1940 Buick Century - $19,900
  • Overview & History
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The first muscle car? Debatable. But the formula is the same: the biggest engine in a modestly-sized car.

Buick was taking no prisoners in the 1930s. From almost going extinct in 1933 to #3 in sales behind Ford and Chevy by 1936, Harlow Curtice continually pushed his engineers to do better. “Do it the right way, even if it’s the hard way,” was his motto, and the quality of pre-war Buicks is testament to his leadership and vision. In 1936, Buick offered several big steps forward, including hydraulic brakes, all-steel bodies, and, most critical to this 1940 Buick Century, the introduction of the legendary 320 cubic inch straight-8 engine and the Century nameplate. Designed to power the biggest, most luxurious sedans and limousines, the 320 was also installed in the mid-sized Century, a car almost 2 feet shorter and nearly 800 pounds lighter than the 90 Series limousines, and a legend was born. The first muscle car? Debatable. But the formula is the same: the biggest engine in a modestly-sized car. One drive in this 1940 Century will convince you that Curtice and the Buick boys were on the right track.

We don’t know where this handsome Century spent its life, but it’s quite clean with no signs of ever having been rusty or patched back together—that alone is somewhat remarkable, as these cars had a tendency to rust in specific areas no matter where they lived. But no, not this one. Someone spent a good deal of time and money on it in the not-too-distant past, giving it a better than average Carlsbad Black paint job, a rebuilt engine, and a very handsome interior. 1940’s styling appears to be all-new at a glance, but it was very much a carry-over from 1939, but the grille was enlarged to aid in cooling and the headlights moved into the fenders for a sleek, modern look that was cutting-edge at the time. Buick introduced rear turn signals in 1939, the first in the industry, and in 1940 added front signals using parking lights atop the headlight pods, giving the ‘40s their distinctive look. Basic black is always a great choice on big sedans like this Century, and the high-gloss finish looks better than some cars costing three or four times as much. The only notable demerit is that there seems to be some minor bubbling at the base of both front doors, but given how clean the car is and hos symmetrical it is, we suspect it’s a prep issue, not rust. Some of the chrome has been refinished, including the bumpers, but some is really nice original stuff that shows only the most minor pitting that’s all but inevitable considering the materials Buick used—the probably had pitting almost from new. This car is also equipped with running boards, which were optional in 1940, and they do formalize the look and everyone likes to rest their foot on a running board; it’s practically why they were invented!

The interior was neatly restored using brown striped broadcloth that’s very similar to what might have been in there when this car was new. Fresh door panels were created at the same time and do a reasonable job of replicating the originals, and new carpets were installed on the floors. Someone spent big money on the plastic steering wheel and other knobs, which use a bright ivory color as original and really stand out in the otherwise monochromatic cabin. The gauges are all fully operational, although we suspect the fuel gauge is a bit of a pessimist, and the row of knobs under the dash for secondary functions gives it a finished look. There is no radio but it does have a CENTURY block-off plate, which was common, and there’s a clock in the glove box lid. The dash panels aren’t engine-turned as original, but they do look tidy and there’s nothing inside that appears over-done, so it’s a nice place to spend some time. The back seat is spacious for two and comfortable for three, with a drop-down center armrest and acres of legroom. The headliner is rather nicely done, too, and original window garnish moldings give it a clean, finished look. Century sedans offered big trunks, too, with this car’s cargo bay finished with correct cloth material and showing no signs of distress in the usual spots like the tool tray at the very rear.

In 1940, Buick’s 320 cubic inch overhead valve straight-8 was rated at 141 horsepower with a single 2-barrel carburetor. But what makes these engines special is all that creamy-smooth torque on tap, and that’s exactly why the Century was often referred to as the “banker’s hot rod.” It’s still polished and poised, but in the relatively lightweight 126-inch chassis, it offers a great power-to-weight ratio. Yeah, it’s fast, probably one of the fastest pre-war cars you can own. The engine was rebuilt under previous ownership and remains almost entirely stock save for a 12-volt electrical system with alternator. That 12-volt battery kicks the giant engine over with vigor and it always starts quickly and easily with no hassles, settling into a muted idle that doesn’t quite sound like any other 8-cylinder engine you’ve heard. It’s finished in correct gray engine enamel, which was used in 1939 and 1940, with red lettering calling out “Buick 8” and “Dynaflash” on the valve cover. The carburetor and air cleaner are correct and it includes the spark plug cover and engine splash pans, details that often get omitted simply because people think they’re unnecessary.

The chassis appears largely original and we don’t believe the body has ever been off the frame. But if you look at the rockers, the area at the base of the passenger’s A-pillar, and the trunk pan near the opening, you’ll note this car is quite solid—those are always problem areas on these cars. It isn’t detailed, of course, but there are no red flags or issues that a new owner will need to tackle. The 3-speed manual transmission shifts well, although you need to be deliberate going into high gear because the linkage is tight—if you don’t get it just right, it may pop out. Clutch action is light and the brakes are powerful enough to be a match for the engine. On the road, ride quality is excellent and that big, torquey straight-8 hustles this Century along without working very hard at all and with 3.90 gears in back it will cruise all day at 65 MPH, making it a fantastic choice for touring. Harwood Motors serviced the shocks so the ride is well-damped and the fluids are fresh, so it’s ready to tour. Factory wheels were painted Dante Red, which really pops against the black paint, and outfitted with 235/75/15 Diamondback wide whitewall radials that ride and handle great.

Is this a perfect car? No way. But it’s exactly the right sort of car that you can get in and do just about anything. Drive it to work, take the family out for a drive, or hit the road for a long-distance tour. Big Buicks like this are superlative road cars, the hardware is bulletproof reliable, and their performance makes them comfortable in modern traffic. The Century remains perhaps the ideal combination of performance and luxury in the pre-war era and we can say with confidence that few other machines of the period can run the way this big black sedan does. Call today!

Harwood Motors always recommends and welcomes personal or professional inspections of any vehicle in our inventory prior to purchase.

Vehicle: 1940 Buick Century
Price: $19,900
Stock Number: 117096
Mileage: 58,325
VIN: 63868546
Engine: 320 cubic inch straight-8
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Gear Ratio: 3.9
Wheelbase: 126 inches
Wheels: 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps
Tires: 235/75/15 Diamondback whitewall radials
Exterior Color: Carlsbad Black
Interior Color: Tan cloth
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