’53 VS ’54 – Which Skylark Is Better?
By Gary DiLillo
When there’s a benefit car show close by, I like to take both my ’53 Skylark and my ’54 Skylark to the event. First, it gives my wife Connie a chance to drive one of the cars. Secondly, few people in my area have seen a ’53 Skylark let alone a ’54 Skylark, and not side by side. Inevitably, people will cruise by, surveying the cars, and start a light hearted discussion about which one is best, each pointing out their preferences.
Now, I have gone to a lot of Annual Skylark Club Meets, and for the last 10 years the number of ‘53 Skylarks in attendance has outnumbered ’54 Skylarks by about 6 to 1. I attribute this to the facts; there were over twice as many “53 Skylarks produced, our Club membership is comprised of many more ’53 Skylark owners, and until Ken Mitson started manufacturing some of the rarest parts for the ’54 Skylark - there have been fewer ’54 Skylarks restored. Let’s face it, if you don’t have the side “birds” or the rear taillight fins you really can’t restore a ’54 Skylark. Thanks to Ken’s efforts we are seeing more ’54 Skylarks being restored, and we hope to see more at the annual SkylarkClub meets.
I haven’t gotten into a spirited argument with other Club members about which automobile is better. However, I’ve been told that early in the Club’s history, when there was a more even representation of Skylarks, a number of “hard headed” Club members living in the eastern United States would routinely argue about which Skylark was the better automobile. The fact that many of these individuals were of Italian descent had nothing to do with the actual merits of either car, but did contribute to the voracity of the arguments. In an effort to both enlighten (see specifications on page 5) and renew talking points, this article compares both cars in five main categories: Serviceability, Driving & Handling, Interior, Performance, and Body Styling.
Serviceability: Both cars have a lot in common when it comes to mechanical parts. The engines and transmissions are almost identical. The ’53 Skylark with low slung front fenders make it easier if you work on either side of the engine. The high fenders on the “54 Skylark require vertically challenged men (like me), to use a small stepstool and balance on the fender as you reach down to change plugs, etc. Conversely, if you work on the front of the engine, the higher profile radiator of the ’53 Skylark makes it difficult to change anything in the front of the engine, i.e. water pump or belts. The battery box setup of the ’53 Skylark is “inconvenient” when charging the battery compared to the battery hold-down on the ’54 Skylark. The “alligator” hood of the ’53 is larger, tends to twist easier, and is more prone to chipping paint unless closed carefully. Ground clearance is slightly higher on the ’53, but neither car can be worked on from underneath without the aid of a jack. However, the ’53 Skylark wins this category by a slight margin for two reasons. First the ’53 Skylark has a hood release. Not only is this a good idea from an anti-theft perspective, but if you possess short fat fingers, it can be difficult to “find” and pull the hood release between the grill teeth on the ’54. More importantly, in 1954 Buick moved the hydraulic pump that powers the windows, front seat, and convertible top to the inside of the driver’s front fender, (‘53’s is on the passenger side). This small area already houses the vertically mounted electric antenna motor, and by elongated the wheel wells on the ’54 Skylark Buick made it impossible to check or fill the hydraulic pump reservoir without either removing the inner fender skirt or putting the car on a lift.
Verdict ’53 Skylark +.25 point.
Driving & Handling: This isn’t close. In 1954 Buick increased the horsepower, stiffened the frame cross members, and added tubular front shocks to the ’54 Skylark. Additionally, they increased the wheelbase, made the tracking of the front and rear wheels identical, and cut the curb weight by some 70 lbs. These changes meant the ’54 Skylark was more responsive, tracked nicely thru corners, and had a tighter, smoother ride. Because the rear wheels of the ’53 Skylark track 2” wider than the front wheels the car has more of a tendency to “roll” or “yaw” when taking corners. With the ’53 Skylark fenders being lower than the hood and truck lid the driver cannot see the front or rear tips on the passenger side. With the ’54 the driver can see all four corners of the car, and in 1954 Buick added the “panoramic” wrap around windshield giving the driver a larger viewing area. The flat ’53 Skylark windshield was “chopped” almost three inches, and although this contributed greatly to the styling of the car, it is difficult to see out the windshield. To prevent passengers from hitting their heads Buick lowered both seats on the ’53 Skylark, and changed the angle of the steering wheel. With the aid of one hydraulic piston the front seat on the ’53 moves forward and back. However, for a large man with a robust belly, there simply isn’t enough room to fit comfortably behind the steering wheel. In 1954 Buick added a second hydraulic piston, with ajoystick control switch, so the front seat moves up and down as well as forward and back to provide more room for the driver. The ’53 does have a trip odometer, a nice feature that was eliminated in ’54. And a small concern on the ’54 Skylark is the passenger side mirror. With the mirrors mounted at the front of the doors, and with the panoramic windshield, it is difficult to fully utilize the passenger side mirror. Verdict ’54 Skylark + 1.00 point.
Interior: The interior of the cars are as different as the outside bodies. Both cars provide; clove box with light, cigarette lighter, clock, Delco Selectronic AM radios with “seek” bar and button on the floor, the same gauges (speedometer, odometer, engine oil, temperature, fuel, amps), similar wiper and power antenna controls, leather interior, power front seat, window switches, dual ashtrays and armrests front & back. The differences are in the presentation of the instruments and the dashboard layout, although both models are similar to other models built the same year.
The ’54 dashboard has three sections with a rounded bottom, and is two-toned. There were four color combinations, green/green, blue/blue, yellow/black, and red/black with the lighter color occupying the middle section of the dashboard. Dashboard colors were usually dependant on the color combination of the two toned seats (not all seats were two tone), with the darker seat panel determining the darker mid dashboard color. This provided an owner with multiple dashboard/seat color combinations. The’53 dashboard is a flatter design and was painted one of four colors: mandarin red, black, dark blue, or dark green depending on the seat panel color. The secondary seat color was always white. The ascent on all ’53 Skylarks dashboards was the “Dynoc” transfer decal on the lower portion which distinguished it from all other ’53 models. The dashboard color and the Dynoc decal were carried into the side door panels. The ’54 Skylark uses a three lever control cluster just right of the steering column to control the floor vents, both heaters, and defrost/floor direction with smaller knobs above to control the fan speeds. The ’53 uses six large knobs, clearly marked, in the center of the dash on the radio grill, which are pulled to open the vents & defrost, and twisted to control the heaters & lights. There is a separate slide control underneath the dash that controls the heater fan speeds.
Both cars where sold as six passenger automobiles, but neither is that comfortable with three adults in either front or rear seats. The ’53 Skylark interior provides more leg, hip, and shoulder room in both seating areas. However, the’53’s lowered rear seat requires more effort to “get up” and out of the car. On the ’54 Skylark the seats are higher and deeper, with the top of the front seat above the doors. The result is that you are riding “higher” in the ’54 Skylark and can see out more clearly. The width of the door opening is four inches wider on the ’54 Skylark providing easier entry. The passenger rear window switch on the ’53 is mounted vertically on the front of the top surround, making it awkward to operate with your outside hand. Both automobiles have courtesy lights in the rear controlled by door switches and a secondary switch in the rear. The ’53 has a single light mounted on the last top bow providing downward light to the rear seat area-when the top is up. The ’54 has two small lights mounted low on either side that provide light for your feet. The ’54 Skylark has a map light above the radio controlled by the light switch, a feature not found on the ‘53. Both steering wheels are 18 inches in diameter. The ’54 steering wheel has a black and gold Buick “Coat of Arms” as the center emblem. The ’53 Skylark is a ‘banjo” steering wheel and has a gold center emblem with three sections in a “Y” formation. The dates 1903-1953 and the likeness of a 1903 Buick occupy the top section. In the bottom two sections of the emblem the words “Custom Made for - with the owners name” could be engraved once the automobile was ordered at the dealership. The ’54 Skylark has a wide chrome trim at the top of the doors which runs the full length of the interior, stainless trim bar on top and down the sides of the front seat, stainless “checkered” panels at the bottom of the doors and rear seat surrounds, and “tiger eye” emblems on the outside of the front seats surrounds.
One’s preference for the interior depends on your preference for stitched vertical pleats or stamped squares. Both style elements were repeated on the door panels and rear top surrounds, with the ’54 squares even used on the back of the front seats. For years nobody had the one inch stamping pattern for the ’54 Skylark which added to the difficulty of the restoration. The ’53 Skylark wins this category by a slight margin for three reasons; the greater hip, shoulder, and leg room, the large control knobs work smoother than the ’54’s levers for the heating and cooling, and the center emblem with the owners name engraved made the car special. Verdict ’53 Skylark + .30 point
Performance: By redesigning the “domed” piston heads of the ’53 engine, Buick was able to gain 12 HP in the ’54 Skylark. With the additional horsepower and lighter curb weight the ’54 Skylark outperforms the “53 Skylark. Many ’53 owners install a continental wheel kit, adding close to 90 lbs to the car, and change the running angle by raising the front end. Besides making the car perform better, the improvements to the ’54 Skylark increased fuel economy. Verdict ’54 Skylark + .25 point
Body Styling: Rumor has it that Buick wanted a “flagship” automobile in 1953 and Buick’s General Manager, Ivan Wiles, liked a customizing job chief stylist Ned Nickles had done to his 1951 roadster convertible. So after building a prototype for the show circuit in 1952, the 1953 Skylark went from a 3/8 scale model to blueprints and then directly into production. Buick took a 1953 Roadmaster, cut the windshield almost three inches, opened the wheel wells to expose newly designed Italian wire wheels, lowered & dipped the beltline and the corresponding fender lines. They also removed the “ventiports” and flattened the profile of the sweepspears which now came up and over the back wheels. Although these changes could be called minor, they required a fair amount of hand bodywork, especially to the convertible tub and doors. The result of these styling changes was to give the ’53 Skylark a great blend of the 40’s with a “customized” look of the 50’s. It’s unfortunate that Buick didn’t think enough to put the Skylark name more prominently on the car, with only small round emblems behind the doors, while leaving Roadmaster in the front bumper and trunk emblem.
In 1954 all Buicks body styles had the new panoramic windshields, high fenders and flat sides giving the cars a sleeker profile which resulted in record sales, and moving Buick into third place behind Ford & Chevy. The beltline was humped behind the doors but not as much as the dip on the ’53 Skylark. Buick added an indented “swoosh” behind the doors at the beltline for ascent. This same “swoosh” would later be flipped and mimicked by an Oregon sports manufacture to become the most recognizable logo in American history. The changes to the Skylark in ’54 were many; elongated wheel cutouts, a different hood “gunsite”, wire wheels, no ventiports, and a dramatic trunk with fins. The rear of the ’54 Skylark is a styling masterpiece. The trunk has a semi-barrel shape with two humps that carry down into rear bumper appointments. Large rounded chrome fins on top of the rear fenders have a base that carry down matching the curvature of the trunk lid. It is said that Harley Earl personally liked these fins and wanted them on the ’54 Skylark. The fins contained the parking, turn, and stop light lenses. At night with the “fingers” lit across the top of the chrome fins, the rear of the ’54 Skylark is truly unique. Buick added special side emblem “birds” with Skylark in script, an embossed “Skylark” on the dash plate, and “Skylark” in block letters on the trunk lid for easy identification. The design department and Buick management thought enough of the ’54 Skylark that they were prepared to make it a model series. Unfortunately, the design was too ‘Avant Garde” for it’s time.
They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. However, the long hood, custom chopped window & top, and flowing beltline & fender line work so well together on the ’53 Skylark that of the two automobiles the ’53 is most often referred to as a “Classic” automobile. Verdict ’53 Skylark + .70 point.
And the Winner Is!!! You guessed it, a tie. Did you expect anything else from a guy who owns and loves both Skylarks? If you don’t agree, have something to add, or simply want to put in your “two cents”, please email me. Your comments will appear in the next newsletter.