Car of the Week: 1961 Buick Special

Nick Lehman needed three rough and deteriorating old Buicks to produce one good. By the time he was done, however, the Fremont, Wis., resident had a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, and certainly one of the nicest 1961 Buick Specials in existence.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos

by Brian Earnest

Nick Lehman needed three rough and deteriorating old Buicks to produce one good one. By the time he was done, however, the Fremont, Wis., resident had a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, and certainly one of the nicest 1961 Buick Specials in existence.

The saga started with a pipe dream and an old car Lehman’s father had rusting away in a barn. That car never did get finished, but it planted the seed for a worthy reclamation project that required many months of parts chasing, research and time in the shop.

“Years ago my parents picked up a ’62 Skylark one time when they were on vacation,” recalled Lehman. “And Dad wound up buying a parts car for it … Well, when he eventually sold the Skylark, he didn’t need [the parts car] anymore and he just shoved it in the barn and it sat there. It’s always been here.

“Well, I always dreamed, ‘Hey maybe some day we’ll restore that. But it was real far gone. Sometimes it was, look at the one in the barn, then go online and look at pictures of other cars and what they look like. And we’d say ‘Hey, this is what it could be.’”

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Nick already had a Chevy II for a hobby car when he began entertaining the idea of taking on a project car for his wife Tiffany to eventually drive with him to weekend car shows. His casual online searches eventually turned up a 1962 Buick Special sedan resting quietly in a barn in northern Illinois.

“It was probably a three-hour drive. We saw it on the internet and thought about it and wound up calling the guy and asked about it,” Nick said. “He still had it, and we wound up going down one weekend and looking at it in his garage. It didn’t run at the time, but it was complete. It was cheap enough. It was complete, but it had been repainted a couple times and had a lot of surface rust from sitting. It was probably in the guy’s garage for 10 years. He had bought it thinking about restoring it and just never got to it. I think it was at his son’s house and at some point they had to sell the house, and he had to sell the car, too, because he had no place to put it.”

That purchase kicked off Lehmans’ first big restoration project. It took several years, some help from a paint and body shop, and the purchase of a parts car, but the couple persevered. The end result was fantastic, and even more than Nick bargained for.

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“The idea was to restore it enough to take it to car shows. We already had mine (Chevy II) and then we would have one Tiffany could drive,” he says. “It was December when we got it, so it went into the garage. It turned over, but it wouldn’t fire. I think it was 12 years at least, since it ran. I think the guy said he drove it around the block once.

“Then that spring I started going at it. I took the brakes apart and fixed the carburetor and a bunch of other stuff, then slowly got it running. It took a lot of research and internet searching. It was a couple years. I got it running and did a lot of mechanical stuff, then I drove it to work sometimes in the summer, a couple days here, couple of days there.”

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The Special Rides Again

The return of the Special name was big news at Buick for 1961. It was also the first time, since 1907, that Buicks did not have torque tube drive and the first time since 1934 that the accelerator was not mounted on the starter. The all-new “compact” line of Buicks was built on the new unibody GM Y platform and given the holdover 215-cid V-8 that produced 155 hp.

Calendar year production was 291,895 units for a 5.28 market share. Model year production was 277,422 units for a 5.1 percent share of industry output. Buick held the eighth place in popularity.

Buicks new quality car in a small package immediately found an enthusiastic following. Styling was related to the larger 1961 Buicks. Specials had three ventiport appliques on each front fender. Trim was minimal on the Special. Standard features of the Special included dual sun visors, dual armrests, cigar lighter and electric windshield wipers. The base Special was trimmed in cloth and vinyl. Deluxe models had richer Custom interiors of cloth and vinyl (all-vinyl in the station wagon), plush carpeting, rear armrests, rear ashtrays and a Deluxe steering wheel. They were distinguished by Custom exterior moldings, which included a highlight bright strip on the upper body. A midyear Skylark sport coupe was added that featured unique emblems.

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The Standard series included a four-door sedan, two-door sport coupe, and six- and eight-passenger wagons. The big eight-passenger wagon was not offered as a Deluxe model.

The new downsized lineup of Buick Specials lasted three years, from 1961-’63, and was warmly received by both buyers and scribes of the day. One big reason was the arrival of the new V-6 engine in 1962, which helped the Special earn "Car of the Year" honors from Motor Trend. A year later, in 1963, the Special bodies were redesigned again, although that change lasted only one year before an entirely new lineup was unveiled for 1964.

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A four-door sedan like the Lehman’s car — one of 18,339 such examples built for the model year — would have carried a base price of $2,384 and weighed in 2,610 lbs. The two-speed automatic gearbox Buick called Turbine Drive was optional and added about $189 to the price. Other options included a heater-defroster and windshield washer

“It’s got the power steering, which is factory correct. It’s an option, but it did not come on the car originally. I added it,” Nick says. “It’s nice to have at car shows … The windshield washer pump is on it — that was an option. The clock on the dash is an option. The radio — technically that’s an option. I added the FM converter added underneath. That was 70s era, but it was the only way you could get FM .. The heater was an option. It’s got the automatic transmission… And the hubcaps are also technically an option, I think.”

Turquois Jewel

The Lehmans made their restoration a whole lot easier early in the process when they located another ’61 Buick Special in Minnesota. It was in rough shape, but had plenty of usable parts. “It was only a 30,000-mile car, but it had been sitting for a long time and underneath it was all rusted out," Nick noted. "But the doors were better than the one I had, and the interior and hood were all good. That one I found on Craigslist, and that turned out to be big, because a lot of the parts were better than the ones I already had.”

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When Nick had rounded up enough parts and gotten all of his ducks in a row, he took the Buick back off the road and decided the time had come to go all in on a full restoration. After disassembling the car down the nothing but a shell, he enlisted the help of a local body shop, FX Auto in New London, Wis., to handle the paint and body work. Nick handled almost everything else himself.

“We stripped her down and then kind of figured out between the two cars which parts were the best,” he recalled. “I sent a lot of parts off to be re-chromed. When I got it down to just the shell, I took it in to get the paint and bodywork done. I got it in to him in the summer and he had it until December. When I took it back home, it was just a shell that was pained. I did all the little parts, cleaning and painting. Then I basically assembled everything. I did everything underneath, cleaning and painting, and then bolted it all back together.

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“The door panels were perfect, so I was able to re-use them. The steering wheel was in the right color and it was in good shape. I got the clock and some of the other things like door handles and arm rests – we were able to get a lot of things to re-use out of that one car. The only thing that is technically not stock is it has a dual master cylinder. That is an upgrade that I’ve seen from a lot of people with these cars. There are groups and forums for people that have these compacts, and you can see what other people have done. And the other thing is the rear seat belts aren’t factory. I wound up having to put Pertronix in it. I had points in it originally, but that only lasted about a year and then I started burning up points on it. So I put the Pertronix on and it’s been good since then.”

One sticking point where Nick deferred to his wife was on the paint scheme. The couple was settled on the Dublin Green — i.e. turquoise — to match the interior. Tiffany, however, wanted the white top, which was optional originally. “We knew we wanted to do it stock. The idea of the white top was definitely her idea," Nick admits. "That was a factory combination, but I wanted to go with just one color. She said she wanted the white top. We had seen that in pictures and she liked it. Once it was done, then I was sold.”

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Lehman was also able to add a factory power-steering unit to his resurrected ’61 sedan, making it easier to handle around town and in car show fields. Nick is busy swapping a new engine into his Chevy II these days, so the Buick figures to get some extra duty going to car shows this summer. That’s just fine with the Lehmans, who are more interested in driving the car and enjoying some family time than saving the car for trophy chasing and points judging — although the car is certainly in condition to do so.

“I really like driving it. It’s fun to drive,” he says. “I like driving it more than I do some of the new stuff that’s out there. The power steering helps a lot. And it does have a V-8 in it. Granted, it’s only a 215, but it more than meets our needs. “

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When the car does make appearances at area car shows, it gets its fare share of attention. The fact that was a base model “everyman” sedan makes it unique among the fields full of big fins, flashy convertibles and muscle cars. And the car’s stunning, squeaky-clean condition make it stand out no matter where it shows up.

“People ask if we bought it like this. ‘Did you buy it at auction?’” Tiffany says. “No, there were bins and bins of parts!

“We’ve had a couple people through Facebook say, ‘Hey, I saw your car. If you ever think of selling it…’ No, not until we’re dead and gone. Then we’ll give it to [the kids]. Unless something horrible comes along, we’d never sell it. And then we’d sell a lot of other things first.”

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