By Brian Earnest
Five years ago, Bill Madden was suffering from a 50-year itch. It had been almost five decades since the Nebraska native had scraped up enough pennies to buy himself a lovely 1953 Buick Super convertible, and in his retirement he began pining for another one just like it.
“That was the car that brought me to the San Diego area in December of 1956,” Madden recalled.
Over the years Madden had restored a couple of Corvettes, and he held onto the slim hope that he’d stumble onto ’53 Skylark he could afford, but he never got serious about replacing his long-lost Super droptop until 2006, when he was web surfing and came across one for sale.
“I found it listed on eBay, and they had it as a ‘parts car that may be restorable,’” said Madden, a resident of Alpine, Calif. “There was only one picture of it, from before it was damaged, and nobody bid on it except me … I think people were scared off by the ‘parts car’ listing.
“But when I got the car, I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t need much, and it wasn’t in bad shape.”
It turns out the Buick had been a one-family car that had been carefully maintained during its first life. When the family’s father died, the car went to his son, “who drove it through high school, at least,” according to Madden. “The last picture they have of it on the road was at a show in 1993.”
Eventually, the car wound up in a museum in Pennsylvania, but its stay there came to a painful end when a heavy snowfall caused the roof of the building to collapse and damage dozens of cars, including the ’53 Buick. “There were about 60 cars in the museum, and this one had a beam come down right across the windshield,” Madden said. “When I got it some of the car was repaired, and some of it somebody just made it look like it was repaired. And when the roof collapsed, the show was allowed to melt in the car, so there was surface rust everywhere — under the dash and all that. But the family brought the car home and I don’t think it was out in the weather very long.”
Madden’s 50-year present to himself was actually a 50-year anniversary car itself at Buick. The automaker had been in business a half-century when it unveiled its lineup for the 1953 model year. The big news at Buick that year was the arrival of the company’s first V-8 engine. The new overhead-valve “Fireball” power plant displaced 322 cubic inches and was rated at 164 hp in Supers. (The top-tier Roadmasters got a higher-compression version of the new V-8 that produced 188 hp.) The “V” in the bombsight hood ornament advertised the V-8 power under the hood. A three-speed manual was standard, with a two-speed Dynaflow automatic on the options list. All the Buicks except the Roadmaster sedans rode on 121.5-inch wheel bases. Drum brakes did the stopping at all four corners.
The Supers received new teardrop-shaped ventiports behind the front wheels, and a horizontal trim piece on the rear fenders distinguished the middle-tier cars from the base model Specials, which still carried the straight-eight engine.
Inside, the convertibles came with leather upholstery standard, as well as power windows, power seat and a power cloth top. Full wheel covers were found on all the Supers.
Buyers could order their Buick Super as a two-door convertible, Riviera two-door hardtop, four-door sedan or four-door wagon. The two-door hardtops were the most common with 92,298 assemblies, only slightly ahead of the four-door sedans at 90,685. The ragtops carried a base price of $3,002 and weighed in at 4,035 lbs. Only 6,701 of the convertibles were built, and two of them have now passed through Madden’s hands. He didn’t need to do much with his first car a half century earlier, but this time he opted for an every-nut-and-bolt restoration.
“I’ve restored a couple of vintage Corvettes, but I really didn’t know what I was getting into with the Buick. This was whole different animal,” Madden laughed. “When I started out, when the first thing came out good, then the second thing had to be just as good, and that’s kind of how it went. Every part of the car has been apart.
“The nuts and bolts were re-plated and all the stainless polished and all the chrome re-done except the bumperette back there that has the license plate frame in it… It was a lot of fun, and looking for the necessary replacement parts was half of the fun. I didn’t really need a lot of parts. Some of the ones I got I didn’t need, in fact… It didn’t have my radio in it — the Selectronic with the button on the floor — so I did have to get one of those. Some of the stainless, like for the windshield, was nearly impossible to find, because the convertible is not the same as the sedan or Riviera hardtop. The there was a cover for the battery that everyone has thrown away over the years and that was nearly impossible to find. I happened on a fella in Canada and I got it from him and we’ve been good friends ever since. That was one of the enjoyments — making contact with people all over the world, really. I now have what I call ‘friends’ all over.”
The car was painted its original Tyler Blue when Madden got it, but it has since been given a coat of lovely Osaga Cream with red leather interior and a black top — the same combination as Madden’s first 1953 Super. “I put the wire wheels on it,” Madden added. “That was an option for ’53 and ’54, but expensive!”
The car’s original engine and transmission were pulled and rebuilt. “The motor ran OK, and it probably would have been fine, but I pulled the engine and transmission and took them to a fella that does old Buicks, and everything is primo now.” The pitted exhaust manifolds were replaced and new front shock absorbers were installed with a set for the back on the way.
Madden is quick to credit a long list of other car buffs for helping him complete the Buick’s restoration. During nearly every step of the process, he had help from somebody, he said — particularly when he had some health issues that slowed the progress of the project. “If it weren’t for friends and relatives, I couldn’t have got it done,” he said. “I give credit to everybody that worked on the car. It’s a credit to them that it turned out so well. I’m just amazed at how well it came out.
“I’m 79 now and I won’t be able to do another one.”
Madden isn’t sure if the ride, feel and personality of his 1953 Buick remind him of his first one. He says he can’t really remember that far back, but his second go-round with a 1953 Super convertible has certainly been as memorable as the first.
“It is a big deal to me knowing that I’m the one that got that car back to where it is,” he said. “That’s the biggest enjoyment I get out of it.”
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