WHAT is it?” is usually the first question everyone asks when they first lay eyes on Mick Schumak’s ultra-sexy 1959 Buick Le Sabre. Most figure it’s a Cadillac – not an unreasonable guess when you consider the Buick shares the same front and rear screens, roof, doors and bodylines as its Cadillac cousin. Next question typically is, “what colour is it?” Just for the record it’s actually a factory Chrysler colour as used on the current generation Viper.
This article was first published in the March 2002 issue of Street Machine
Buick’s are rare here in Australia and 1959 Le Sabres are even rarer. Mick believes that there are less than 10 of these in the country. So how did such an uncommon car find it’s way to Australia?
“Having built one of the best rods in the country [the yellow ’32 Coupe that creamed ’em at Summernats 15], my son, Robbie, decided to head stateside to check out what’s hot in hot rodding’s birthplace,” says Mick. “As he boarded the plane, I slipped him a wad of cash and whispered in his ear, ‘If you spot anything I might be interested in, grab it for me, will ya?’”
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It just so happened that, one day when cruising down the 405, Robbie did spy something of interest, this 1959 Buick Le Sabre. After a quick trans-Pacific phone call, arrangements were hastily made with Ray Flaherty of Junkyard Classics to load the very clean, very original, genuine one-owner Buick into a Sydney-bound container.
Close inspection of the Buick reveals that Chevrolet appears to have built both the Le Sabre and Cadillac from the same basic platform. There’s even a pair of unused holes in the firewall where the Cadillac brake booster would normally bolt up, even though the Le Sabre came standard with the booster mounted under the floor.
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Speaking of under floors, Tuffy Mufflers had a right royal ordeal getting a decent exhaust up under the car that didn’t foul on anything, regardless whether the car was at full height or full droop.
At full droop you say? Yep, the Buick rides on an adjustable Firestone air-bag system. Almost immediately after hitting Sydney’s wharfs, Mick slapped on a trade plate, topped up the tank and headed a 1000 kays south down the Pacific Highway to Al’s Street Rods in Ocean Grove, Victoria, for the $4000 setup.
There’s a couple of different air bag systems available and the one fitted to the Buick features front and rear control only – as opposed to independent four-wheel control. Going with this system did present an initial problem – the car exhibited excessive lean during hard cornering. This was caused by air being allowed to escape from one side to the other. Don Selby, from Selby Suspensions, Taren Point, solved the dilemma by fabricating a set of custom-made sway bars. Like the exhaust guys, designing a sway bar that worked whether the car was up in the air or down on the ground was a complete headache, but ultimately worth the effort.
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Now that everything is sorted, Mick is happy with the system as it offers him seven inches of adjustment, and the car drives just as nicely with the airbag system as it did standard.
One of the first things that jumps out at you about the Buick is its lush panel and paintwork – a must when you’ve got such generously-sized panels. However, finding a good panel shop was a no-brainer for Mick as he and Robbie are the proprietors of Maroubra Automotive Refinishers.
From the beginning the car was always going to be a street hack, just something stylish for Mick to cruise around in. Therefore Mick’s and Robbie’s intentions were not to go over the top, just give the body a quick going over, along with a bare metal respray. Result: try Second Standard Paint at Summernats 15. Not bad for a street hack. But what else would you expect from a shop responsible for the bodywork on no less than five of this year’s Elite 60 – including two Top Tenners!
To compliment the superb panel and paint, Mick had Arthur from Awdon Motor Body Repairs, Five Dock, spent three weeks painstakingly repairing every mould to as-new condition before having every piece of bright work either re-polished or re-chromed.
While it looks like a wild custom, the Le Sabre is actually quite stock. Body mods are relatively minimal, and have been limited to stretching the taillight buckets by two inches, dicing the door handles, debadging the whole shooting match and bending up a custom tube grill. The front bar has also been dropped two inches. This lets the car sit parallel with the ground the whole way around when the airbag system drops it to the deck.
Taking into account the Buick faultlessly completed its maiden 2000-kay Ocean Grove and back voyage, there didn’t seem much point in messing with the mechanical side of things. After all, Mick knew exactly what the service history of the car was, as it was supplied with all its paper work – including the original 1959 rego papers and every subsequent year up until 2000. Therefore the stock two-barrel 364ci Buick Nailhead V8 was simply removed, cleaned, painted then dropped back in. Same for the rest of the driveline. No use messing with something that’s working just fine, now is there?
Jacked up touring and slammed cruising, it’s all in the bags
Wheels maketh the car, and the Buick is a stunning example of that philosophy. Those gorgeous Billet Specialties rollers measure a sizable 18x8 up front and a massive 20x10 out back. After spotting them in a catalogue, the car was measured up to ascertain the precise offset to ensure the tyres hugged the guards nice and tight. Once again Ray Flaherty was called upon to source and transport the jewel-like delights across the big pond. Achieving that just right, completely-filled-guard look was a must, therefore the measurements had to be spot on. In fact, the rears fit so snug that if the car had wheel studs – like a normal car – instead of wheel bolts, it would be impossible to get the wheels on an off due to lack of clearance.
While getting hold of the rims and tyres was straightforward enough, marrying the two together wasn’t. Those massive rear rollers are simply too big to fit on the average tyre fitting machine, leaving Mick and Robbie no choice but to fit-up the tyres themselves. They used a heap of patience, perseverance, gentle leavers and lots of soft taps with a rubber mallet to slip the rubber-band-profile Dunlops onto the rims.
Inside, things are much more conservative. Clifford Powell Motor Trimmers swathed the whole trim including the re-sprung seats in acres of sumptuous gray leather. While Mick and Robbie looked after anything that needed painting and/or plating.
As originally intended, Mick loves taking the Buick out cruising quite a lot. He skites, “I’m amazed that every time I take it out, it gets more looks than any car I’ve ever owned!
“I recently parked it out front of the Watson’s Bay Hotel. That’s a bloody posh hotel, which had a couple of exotics parked out front. Yet within minutes of pulling up, there were roughly 15 people standing around the car. My missus got out and said, ‘I’m embarrassed, everyone is staring at us!’
“As for leaving it left-hand drive: why convert it? There’s no need to,” declares Mick. “Anything over 30 years old and the RTA will let you leave it left hook.”
When asked if it’s difficult driving a big left-hand-drive car on Australian roads he replies, “Nah, it’s surprisingly easy, the only hard part is paying the toll!”
1959 BUICK LE SABRE
Colour: Chrysler Blue/Silver roof
Type: 364ci Buick Nailhead
Carby: Stock two-barrel
Gearbox: Buick Dynaflow
Diff: Same as above
Springs: Firestone Airbag system
Seats: Leather retrim
Gauges: As intended
Tunes: Buick Sonomatic
Rims: Billet Specialties 18x8 & 20x10
Rubber: Dunlop SP 9000 245/45 ZR18 & 295/40 ZR20
Jacked up touring and slammed cruising, it’s all in the bags