By Brian Earnest
Some guys sell a car, get a case of seller’s remorse, and hope that someday they might be able to get the car back.
Gert Gehlhaar’s case was a little different. The retired Lompoc, Calif., resident always knew he was going to get his 1932 Buick Special sedan back, it was just a matter of time. As long as his handshake agreement with friend and fellow old car buff Bill Martin held up, Gehlhaar knew his Buick wasn’t gone, it was just sort of “on loan” to somebody else.
Looking back, Gehlhaar insists he was never worried when he handed over the keys to Martin in 1988.
“We were good friends and it wasn’t going to leave the city. We had an agreement and I figured he’d honor it,” Gehlhaar said. “And I was into Model A’s and Model T’s at the time — I can restore a Model A or Model T in my sleep. That’s what I was doing at the time, and I was also into vintage racing so I had plenty of things to do. I’d say it was in good hands and good storage, but I always loved it and I always knew I was going to get it back.”
Last year, Martin held up his end of the deal and returned the car to Gehlhaar in just the same condition he received it. “It’s back now, and it’s just like it was when I had it before,” Gehlhaar says. “But I’ve always been around the car, so I knew that. He lives about 1 ½ miles from me, and I’ve always helped him maintain it.”
It seems fitting that Gehlhaar and his old Buick are reunited again, because they have traveled a lot of miles together. Gehlhaar bought the sedan back in 1973, took great care of it and dragged it back and forth across the country several times — every time the Air Force took him to a new job and a new challenge.
“It’s like they say, I took it all over the world!” Gehlhaar laughs. “It went wherever we went.” That included stops in Boston, Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Edwards and Vandenberg Air Force bases in California, and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. “I’ve always had cars, and presently I have 10 of them, and it’s always been hard to move them! I’m glad I haven’t had to move since ’81.”
Gehlhaar can actually thank his wife, Joyce, for hooking him up with the ’32 Buick. She was the one that suggested they buy an “older” car back in 1973. “She was reading an article in Better Homes and Gardens, or somewhere, and she said, ‘You ought to get an old car that doesn’t depreciate.’ Well, as a car lover, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is great.’
“Well, we went to a car show and a gentleman had a '32 Ford for sale, but he couldn’t sell it there. He said to come back the next week to his shop, and we did and he had sold it! I just gave him a blank stare — deer in the headlights — but then he said, ‘I know about this '32 Buick!’ The gentleman who owned it had died and was in an estate sale. The son had it, he was a teacher in Boston, and he had no interest in it whatsoever.”
The late owner’s son planned to make a few repairs to the car before he sold it, but Gehlhaar convinced him to sell it “as-is.” “They had taken the head off and were going to do a valve job, and I said, ‘No no, if I’m going to buy the car, I just want the car so don’t mess with it.’ I’d rather have a car that hasn’t been messed with."
Gehlhaar did a few minor fixes to the car, including replacing three piston rings, re-doing the valves, “then I checked all the bearings and reset those — and those are poured bearings — and it’s run ever since! It always runs. People are just amazed. You push the starter and you can’t let your finger off it fast enough and it’s running.”
The car had about 98,000 miles on it when Gehlhaar got it, and he and Martin have taken turns putting about 10,000 miles on it since. “Believe it or not, I did use it as a second car for a while,” Gehlhaar said. “I drove it maybe two or three miles to work. I did use it as a driver, but it soon became very plain that that was not what I was going to do with it.”
Gehlhaar’s car is a Model 57S and was part of Buick’s bottom tier offerings for 1932. The cars are most easily distinguished from earlier Buicks of the era by their new hood doors, which took the place of louvers, and their painted door handles. The windshields were also sloped at a 10-degree angle and the external sun visors were eliminated.
The ’32 Buicks featured more aerodynamic fenders and new radiator grille with a narrower base. The 57S four-door Special sedan was one of eight offerings in the 50 Series, which utilized the 114-inch-wheelbase chassis. If buyers wanted to go bigger from there, and had the money to do so, Buick offered 118-inch wheelbase cars in Series 60, 126-inch wheelbases in Series 80, and 134-inch chassis in Series 90.
The Series 50 cars used the overhead-valve inline eight-cylinder that displaced 230.4 cubic inches and produced 82.5 hp. It was the smallest of the company’s three engines. Available options included a clock, heater, cigarette lighter, dual side mounts, chrome grille guard, tire locks, tire covers, wheel trim rings and a trunk rack. The cars rode on 18-inch wire-spoke wheels, although wood wheels were available.
The four-door Special sedans carried a base list price of $1,080. A total of 9,766 examples were produced, making them second behind only the base four-door sedan in popularity among Series 50 cars. As stately and refined as it appears, Gehlhaar’s car is almost void of factory options. “It’s got the wire wheels and the big whitewalls,” he said. “The spare tire is on the rear. The one thing I am missing … on the split rear bumper there are two bumper caps on those bumpers, and both of those are missing. They are made out of sheet metal and both of those have rusted and they are gone, but there is a guy in the [Buick] registry trying to make those again.
“When I got it it was stored in a big warehouse, that’s about the only thing I know about it from before. It is amazing. Even the window shades are there, but the back window one I don’t pull down because it’s getting frayed. All the ash trays and stuff is still there.”
The black paint is still in good shape, too, and Gehlhaar doesn’t know if or when the car was ever repainted. He is sure the paint has been there for at least 39 years. “I cannot prove it’s the original paint. It looks like it to me, but I’m not sure,” he said. “It's hard to believe original paint could be that good, but I don’t know. It’s been that way since I got it, that’s all I know.”
Since reclaiming his Buick last year, Gehlhaar has made it “No. 1 in my fleet again.” That collection also includes a 1926 Ford Model T roadster pickup, 1929 Model A sport coupe, 1958 and 1967 King Midgets, 1956 Mercedes 180D, 1957 Porsche Speedster, 1961 Volkswagen sedan, 1962 Studebaker GT Hawk and a 1981 VW pickup.
"It’s been an interesting car,” he said. “It runs like a charm. I always want to go into another gear — it’s geared low, it’s a three-speed, but I can cruise 50 mph like nothing. I don’t, but I’ll go 45. It’s smooth and quiet. It’s just a nice machine.
“It was the first one, that’s how I got started in the vintage cars. I’ve always liked cars and I’ve had all kinds of cars — Porsches and Sunbeam Tigers and all kinds of cars — but the Buick was the first one. It started everything. It’s a disease!”
Someday, Gehlhaar figures the Buick will go to a new owner, but this time it will stay in the family. “I’m gonna keep it, and it’s going to go to my daughter [Heidi] when I pass on,” he said. “She spent a lot of time in the car when she was young. We’d go on tours and we’d stop and we’d put some baby food on that long exhaust manifold… People would stop and say, ‘Can we help, is there something wrong?’ No, we’re just heating up some baby food!' She’s kind of a car nut and she helped me and we went to swap meets and stuff together. She grew up in that car.”
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