.00, 16-spoke steel wheels that carried Super Balloon tires.
The trademark rectangular cowl vents were gone for 1934, replaced by four horizontal trim spears that would become a styling staple until after WWII. The split grille look that debuted in 1933 returned, and the headlights were improved and offered four different illumination settings. The 34-68 Victoria model was known as the “trunk back” coupe and had a rear sliding quarter window and a bench seat in back that provided room for up to five passengers
The options list was small, but Helmke’s Buick has some of the most popular add-ons, including the rear luggage rack, white sidewall tires and dual sidemounts. The car doesn’t have a radio, which was also a dealer-installed option, but it does have modern turn signals and driving lights for safety reasons. Such modern safety features are definitely appropriate for Helmke, who has no plans to baby her ’34 in the future. “I’m just going to drive it. I don’t care how many miles I put on it,” she said. “If something goes wrong, you get it fixed. If something happens to the body, you do it over.”
Helmke does have plans to have the running boards replaced. They are one of the few parts of the car that aren’t in top-notch condition. “We have a guy in Ohio that is going to build them custom for us because we can’t find any, and they are in tough shape,” she said. “As soon as that’s done, nothing else needs to be done.”
She has already been taking the Buick to shows, where she admits she continues to raise eyebrows by pulling up in a big, impressive pre-war car. “People think it’s goofy that I love these cars because not that many women are into old cars, but I was raised with them so I just don’t think anything of it,” she said.
In addition to their other Buick — the ’35 — the Helmkes have a 1911 Ford Model T speedster and a 1930 Model A coupe. It’s clear which one is Jill’s favorite at the moment, though. The big green ’34 has 7,000 miles on its odometer since being restored, and those numbers are sure to steadily climb in the coming years.
“I’ll hang onto this one,” Helmke concluded. “It’s a good car to drive on the highway. It’s a good car to put the kids in, so I feel safe in it. It’s big, it’s not like going in our little 1911 where everything is open. You’ve got a lot of hood out there!”
Buick Club of America
PO Box 360775
Columbus, OH 43236
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