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My Buick had Ventiports, and other tales of automotive delinquency

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Photo by Richard Lentinello.

[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden returns to Hemmings In-Depth this week to reminisce about his Buick…and all the times it got him into trouble.]

I sure liked my 1955 Buick Special’s portholes…officially called “ventiports” by GM.

They boldly told the world I had “arrived.” It bothered me, I admit, there were only three. The larger, more powerful Buicks had four, along with more chrome, fancier names—Century, Super, and Roadmaster—and longer bodies rivaling expensive Cadillacs and Lincolns.

Unlike 1920s cars with real portholes, through which exhaust pipes exited and engine heat vented, it hardly concerned me mine were fake and didn’t enhance performance. It was all about image when I bought the Buick for $200 in 1961. I had been driving for a year and was “sophisticated.”

The three-porthole Buick sent a message to high school rivals. It announced I earned enough money—as a $2/hour grocery delivery boy—to own a classy car with “DynaFlow” automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, and rear fenders sprouting the most sought-after design feature in America: fins.

They weren’t large fins. But the sweeping fender lines that ended their flight in enormous taillights, which housed large back-up lights, made the Buick look fast. That was the whole point. America had entered the “jet age” and Detroit engineers were applying warplane design cues, from rocket hood ornaments to “swept-back,” wing-shaped side trim, as quickly as possible.

Although you can only see one porthole, two others are hidden on the front fender of my 1955 Buick Special. Portholes were a status symbol. Big-dollar Buicks had four of them. Photo from the author’s collection.

I hoped the Buick’s portholes and fins would attract girls. Maybe they would take their eyes away from gaping rust holes in the car’s two-tone green-and-white paint job. The Buick had rust in the usual places. For some reason, Detroit couldn’t build a car without creating “pockets” where water collected and “ate” metal in fenders, wheel wells, and door rocker panels. New Jersey’s winters were the culprit. State and local highway departments had only one solution for ice and snow: salt.

Enormous dump trucks filled to overflowing hit the streets, usually before dawn, their “spreaders” spewing a steady spray of white salt crystals in every direction, at the slightest hint of snow. As snow and ice melted, toxic slurry from tires thoroughly coated vehicles top to bottom. Most cars could be ordered with “undercoating,” a heavy, sprayed-on layer of smelly goop resembling tar. It protected metal where it was sprayed, but not inside cleverly engineered nooks and crannies.

There were several solutions to the rust problem…some cheap, others expensive. The expensive fix involved a body shop removing rust and welding new metal in place. Lots of metal filing, sanding, and new paint completed the job.

Cheaper alternatives—the kind appreciated by $2/hour delivery boys—involved hard work and “bondo,” called plastic filler today. I learned all about bondo when filling gaping holes on doors and rocker panels. The latter were so badly rusted they allowed air and water to ventilate the car’s interior. This didn’t make dates happy, especially when prom dresses and fancy shoes were splattered with mud. Powerful gasoline odors and exhaust fumes seeped through the rusted holes, too, resulting in coughing fits and gagging.

JC Whitney: a teen’s ‘Bible’
Some of the rust holes were too large to cover with bondo, however, and I got tired, knuckles raw and fingers sore, from hand sanding and spray painting fenders and doors. There was an easier way, I discovered, after reading JC Whitney’s catalog.

The catalog was nothing short of amazing! It was a teen’s “Bible.” Hundreds of pages with dozens of ads on each page required days of reading. I spent hours scrutinizing illustrations and absorbing fantastic claims by advertisers.

The catalog encouraged me to transform the Buick’s performance. “Spark-O-Matic” plugs, carburetor “water injector,” and $12 “mini-supercharger” promised to add 20 horsepower. I’d get better gas mileage, too, if I bought a $3 “Mileage-King Fuel Filtrol” with “Cataltser and Diffusion Element.” It would get the “gum” out. “Gyroscopic Stabilizers” promised to make tires roll smoother and longer. “Door-Re-Me” musical speakers would blast a loud tune every time doors were opened. “Pipe Organ Speakers” that resembled the Vatican’s enormous organ’s gold pipes could be mounted under the rear window to transmit radio music throughout the car. The $2.69 “Wolf Whistle” got my attention, too. Wouldn’t it be cool to push a button and whistle loudly at girls?

I decided it would be funnier to “roar” at them. It took a day’s hard work to buy the “Kattle Kaller” horn, which would make my car “bellow like a bull.”

Parked outside a pretty girl’s house, I let out a long, low “bull moan” that woke up the neighborhood. Bedroom lights suddenly were visible. My friends and I watched and laughed.

“Do it again…louder this time!” one of them urged. I obliged, the horn now sounding angry. I could modulate the sound using a hinged lever on the steering column connected by a cable to the engine compartment. More house lights came on; someone opened a window and yelled not-so-flattering remarks.

Another bull roar and everyone on the block turned on lights.

“It’s time to leave,” I announced. But just as I pulled away from the curb, a police car appeared and blocked my advance.

“You got an illegal horn, boy?” an officer barked, his flashlight blinding me. “Open your hood and let me see.”

Every eyeball in the neighborhood watched him write a citation for “disturbing the peace” and driving with an “illegal accessory.” Another day’s hard work paid the $15 fine. The bull horn was removed and upset parents, who received calls from irate neighbors, demanded it be thrown out. Too bad…car buffs pay top-dollar for such items today.

Other, less “controversial” JC Whitney items stood the test of time, however. Such as the “suicide knob” attached to the steering wheel. This was an important accessory that made one-handed steering—an absolute necessity when draping the right arm over a girl’s shoulder—possible and about as safe as no-handed driving.

Strictly illegal, the plastic knobs were colorful, cheap—about $8—and required lots of hand and arm maneuvers to turn. Mine, which prominently displayed a pin-up girl, was risqué. I wondered what Dad thought of it when he drove the car. Good thing Mom didn’t see it.

Other JC Whitney orders actually improved the car’s appearance such as a chrome exhaust pipe tip and fake whitewall inserts for the tires. The latter made my cheap re-treads look like expensive tires on Lincolns and Cadillacs.

Buicks were in my ‘blood’
Dad liked my ’55 Buick. He didn’t care about the portholes, of course. But I imagine he enjoyed the car’s power, provided by a 188-horsepower, 264-cubic-inch V8 engine (affectionately known as a “nailhead” because of its valve configuration). All of his cars—Chevrolets powered by six-cylinder engines—were anemic by comparison.

The Buick shifted more smoothly than his three-speed manual transmission. In fact, it shifted better than anything on the highway. Its dual-range “DynaFlow” transmission, combined with the quiet, but powerful V8 provided seamless acceleration. Unlike other automatics that shifted with abrupt, obvious jerking sounds and motions, the Buick was refined and quiet.

What a great engine…smooth, powerful, and easy to work on. Buick’s “nailhead” V-8 in the “Special” had 188 horsepower and a two-barrel carburetor for good gas mileage.

That wasn’t the case when my grandfather bought his first Buick in 1905. Buicks had been manufactured for about a year when he bought his, a black model with no roof or doors. The steering wheel was mounted on the right side.

Grandpa held my one-year-old father in his leather driving gloves when photographed in the Buick in 1906. An “oog-gah” horn was mounted on the steering column and an electric lamp resembling a lantern hung on the side of the dashboard. There was no windshield.

Grandfather’s Buick was really a wood wagon, the kind horses pulled, with a primitive, one-cylinder engine, cushioned seat…and not much else. He may have been among the first residents of Chatham, NJ, to own and drive a motor vehicle. Friends knew him as the “Buick man” because he bought many more over the years.

Grandfather Van Orden proudly held my Dad, who was one year old when this photo was taken in 1906. Grandfather’s 1905 Buick was among the first to be driven in Chatham, New Jersey. Photo from the author’s collection.

I should have danced all night
“Be back before midnight!” the concerned father ordered, looking me squarely in the eyes.

His daughter, a vision of virginal beauty in white with a pink corsage I pinned to her dress, laughed as she plopped down in the Buick’s front seat. A gentleman, I held the door open.

“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll have your daughter back before then,” I said, with confidence.

The girl’s mother, a knowing smile on her face, waved as we pulled away. Daddy still had a worried frown.

My date and I were headed to her junior prom. It was “puppy love” from the first day we met. But I liked her with sufficient fervor to do something I hated more than anything: go to a dance.

The prom rocked. My date and her classmates let their hair down and were cool. No formalities or Pat Boone songs, just rock-n-roll blasting with head-splitting volume. We danced to Gene Chandler’s big hit, “The Duke of Earl,” and gyrated to Joey Dee and The Starliters singing “Peppermint Twist.” Slow dancing to Dion’s “Wanderer” and Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” capped a great evening.

Twisting to Joey Dee and the Starliters singing “Peppermint Twist” capped a great prom, followed by a drive in my ’55 Buick to “Lookout Hill” for a little “submarine race watching.” (Photo: Roulette Records)

But we were anxious to leave and drive to “Lookout Hill,” a place she described as “secluded,” to do a little “submarine race watching.” I wondered how she knew. Anyway, off we went, the Buick pulling strongly up the winding two-lane to the top of a ridge with a view.

I can’t remember the view, but I remember panicking after glancing at my watch. It was almost midnight. We’d never make it back in time, but at least we’d be only a “little late.”

That thought was dispelled when the engine sputtered and died. Coasting to a stop, I turned the ignition key but the engine only groaned.

“No, this can’t be happening!” I yelled. “We’re out of gas.”

“What are we going to do?” my date asked.

“I’m not leaving you here,” I told her. “We have to walk and find a payphone or gas station.”

Off we went, my date in her white dress and I in my tuxedo, stumbling along the dark road. Headlights approached…and passed. More vehicles sped by, but no one stopped to help. Then, miraculously, a car pulled to the shoulder.

“Oh, no, it’s a State Trooper,” I said, spotting a red bubble on the car’s roof and watching a uniformed man step to the pavement.

“You kids shouldn’t be walking in the dark,” the officer admonished. “What happened…you run out of gas?”

Sitting in the backseat, I watched with trepidation as we arrived at my date’s house—it was about 2 a.m.—and the officer immediately turned on his red flashing light. To make matters worse, he directed a powerful spotlight at the front door.

Parents, still dressed, were greeted by lights and commotion. Judging by expressions, they weren’t too pleased. But to their credit, they put arms around their daughter and led her inside. I stood with the officer on the sidewalk.

“That was damn stupid, kid,” the officer reminded me. “Better check your gas gauge more often.” Off he went, leaving me alone in the dark. I wondered if I dared knock on my date’s front door.

Fortunately, her father came outside. I was expecting to be reamed, skewered, sliced and diced. But he didn’t say a word. Instead, he allowed me into the house, where I spent the night. The next morning, he drove me—and a two-gallon gas can—to the Buick.

I drove home and that was the last time I did a long trip in the car. The romance ended a short time later, too. It was almost time to start college and parents wanted me to sell the Buick.

The newspaper ad attracted a father and son who stopped by one night. Accustomed to driving Fords, which had a different transmission shift pattern on the steering column, the boy mistakenly shifted the DynaFlow into reverse.

Rear wheels locked, tires screeched as they slid on pavement and the engine stalled. The car stopped immediately, thrusting us forward in our seats, on the busy highway. I was amazed we weren’t rear-ended. And I wondered if the transmission and engine were ruined.

Surprisingly, the car started and drove away without a sputter after the boy shifted into drive. His apologies didn’t assuage my anger, especially when he didn’t buy the car. But the Buick didn’t fail me, selling a few days later to a young man who wanted fins and, most important, portholes.

I chuckle when I see new Buicks with fake portholes. Wish I still owned that ’55 Buick. Bet it’s a lot smoother and more comfortable than today’s Buicks.