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Buick Builds Better

Buick Builds Better


I love inline engines. The miniscule and the mega behemoths. Oh, there is no melody like the song of a V engine on stride, but something about a great inline stirs the soul. Hasn’t always been that way.

One of the side effects of the rat rod movement is the realization of younger generation rodders that not all engines need be forked eights. Or forked anything. Let me tell you about my times with the Buick straight eights, and good times they were. It all started because of Lee Wooley and Idaho State College.

I had gone down to Pocatello, Idaho to take on Idaho State College in l951. Drove my chopped and fenderless ’33 coupe down, and within a week had met up with a dozen or so local rodders who liked to hang at a local gas station. One of them mentioned Lee Wooley was building a car for the Bonneville Salt Flats. “Zat so”, I mused, since I was also going down the following summer. Long to short, I met Lee and became a kind of hanger-on to his l939 Buick Special (Century engine) coupe project.

Actually, it was a Pontiac body going on the Buick chassis Lee had assembled. A really nice chassis at that, everything painted black and clean. The engine was a 300 something (I keep remembering it as 320 cubic inches) that Lee had wrenched over the past year, and it sounded lethal. At that time, there were a couple other straight eights in Poky, one a great sedan convert that I would love now. For a tow car we would use Lee’s l940 four door Buick; itself no slouch in our impromptu open road drag races out by the airport.

So, Lee was a consummate mechanic and the kind of hot rodder that every car nut would do well to emulate. He made amazing mechanical devices! The Buick Century coupe was a prime example. Keep in mind that all his work was without yours truly, I was trying to get through college. But I could gopher, which was handy when we would hook the coupe behind the four door for a Friday or Saturday night invasion of Salt Lake City. Now I can’t remember the name of the drive –in we assaulted, maybe it was Fred & Kelly’s. Whatever, all the area hot dogs liked to hang there, and when we towed in after a two hundred pull from Pocatello, it was Katy bar the door. A lot of very foolish guys thought they could take on the mighty Eight. I don’t remember a single loss, and I do remember some cool green coming Lee’s way; it paid for gas.

So, we towed the behemoth to the salt flats right after it was finished. Like everyone, we went with bedrolls and baloney sandwiches, did it the lowdown way. Back then, you pulled off the old main east/west highway directly onto the salt and just threw down a few tools to mark your pit. We ended up next to Ak Miller on one side and Dick Scritchfield on the other. That is, until Lee fired the engine for warm-up. The exhaust system was hardly sophisticated, being just eight individual lengths of flex tubing all coming together in a bunch just under the door (where the running board had originally been). The sound was huge, and penetrating. That Buick literally bellowed! Which is why Ak moved farther away. Way farther away.

At any rate, we were running in D Coupe, and after several runs of 115mph, Lee was getting anxious and disappointed because he thought the car was good for much more. He wanted to pack up and leave. I thought it was a matter of tire spin, so I convinced Lee to let me speak with an old SLC buddy who had some Indy tires of much bigger diameter. We borrowed the tires and immediately jumped to 125. Yep, losing traction. Plus, we traced the engine leaning problem to fuel lines being too small from the trunk mounted tank.

That particular engine ended up being in a small T roadster running out of the Las Vegas area, and it held the NHRA quarter mile record for several years. Love them big inlines. Which reminds me to remind you about other terrific inline eights. Like the big Nash that Bruce Crower went humongous fast with in a modified roadster about 20 years ago at the salt flats. And the Mopar flat eight that powered a very successful streamliner a bit later, and the Packard flatty that a rodder used for his street roadster at the wildly popular street nights during Speed Week, and… well, the list is endless. All you gotta do is look around when you want to build a REAL hot rod!