Bill Mitchell’s Buick dream machine

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As seen in the April 1, 2004 Old Cars Weekly issue.

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Editor's note: The 1956 Buick Century X convertible has recently been completely restored and is on display at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.

By Angelo Van Bogart

 Don Mayton found the Buick Century X through an advertisement in the Buick Bugle, the publication of the Buick Club of America. The ad stated the Buick once belonged to Bill Mitchell, a fact the seller couldn’t provide much evidence for, but Mayton eventually has. It is currently under restoration. (Don Mayton collection)

Don Mayton found the Buick Century X through an advertisement in the Buick Bugle, the publication of the Buick Club of America. The ad stated the Buick once belonged to Bill Mitchell, a fact the seller couldn’t provide much evidence for, but Mayton eventually has. It is currently under restoration. (Don Mayton collection)

Bill Mitchell spoke with his hands, and when his hands talked, designers listened.

“Mitchell would bring a production car in, gather his staff, and wave his big arms and hands around the car,” said Don Mayton, owner of the one-of-a-kind 1956 Buick Century X convertible designed by the appendages of Mitchell. “The designers would write down what he said, and when he left, they had to figure out what he meant.”

The translation of one meeting between Mitchell’s hands and designers at the General Motors Styling Department about a new 1956 Buick Century pulled off the line is the two-tone blue convertible pictured here. Although the changes were subtle, Mitchell demanded this one-of-a-kind Buick sport numerous special features, including rocker panel trim with the exhaust exiting through it, power headrests, a console, unique trim on its flanks, special “Century” and “Buick” scripts, and much more. Even the Buick Skylark-style wire wheels were given unique centers with “Buick” etched into them.

 A Bill Mitchell touch to his 1956 Buick Century X is the side-exiting exhaust routed through the rocker panels, which have been finished with trim that would make a customizer drool. For the exhaust to function, holes were cut in the frame and a plate was riveted around the hole for strength. (Don Mayton collection)

A Bill Mitchell touch to his 1956 Buick Century X is the side-exiting exhaust routed through the rocker panels, which have been finished with trim that would make a customizer drool. For the exhaust to function, holes were cut in the frame and a plate was riveted around the hole for strength. (Don Mayton collection)

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls point out in their book, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design, that it was not uncommon for Mitchell to drive customized vehicles. The authors also note that Mitchell drove approximately 55 personalized vehicles, some of them famous GM dream cars, in his 18 years as GM design staff president. Many of those cars were special Corvettes and Camaros, and he had a strong appreciation for Firebirds. But his heart was in the Buicks his father sold through his dealership.

Harley Earl found a different calling for Mitchell, and in 1936, the year after Mitchell started working in GM’s design studio, Earl put the 23-year-old young designer in charge of the Cadillac studio. Mitchell was devastated, because he couldn’t work in the Buick studio. Cadillac was GM’s styling leader, and regardless of how he felt, Mitchell’s pen kept the marque on top with such designs as the now-famous 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special and the 1941 Cadillac line-up.

 The ribbed rocker trim and thin side trim are evident in the Buick Century X’s profile. (Don Mayton collection)

The ribbed rocker trim and thin side trim are evident in the Buick Century X’s profile. (Don Mayton collection)

During World War II, Mitchell put his creativity to work for the government and gained an affection for the gadgets attached to war machinery, including aircraft instrumentation and tank periscopes, and many high-tech gizmos appear on the featured Buick, as well as other cars he designed. He returned to GM following the war, but he left in 1949 to work at Earl’s private sideline company, Harley Earl Corp. In 1953, Mitchell returned to GM as the director of styling, a position that kept him working under Earl, GM’s vice president in charge of design. Three years later, he had the featured Buick Century X built.

Earl and Mitchell got along fabulously. In fact, Earl appointed Mitchell to be his successor. But the pair’s design reigns are reflected with very different cars. Earl’s designs are typified by the brawnier and chrome-troweled pre-1959 GM machines, while cars designed under Mitchell are usually leaner and more sculpted, typified by the 1963 Riviera and Sting Ray, the 1967 Eldorado, and the 1970 Monte Carlo.

 According to Larry Faloon, a retired GM Styling employee, the most important part in documenting Mayton’s car as a GM dream car is this styling studio tag, which assigned the car a special order number GM used for accounting purposes. The Century X’s tag is pictured above. (Don Mayton collection)

According to Larry Faloon, a retired GM Styling employee, the most important part in documenting Mayton’s car as a GM dream car is this styling studio tag, which assigned the car a special order number GM used for accounting purposes. The Century X’s tag is pictured above. (Don Mayton collection)

This Buick presents a mix of both designers’ ideas; the main body shape was, obviously, created under Earl’s management, while Mitchell contributed his own touches in the trim and features. The gadgets that Mitchell loved so much from his Navy days, like the periscoping head rests and the gunsites on the tops of the fenders, are just a few of touches on the Buick.

Mayton was told by Dick Henderson, a retired GM Styling employee who worked on the Buick, that after its transformation from production car to dream car was completed by the GM styling studio in April, 1956, Mitchell had him drive the car from Michigan to the Road America race course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Mitchell flew in to meet Henderson and the recently finished Buick, and then drove the car around as a “show piece.” Mayton would love to find pictures of Mitchell and the Buick Century X at Road America from that weekend to complete the story, but he knows that will be a daunting task. Even finding pictures to prove that the car was built by GM was difficult.

What happened to the Century X after Mitchell drove it around Elkhart Lake remains a mystery to Mayton. He found the car in 1991 through a classified ad that appeared in the Buick Club of America’s publication, the Buick Bugle.

“It was advertised as a one-of-a-kind Buick [once] belonging to Bill Mitchell,” Mayton said. After contacting the advertiser, Mayton learned that he had purchased it from his brother, and they both knew the car was special, but they could only provide one letter from Buick Motor Division in 1964 that proved the Buick was built for Bill Mitchell.

As a retired GM employee, Mayton’s interest was piqued, and he drove out to a pole barn located between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Holland, Michigan, for a look at the car. Mayton found the car to be completely disassembled, “with parts in piles here and there.”

With little proof as to its heritage, its rough condition, and a relatively high price tag, Mayton couldn’t justify paying the owner’s high price, so he countered with a lower offer, which was rejected.

“The condition of the car was extremely bad,” Mayton said. “The body was totally shot with rust. The car had been in an accident once before, and the right front corner had caved in and the trim associated with that part was gone. The good thing about the car was that most of the original trim was there.”

Four years later, in 1995, the seller was ready to part with the Century X, and Mayton jumped on it and dug into its restoration. And there are few people more qualified for the restoration of a unique and historic GM vehicle than Mayton, who is a crew member of the GM Futurliner restoration group. As a member, Mayton already had a good idea on how to restore the unique features of the one-of-a-kind Century X. As a GM retiree, he also had a good idea of where to start researching the Buick’s history once it was in his hands.

 A second “SO tag” appears next to the Century X’s trim tag on the cowl. (Don Mayton collection)

A second “SO tag” appears next to the Century X’s trim tag on the cowl. (Don Mayton collection)

“The previous owner couldn’t get [much] documentation [on the car], because he kept writing to Buick Motor Division,” Mayton said. “But Buick didn’t build the car. I went straight to the GM Tech Center, [because] it’s a [GM} studio-built car.”

Once into the GM Tech Center, Mayton met Floyd Joliet, a person that became of great help documenting the Buick.

“When I first contacted Floyd by phone, I started to tell him about the car, and he said, ‘let me first ask you questions,’” Mayton said. “Floyd’s first question was, ‘is the original color of the car blue?’” Mayton responded with a hearty “Yes.”

Joliet then asked, “Was there a tachometer mounted either in the dash, on the steering wheel, or in the hood?” The answer again was yes; the Buick’s tachometer is in the dash. Joliet’s third question to Mayton was if the car had chrome brake and accelerator pedals. Again, the unrestored Buick was so equipped. “Floyd then stated that it is a Bill Mitchell car, because that was the signature he had on the cars he had built,” Mayton said. Three months later, Joliet provided the original color photos shown here.

Henderson, who drove the Buick to Road America for Mitchell, was responsible for creating the special trim installed on the Buick Century X. Henderson and Mayton met several times, and in one meeting at Henderson’s home, Henderson showed Mayton how he made the unique “Buick” and “Century” block letters on the car.

“At his home, he cut me a piece of bar shock and showed me how each letter was made from this stock,” Mayton said. “He stated it took up to a day to do each letter.”

Through the Futurliner project, Mayton met Larry Faloon, another GM Styling employee who was able to help fill in the pieces of the Century X’s story. Faloon told Mayton “the most important part of the car is the styling studio tag that is still affixed identifying the shop order number.” The styling tag on the Buick Century X read, “Mr. W. Earl S.O. 90022,” and, according to a February 18, 1964, letter from G.J. Morgan of GM’s engineering department, the number was assigned by GM for accounting purposes.

 Ron Hewitt of Daytona Parts Company helped put the engine back together. Mayton was unsure of the Buick’s original fuel delivery system, so he chose one of the likely set-ups, a dual four-barrel carburetor system. (Don Mayton collection)

Ron Hewitt of Daytona Parts Company helped put the engine back together. Mayton was unsure of the Buick’s original fuel delivery system, so he chose one of the likely set-ups, a dual four-barrel carburetor system. (Don Mayton collection)

Between the restoration of his 1953 Buick Skylark and 1929 Buick phaeton, Mayton has put the Century X’s body into primer. The engine has also been completed, but Mayton had to take a few liberties when it came to its fuel delivery system.

“As I received the car, it had a stock engine,” Mayton said. “I visited the GM Tech Center where these cars were made [and] managed to find three people that worked on this car. They told me that Bill Mitchell had the engine sooped-up on every car he built. They usually did it with aftermarket speed equipment and then ground off the manufacturer’s marks.

“I have found four possible fuel delivery systems: a three two-barrel set-up; two four-barrel carb set-up; four side-draft carb set-up like the 1954 Wildcat II or the 1956 Centurion; [or] fuel injection, [though] I did track down Buick’s first fuel injection engineer, and he stated the first Buick they installed fuel injection into was a 1957 model. I have opted for a two four-barrel carb set-up.”

Mayton will also have some of the missing trim fabricated and will have to make the mechanism for the power headrests in order for them to function again. A more difficult task will be finding or building a suitable console for the Century X, since it was missing from the car, and he has no photographs of what it should look like. Holes in the rusted floor between the blue leather bucket seats and conversations with retired GM employees have left him confident that there should be a console there.

But it will have to wait until the restorations of the Futurliner and his Buick Skylark are completed this year. Then, Mayton’s hands will have to wait to restore what Mitchell’s hands designed.

Don Mayton knows very little about his special Buick’s history after Bill Mitchell took delivery of it in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in 1956 until he first saw it in 1991. He welcomes the chance to communicate with anyone who may have seen it during this period. Mayton also hopes to find a photograph of Mitchell with the Buick Century X at Road America in Elkhart Lake. If you have any photos or information on this Buick, please write to Mayton c/o OCW, 5225 Joerns Drive, Suite 2, Stevens Point, WI 54481, or e-mail oldcars@krause.com.

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