Beautiful Buick built

ZEELAND, Mich. – The atmosphere is relaxed in Don Mayton’s barn every Tuesday morning as nine “car guys,” most of them in their 70s, gather around a table over coffee and doughnuts.

But they are not here to swap stories about old cars. Soon they will get up from the table and resume work on a project that has brought them to Mayton’s barn nearly every Tuesday for the past four years and is likely to keep bringing them back for a couple of more years.

They are resurrecting a one-of-a-kind 1956 Buick convertible that was custom-built for Bill Mitchell, the legendary head of styling for General Motors Corp. for almost 20 years, reports ( ).

During his 42 years with GM, Mitchell was the man behind some of its greatest styling achievements; the 1955-57 Chevrolet Bel-Airs, the 1963-65 and 1966-67 Buick Rivieras, the 1963-67 Corvette Stingray, the 1975-79 Cadillac Seville, and the 1970-81 Chevrolet Camaros.

The “1956x Buick Century” was built to Mitchell’s specifications with custom trim, a two-tone paint job, a souped-up engine, wire wheels and an interior with swivel bucket seats. It bears a special serial plate, “S.O.90022,” as testimony to its singular pedigree.

But that’s not how it looked seven years ago, when Mayton, a retired General Motors plant manager with a fondness for Buicks, bought it from a collector who had rescued it from a used car lot in Holland during the 1970s.

“I found the car in a highly deteriorated condition,” says Mayton, drawing appreciative chuckles from the all-volunteer crew that has torn it apart bolt by rusted bolt.

“You could look inside and see through the floor,” says Mayton.

Gone were the custom bucket seats that Mitchell had installed. Gone were the custom side exhausts and power engine. The custom paint job was faded and painted over.

Since Mayton’s crew began working on their “frame-off restoration,” the chassis has been fully restored and painted its original Seminole Red. The engine and drivetrain have been completely rebuilt and are in running condition.

But the body is still a work in progress. Mayton and his crew have restored and primered most of the exterior panels and found matches for the original paint job that will be sprayed on at the end of the project.

The interior remains the biggest question mark. For all of its celebrity, they have not found a detailed photograph of the interior, Mayton says. The swivel bucket seats and console were discarded and the interior was returned to stock condition when Mitchell returned the car to General Motors.

Their lack of success is not due to a lack of resources. GM’s styling studio and retired stylists who worked with Mitchell have given Mayton’s crew full access to their files and collective memories.

“Our goal is to make it exactly like it came from the factory,” says Mayton, who concluded the car had 225 unique parts and features from his study of the original “shop order” they found in manufacturer’s files.

For several years, Mayton has searched for a restoration company that can replicate the hard rubber compound used on the steering wheel of Mitchell’s convertible. He thinks he’s found a shop in Phoenix that can do it.

The one-of-kind clear taillights also are a question mark. Although they are intact and uncracked, the group is still debating whether they should be polished out or remolded from scratch.

Mayton also is unsure about the engine compartment. They built a period correct engine with two four-barrel carburetors, but he’s been told that Mitchell may have installed a set of rare side draft carburetors on the engine.

That means finding the carburetors and fabricating a special intake manifold similar to one he’s seen on another restored Buick. He’s found someone who can fabricate it with a modern computerized milling machine, but Mayton wants to make sure it will display the hand-tooling marks found on the original manifold.

Like the engine manifold, steering wheel and taillights, those details do not come cheaply. Neither will the U.S. Royal whitewall tires he’s still trying to find.

While the task may seem daunting, Mayton and his crew gained credibility among restorers in the past decade when he led a similar effort to restore a dilapidated GM “Futurliner” back to its original condition.

The Futurliner, a futuristic bus-like vehicle which toured the U.S. in the 1950s to promote GM’s image, is now trailered to museums and car shows throughout the nation. It currently is on display at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners.

Mayton also owns several other vintage Buicks and a 1936 Bowlus-Teller travel trailer which he tows behind his 1936 Buick Roadmaster sedan. Prior to taking on Mitchell project, he and his group finished restoring a 1929 Buick.

For Mayton and his pals, all of whom have their own project cars back in their garages at home, attention to detail transcends deadlines and dollars.

As a plant manager, Mayton saw enough production schedules and deadlines. Other members of the group have backgrounds in engineering, mechanics and body work. One of them meticulously photographs each step of the restoration for their web site. .

Asked how much he has spent on the project, Mayton smiles. “I don’t even want to guess. Then I’d have to tell my wife.”

Mayton, who is 74, pauses and adds, “This is so much fun. As long as the Lord gives me good health, we’re going to finish it.

“It’s more than a car. It’s the adventure of getting there.”