Knoxville, Tennessee, didn't seem all that far the day Darren Hoffman found his 1961 Buick LaSabre. Such a specimen is a rarity in his parts; the handful that made it to Canada dissolved in a trail of rust decades ago. But this one, the seller described, was finer than frog hair. In fact, so rosy was the seller's description that Darren elected to drive, not trailer, the car the last few hundred miles home from the Port of Seattle.
Just as the seat adjusted...
Just as the seat adjusted to suit varying drivers, so did Buick's gauge readout-at least a mirror that reflected it did. As Darren found out, though, the Mirromagic readout was more complicated than anything. Note the French seam at the dash's edge.
Only rather than an adventure, agony awaited. A failing fuel pump threatened to kill the engine whenever Seattle's rush-hour traffic crept to a halt-which it did frequently that day. "Once the car was driving it ran fine, but every time we stopped, the motor would die," he recalls, explaining how he had to reanimate the engine by splashing fuel into its carburetor as his fellow motorists aired their grievances. "Then the rain came," he adds. "At that point I realized we had no windshield wipers."
They say when it rains it pours, and pour it did when Darren got home. "The car was in rough condition," he laments. What appeared to be good floors in the photos turned out to be undercoating liberally applied to clapped-out pans. The seller's intentional misrepresentation made the disappointment insulting: "The picture they sent of the trunk," he notes, "was from another car in better shape." Once the seller sought refuge behind fine print and disclaimers Tennessee may as well have been Timbuktu as far as Darren was concerned.
Geoff Horsfall found plenty...
Geoff Horsfall found plenty of creative latitude in the Buick's stock shapes. For example, he trimmed the dash in the same leather as the seat, giving its edges a French seam for a bit of elegance. He wrapped the Billet Specialties Stiletto wheel in the same material.
That the Buick shares the same basic platform as the highly supported Chevrolet suggests a great deal of parts interchange. But as Darren found out when he tried to fit the reproduction '61 Bel Air floors, they don't-at least not directly. "The transmission tunnel was different and had to be modified as well as the rear seat area-it was too long," he notes. "The trunk pan also had to be modified because the Buick tub was larger than the Bel Air." Darren credits friend Derek Ronkainen at Shady Mile Restoration for making the non-ordained union possible.
For the rest of the car's transformation Darren credits his dad, Nolan. "He's the one responsible for giving me the car bug," Darren admits. Together they restored the remainder of the car, modifying where deemed necessary along the way. For example, instead of rebuilding the stock drum brakes when they went through the suspension, they replaced them with 11-inch discs from Direct Fit Brakes. Darren freshened up the Nailhead but Nolan endowed its ignition with a more aggressive curve and a PerTronix breakerless module. A donor four-door car produced a wiring loom as intact and pliable as if it were new, so they transferred it to the coupe.
Believe it or not, beneath...
Believe it or not, beneath the sculpted foam are stock bench frames. The billet aluminum fobs in the thong-like inserts came from Phipps. He top-stitched welt cording into the otherwise flat panels for a bit of character.
With the car in sound condition Darren gave it back to Ronkainen. What trim he didn't shave from the body went to Victoria Electroplating for a bright bath. The paint supplier created the Black Sapphire Ronkainen applied to the car by removing color elements from an existing DuPont ChromaBase paint code. Though actually blue, it appears black in all but the most direct light.
The Buick's leather gut practically glows in contrast to the car's dark skin. Geoff Horsfall Custom Upholstery in nearby Duncan reshaped the stock Buick benches and trimmed them in a combination of solid and perforated ivory-colored leather. Phipps billet aluminum fobs embedded at the intersection of the taupe-colored inserts thematically tie the seats to the remainder of the Billet Specialties interior accoutrements.
One could make the case that GM's design studios forecast big-diameter wheels when they penciled these early '60s land yachts. Though huge, the 20- and 22-inch Foose Impressions seem at home in the big wells. Their spoke pattern mimics the car's lithe trim despite the half century that separates the designs.
When chosen carefully oversized...
When chosen carefully oversized wheels like these 20s and 22s can make a car appear lower than it actually is. A good thing as Darren only cut the coils (the air springs come later). For a modern wheel, these Foose Impressions mimic the car's trim fairly well.
Naturally, Darren would've liked the journey to have started the way he wanted, with a car as nice as this one was represented. But in the end the car is probably better off starting out rough; that Darren had to go through the entire car meant he was able to detail its individual parts to a pretty fine degree. Had something been good enough, chances are it would've just stayed that way.
You could say the project was a learning experience. "I would never buy another car sight-unseen," Darren says. Whether or not he lives by those words is debatable, though; the day before we shot his '61 Buick, Darren drove down to Battleground, Washington, to pick up a '39 Willys that he bought, sight-unseen, from Australia. It's rougher than hell and he couldn't be happier.