Bringing back a Buick Special

04/19/2014 12:00 AM

07/15/2014 11:04 AM

Colleen Westerman isn’t your typical car hobbyist. But then the cars she fancies aren’t exactly typical, either.

Those cars have included a 1947 Oldsmobile 4-door and a sleek 1967 Jaguar XKE coupe, for example.

But right now, her pride and joy is “Little Red,” her 1962 Buick Special convertible.

“I saw a Skylark at the Great Bend drags and I loved the body style,” she said. “I found this car at the swap meet at the state fairgrounds. This guy and his wife were getting out of it and wanted to sell it.”

The low-mileage convertible, with its brilliant red paint and matching interior, appeared to be in excellent condition. But it would soon prove to be a challenge to Westerman’s automotive skills and to her perseverance.

“I bought it in October 2010 and I drove it about six times. Then on Father’s Day 2011, I was headed to the car show at Goessel and the engine and transmission both blew up at the same time,” said Westerman, who was devastated by that turn of events.

“This is the one car that I bought as a finished, driving car. It took several weeks … I couldn’t even talk about it without getting choked up.”

Finally, after about a month and a half of stewing about her predicament, she and her husband, Ben, and her father, Rob Cunningham, started digging into the drivetrain.

It turned out that the problems had come about, at least in part, due to modifications done to the car in California by a previous owner. The Buick had originally been sold at Bill Cox Buick in Oakland, Calif., and at some point, someone had lowered the car radically, installed an aggressive camshaft in it that ruined the lifters, and installed dual exhausts routed right alongside the aluminum case of the air-cooled transmission – a recipe for mechanical failure.

“My dad owned a machine shop, so I kind of grew up around cars,” said Westerman, who wasn’t intimidated by the mechanical work that lay ahead. But finding parts for a nearly 50-year-old car equipped with an aluminum V-8 engine proved challenging, to say the least.

“I had to have Ron Iskenderian (of Iskenderian Racing Cams) custom grind a camshaft to stock specifications, because that’s what I wanted,” Westerman said. The transmission required a complete rebuild, and the hot exhaust had to be routed away from it.

She made up her mind that since the car had broken down on the way to the Goessel show, she would have it up and running again in time for the next Father’s Day show there.

“It became about winning. And I was going to win,” she said. “It took a whole year to get it done.” But win, she did, finishing the repairs just in time to make the show.

Today, her refurbished Buick brings a smile to most car collectors’ faces.

Buick got into the compact car field with the Special in 1961, with updated styling that also was applied to its larger cars. The company also introduced its new 215 cubic-inch aluminum V-8 producing 155 horsepower that year.

Westerman’s convertible came with power steering, 3-speed automatic transmission and a power top.

“Body-wise, I didn’t have to do anything to it, really. The top, everything has been beautiful,” she said. She believes the red vinyl interior and even the floor mats with the Buick triple-shield logo are original equipment. The car has 76,000 miles showing on its odometer, also believed to be original.

“It’s even got the girlie tissue dispenser. It’s a real chick car,” Westerman grinned. “I have 16 more hub caps for it, enough to last me a lifetime.”

“I usually end up buying another car once a year. My mom rolls her eyes when I drag something home. My husband has his cars and I have my cars. Between the two of us, we have one child and 18 cars.”

For now, she plans to enjoy driving and showing her Buick Special convertible.

“It’s a happy little car now,” says Westerman. Then it’s on to the next project: assembling the partially restored Jaguar waiting for her in one corner of the family shop.

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