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November 09, 2005

Buick Portholes Are Back (Again)

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Good Ship Buick just got a new set of portholes. Unfortunately, it also seems to be taking on water and might even founder -- more on that towards the end of this posting

First, let's talk portholes.

Lucerne - 06.jpg 2006 Buick Lucerne.

Here's the brand-new Lucerne, Buick's top-of-the-line model for 2006. If you look closely at the part of the side between the front wheel-well and the windshield pillar or rear-view mirror you'll see four little flashy spots with dark centers. These are the latest version of Buick's famous portholes.

One area where General Motors is weak is design or styling. Back between 1930 and 1970, GM pretty much ruled that roost. However, in recent decades the company stumbled. By the early 1980s, cost-saving procedures resulted in a model lineup where it was hard to tell Chevrolets from Buicks, as was famously portrayed on a 1983 Fortune magazine cover.

Since then, GM has tried hard to distinguish its brands, though not as successfully as it once did.

The traditional means of establishing brand identity is through the use of styling details that appear year after year in changing, yet recognizable form.

Back in the 1950s when it became the third-ranking brand in sales, Buick boasted three main styling cues:

  • A grille with vertical chrome-plated bars or teeth
  • A chrome "sweep-spar" on the car's side
  • "Portholes" on the hood or front fender

The vertical grille first appeared for the truncated (by World War 2) 1942 model year. It was continued on the post-war 1946 models and lasted through the 1955's. Buick has revived this front-end theme in recent years.

Fastback - 42.jpg 1942 Buick with vertical grille bars.

The sweepspar and portholes both arrived on 1949 Buicks, though the sweepspar was only on Riviera hardtop convertibles, and even then only introduced part-way through the model year.

Riviera - 49.jpg 1949 Buick Riviera with sweepspar and portholes.

According to legend, the portholes were the invention of ace stylist Ned Nickles who reportedly had round holes cut in the hood of his car. The holes were finished with chrome-plated surrounds. Inside the holes were lights whose wiring was linked to the distributor, the lights pulsating along with the motor's revving, mimicking flames emitted from the exhaust stacks or a race car or airplane. Buick managers thought the portholes looked nifty, but on production cars the ports were not actual holes (the centers were simply black paint) and there was no fake exhaust flaming.

Hawker Fury biplane.jpg Hawker Fury fighter, 1930s -- note engine exhaust ports.

Back through the 1930s cars usually had doors, louvres, or grated openings on the sides of the hood to help get rid of engine heat. Below is a 1935 Plymouth with such openings plus circular porthole-like trim, in some slight way anticipating Buick's portholes.

Plymouth - ports - 35.jpg 1935 Plymouth -- portholes?

The 40s and 50s were the height of the practice of the annual model styling change. Nowadays the appearance difference between, say, a 2005 and 2006 model can be nil. Fifty or 60 years ago, cars were given "facelifts" -- changes in trim -- for years when the basic body shell was kept in production. But major styling themes were carried over by General Motors even when new bodies were introduced.

The pictures below show Buicks with completely different bodies. Note how the grille, porthole and sweepspar themes are carried over and how they indicate that, despite the new bodies, the cars are indeed Buicks.

Roadmaster sedan - 50.jpg
1950 Roadmaster.
Top of the line, 4 portholes.

Special sedan - 50.jpg
1950 Special.
Bottom of line, different body, no sweepspar, only 3 portholes.

Super sedan - 54.jpg
1954 Super.
Only Roadmasters got 4 portholes, though the Super had the same body.

Roadmaster HT - 57.jpg
1957 Roadmaster.

ALL the styling cues were abandoned for 1959. That model year's product development happened about the same time (1956-58) that GM styling suffered a panic-attack when slinky new 1957 Chrysler Corporation models were introduced while having to cope with retirement of long-time Design VP Harley Earl (whose last few cars were demostrating that he had lost his touch). As the following illustrations show, Buick styling drifted insofar as thematic cues were concerned.

Electra - 59.jpg
1959 Electra.
Buick created confusion by renaming its models.

buick HT - 61.jpg
1961 Buick.
Portholes return.

Skylark - 68.jpg
1968 Skylark.
No portholes, but a sweepspar.

Century - 95.jpg
1995 Century.
Looks like the grille might have vertical bars.

When portholes first appeared, they were slightly controversial like Cadillac's 1948 first tailfins. But they soon were accepted, and schoolboys like me were able to sort out Roadmasters (4 holes) from the dregs of the lineup.

Moreover the portholes were sincerely flattered when the 1951 Packards came out sporting porthole-like "bottle-openers" on their rear fenders.

Packard - 51.jpg 1951 Packard.

So now we have the 2006 Lucerne with vertical grille bars, portholes, and no sweepspars. It takes more than styling gimmicks to sell cars these days -- unlike in the 50s when style was about the only thing that distinguished competing brands. Even so, I think such styling touches are important and that it was a mistake for Buick to totally abandon them for considerable stretches between 1960 and the late 90s, thereby losing continuity.

And as I mentioned above, Buick seems to be sinking.

Buick? Sinking? Jerry Flint speculated about it here last June.

Flint is one of my favorite car mavens. If memory serves, he was an auto industry reporter for many years with The New York Times and later for Forbes magazine. Nowadays, he writes columns that almost never fail to be informative and opinionated (Jerry doesn't mind letting on how he would run the show if he were president of this or that automobile manufacturer).

It's no secret that General Motors is suffering. Market share is about half what it was in its heyday. A crisis is upon it regarding funding pensions for many tens of thousands of workers who are already retired or who will retire over the next decade. Not long ago GM had to pay Fiat of Italy well over a billion dollars to extract itself from an option-to-buy agreement forged when both companies were healthier.

A common auto industry saying is that the path to success is good products -- the very best marketing and public relations will do little good unless there is something substantial to hype. Chrysler was saved in the mid-80s, the mid-90s and just recently by vehicles that people actually could enthuse over. (Respectively, these were the original minivan, the "cab-forward" LH sedans, and the new 300 series I discussed here.)

But GM seems to be running out of money to develop new products thanks to the Fiat fiasco, the pension crisis and foolishly being too generous in other ways at union-contract negotiation time. Not long ago it had to "postpone" a rear-wheel-drive platform that would be needed to catch up with Chrysler's 300 and related cars (Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger).

At least they found the bucks to engineer those portholes.



posted by Donald at November 9, 2005


One thing that might have helped is to have made the newly introduced Pontiac Solstice roadster a Buick model instead. It would've been quite a departure for Buick, that's for sure, but so were the Rendezvous and Terraza. Even with its limited production, a highly coveted model like the Solstice would've brought a great deal of favorable attention to Buick - maybe even making the LaCrosse and Lucerne attrative to buyers under age 60.

Posted by: Peter on November 9, 2005 8:42 PM

Doctors drive Buicks.

Posted by: David Sucher on November 9, 2005 8:56 PM

"Doctors drive Buicks"

Many years ago. Today, elderly retired doctors drive Buicks (the younger ones have BMW's, Lexuses (Lexi?), Acuras etc.) And that's, in a nutshell, is the real problem facing Buick and some other domestic brands. They have too little appeal to younger people, with "younger" sometimes meaning "under 60."

Posted by: Peter on November 9, 2005 9:42 PM

My father was always an "Oldsmobile Man" and was close to heart-broken when that line was discontinued. Remember the "this is not your father's Oldsmobile" ads from a few years ago? Nice try, but it didn't work. I wonder if the impression that Buicks are for old fogies will do that brand in as well.

Posted by: mike on November 10, 2005 9:04 AM

"Doctors drive Buicks"
...and that other subset of Supreme Divine Knowledge...

Catholic priests drive (brand new donated-out-of-a-sense-of-guilt) Buicks.

Posted by: DarkoV on November 10, 2005 9:16 AM

Donald likes looking at cars, ogling them in fact, from all angles, like MBlowhard likes writing about naked actresses. For all the education---it's still chicks and wheels.

Posted by: annette on November 10, 2005 11:23 AM

And where would this country be without chicks and wheels? Nowhere I want to be.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 10, 2005 1:22 PM

BTW--no criticism intended. More amusement.

Posted by: annette on November 10, 2005 2:12 PM

I believe Buick used to market those holes on the side of their cars as "Cruiserline Ventiports."

Posted by: Michael Bierut on November 10, 2005 10:33 PM

"Chicks and Wheels" is a good name for a blog.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 10, 2005 11:51 PM

Your man Shouting Thomas is all over that.

Posted by: Robert on November 11, 2005 3:42 AM


Thanks for a fascinating trip through Buick design history! It must have taken some bother to collect all those old ads and photos, but they make for a wonderful pictorial essay.

The grille "teeth" on the '40s and early '50s models are a scrap too aggressive for my taste, but otherwise, what remarkable elegance in a car that middle-class people could afford! The '49 Riviera pictured is especially a work of art.

Clearly, by the mid-'50s model years, the design spark had gone out. Maybe a certain crassness came in along with tailfins and jukebox chrome. Paradoxically, the tendency to vulgarity was "balanced" by an equally distressing boxiness, sort of an analog to the featureless ice-cube-tray skyscrapers of the time. All the manufacturers fell victim to the trend, but GM's fall was greater simply because it was from a greater height.

GM's one exceptional design in that era was the 1961 Oldsmobile: finless, tapered, pure. Too bad they were manufactured along Soviet lines and quickly fell apart, so that you rarely see any today.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 11, 2005 11:41 AM

Peter -- This is speculation, but GM is also trying to get Pontiac back on track. Pontiac has been using sportiness and "excitement" as themes for many years, so the Solstice is a good fit for the brand's image and needs.

Buick, on the other hand, has played the role of a "near-luxury" brand. (Though when Red Curtis was Buick's GM, he made a raid or two on Cadillac's turf and got swatted down for his efforts.) In the 80s, when GM's brand strategy seriously began falling apart, a few hopped-up sporty Buicks were introduced, but never sold well. The most sucessful sporty Buick was the Century, first introduced in the late 30s and again with the 54s. It had their biggest engine stuffed into the smaller of the two bodies (big Buicks used GM's "C" body, the smaller ones had the "B" body -- Chevys and Pontiacs the "A" body) used in the days. More recent Buicks with the Century label failed to capture the magic.

David and Peter -- Besides, doctors don't make housecalls nowadays. Maybe that's Buick's problem (smirk).

Mike -- We had a '96 Olds and I drove a used '98 Olds Intrigue for a couple years before I bought the new Chrysler. They were okay cars -- especially the Intrigue, which had few mechanical problems @ 100K+ miles and was a good Interstate cruiser. Actually, the Intrigue was good because it was Oldsmobile's do-or-die model. The interior wasn't all that great, the exterior could have had more character, and maybe the marketing was off (I forget how they did advertising for it). But to no avail. The same was happening to Mercury, Buick, and other US brands, but GM had shrunk so much it felt it had to ditch one brand, and Olds was it.

Annette -- Oh no! You outed me as a car freak. And I tried SO hard to conceal it. [sob]

Michael Bierut -- Yes, "Ventiport" was the official name, though the rest of the world beyond the confines of Buick and its PR firm and ad agency always used "porthole" as the term of art.

On the other hand, the term "Cruiserline" is new to me. Perhaps it was used when the 49s came out, and I was too young to follow the car magazines or news accounts about marketing car features. But by the early 50s, I was more into that, and the term either wasn't used or might have been in tiny print in tech manuals.

Rick -- Actually 2Blowhards are certified Vikings when it comes to pillaging art from the Internet. Though I do have a good collection of automobile brochures from the 50s and 60s from which I might scan should I cough up the bucks for a scanner.

The 1950 teeth-over-the-bumper grille was controversial when introduced, and Buick went back to a more normal design for 1951. I'm fond of car styling circa 1948-55, though the cars themselves look a little awkward by today's standards (side windows not curved, narrow-track wheels, etc.). I agree that the '49 Buick was great. Interestingly, they only used that "C" body for that one model year -- Oldsmobile and Cadillac used it for both the 1948 and 1949 models, however.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 11, 2005 1:58 PM

I wonder if an appreciation for car styling partly depends on when one grew up or became aware of such things? I'm a bit younger than Mr. Pittenger and grew up in a neighborhood with car-crazy boys (one guy in particular was a Ford fanatic whose enthusiasms had their effects on me to this day), so I was mainly paying attention during the period of the early to mid-'60s. With a little self-analysis and retrospection, I find I have the following opinions.

1. Cars (well, Fords) became modern with the 1955 model year. Before that, all was darkness.

2. To the extent I even thought about ugly pre-1955 cars, the evolution seemed to start with motorized farm wagons and carriages until the late '30s, when they turned into hard-shelled beetle-backs ("streamlined" in the jargon of the time). After the war, cars looked like lumpy, self-propelled propane tanks. Or jukeboxes with tires, given all that chrome trim.

3. Tailfins (in moderation) were an attractive design element, lending an air of sleekness and an illusion of length.

4. Car design peaked in the 1957-1960 period. Best-looking cars ever! The 1960 Thunderbird was the most beautiful car ever made.

5. Something bad happened in 1961. Tailfins went away (mostly -- they lingered for a couple of years in places) and cars just became utilitarian transport vehicles no matter how much chrome they had on their grilles and bumpers.

6. In my neighborhood, Ford was king and GM products were the work of the devil. People who drove Chevys were ignorant fools who didn't know any better. Chrysler products were considered interesting because they weren't a threat to Ford, but not taken seriously. Ramblers and Studebakers were little better than the cars clowns piled out of at the circus.

7. Buicks were thought of as "Daddy cars." Cars driven by well-off, responsible adults who had outgrown adolescent enthusiasms, the kind of sober, well-respected pillars of the community that at 12 or 13 we boys had no idea of ever becoming.

I have a feeling all this will seem like utter perversity to Mr. Pittenger...


Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 12, 2005 9:56 AM

I can remember being at a large family gathering as a small child, sometime in the middle 1960's, when a great-uncle of mine caused quite a stir by arriving in this *weird* sort of car that seemed, well, just not a real car. None one had ever heard of such a thing and had a hard time accepting that it was a not some sort of joke. Even its name seemed funny - "Toyota."
If we only knew ...

Posted by: Peter on November 12, 2005 10:02 AM

Dwight -- Car-wise, you sure are a contrarian. The Intellectual Establishment holds that American automobile styling reached a nadir (hmm -- nearly typed "Nader" -- meaning about the same thing) in the late 50s. Actually the '57 Chrysler line was well done (as were the '55s) but Virgil Exner's crew had reached a dead-end with 57s and thrashed from one fin variation to another until Exner had his heart attack and later got eased out. The 1958 Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles had chrome trim applied as if six sylists were each assigned one part of the car and were told to "be creative". I find some cars in that period nicely styled -- the '56 Lincolns and '57 Fords come to mind.

As for Ford products, my dad bought a '36 Ford coupe. At the same time he voted for FDR (his only presidential Democrat vote), but sanity returned. I've never been much tempted to buy a Ford, but The Fiancee loves 'em. This is an interesting topic and I'll likely return to it later.

Peter -- Was it the one where the front end looked like an electric shaver?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 12, 2005 1:08 PM

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