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1938 Buick Special Self Shifter


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Hello, new to this forum but was very impressed with the knowledge I found on this Site. Hoping someone can help me with a few questions. I am currently preparing to restore a 1938 Buick Special Self Shifter that has been in my family for over 40 years, the car has less than 43,000 original mile on it and is about 99% complete and original except for a bad paint job that was put on about 30 years ago and interior both of which I plan to take back to original. The first question I have is approximately how many (or what Percentage) of the 1938 Buicks were Self Shifters? Several years ago my cousin who had the car before me was told by one of the Buick Clubs in Texas that this car was the only known one to be produced in Southgate (I think) CA. Another question can anyone tell me the numbers (and location) I will need to make certain determinations on this car (i.e. original interior, etc.). Also, does anyone know if a book may exist which details the restoration of old cars (possibly Buicks specifically). Also any advise would be greatly appreciated. I also would appreciate it if someone who was confident that everything under their hood was original would post a few pictures. What are some of the best car clubs to belong to? Just retired from the military and now finally have time for a hobby. Hope to have a lot of fun with this one and hope I run into ya'all sometimes, Thanks...Bruce

P.S. After viewing several threads I think the Buick Club member (mentioned in this thread) in Texas who identified this as being the only one produced in Southgate was Dave Corbin. The car at that time was in East Texas but is home again in Central California. I would be interested in Mr. Corbins opinion and impressions, if recalled of this vehicle.

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Welcome aboard...as I was partway through your questions, I was thinking that Dave might be the best one to answer your questions.

I just wanted to welcome you here and suggest that you join the BCA and the local chapter nearest you...I'm afraid I don't know CA geography very well, but there are chapters there...go to the BCA's site - on the left side is a link to the chapters and regions. Down the right side are the chapters that have an online presence...when I get off my butt, the Pre-War Division (free to join for BCA members) will also have a web page up.

I also wanted to express my appreciation to you for your intent to take this car back to original. The self-shifter is an interesting piece of technology that a lot of self-appointed "experts" out at the cruise nights could learn from.

Enjoy!

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Nosredna:

The '38 Buick is a very popular year among collectors, it is a very solid, powerful car with an extremely handsome grille.

I think one of the best ways to learn about the car is to go to the Buick Nationals, there are always a few 38's at the show -- just looking at them, taking pictures, and talking to the owners will give you tons of information that would be hard to get otherwise. The nationals this year are in Seattle in July, next year they will be in Flint (Flint shows are usually very big). No doubt, someone who has one will post some engine pictures for you, but there is no substitute for seeing a good car in person. Check on e-bay, by the way, there are often very good pictures of engines and interiors there -- though you can't always be sure if those cars are accurate.

I believe that Hampton Coach in New Hampshire makes an interior upholstery kit for many models of the '38 Buick. Their kits are well made and reasonably accurate. They are not cheap and installing them is lots of work, but it is easier than making an interior from scratch.

I have never seen one of those self-shifters intact, but I think they are very rare. I thought most of them were recalled by Buick and refitted with manual shifters. If you have one that actually works, that would be worth preserving unless it is so bad that it keeps you from enjoying the car.

Good luck and enjoy your Buick!

Bill.

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Again, welcome aboard!

Dave Corbin is your man for self shifters...(he really isn't a shifty character at all). Dave is on this site regularly, but when you get your new directory, give him a call. He is in TX.

Hope to see you in Seattle...

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Thanks for the information...I will check out Hampton Coach...The Interior is in really good shape, was redone in leather and still looks nice. I would really like to find a spare front and rear seat and door panels and get them done and installed and salvage the interior in it...It is in too nice condition to simply tear out. But do want to have the car looking original. I really like the self shifter, it is unique and so far I have had no problems with it. I happened to look in the "Buick Judging Manual" and got a lot of good information on Paint Codes and other valuable information but did not see anything about Interion codes. Any Idea where I may find this sort of information?

Thanks...Bruce

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If you post the trim codes and paint codes from you plate from the firewall, I can tell you what it was.I get it from a Master Parts book.

Hill Jenkins at Jenkins interiors knows Buicks and knows the interiors of Buicks. You may want to talk to him too. You can look him up on the web.

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Dear Bruce:

It happens that I have a file on your car, including all the frame and engine numbers. Trim code 400 is for a tan bedford cord interior, and paint code 519 is for Bottecelli Blue.

My file indicates that the car was built at Southgate, as it's frame number is 23244557. The first 2 tells you that it was built there. A Flint car would have a 1 in the first position.

I own a Model 48 2 door sedan, an original Flint car with 92,000 miles.

I have driven your car, when it was here in Texas. There were 3,880 Self-shifter Buicks built, but the number of survivors is probably less than 15, possibly as low as 10, so they are very rare.

Among the survivors that I know of, yours is the ONLY Southgate car. Terry Dunham and I had wondered if all self-shifters were built at Flint, where the transmission was built. Since Buick built all convertibles, all Roadmastes, and all Limiteds there, it was open to the same question. My finding your car answered that question in a definitive way.

Just remember, the only dumb question is the one you didn't ask. With these cars, there aren't any dumb questions, but maye some dumb answers.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Dear Bruce:

Some more info: There were about 140,000 Specials built in 1938, and the self-shifter was not used with the big 320 engine, so there were no Roadmasters, Centuries, or Limiteds.

Of the 9 cars that I am aware of, I have driven 4. Body distribution is 6 4-door sedans, 1 coupe, 1 2-door sedan (mine) and 1 convertible. All are Flint built except yours.

There are the following manuals and literature: Shop manual, shop manual supplement,owners self-shifter manual (Little one that went in the glove box) and a salesman's instruction book (How to teach a new owner how to drive one). They come up from time to time on e-bay and I have them all.

There were 15 special dealer service tools issued for the self-shifter, of which I have managed to acquire 4. I also have copies of the Buick factory assembly drawings.

I made a computerized copy of the 1941 parts books listing all the self-shifter parts, so I could do investigations into the unit's history. I'm sure the Buick people of that time would be shocked to know how thoroughly they got investigated around 65 years later.

I can tell you that it's a great car IF driven right. That 3.615 rear end allows a good highway cruise even today.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Sir,

Thank you for the great information. Over the next couple of years I am hoping to put a lot of work into this vehicle and get it as close to original as possible. I do have a lot of questions that are spinning around in my mind, and I am sure I will be trying to tap into your knowledge as much as possible. This will be my first attempt at restoring a vehicle. I would appreciate any information on the restoration process, where do I start? I do have one of the Self Shifting manuals, and I always try to keep my eye on ebay to get the rest. I never knew about the tool kit but that will definately be another thing I will watch for. If you have any recommendations on craftsmen for various components of the restoration I would also appreciate that information. As I do not want to invest a lot of time and money and end up with a car that is far from original. I am trying to pick up the two books "The Buick: A Complete History" and "70 years of Buicks" as I hear they have a lot of valuable information. Also, I understand you are author of "The Big Book of Buick Numbers" (sorry if that is not exact title). Can you provide point of contact for ordering that book? One last question for now. Do you run straight 30 oil in your transmission? I have not changed the transmission oil but think I may should soon. Thank You, Bruce

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Bruce,

Such luck to have a working '38 that has been in the family so very long and is so complete! You can get restoration books that are general (but quite useful) at your nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble and should check out Matt Harwoods website covering his '41 Century restoration at web page for some really good stuff.

Good luck.

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Dear Bruce:

Th following general suggestions about restoration:

1) Since the car runs, do only the work required to make it safe to be on the road the first year.

2) Take about 500 refrence photos before you take anything apart.

3) Go to the Buick national in Seattle in 2007, and Flint in 2008. Ask questions and take another 500 pictures of correct cars.

4) Make a couple of size reference sticks that are exactly 10 inches long and 1 inch square painted red and include at least 1 in every photo, so that you can remember how big something is.

5) Make clearly labeled little baggies for every bit of hardware.

6) Buy the manuals and instruction books, such as shop manuals and study them.

7) keep asking questions about "who reproduces that? and "where can I find that?

8) Join the BCA, the technical advisors are your best friends. The fact that a member can place a free 30 word wanted ad every month and get 10,000 sets of eyes watching for him is easily worth the price.

9) Think carefully before you do anything about how you're going to proceed.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Dear Bruce:

Yes, that's what is named in my file as the Brunson car, so I have seen it. In regard to your transmission oil question, the oil that's supposed to be in it varies from 10W for low temperatures up to 30W for regular summer driving, in the manufacturer's recommendatons. I did somethi9ng a little different since my car had been sitting for almost 40 years. I drained what was in there, filled it with 3 quarts of 30W, and drove it slowly about 50 miles, drained and refilled with straight 30W and drove it another 50 miles, and drained it again. The third fill was 2 quarts straight 30W and 1 quart 10W30. Another 100 miles, drain and refill with 1 quart straight 30W and 2 quarts of 10W30, which is what I run in mine. It's important to remember that 10W30 wasn't around when these cars were built, and ATF is too thin. Let it clean itself out slowly.

Regards, Dave Corbin

PS: There's an easy way to know you've arrived: The drain oil won't be absolutely black, and it will turn into a regular Buick (It will leak some oil!!).

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Dear Bruce:

Important driving tip: After you start the engine, let it run for about 30 seconds in neutral with the clutch in so the transmision builds oil pressure internally. Put the clutch in and count slowly to 10 (about 10 seconds). Move the shift lever to F1 or R depending on which way you want to go. DO NOT GRIND THE LITTLE FRONT GEAR BOX! Patience is a great virtue here! Use this procedure each time you push the clutch pedal. If you're going forward, move to F2 at about 15 MPH without using the clutch. If you do this , you should use all 4 forward speeds.

As you're comimg to a stop, push the clutch in at about 8 MPH and use the brakes for the rest.

As you start forward, feed it a little gas and let in on the clutch about like you would with a standard floor shift. Take it very easy at first (many of that first 50 miles were in a big shopping center parking lot when it was closed.) You'll get the "hang" of it quickly.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Sir,

Thank you for all the tips on getting this restoration project off the ground. I have already joined BCA and planning on attending the Seattle event in July. Yes, Jim Brunson is my cousin...we're definately talking about same vehicle. Jim and his brother had the car for about 5 or 6 years. Before that my cousin in Arkansas own the car. He bought it in the mid 60's when he lived in California and took it to Arkansas when he moved there in 1975. I think the car was originally sold in or around Santa Cruz, California. I have yearly registrations going back to the 40s. I always liked the car and couldn't pass up the offer to get it when the opportunity came up. Jim gave me your card when I picked up the card and I have been meaning to call you for information, I am very happy to have met up with you here. The Car will need very little to make it safe for the road. The car has had more miles put on it in last few months than in the previous 40 years. This weekend I will definately begin the transmission cleaning sequence you described. I hope to keep in touch with you on a regular basis, and hope to meet you at the national.,,Thanks, Bruce

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To all of you following this thread:

Just to give you an idea how rare these things are, mine was the 2nd one I had ever seen. At that point, I had been a BCA member for 30 years. 3 years later, I took it to Flint 2003, and found out that it was the first or second self-shifter ever displayed. You wouldn't believe how many people thought that self-shifters were experimental or didn't really exist.

In talking with Terry Dunham before the 2003 National, I mentioned that I had entered it. He said he'd never seen one. My response was: "Is your driver's license valid?" "Sure!", he said. I said "This is an official invite to drive mine, it'll take me 10 miutes to teach you how and to give you a short demonstration." Did you ever see 2 boys with a neat new toy? He drve around Flint one evening for an hour, and we had an ABSOLUTE BLAST! He's such a neat guy anyway, and 2 boys with a new toy is always fun. His 1st car was a 38 Century 4-door.

At Flint 2003, it was parked next to a stunning 36 Roadmaster 4-door convertible sedan, which drew everyone's attention (and it was well deserved attention.).You could stand across the street and figure out who the really knowledgeable folks were. Just who observed the little plain black 2 door next to it real carefully too and you knew who they were.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Dear Bruce:

2 more things quickly: It's "Dave" to everybody, and, as an American from Texas, QE2 isn't allowed to knight me, so Sir is definitely out. My mother used to say there were 2 kinds of people in the world, friends I had met and friends I hadn't met yet. At some time in the future, you get to move from one class to another. In the meantime, I'm willing to talk Buick at any time, except for the next few days, as I'm going to my brother-in-law's funeral in Ohio.

Second thing is in regards to "The Big Book of Buick Numbers." It isn't very glamorous, so I'm having trouble finding a publisher. Terry Dunham once asked me to describe it to him. Consider what you might say to him to respond to that question. I mean, he and Larry Gustin wrote "The Buick", which certainly would entitle them to be considered among, if not the best, Buick historians ever.

I said " Can I think about how to answer that for a few days?"

This was my response: "I want you to imagine that a friendly Martian has just been dropped into Buick. He's allowed to "time travel" but isn't allowed out of Buick. What would he need to understand the place? Answer: A travel guide named "The Buick" would help him get the people and places straight. What else would prove very useful? Answer: A phone book called "The Big Book of Buick Numbers". Dull, but VERY useful.

Right now, there are only 2 copies in existence. I gave Terry one and I have the other. It's all on computer files with multiple backups, so it isn't going to get lost,even if something happens to me. If something were to happen to me, I've given Terry Dunham permission to post it on the Buick Archive website, where it could be accessed for a small fee to benefit the Archive.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Dave,

Thanks, old military habits are hard to break.

I just got the two Buick books on ebay and should be receiving them in a few days.

I am sorry to hear about your brother in law...my thoughts are with you.

I am going to be gathering up all the restoration and manuals I can before I start restoration.

I am really excited about this project and hope I do justice to this vehicle. Amazing how rare they are. Maybe some day we will be able to show two Self Shifters at the same event (has that ever been done?) but that is probably a few years away. I will do a lot of research before I start. I'm getting my Dad involved with this too and hopefully get him busy in his retirement. Will keep in touch...Thanks, Bruce

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Dear Bruce:

The tool kit in the car itself was, so far as I know, the same as the standard 1938 Buick in-car tools. The dealer tools are described and pictured in the shop manual supplement, so you've got that coming.

At our regional meet a couple of years ago, a friend of mine here locally was a special guest with his 1938 self-shifter Olds convertible. We also displayed his spare transmission on a stand which I built especially for it.

So far as I know, this was a first. However, I'll probably bring mine to 2008 Flint National. It would be a major thing to celebrate the 70th birthday of the GM automatic transmission, maybe with several self-shifters present?

Regards, Dave Corbin

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I hate to get this a bit off subject, but for those of you that are amiliair with the 1938 self-shifters, how does ths work. Is it at all similar to the cacuum "Wizard" system of the '32s, also I believe used on some Pontiac or Oldsmobiles, as I have been fold?

John

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Dear John:

The Buick and Olds transmissions are the same except for the back housing and the tail shaft. Since the Olds has an open driveline and the Buick is a torque tube, you can see the need for different parts. As to quantitys used, Buick used 3880 in 1938 only. Olds used about 30,000 in 1938 and 30,000 more in 1939. In 1940, the torque converter replaced the clutch and "Self-shifter" became "Hydramatic".

They are totally different from the "Wizard Control" in the 1933 era cars.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Dave,

Thanks a lot for the info. In summary, I guess the Wizard, was a vacuum operated clutch and freewheeling device on a standard transmission while the self-shifter was an early automatic gear changing device based on speed of the vehicle or engine, and the car did not have a mechanical clutch. Is that correct? I had heard of the term "self-shifter" but never really understood what it meant. I have to find some reading on them.

John

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if i recall correctly someone said on this forum that because olds had an open driveline the "Automatic Safety Transmission" worked good but the torque tube in buicks resulted in it causing a lot of shock through the car which could be felt very well by the driver, so it didnt sell too well.

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Dear Zonda:

It's kind of scary to get quoted by a younger forum member. Makes me feel old sometimes. You did quote me correctly about the open shaft VS. torque tube effects. You can prove it to yourself that GM knew the right answer, as follows: (1952 data)

Chevrolet PowerGlide Torque Tube

Pontiac Hydramatic Open drive

Oldsmobile Hydramatic Open drive

Buick Dynaflow Torque Tube

Cadillac Hydramatic Open drive

GMC pickup Hydramatic Open drive

In other words, DON'T put a torque tube and Hydramatic together. However, as Cadillac proved after the Hydramatic plant burned in 1953, the opposing combination works well. (Dynaflow with open drive). By the way, the self-shifter's part numbers are ALL Buick numbers.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Guest imported_JPIndusi

Dave:

Your last post here would imply that Buick had a role, and not a minor one, in the development of the Hydramatic.

Is that a true statement? If so, why is Oldsmobile generally credited with the Hydramatic development?

Joe, BCA 33493

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<div class="ubbcode-block"><div class="ubbcode-header">Quote:</div><div class="ubbcode-body">Dear John:

The Buick and Olds transmissions are the same except for the back housing and the tail shaft. Since the Olds has an open driveline and the Buick is a torque tube, you can see the need for different parts. As to quantitys used, Buick used 3880 in 1938 only. Olds used about 30,000 in 1938 and 30,000 more in 1939. In 1940, the torque converter replaced the clutch and "Self-shifter" became "Hydramatic".

They are totally different from the "Wizard Control" in the 1933 era cars.

Regards, Dave Corbin </div></div>

Me thinks the early fluid coupling used in the 40's was in fact a fluid coupling, not a torque converter, as it was not able to multiply torque, just the gears provided increased torque, and the fluid coupling provided a way for the engine to idle and the car remain at a stand still. <img src="http://forums.aaca.org/images/graemlins/grin.gif" alt="" />

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Guest BJM

Hydramatic was a joint development between Oldsmobile and Cadillac engineering, BUT this was because some of the Olds engineers were ex-Cadillac. Cadillac had been dabbling in the automatic transmission from the early 30's on, mostly experimental engineering (the "what if" stage) and maybe Olds self shifting technology jump started them.

At any rate, GM probably made the determination to let Olds take the hit if the Hydramatic was a servicing failure that 1st year, then follow it up with Cadillac. Buick, I believe, and Dunham could weigh in on this - wanted no part of an automatic because of the self shifting "shock" issues. Buick probably felt they needed more time to adapt the technology to their long term commitment to the torque tube.

Comments?

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Dear Joe:

I personally think that the thing was virtually all Buick, and the Olds/Cad thing is a cover story. If you look at the personalities involved, the self-shifter is done on Red Curtice's watch at Buick. It flops in a Buick, for the reason I previously stated. It succeeds in Oldsmobile. All self-shifters and all Hydramatics pre WW2 are built at Buick, so Curtice has control. The part numbers are all Buick. Buick made 5 versions of self-shifter during 1938, all to get it to shift easier, as the main box and gears are unchanged. Could you do that if Olds/Cad was involved? NO!!!!

Buick does the M5 Hellcat during WW2, and that transmission is seamless like Dynaflow. By 1945, Red Curtice is the boss at GM. Buick comes in with their hand out for the approval to bring Dynaflow into existence for the 1948 model year, Aug 1947 actual date. Curtice knows the REAL story of self-shifter. How long do you think it takes for him to give that request the rubber stamp? A guess of over about 5 seconds is probably too long. I think they got some of their retirees back during WW2 and had all the developement done and KNEW for sure it would work.

In my view, Buick invented the modern automatic transmission, since everything is descended, one way or another, from the engineering principles in self-shifter, Hydramatic and Dynaflow.

I know what the corporate lie is, and this looks like it to me.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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To all looking at this thread:

I realize that I'm going to be accused of "revisionist history" on this one, but before you do, look at ALL THE FACTS in my two posts above. The ONLY way all those facts make sense is the conclusion I've stated. It isn't the only place I've run into some omissions or fact stretching at GM. You should do the research on McLaughlin I've done. This one is a little one compared to that situation.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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