During British rule, which ended in 1947, and into the 1950s, British and American vehicles dominated Indian roads. Every conceivable marque from Rolls-Royce and Cadillac to Austin and Plymouth could be espied. Continental cars, fewer in numbers compared to their British and American counterparts, were mostly represented by the prestigious marques including Hispano-Suiza, Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye, Delage, Minerva, Isotta Fraschini, Horch, Bugatti, Maybach, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia.
Products from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler catered to a whole spectrum of customers, from the Maharajas to the business and professional classes. War-surplus Mack, Chevrolet, and other makes of trucks, disposed of by the departing American forces after the end of the War, dominated the roads. Leyland, Daimler, and AEC double-decker buses plied city streets. Bedford, Fargo and Commer brought you your milk, newspaper, and everything in between.
The Maharajas, typically, used top-end British marques and a few Continental marques for their personal use and for occasions of state. The fleets of princely states consisted of large numbers of American cars for routine duties. Most Indian roads in those days were more akin to rough tracks or mud roads, used by cars – as well as animal-drawn vehicles, and wild animals themselves – and were best tackled by the bigger engines and softer suspensions of American cars. To add to that, American cars were competitively priced. It is against this milieu that the Buick Roadmaster must be viewed in post-war India.
The Buick Marque
It was David Dunbar Buick who gave the Buick marque its name and in 1903, incorporated the Buick Motor Company in Detroit, the forerunner of the Buick Division of General Motors. Buick’s early success is generally attributed to its use of what it termed the “valve-in-head” engine, now commonly known as the overhead valve (OHV) engine, making the history of Buick and the OHV engine rather intertwined. It may not be out of place to treat this subject at this juncture.
The OHV engine had its origins in an American patent of 1896 awarded to one W.F. Davis. In 1898 a bicycle manufacturer called Walter Marr built a motor tricycle with a single cylinder OHV engine. David Buick hired Marr in 1899 or 1900 as chief engineer at the Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company in Detroit, where the overhead valve engine design was further refined. This engine employed pushrod-actuated rocker arms, which in turn opened valves parallel to the pistons. Marr was keen to enter car production, whereas David Buick was reluctant to do so, which eventually led to Marr’s departure in 1901 to start his own automobile company, the Marr Auto-Car, in which Marr made a handful of cars with overhead valve engines.
Buick’s second chief engineer Eugene Richard, who replaced Marr, applied for a patent for the OHV engine, which was granted in 1904 to the Buick Manufacturing Company, the predecessor of the Buick Motor Company. It was this Company that bears the distinction of installing the world’s first production OHV internal combustion engine in a car, namely, the 1904 Buick Model B, which used a two-cylinder flat-twin engine, with two valves in each head. The engine was designed by Marr and David Buick. The design proved successful and about 750 such cars were sold in 1905. It is worth noting that Cadillac and Oldsmobile only introduced overhead valves to their V-8 engines as late as 1949. David Buick had earlier taken the help of two financiers for corporate financing, both of whom exited one after the other, and were eventually replaced in 1904 by introduction, William C. Durant. Durant soon assumed control of the company. David Buick voluntarily sold his shareholding and retired a wealthy man.
Durant soon transformed Buick into one of the largest American manufacturers, went on an acquisition spree, and built the behemoth that he named General Motors. Within General Motors, Durant positioned Buick just below Cadillac, targeting the owner who was comfortably off, yet wanted a car above the norm. Buick is one of the three original marques still retained by General Motors, the others being Cadillac and Chevrolet. (Buick was superseded in the hierarchy for some years by LaSalle by virtue of the “General Motors Companion Make Programme”, a discussion of which falls outside the scope of this essay.)
The Buick Roadmaster
In order to mark engineering and design improvements over their 1935 models, Buick renamed their entire model range for 1936, during which year the Roadmaster model name was first introduced. Buick’s Series 40 range became the Special, the Series 50 became the Super, the Series 60 became the Century, and the Series 90, Buick’s largest and most luxurious, became the Limited. A new Series 80 called the Roadmaster was also introduced. By 1942, when production stopped as all the American carmakers switched to wartime production, Buick’s model line-up consisted of the Series 40A Special, the lightly longer Series 40B Special, the Series 50 Super, the Series 60 Century, the Series 70 Roadmaster (to which the Roadmaster name had been transferred) and the big Series 90 Limited.
When production recommenced in 1946, after World War II had ended, the Series 70 Roadmaster – with similar styling to the 1942 car – became Buick’s premium and best-appointed model and was offered in saloon (four-door sedan), coupe (sedanet) and convertible (convertible coupe) versions. In 1947 a four-door wagon was added, with flagship Riviera hardtop coupe joining the model range in 1949, when the Buick range received another significant styling update. The Roadmaster name was used by Buick until 1958 when it was discontinued until its reintroduction for a few years in the 1990s.
In 1938 General Motors’s styling chief Harvey J. Earl designed what today is termed a “concept car”, that is, a car intended to showcase the future. It was called the “Buick Y-Job”. The story goes that since “X” was popularly used for experimental cars/engines, such as the Rolls-Royce EX series, Earl decided to be different and used the letter “Y”. With styling inspired by the Y-Job, the 1942 Roadmaster, was longer, lower, wider and roomier, with a longer wheelbase, than its predecessor. There was also a new vertical-bar grille and “Airfoil” fenders that swept back to the rear fenders. The latter design trait was later to evolve into the famed “Sweepspear”, also sometimes called the “Riviera Trim”. Both these design innovations were to become a Buick trademark for years to come.
Enter a car enthusiast named Ned Nickles. As a youngster Nickles had a passion for modifying and/or redesigning the cars he used and as a consequence largely taught himself car design. Sometime around 1934, Nickles sent some sketches to Earl, they were so good he was hired. In mid-1942, soon after its entry into the War, America ceased production of cars, and its formidable industrial base devoted itself to the production of those massive quantities of armaments which decisively swung the outcome of the War. During those years, Nickles worked on tanks, and at the end of the War, he was appointed Chief Designer of the Advance Design Studio.
During the decade from the late forties to the late fifties, a styling revolution took place in America. It was the age of heavy chrome and tailfins. Unlike Cadillac, which carried it to an extreme, Buick was more restrained (if you ignore the chrome heavy 1958 models). For the 1946 model year, Buick retained the swept-back fenders introduced in 1942, as well as a war-inspired “bombsight” mascot, on the bonnet. The prevailing heavy chrome-work was scaled down. The instrument panel was two-toned with woodgrain facings except on convertibles which used body-coloured panels. Compound carburetion, explained below, was discontinued and the compression ratio was reduced to 6.60:1. The 1946 Roadmaster’s horsepower rating went from 165 to 144bhp. Torque, however, was not affected. In 1947 a new stamped grille with a separate upper bar was used. The Roadmaster name appeared in red-filled script on a chrome button within the bumper guard crossbars, front, and rear.
In all its models from 1931 to 1952 Buick used OHV straight-eight engines which were simple, rugged, and reliable. Initially there were three sizes: 220 cubic inch, 272 cubic inch and 344 cubic inch.
In 1941, Buick introduced the innovation of “compound carburetion” on all the Super, Century, and Roadmaster models as standard equipment and as an option on all Specials. Its perceived advantages were higher compression ratios, greater volumetric efficiency at higher speeds, and enhanced performance and fuel economy. It was continued in 1942, but discontinued after the War, and is considered to be the forerunner of the four-barrel carburettor. The system consisted of two dual carburettors, of which one unit operated at all times, whilst the other operated only under hard acceleration. Both carburettors were mounted on one dual manifold, so that the outside branch of the manifold was connected to the outside barrel of both carburettors, and fed cylinders numbers 1, 2, 7 and 8. The inside branch of the manifold was connected to the inside barrel of both carburettors, and fed cylinders numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6. By this means, either the front or the rear carburettor could feed all eight cylinders. The front carburettor was a complete carburettor. The rear carburettor contained only a float system, idling system and main metering system. Starting and normal operation up to about 30-50 mph used the front carburettor. Both carburettors functioned at idle. When greater speed and/or acceleration was desired, the rear carburettor was activated through its linkage. Although the system was not particularly complicated, failure to properly adjust carburettor linkage earned compound carburetion a poor reputation, leading to its discontinuation.
Before we conclude this section, a brief word about eight-cylinder engines may be instructive. The smooth running characteristics of the inline straight-eight engine made it a popular choice for pre-War luxury cars. Its disadvantage is a propensity for torsional vibration in both crankshaft and camshaft at high speeds, and the increased length required of car bonnets. Among the luxury cars that used this engine may be counted Bugatti, Duesenberg, Isotta Fraschini, Mercedes-Benz, and Alfa Romeo. Two factors contributed to the eventual demise of the straight-eight post-War, and its replacement by the more compact V-8 design. On the one hand, the wide availability of cheap, high-octane petrol, resulting from improved wartime refining techniques, resulted in the design of higher compression engines, which in turn increased the limitations imposed by torsional vibration, thereby favouring the V-8 layout. On the other hand, the luxury marques which were the primary patrons of the straight-eight themselves largely vanished by the 1950s. In 1949 Oldsmobile switched over to the V-8, and Cadillac converted their V-8 to overhead valves. Other manufacturers like Chrysler and Lincoln followed, though Packard only adopted a V8 in 1955.
The Buick in India
In his excellent book “The Maharajas & their Magnificent Motor Cars” renowned author Gautam Sen, regarded as the father of Indian automotive journalism, says of the Buick, “This marque had become very popular with the princes and wealthy folk of India since GM had established (in 1928) a manufacturing facility in the country…. They began by assembling Chevrolets and importing models from Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. The pricier Cadillacs, too, were also imported, and so, thanks to its exclusivity – and out of a sense of snobbery – remained a favourite of the rajas and maharajas. Pricewise the Buicks were the most expensive in the range, and also because of their soft-riding coil sprung suspension became very popular with the princely estates. In the immediate post-war era, before European carmakers could start serving the market, American brands, specifically Buick, found many buyers among princely India and GM began assembling four-door Supers at their Mumbai factory. The Roadmaster and the more exclusive (Super) convertible, however, were still imported and sold in left-hand-drive configuration, offering prestige solutions for state use on many occasions…. Bold design, a smooth ride, and an upmarketimage paved the way for Buick’s success. In 1947, Buicks came in three series: Special, Super, and Roadmaster, though the convertible was on offer only as a Super or a Roadmaster…. The Buick convertibles… were the best-selling convertibles anywhere… the more expensive Roadmasters todayarea rare sight. Most that have survived in India are the Super version of the convertible.”
In this essay, we shall feature three Roadmasters from Western India, two convertibles and a fastback coupe.
Maharaja Gajsingh Ji II of Marwar-Jodhpur’s 1947 convertible
Notable amongst the Roadmasters extant in India is the one belonging to Maharaja Gajsingh Ji II of Jodhpur, Marwar, an erstwhile princely state in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The city of Jodhpur, founded in 1459 by, and named after, the Rajput chieftain Rao Jodha, was strategically located on one of the major caravan routes of yore. Maharaja Umaid Singhji (reigned 1918 to 1947), the 22nd in line from Rao Jodha, was a highly accomplished personage during whose reign was built the fabulous Umaid Bhavan Palace, now a luxury hotel, and who also acquired a stable of very fine cars, many of which were disposed of over the years. Among those that remain, the Maharaja’s striking 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II by Windovers was awarded Best of Show at the Cartier Concours d’Elegance Showheld in Mumbai in 2013.
The Figoni-Falaschi bodied Delahaye 135, mentioned in my previous story, which now belongs to a collateral branch of the House of Jodhpur, was awarded Best of Show at the first Cartier Concours d’Elegance Show held in 2008. A very desirable car in the collection is, in His Highness’s words, “The 1947 Buick Roadmaster, which was my mother’s car, is my favourite because of its colour, design and that it is convertible.”
This imposing car was registered on 18th December 1959 under the name of “Officer In Charge Ratanada Garage”, the Maharaja’s personal garage in Jodhpur, and was later transferred to the name of Her Late Highness Rajmata Krishna Kumari Sahiba. (Royal cars were not required to be registered with the local traffic authority for some years after Indian Independence in 1947, and carried only their red Royal number plates, until the Indian Government made registration mandatory in the 1950s.)
Engine number 48076432, with chassis number 14620384, was restored some years ago to its original two-tone beige and maroon livery. The car featured accoutrements considered routine today, but which were advanced for their time, such as the black electro-hydraulically operated canvas hood which was raised and lowered by the operation of an ivory-coloured knob on the dashboard, and seats and windows which are electrically operated. This superlative example is probably the only Roadmaster still in single ownership and of important royal provenance, with low mileage to boot.
Mr Subodh Nath’s 1947 convertible
Another Roadmaster of royal provenance formerly belonged to the Maharaja of Kishangarh, also a princely state in Rajasthan, and was acquired by Mr Subodh Nath of Ahmedabad in 1982. Ahmedabad is a city in western India, and it was from this city that the future Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, ruled the region as Governor before his accession to the Imperial throne. Mr Nath is a scion of one of the old families of Ahmedabad and still lives in his heritage ancestral home, one of the fortress-like “pols” for which the city is renowned. In one of the accompanying photographs, a half-covered arch may be seen, which was once the stable for the household’s elephants, and now houses their mechanical descendants, including an Armstrong-Siddeley, a 1947 Oldsmobile Dynamic, a 1929 Model A, and others.
Nath’s name is a prominent one in historic vehicle circles. He was the founder of the Gujarat Vintage and Classic Car Club and is now its President. The Nath family has owned several fine cars and motorcycles, among them a Duesenberg, a Lagonda Rapide (ex-Maharaja of Bhownagar), a V12 Lagonda (ex-Maharaja of Jodhpur), and a 1912 Indian Light V-twin motorcycle, also from Jodhpur. In the Cartier Concours d’Elegance in 2013, Jodhpur, scored a double, in that the Maharaja’s Windovers Phantom II, and Nath’s Indian, were awarded Best of Shows for the car and motorcycle categories, respectively.
Until recently, Nath had his own garage outside Ahmedabad, not far from the engineering divisions of the Indian subsidiary of the American multinational Ingersoll-Rand which I headed in the 1990s, and I have many pleasant memories of sitting with him of an evening with the ex-Jodhpur Lagonda and the Roadmaster parked just a few feet away.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many classics, whose value at the time was not appreciated, were dieselized by the replacement of their original petrol engines with diesel engines, due to the then prevailing large differential between the prices of diesel and petrol. This Roadmaster was bought from the royal family by a local resident of Kishangarh who installed a Perkins diesel engine. Fortunately, the original “Fireball” engine and parts were not discarded. Nath’s timely intervention rescued the car from further desecration, and he bought it in 1982 with all its original parts except the air-cleaner. An old photograph records its arrival in the Nath household.
Nath rebuilt the Buick’s Fireball engine and other mechanicals in his own garage and re-installed the original engine into the car. The body was transported to Indore in Central India, where an expert tinsmith restored it under Nath’s supervision. All the original parts now work, except the electric windows. The Buick was resprayed in its present maroon livery from the two-tone cream-and-green livery it wore when bought by Nath. Since its restoration, the car has participated in many historic vehicle shows under the aegis of the Gujarat Vintage and Classic Car Club’s shows in various parts of the state of Gujarat.
Mr Jerxis Vandrevala’s 1947 fastback coupe
The third Roadmaster is not of Indian provenance but is noteworthy not only because it is the only restored fastback coupe in India (at the time of writing), but also because of its extraordinary restoration. Its present owner, Jerxis Vandrevala has been collecting classics for two decades and regularly drives them rather than keeping them as trailer queens. He prefers American cars of the 1930s and 1940s. Another Buick in his collection is the 1947 Super convertible, first owned by the Maharajaof Travancore, a premier princely state in south India.
Vandrevala bought the Roadmaster in 2015 online and shipped it from Minnesota in America to Mumbai. Whilst being transported from the Mumbai docks to the container yard on a rainy night, the trailer carrying the container with the car met with an accident and the car was badly damaged. Conventional wisdom dictated that the Buick be scrapped.
Its owner was, however, made of better stuff and was determined to restore it. The correct parts were sourced, including a new body shell and doors, the front and rear fenders were finished by hand, and the rear spats were fabricated. The interiors were finished to original General Motors specifications, and the engine was rebuilt by a reputed engine shop.
The car was entered in the 2018 version of the 21-Gun-Salute Rally in Delhi, a premier Indian event that also attracts overseas entries, but it almost looked as though it would not arrive in time, but arrive in time it did, straight from the restorer’s garage. There it became the only entry which was awarded two prizes in the same show, namely, the Maharaja of Karauli Trophy, and runner-up for best restored classic. Incidentally, the runner-up Best of Show was awarded to an Australian entry, Peter and Robin Briggs’s historically important Le Mans 1922 Bentley 3 Litre.
This Roadmaster has since done several cross-country road trips, and will undoubtedly do many more in the years to come.
By Kooverji Gamadia
I am indebted to the owners of the cars featured above for information and photographs about the Roadmaster and their cars. To His Highness Maharaja Gajsingh Ji II of Marwar, Jodhpur, Umaid Bhavan Palace, Jodhpur, for so readily and graciously providing information from the royal archives; to Her Highness Priyadarshini Raje Scindia of Gwalior for the support she gave to this project; my old friend Subodh Nath for the information on his Buick, and in memory of the many evenings we shared; my friend Jerxis, whose in-laws’ family and my family originated from the same village in Gujarat more than three centuries ago; and last my old friend Gautam Sen, whose exquisite books on Indian historic vehicles are an unending source of pleasure and reference, and an indispensable part of my library.