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Bringing a Buick back to life with style

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at 3:29 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, at 6:39 a.m.

Sometimes, it’s all about the timing.

John Wheeler had always appreciated the styling of mid-’50s GM cars and thought he would like to restore one for himself.

“We’ve done a lot of ’55 Chevies for customers … I told my son I would like to do something a little different, like a ’55 Olds, Pontiac or a Buick,” said Wheeler, who runs Kammerer Auto Body & Paint.

Less than a week later, one of his customers told him he had discovered a 1955 Buick Roadmaster Riviera for sale in Hutchinson.

“The guy who owned it had passed away and it had been sitting in his sister’s garage for 24 years and she wanted it out of there,” he recalled. “It was covered with newspapers and there was junk thrown on it everywhere.”

But he could see the car, a two-door hardtop, was still solid and he made a deal with the daughter of the deceased owner and hauled the car to Wichita.

“It was all original: sheet metal, moldings, glass … it showed 71,000 actual miles on it,” Wheeler said. “It still had the original motor and transmission.”

Buick’s top-of-the line car for that year, it came equipped with power seats and windows, power steering and a 322 cubic inch “nailhead” V-8 engine coupled to a 2-speed Dynaflow automatic transmission.

“We put a battery in it and the only thing that didn’t work was the radio,” Wheeler said. “It just hummed, so we took it to the Radio Shop and they had a modern radio built for it that looks like it came in the car.”

The Buick became a family project for him and his three grandsons — Taylor, Colton and Carson — who pitched in on weekends to help bring the car back to life. They were involved in stripping down the interior and in removing the Roadmaster’s iconic four-fender portholes prior to the body work phase of the rejuvenation.

The big Buick’s blue-and-white paint job was in bad shape after sitting for all those years, but the sheet metal was in remarkably good condition. The lower rear quarter panels did have to be replaced with freshly fabricated metal panels, though.

“We bare-metaled it. Stripping all the old lacquer off it was a real pain,” Wheeler said. When the Buick was finally ready for paint, he and the grandsons used a famous ’55 Buick for inspiration.

“We kind of did it off of Jay Leno’s car, except we swapped the colors,” Wheeler said. Leno’s favorite Buick, which he actually lived in for a while after arriving in Hollywood, is now black over silver over black and is powered by a massive 572 cubic inch big block Chevy engine. Wheeler’s car is silver over black over silver and there are no plans to replace the nailhead engine with something more intimidating.

Inside, the Roadmaster’s original vinyl headliner was saved after being dyed in black to accent the chrome trim strips that run across the top. Wheeler took the car to Joel Palacios at Steven Upholstery to handle the remainder of the upholstery, which took the form of black and silver vinyl covering the power bench seat up front and the wide rear seat. Door and other interior panels were done to match and are beautifully accented by engine-turned stainless steel inserts, as is the two-toned dash board.

Complementing the black and silver exterior is a set of extra-big Foose custom wheels measuring in at 20 inches in diameter, rolling on low-profile 255x45x20 Nitto tires. Stock drum brakes remain at all four corners.

With that stylish Roadmaster body lowered over those wheels, the car attracts attention wherever it goes. It will be on display at this weekend’s Starbird-Devlin Rod & Customs Charities Car Show in Century II.

“It’s just a driver, not a trailer queen. I drive it everywhere it goes,” said Wheeler. “It’s just something I can hang around with my grandkids in. They’re all car freaks, too.”

Reach Mike Berry at mberry@wichitaeagle.com.

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