The Buick that crossed the Pacific
Purchased from a seller in Michigan, a dismantled vintage car makes an international journey. After a meticulous restoration, its Kiwi owner marvels at its beauty.
Words: Jane Warwick Photos: Brooke Lean
In the supermarket parking lot of a small town called Auburn Hills in Michigan in the United States, there’s a sign that says, No Truck Parking.
Grant Roberts, living a little north of Urenui village, just outside the bigger town of New Plymouth in Aotearoa/New Zealand, knows this to be true because he has a picture of a large truck in that States-side lot, brazenly parking right beside the admonishing sign.
He feels a little abashed as the truck was there because of him, with the help of a good friend he has never met (in the flesh, at least) — Michael, the previous owner of a 1949 Buick Super 56C convertible.
Growing up, Grant always had a car on the go, as many as six at once. He had no specific marque preference. He simply enjoyed the hours he put in after work and weekends at his father Ken’s workshop in New Plymouth, where Grant was also doing his automotive engineer apprenticeship.
Eventually, Grant owned a workshop in Urenui, looking after local automotive and farm machinery repairs while still tinkering on his pet projects in his home workshop.
He had a passion for older vehicles and a penchant for cars of the 1920s and 1930s; at home, he had a 1928 Buick roadster, a 1938 Ford barrel nose truck and a 1930 Chrysler coupe in various stages of repair. But after selling the service station, he had time on his hands and looked around for a project. Just one car, he thought. One car to devote his time to, a car that was a little more modern and user-friendly on today’s roads. A car that he and his wife, Debra and little dog, Lilly (because if you’re cute and your mum is a florist, you must be Lilly) could go summer cruising in, something that would last a decade or two.
He perused the American classified ad website Craigslist, but for what, he didn’t know. He idly and wistfully clicked here and clicked there and came across Michael’s 1949 Buick Super 56C.
There were a few photos of a patchwork vehicle tucked into a shed, a front fender stripped right back to the metal, a white primed door, a battered back fender, a silver trunk and a dashboard hollow-eyed from missing instruments and displays. It wasn’t exactly a pretty sight, but to Grant’s automotive engineering eye, it was a beauty.
“Craigslist was new to me, and I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of buying from an offshore site, especially for an item such as a car. But I was intrigued and followed a link from the listing to the seller’s IT business website, and there I found many more photos of the car, about 200 all up.
“There wasn’t much I didn’t know about the car after I scrolled through all those, and I was reassured about the legitimacy of the sale.” The photos showed what appeared to be the complete dismantling of the car, piece by piece.
“I tentatively emailed as I couldn’t get it out of my head that there was something good about this car, and it was worth pursuing.”
The photos were indeed from when the car was dismantled by a restoration workshop for a client in the early 1990s. That client later abandoned the job, leaving the car with the restorer, who stowed it away.
Twelve years later, Michael brought the car as a project, but a further 12 years down the track, he hadn’t made any progress as he didn’t have the time.
Even more fascinated but unsure, Grant realised that Michael probably had no idea he was enquiring from New Zealand, so he decided to ring. It was a surprise for Michael and a bit of a thrill because Aotearoa was on his bucket list, but he assured Grant that all the parts were there as far as he knew. So the little voice telling Grant to buy it won, and they did the deal.
Of course, Grant couldn’t uplift his purchase, so Michael would have to do a mighty pack-up. Luckily, he was all too happy to oblige. “I reckon it was a bigger job than Michael led me to believe. I’ll always be grateful.
He constantly sent me pictures of what he was doing and how far along he had got. I think he was thrilled that not only was the car going to be finished and appreciated, but it was also going all the way to New Zealand.”
To get back to the beginning… The purchase was the reason for the illegally parked truck and what, at first glance, might have looked like some clandestine goings-on because the parking lot rendezvous was at 1am.
The large, covered transporter was too big for Michael’s street, so a smaller transporter brought the Buick down to the lot to be uploaded and waved off as it left on the first 33 hours of its journey — from Auburn Hills to the Port of Los Angeles. From there, with the help of Kiwi Shipping, it was another 13,449 kilometres to the Port of Auckland.
It arrived in June 2018, and it seemed to Grant that the authorities took forever to fumigate it, but it was just a matter of days. He had prepared his workshop, building custom shelves and making space. When the Buick finally arrived, it took three days to unpack and store and a further two weeks to put in order — at a glance, it looked like there were enough parts to build three cars. The shelves were full of parts that had been individually wrapped and catalogued a quarter of a century ago, down to the tiniest of screws in parcels so tiny there wasn’t room to write on them. (Luckily, they were attached to a piece of cardboard clearly penned, for instance, with “screws/L.hand door trim”.) Michael had also included the original photograph albums and all the receipts and related paperwork kept with the car. It was like an enormous jigsaw puzzle.
“I discovered many new parts that had been purchased back in the day, such as new radiator and heater cores [there are two heaters, one in the dash and one in the floor under the driver’s seat]. Just unpacking sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting very far with the project. But I tried to do something every day, even if I was tired and even if it was just unwrapping one package and ticking it off.”
Many of the shiny parts came out of the workshop and into the house during the cold winter months, and Grant and nimble-fingered Debra spent hours in front of the fire cleaning and polishing. It wasn’t just unwrapping and putting away; everything had to be checked for damage and serviceability. There was wiring to run and always some cleaning and research to do. The engine and all the running gear had to be rebuilt.
After at least eight coats of primer and many hours of block sanding, the car was sent to Haydon Klenner at Paintworks in New Plymouth for a final check-over and a top coat of Toyota’s Ooh-La-La Rouge with mica, a modern paint with a nod to the car’s original colour — maroon. There are still some small things to do — the upholstery is original and should perhaps be updated one day — but the Buick and Grant and Debra and Lilly will be out and about a lot this summer.
Grant still can’t believe that the Buick Super 56C is his.
“Now and then, I go in and pull off the covers and think, “This is really mine.’”
A FLYING START
The Buick Super 56C is often referred to as the Rain Man Buick after Rain Man, the movie. That Buick was a Roadmaster; this car is a Super, basically the same car, but with a slightly smaller engine, although still a sizeable straight-eight cylinder. When Grant spotted it on Craigslist, it had only been listed for a few days. It landed in Aotearoa with no rust or damage and just 94,000 miles on the clock. Grant wanted to get the Buick certified by local agent Ewen Darling, who had previously worked with him on other projects. Ewen followed the project’s progress and advised on the best primers and undercoats. But when he mentioned he was retiring from certifying work, the pressure was on to get the project completed and, in March 2023, the car went to the New Plymouth AA testing station, where it passed inspection.