Chuck Thurston: The Fireball Eight
Getting your first automobile is usually such a momentous occasion that you don’t ever consider that it will likely be just the first of many you will own in your lifetime.
It is a consuming passion until it is replaced – after some longer or shorter period -- and you begin to realize that cars are commodities, like clothes and shoes. Replacements will be needed from time to time.
I once heard it said that when men were asked about the best car they ever owned, they made the judgment – based not on reliability or efficiency or performance – but chose the car with which they had the most fun.
No contest in my case. Shortly after high school, I got a decent job, and bought a used 1949 Buick Super 2-door fastback sedanette – fire engine red. Ah me.
The engine was Buick’s “Fireball 8,” a straight 8 engine that generated a whopping 120 horsepower or so. This was actually not too bad for the day. It wasn’t until 1955 that the Chrysler 300 – for 300 horsepower – came out, and several years after that, before the muscle cars made 120 seem downright anemic. Even if it had had a bigger mill, though, you couldn’t have done much anyway with the Dynaflow transmission – “dynaslush” to the stick shift boys who snickered at your big red land yacht. Performance wise, the Fireball 8 was no ball of fire.
Let them snicker. Buick was not really interested in the hot rod set. The Fireball wallowed in the corners, and had the turning radius of the Queen Mary.
You could almost hear the long straight eight engine sucking raw gas through the carburetor to push the pistons, which would spin the turbines in the transmission — until the fluid achieved enough viscous inertia (or whatever the physics involved would be called) to move this barge from 0 to 60 MPH – in a mile or so.
It took longer in cold weather, when the fluid was thicker. Eventually, though, you were up to speed and cruising along in style. Looks and luxury trumped all the horsepower and handling stuff in this machine.
Buick, at that time, was the mid range GM offering. It was the car for those who had moved up from the Chevys and Pontiacs but weren’t quite ready for the Caddy – and the Super was the mid range of the Buicks. It had three portholes on each front fender.
This made it immediately distinguishable – in my view — from the tacky two porthole Special and the overly ostentatious four porthole Roadmaster models. Three seemed just right to me.
The Buick portholes came out of an idea by Ned Nickles, Buick’s styling chief at the time.
He drove a Roadmaster and had four amber lights installed on each side of the hood. He attached them to the engine’s distributor.
They flashed on and off as the cylinders fired and were meant to simulate the flames from the exhaust stacks of a WWII fighter plane.
Coupled with the car’s iconic “bombsight” hood ornament. It gave the driver the sense that he was at the controls of an imaginary fighter. The joke was that the bombsight made it easier to line up on pedestrians caught on the crosswalk between traffic light changes. In 1949, the portholes were added to all Buick models – less the flashing lights, of course.
Ok, it’s the mid 50’s and it’s a Saturday morning. You have washed and waxed your pride and joy to within an inch of its enameled hide. You have applied a cleaner to the white wall tires (did I mention them?) and some chrome polish until you can see your face in the hubcaps. Once those jobs are done, you reinstall the fender skirts and the “curb feelers.”
It’s early evening, and you pull the Fireball up in front of your girlfriend’s house You have an air freshener hanging off the rear view mirror and your “suicide knob” installed on the steering wheel – the better to give you a little better steering leverage for the one-armed driving (we are assuming this isn’t a first date with this girl) that you will be doing in just a bit.
This will not start until you are down the street and have turned the corner off her block, hiding this maneuver from whoever may be watching your departure from her front porch. No fool, you.
Give those old cast iron blocks their due. No high rev whine from those babies. You get a nice mellow purr from your glasspack muffler.
Absent any seatbelt, your date slides over next to you and you get a whiff of her perfume. White Shoulders is a current favorite. It doesn’t seem to conflict much with your Pine air freshener and you find the combo of forest and floral strangely energizing.
You stop by to pick up Art and Mary — your double date companions for the evening. They settle down in the back seat of the Super – a space larger than some small kitchens of the period.
Having spent a little time in this area yourself, you can vouch for this. You check your rear view mirror, and notice that most of this space seems wasted – at least for the time being -- since your friends are occupying just one small corner of it, as the four of you cruise to the drive-in.
I’ll spare you the rest of the evening details – this is about the automobile, after all.
Let me just say that your car — safely and comfortably — fulfills its dately duties. You all have a wonderful time, everybody gets back and makes curfew, and you head home alone after dropping your girl off.
It’s a nice summer night. You know for sure that you are going to have to stop under a nearby street light and check for lipstick smudges before you pull into your own driveway (the old man will likely be up late watching “Greatest Fights Of The Century” on the TV).
The Fireball Eight is purring along. You have the window cranked down and some AM station is playing the Four Aces “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.” Ain’t that the truth. You wouldn’t trade this set of wheels for any you can think of.
Physicists say that matter and energy slide back and forth across a continuum – nothing is ever really destroyed. “Nature doesn’t know extinction,” Von Braun once famously said; “all it knows is transformation.” Exactly.
So it’s out there somewhere. If it’s a pile of rust oxidizing in some scrapyard, or recycled and part of some kid’s matchbox car — elements of it exist somewhere. It might even have been restored by some enthusiast — a genuine reclaimed 1949 Buick Super 2-door fastback Fireball 8 sedanette – fire engine red. What tales it could tell.Chuck Thurston lives in Kannapolis. A collection of his columns, “Senior Scribbles Unearthed” is available on Amazon.com.