Wednesday, January 18, 2006

When Randy Denchfield attended the auto show about a decade ago in the old convention center, one of the giveaway handouts was a copy of a publication listing antique and used cars for sale.

Once he was back home and began looking through the publication, an ad offering a 1949 Buick Riviera caught his eye. The car was in Norfolk so he telephoned and got the owner’s nephew on the line.

He discovered the original owner was a woman in Norfolk who always garaged the Buick and maintained it according to the owner’s manual. On Dec. 17, 1967, when the car was 18 years old, she reportedly gave it to his uncle, who continued to keep the car garaged every night.

The uncle, however, had his own ideas about the Buick’s appearance. In addition to chrome-plated wire wheels, he added a pair of 3-foot-long chrome air horns, one on each side of the engine hood, which was then crowned with a Packard hood ornament. Other alterations included removing the four famous ventiports on each front fender and filling the cavities with body putty. Two holes were drilled in the front bumper for the installation of fog lights and innumerable small holes were drilled around the perimeter of the top so a silver-colored vinyl covering could be added. The Buick had been painted a candy apple red and sported a 1955 Pontiac sun visor, a homemade continental kit and trim from a 1963 Ford and a 1941 Buick.

If the car had been just another Buick, Mr. Denchfield would have passed on buying it, but he knew that it was Buick’s first Riviera two-door hardtop convertible coupe. It was introduced at midyear and only 4,343 units had been manufactured. Mr. Denchfield negotiated off and on with both the nephew and the uncle for about three months and was getting close to an agreement when one afternoon in April he received a telephone call from the uncle saying a prospective buyer was coming to see the car the next day.

Mr. Denchfield reminded him that he had already made a firm offer for the car. The uncle thought it over and told Mr. Denchfield that he could have it at that price if he came and got the car before morning.

That’s when Mr. Denchfield suggested to his wife, Susan, that it would be a nice night for a drive to Norfolk. She agreed and off they went, arriving about midnight. “What do you want with this?” an astonished Mrs. Denchfield asked her husband once she had seen the car.

Mr. Denchfield gave the Buick, with 57,000 original miles, a cursory once-over, paid, got in the driver’s seat, put the Dynaflow transmission in gear, and drove it home with his wife following in their modern car.

“I had my Riviera,” he says. “We got home about 6 o’clock in the morning,” he recalls. The president of Denchfield Roofing Corp. in Silver Spring was sleepy the next day.

The 4,420-pound Buick sold for a base price in 1949 of $3,203 and had the standard Roadmaster 320-cubic-inch eight cylinder, 150 horsepower engine. Optional extras on this particular Buick include:

• EZI mirror.

• Sonomatic radio.

• Visor vanity mirror.

• Windshield washers.

• Weather warden heater/defroster.

Power windows and power seats were standard equipment as were fender skirts, dual outside mirrors and leather and cloth upholstery. Mr. Denchfield reports that the upholstery in now a beige Naugahyde and the carpeting is red. Mr. Denchfield says that when the Buick Riviera rolled out of the factory on 8:20x15-inch tires, it was painted blue with a silver top. It now wears a coat of black with a cream top.

Although the windshield is curved, it remains two pieces of glass. The radio antenna is mounted above the windshield and can be swiveled down to a park position on top of the windshield divider.

The car comes within a couple of inches of being 18 feet long, bumper-to-bumper.

“I couldn’t stand looking at those horns, the vinyl top and that visor,” Mr. Denchfield says. In early 2005 he began working to return the car to its original condition. After removing all the “extras” on the car, he says, “there were 252 holes that had to be filled. There were Buick and Riviera emblems everywhere.”

In addition to all the holes in the car, the holes in the bumpers for the fog lights had to be filled and sent off to be replated with chrome. The four ventiports on each front fender have been replace and the appropriate stainless-steel sweep spear now adorns the sides of the Riviera and Mr. Denchfield proudly says, “Nowhere does it say Riviera.” That’s just as it was in 1949.

The rare Buick Riviera doesn’t need a lot of frosting. “The car speaks for itself,” Mr. Denchfield says.

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