Buick beauty: ’31 phaeton was a fabulous find

There’s not a collector in the world who hasn’t heard of some outrageous car being acquired for a song because of an innocently inaccurate ad, but it isn’t always a Chevrolet that proves to be a ’53 Corvette or a Chrysler that’s actually a Town and Country. Sometimes, it’s the description of a car’s condition that’s not quite right.

“It was advertised as ‘1931 Buick phaeton, call Tim, needs everything,’” recalled Maureen Bartron of Honesdale, Pa., of one such ad. “My husband went down with his friends and looked at the car and I begged him, ‘please don’t buy another car,’ because we have a ’28 Buick. He came home about 10 at night, shaking his head as he walked in, so I kind of wiped my brow a little bit and then he handed me a slip of paper stating that he had put money down on it.

“I said ‘John, you didn’t’ and he said, ‘this’ll be your car’ and it is. She’s registered in my name; I’m the principal driver. I named her ‘Jezabelle’ and I’ve put just shy of 10,000 miles on it.”

That’s mileage since 2004 on a car that the seller warned “needs everything,” which obviously wasn’t quite the case. It was more a matter of interpretation, Bartron said, as the seller had told her husband that he was thinking of the Series 50 phaeton in terms of a buyer who would want to restore it completely.

“When he opened the barn door and they walked in and there it was,” Maureen  said. “There were all sorts of extra parts sitting in the car. He asked my husband if he wanted to take it for a ride and he said, ‘Oh, it runs?’ And he said, ‘Sure, the only thing is the brakes.’ There were no brakes on it.”

So it really didn’t need everything, but if a collector had bought it with a total restoration in mind, it would’ve been hard to argue with that claim.

Buick can be traced to 1903, when its first car was constructed, and production of the two-cylinder Model B began in 1904. The company was folded into General Motors in 1908, the year after it introduced its four-cylinder engine, and 1925 saw Buick build nothing but six-cylinder cars. More  changes were on the way later, and Buick went completely to eights in 1931.

Those eight-cylinder engines — all of overhead-valve design and all driven through three-speed transmissions — ranged from 345 cubic inches and 105 horsepower in the big Series 80 and 90, down to 220 cubic inches and 77 horsepower in the Series 50, which today might be viewed as an entry-level Buick. With its 114-inch wheelbase, the Series 50 was 18 inches shorter than a Series 90. At 2,970 lbs. the Series 50 phaeton was also considerably lighter than the 4,125-lb. Series 90 phaeton, although it’s probably not fair to compare the five-passenger Series 50 car to the seven-passenger model in the Series 90 catalog.

The $1,055 Series 50 phaeton was the third cheapest Buick in 1931, but with just 358 examples produced, it was the least popular. Chances of finding a car like Bartron’s Buick in any condition today are slim, and this one survived because it was kept at a private club in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.

“It was stored for almost 40 years at a hunting club in Blooming Grove, near Lake Wallenpaupack,” Maureen said. “This was the runabout car that they had there.”

The barn in which the Buick ended up belonged to a family member, and he finally decided to sell the car because of another project.

The Buick has never been restored, but Maureen said that it was painted sometime in the 1940s. On the other hand, it does have its original upholstery and even its factory top.

“There are a couple of minute pinholes in it,” she said, “which I put a little tape on from the underside and there’s no problem. I’ve driven it in the rain and she’s OK.”

If Maureen chose to replace the top, a small piece of history would be lost.

“There is a little sticker in the back window that says ‘Princeton University Automobile Permit No. 73,’ so it was, way back, at Princeton University,” she said.

The sticker is in little immediate danger as the Bartrons have no plans to restore the car. To this point, keeping up what amounts to a good original hasn’t required much beyond cleaning the radiator and getting the brakes working.

“The only wheel that had a brake was the right front, a little bit,” Maureen said. “You literally needed to stop a half-mile before.”
No question, brakes are important, especially when the car is driven and enjoyed. Out on the road, it’s a handful, but that doesn’t rule out the fun part.

“You literally drive the car,” Bartron said. “You’re working all the time. You’ve got to pay attention and you don’t look around. If you hit an unevenness in the road, your car responds and, of course, it takes shoulder power, because there’s no power steering. But it’s an education all its own and I hope I can do it for a long time.”

The Buick has been on its share of trips — 10,000 miles since 2004 — completing a Glidden Tour, for example, and being driven to a Buick meet in Batavia, N.Y., and an AACA National in Binghamton, N.Y. It gets plenty of attention on the road.

“Everybody strains their necks to get a look at it,” Maureen said. “Then when there’s a woman driving, it’s a doubletake.” The fact that it’s not perfect doesn’t much matter.

“We have sent many parts away to be chromed and maybe our children will [restore it] when they get the car,” Bartron said. “But right now, it’s such a pleasure and a privilege to go someplace and see an old car that’s an old car. The ones that are done over are beautiful, I don’t take that away from them, but they’re just shiny cars.

“Probably out of 100 people, maybe one will say, ‘When are you going to restore it?’ Everybody else comes up and says, ‘You’re not going to do anything to it, are you? We love it like this. We love seeing it like this,’ and it just reinforces our feeling.”
Another stone chip or a minor scratch on the road isn’t a big worry, but the Buick’s overall condition means it can do something else that’s every bit as important.

“We take her to a lot of the local cruises and shows,” Bartron said. “I let kids sit in my car, I let them toot the horn, I’ve even had elderly people come up and get in and I’ve taken their pictures for them.”
Still, she’d rather drive it.

“I do have to confess that everybody else washes and waxes before they take their cars out,” she said. “But I kind of take the bugs off the windshield.”

The Buick has let her down only once, when a broken wire in the generator resulted in a trip on the rollback, but Bartron’s confident enough that she’d drive it to California.

“We drove it last year in January,” Bartron said. “We went out for breakfast when it was around 24 degrees; the top was down, we had our hats and coats on and we drove probably about 30 miles. Then we came home and put her away and winterized her.”
Whatever heat was available that day was coming through the firewall and the floorboards. So, do people think they’re crazy?
“A little,” Bartron said. “But other people kind of wave and smile and wish it was them.”

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