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Our Special-Order ’40 76C: Built for Harlow Curtice?

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             On January 2, 1942—75 years ago—ownership of our 1940 Buick Roadmaster Convertible was transferred from the Cimatool Co. of Dayton Ohio, to a woman we’ll refer to here as Mrs. McK. While in corporate ownership, the car had been driven by prominent Dayton industrialist Louis B. Polk, whose Cimatool/Sheffield Gage operations provided machine tools and manufacturing gages to the auto industry. Mrs. McK was the recently remarried widow of a man who had been VP of Global Sales for Frigidaire, the Dayton-based GM Division that made refrigeration appliances.

            Mrs. McK’s eldest son, who in 1942 was 12 and a friend of Polk’s son, recalls that when his mother acquired it, the Buick was a medium blue metallic color, with matching interior, including the dash. (The present instrument panel color, which can be seen in the accompanying overhead view, is a near match to the original paint.) The car’s data plate shows it was built with “SPEC” (special-order) paint and interior, such as a top Buick executive could specify. Another of Mrs. McK’s sons would later infer that she told him the car was originally built for use by Harlow Curtice, in 1940 general manager of Buick and later president of GM. 

            Several of Curtice's known later special GM cars were indeed painted to his order in a shade of blue similar to the original color on this car, traces of which remain on the firewall and in various nooks and crannies of the body. The Buick also has a 1942 Compound Carburetor set-up on its 1940 engine. Mrs. McK’s two surviving sons told me in 2012 that they believe it was on the car when she got it, as she had no interest in under-hood matters. They confirmed it also had a step-on parking brake of the type first seen on production 1942 Buicks, and a Chevrolet-type vacuum shift-assist set-up. (These two items were removed and subsequently lost by the San Francisco owner when he acquired the car in 1995, but their prior presence is documented.)

            As a retired auto designer who was familiar with a several of Curtice's Buicks told me, “He (Curtice) would always have these Buicks with special interiors, and something was always special on them.” Further, a 1954 TIME magazine article on Curtice states that, “When GM engineers experimented with such devices as the foot parking brake and Dynaflow transmission, Curtice...tried them and quickly ordered them on production models.” (That a prototype 1942 step-on parking brake would be available for testing by the boss in the summer of 1940 fits well within the engineering window for the 1942 models, and Buick engineers are also known to have fitted a vacuum shift-assist to some 1940 Buicks for testing.)

            By the end of 1942, Mrs. McK had taken the Buick to Connecticut, where her second husband had a large home. During 1943, the Roadmaster was repainted a dark blue and the interior trim dyed black, per Mr. McK’s wishes. The family says there were always other cars available to Mrs. McK, including a 1937 Buick coupe that she used for years. The ’40 Roadmaster became a summer car for the family’s Cape Cod get-aways—when I talked to them several years ago, both surviving sons recalled taking it out for drives during summer vacations from school.

            The Roadmaster was kept at Cape Cod until 1971, when Mrs. McK passed it to her youngest son, who lived in southern California. He immediately had it restored and kept it until terminal illness forced him to part with it in 1995. It then went to San Francisco, where it was enthusiastically enjoyed by a collector, until he died in 2008. In 2012, we acquired the car from his partner. 

            Was this Buick used by Harlow Curtice when new? We can’t say for sure, but we believe there is a high probability that it was. And so did Mrs. McK’s late son who restored the car. Since we’ve owned the car, we’ve learned that Louis B. Polk’s companies provided equipment for the new Buick axle and sheet metal plants that became operational in Flint in late 1940. So, it seems entirely possible that Curtice may have given Polk an opportunity to acquire the Roadmaster when he was done with it. Or, perhaps Polk came across it at the Buick Retail Store in Flint, where factory exec and show cars were sometimes sold (the 1952 Roadmaster-based prototype Skylark being but one).

            Certainly, with its bespoke paint and interior, this was somebody’s very special Roadmaster from the very first. And, thanks most of all to the conservation and restoration it received during the McK family's more than 50 years of ownership, it still exists 75 years after that day in 1942 that Mrs. McK made it hers.

Images:

• 1942 Ohio title transferring ownership from Cimatool (Louis B. Polk) to Mrs. McK

• The '40 as it appeared in the background of a 1943 McK family snap shot taken on Cape Cod

• On Cape Cod in 1970—the next year Mrs. McK passed it to her youngest son, who took it to California, where it underwent a restoration completed in 1973

• The Roadmaster today; still looking good even with though it was restored 45 years ago. Mrs. McK's eldest son says the car was originally close to the current vibrant blue dash color inside and out

• The data plate showing the car had special-order paint and trim.

 

40 76C title up2FB.jpg

40 76C_Cape Cod_1943 PM copy..jpg

40_76C_McK_Cape_Cod_upd2Fs.jpg

40 76C TVB overhead up2FB.jpg

40_76C_TVB_Fisher_Data_Plate.jpg

Edited by allcars
Removed redundant sentence; edits for clarity. (see edit history)
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Benefits of AACA Membership.

no small wonder convertibles are in such high regards!  Beautiful Buick!

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Great story, and beautiful car! Thanks for sharing.  Evidence clearly points to it being a Curtice car. That makes it a one-of-a-kind treasure!

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Great looking car, and an amazing story. Thanks from me as well for sharing your unique car with us!

Keith

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Glad you could write this up to preserve the history just a little bit more.  Thanks for sharing.

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