By Brian Earnest
He wasn’t sure whether he was getting a steal of a deal, or whether he was going to get robbed — literally. But Scott Dohnal knew one thing — he was going to roll the dice and try to buy the car of his dreams: a 1958 Buick Special Riviera.
The decision didn’t come without plenty of hand wringing, and some concern for his own safety, but all’s well that ends well when it comes to old car deals, and Dohnal’s gamble has certainly paid off.
“Well, the car was pink and black, and it was the guy’s wife’s car,” Dohnal recalled. “And it didn’t run at the time, and I could only see the car on Sundays, and I could only pay for it in cash! So I was wondering what I was getting myself into. A buddy and I went to get the car, and we had 12 grand in cash, and we’re thinking we’re going to get rolled or something!
“But we went up and got it. We closed the deal and we had a trailer and a come-along and that went wrong real quick. The come-along broke right away … It was a quite a day.”
That shaky start to his Buick ownership days didn't last, however, and Dohnal now has in his garage what almost every old car buff secretly hopes for — the car he always lusted after. In Dohnal’s case, that’s a 1958 Buick hardtop with tons of chrome, head-turning looks and a few custom touches. His fascination with the beautiful '58s started when he was young, and it never faded.
“Actually my older brother had a ’57 Chevy. He’s much older than I am and we used to tool around in it and I used to say, ‘Boy, I want to get an old car some day,’” Dohnal said. “One day I saw a ’58 Buick for sale for $3,500 and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s a good-looking car.’ I had to have it and that’s when I really fell in love with the car. I just loved the quad headlights and the styling and the way they looked.
“Later I kind of fell on hard times and had to sell it, but I said if I ever find another one, I’m going to buy it.”
Dohnal planned to restore his second Buick all along, and he had a pretty good car to start with. The Riviera had a body that was almost rust-free. The floors were bad and the chrome wasn’t great, but the car was straight, the engine was solid and it didn’t take Dohnal long to get it running.
“I bought it from the original owner. He had two of them, one for him and one for his wife,” Dohnal said. “It had probably ¾ inch of dust on it when we saw it. He still had it registered with the Buick club … but he was about 85 and I don’t think he could drive anymore. He said when I looked at it the first time it hadn’t been run in several years. His interpretation of what several means, I don’t know …
“Originally what he had said was one of the gaskets was leaking, and they put, like, ATV gasket seal on it and he figured that sucked up in there and blocked the jets. Well, we took it home and bypassed the fuel filter and went straight to the carburetor and it started no problem! It purred like a kitten. You could put a nickel on the hood and it wouldn’t have fallen off!
“When that thing started, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is great!’ After that, my son [Chris] and I took it apart and in three years we restored it.”
The pair took the engine apart but did not rebuild the lower half. The 364-cid, 250-hp V-8 got new belts and hoses and some other minor fixes, but for the most part it was still good to go after 65,000 miles. Ditto the factory Dynaflow transmission, which Dohnal rebuilt when he had the car apart “just to be safe.”
Inside, the interior and upholstery was spruced up, and then the men tackled the job of replacing or refurbishing the never-ending stack of chrome. “My god, these cars have the most chrome ever!” Dohnal said. “My car’s a Special, but it’s got the Century chrome on it. It’s not 100 percent original, but it’s what I like. I added the chrome drip rails and all around the windshield is all chrome. That’s supposed to be painted. And it also has the Roadmaster Limited chrome inside the doors where you put your arm."
The car was originally white and Dohnal wrestled with a color choice for his beloved Riviera. He was partial to the two-tone paint schemes that were offered on the 1958s and finally settled on a very ’50s looking teal and white combination. “[I had a] ’56 Ford that I had painted teal, and I had some of that paint left over, so that’s what I used,” he said. “I fought for at least a year deciding what to paint it. When I bought it, it was coral and black. It came in white originally, but I put the teal on it because that’s what I like.”
Two of Dohnal’s biggest nods to non-originality were the brakes and trunk. With safety and driveability in mind, the Buick got power discs at all four corners, replacing the factory drums. “The brakes I wanted in all along, I know it’s not a 1,000-point car. It’s not a concours car," he said. " I just wanted to make it safe and fun and take to local cruise nights and shows. It’s definitely not a trailer queen, but it’s a lot of fun!”
Under the rear deck lid, Dohnal did some custom woodworking and fashioned a couple of slick and useful storage compartments. “I have a couple of hidden compartments,” he said. “I’m a carpenter by trade, so anything with wood is really my forte.”
Dohnal added some woodwork to the interior as well. The previous owner had reupholstered the car at some point in the past, and Dohnal went ahead and added his own touches with some woodwork on the dash and a custom wooden console for the floor.
“I did not do the interior yet but it was redone some years ago,” he said. “[It’s] not the best quality, but it looks OK. Although it is in the original style, I plan on re-doing it in a more vibrant and period correct white and teal... The dash pad and dash have already been done. All of the interior trim that was offered in the body color from the factory I had chromed. That includes front and back window inside trim as well as the door sill plates and rail trim.”
“All of the interior components are original to the car, such as seat springs, steering wheel, gauges and knobs.”
There was nothing wooden on the flashy Buicks when they debuted for 1958. A total of 34,903 of the Riviera coupes were produced, making them the second-most popular body style behind the four-door sedan. The Specials, which were the least expensive of Buick’s four tiers for the model year, were bigger, heavier and shinier than ever for ’58. For the first time in 10 years, there were no trademark ventiports behind the front wheels, which almost went unnoticed thanks to the dazzling grid of 160 chrome squares that dominated one of the fanciest grilles the world had ever seen. Those brilliant grilles combined with the heavy quad head lamps, prominent downward-curving bodyside spear, and large rear fender moldings to give the 1958 Buicks a look that was completely different from the ’57s.
Standard features on the Special included an ignition key light, glovebox, cigar lighter, trip mileage indicator, bumper guards, variable-speed wiper and Step-On parking brake. Interiors were trimmed with gray cloth and vinyl or Cordaveen and vinyl. The convertibles use all Cordaveen. A fancier interior was optional for a few more bucks.
The rear fins were slightly higher and more pronounced, and with more metal hanging out the back, the Specials grew more than 3 inches in length to 211.8 inches. The Riviera’s advertised weight of 4,063 lbs. was 107 more than the previous year.
If Buick had hoped that bigger would be better in showrooms and halt a slide in sales figures, then it figured wrong. After falling from third place to fourth the previous year among U.S. automakers, Buick built just 257,124 cars for ’58, dropping it behind Oldsmobile and into fifth place on the sales charts.
But for guys like Dohnal, who love lots of blazing chrome and razzle-dazzle, the ’58 were the bomb. Fittingly, the producers of the short-lived TV show The Playboy Club were impressed with the Buick’s glitz and glamour — they used the Riviera during filming of one of the three episodes that made it onto network TV.
Getting his car on TV certainly wasn’t what Dohnal had in mind when he was putting it back together, however. He had bigger ideas — like making a car that was loads of fun to own and drive, and very hard to ignore.
“This is most definitely not a 100 percent back-to-original-concours restoration. It's a father/son ‘Lets have fun and build it how WE want it’ project," he said.
“I’m ecstatic the way it worked out. Everybody that knows me knows all I ever wanted was a ’58 Buick. That’s all I ever talked about.”
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