By Brian Earnest
If he had a garage back in the day, Ron Bishop might have become a Cadillac man instead of a Buick guy.
He can laugh about it now, but not having shelter for a new ride was a pretty big issue back in 1964 for the Phoenix, Ariz., resident.
“I found the car at a [used] car lot sitting right next to a ’59 Cadillac Eldorado convertible,” Bishop recalled of his first meeting with his 1959 Buick Electra hardtop coupe. “That Cadillac is what I had my eye on. But the cars, they weren’t really front-line cars. They were what you’d call No. 2, No. 3 cars. They weren’t really spotless.
“But I didn’t have a garage. I was living in an apartment so I couldn’t get a convertible… If you don’t have a garage you don’t want a convertible. You don’t want it to sit out in California, especially. I ended up getting the Buick. It cost me $1,500 and $65 a month for 18 months… The guy told me I had to build some credit up because I had no credit!”
So Bishop wound up with a big Electra, even though he knew very little about Buicks. He certainly didn’t envision being a Buick owner when he was pining for a new car during his hitch in the Navy, but he warmed up to his new car in a hurry once he got some time behind the wheel.
“I had this plan, but it wasn’t really a Buick I was looking for. I was looking for an Olds or Pontiac. I knew what an Oldsmobile looked like and knew what Pontiacs looked like, but I didn’t know Buicks because we didn’t have a Buick dealer in our town when I was growing up,” he laughed.
Bishop admits he wasn’t going to be overly particular about what brand of car he bought, but he wanted it to have room for a gadget he planned to install. “I’m an electrician, and at the time I had this reel-to-reel [tape player],” he said. “And I got it in my mind that I was going to build this into the car. We only had 45 records at the time, you know. Well, in the Buick, the tape recorder fit on the console, and I brought the carpeting up around it and it looked like it was built right in… I had it in the car for years.
“I’ve still got the tape player. It’s still sitting at home on a shelf. I’ve got a big Pioneer unit in the car now, but it’s in the trunk.”
Bishop drove his beautiful, sonically endowed Buick as his regular transportation for about 10 years before he moved the car into semi-retirement. The car was always road-worthy, but Bishop was never quite ready to pull the trigger on a full restoration. That finally changed about four years ago after he retired to Arizona and hooked up with a restorer who specialized in Buicks. “We didn’t do a frame-off [restoration] on it, but we did everything else,” Bishop said. “The reason I didn’t do a frame-off is they told me if you do a frame-off and you tweak the body on it, you can never get the windows put back in and fitting right.
“The first 10 years I drove it as a regular car. I drove it to work. I ruined the upholstery, so I had to have it reupholstered. I ruined the paint job, so I had to have that done. It was not [in very good shape]. It was OK as a driver, but I wouldn’t take it to a show or anything. It had just deteriorated.”
The restoration included fixing some dings in the Buick’s body panels, replacing the upholstery and spraying new paint. The Electra’s 401-cid V-8 also received some attention. “Nobody knows it, but we made a 409 out if it,” Bishop joked. “It’s got a 401, but we bored it out about 1 cubic inch per cylinder.
“Another thing I did was put seat belts in it. They didn’t put seat belts in these cars originally. It doesn’t have the original paint job. It was originally white, and it’s now pearlescent blue. If you look at it and walk around it. You can see a haze of blue in it, and it’s got all blue upholstery …
“They [judges] could get me for the wheels, because they are not the stock wheels, and they could get me for the paint job. The wheels are the Buick wire wheels. They are like the ones on a 1957 Roadmaster convertible. It really makes a difference in the car. [Originally] they had steel wheels with cheap, flat hubcaps. At first I couldn’t afford those [wire wheels]. I didn’t want to spend $1,000 on them. I had put hubcaps on there like a ’64-’65 Riviera. They were wire [wheel covers].”
The wheel covers notwithstanding, 1959 was anything but a boring year when it came to new Buicks. The lineup remained just a click below Cadillac in GM’s hierarchy and offered a ton of new styling and excitement. The Electra moniker was basically a new handle for Roadmaster, which was temporarily retired. The rounded, vertical tail fins of 1958 grew into sharp, dramatic angular vestiges for 1959. The fins almost seemed to begin at the front of the car, where wrap-around chrome trim strips served as “eyebrows” to the unique angled twin headlamps — the only year that Buick went with such a look. The grille made of rows of rectangular squares was one of the few styling traits to carry over from 1958. The Electras came with a “V” emblem on the grille, but Bishop has taken the badge off his car.
The Electras resided above the LeSabres and Invictas on the Buick hierarchy for the model year, one level below the Electra 225s. The Electras were distinguished by bright moldings around the rocker panels and wheel housings and Electra script plates on the front fenders. Amenities included power steering and brakes, padded dash, dual exhaust and two-speed electric wipers.
The 401-cid V-8 was rated at 325 hp, and the Twin Turbine Dynaflow was standard on all the Buicks except the base LeSabre, which had a three-speed manual. Bishop’s car also carried the optional Wonderbar radio. “Mine also doesn’t have air-conditioning,” he noted. “I looked into it and it’s not worth it. It would have to have a whole different electrical system on it, and I’d have to put holes for vents in it.”
Electras came in four varieties for their debut year: two-door and four-door hardtops, four-door sedans and two-door convertibles. The four-door sedans were the most popular among buyers with 20,612 built for the model year. A total of 11,216 hardtop coupes were built, and they carried a base price of $3,818 and weight of 4,465 lbs.
The cars were criticized by some when they were new for being overly flashy, and they will never win accolades for their nimble road manners or fuel economy. But if you wanted a big, stylish cruiser that would smooth out the bumps and coast along at fun freeway speeds all day, it was tough to beat an Electra — especially if you couldn’t afford a Cadillac. Bishop became a fan of his Buick’s plush ride right from the beginning, and the feeling of effortless gliding never gets old. “Yeah, they ride real nice,” he said. “My son took it out the other day, and he came back and said, ‘It just floats!’ They never shift, which is why they were so bad on gas mileage.”
Ironically, Bishop — the guy who didn’t know much about Buicks and didn’t really want one 47 years ago — now owns four of them. In addition to his ’59, he has three 1967 Electra 225s. “And they are all almost the same car,” he laughed. “They are all two-door Electra hardtops … The ’59 is [my favorite] because it’s re-done. But I also have an old Blazer that we bought sometime back in around ’81, I think.
“I sort of hang onto everything.”
The Electra had about 77,000 miles on its odometer when Bishop took the car apart and restored it. Since then he’s rolled up about 700 miles — many of them to and from weekend car shows. “I’ll go to the shows in spring and fall,” he said. “In the summertime everything slows down out here because it’s too hot.
“I still like to drive it, but I don’t drive it on the freeway because I don’t want it to get chipped up.”
Bishop isn’t sure if he’s done buying Buicks, or if four is enough. One thing is certain, after 47 years in his garage, the ’59 Electra isn’t going anywhere. It’s the car that started his long love affair with the Buick brand.
“I’ve just always liked them,” he said. “They always had big engines, good transmissions … I’m just a Buick man.
“I keep telling my wife I need a bigger garage. And I want a lift, too!”
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