That motor continued in the line through 1961, but sales were down by two-thirds by 1959. The smooth power of the Nailhead motors was still praised by owners and auto writers, but according to industry observers, it was Buick's failure to read the mercurial styling trends of the late '50s that killed their sales. Obviously, car customizers didn't feel that way, since they snagged all the toothy Buick grilles and gracefully curved side trim they could get, to apply them to plebeian makes like Chevy and Ford for an upgrade.

In an effort to stimulate sales and keep up with the horsepower "curve," Buick introduced the fabled 401ci V-8 in 1959, and it continued until the end of the Nailhead era in 1966. This and its 425ci bigger brother (1963-1966) more than held up the highway performance image of the cars, and Buick's sales were recovering in the early '60s.

These are the engines that made the reputation the Nailheads enjoy today with legions of fans. While the design of the heads didn't make for great high-rpm breathing, they worked superbly at doing what Buick engineers were aiming at: making torque. So proud of their cruisin' torque was the Buick team that they gave their engines decals that referred to their torque rating, rather than their displacement. Thus, to the confusion of many Buick initiates, you pop the hood on a Buick Wildcat and see decals that proclaim the engine as a "465," yet that is lb-ft, not cubic inches! That engine is actually a four-barrel 425-incher (1963 to 1966).

Buick went on to maintain its position at GM, and in the overall marketplace, with innovations like an aluminum V-8, the first V-6 in the U.S., the fabled Grand National turbo cars, and with constantly reinvented styling. However, with the exception of the few Nailhead cars that ran in NASCAR in the early '50s and the Super Wildcats, Riviera Gran Sports, and those turbo models of much later, the Buick name was not connected to a racy image.

Hot Rodding and Nailheads
Torque is what propels a car across an intersection from a dead stop, without "gow" gearing or high rpm. The Nailhead Buicks could do it without a murmur of protest, plus run 100 on the open highway all day long without your right foot being all the way down. Torque is good, and low-end torque is even mo' betta. This is the arena where Nailheads shine. The 401 achieved 410 lb-ft, even with a two-barrel carb, and 445 lb-ft with a Carter AFB four-barrel. The beauty of that last number is in the rpm at which that max-torque is achieved, 2,800! Most modern "performance" engines that can produce that much torque do so at higher rpm. Take your typical 383-stroker small-block Chevy. It makes very good torque, say around 420 lb-ft, but at over 4,000 rpm. Unless you wind the wee out of it, a 65-year-old geezer in a 45-year-old 401 Buick could embarrass you from stoplight to stoplight. Hopefully, there are no witnesses.

This "dig-out" performance appealed to hot rodders right from the beginning. Thanks to some trendsetting rodders, such as Max Balchowsky, Tommy Ivo, and Tony Nancy, the rodding world was exposed to what a Nailhead was capable of. Max had a shop in Hollywood for imported sports cars. While he tended to the tuning and repair needs of Ferrari and MG owners from the '50s on, he wasn't above building hot-rodded Buick engines and running them in "sports car specials," which at the time were usually built from various aftermarket bodies made of the new Fiberglas wonder material and mounted on a postwar Ford chassis or tubular design. Motivation was usually by good-'ol-boy domestic V-8s. They often trounced the tea-baggers in road races, and few foreign roadsters could compete with them in hill climbs. Max started with a channeled Deuce roadster with a Nailhead, then graduated to a handmade/junkyard sheetmetal sports car body on a primitive frame, the first of the famous "Ol' Yeller" specials, driven by Max and several now-legendary race drivers.