Perfecting a Mint Condition ‘52 Buick
When someone offers to sell you a car that’s been sitting in a barn for nearly 50 years, it’s probably wise to enter into the transaction with your hopes in check. Todd Doyle, owner of Arrowhead Auto Body in Duluth, Minn., certainly didn’t have any expectations when a 90-year-old retired farmer approached him at an auto show in Iowa almost a decade ago.
“A very old gentleman was showing a picture of a ’65 Chrysler,” Doyle says. While he wasn’t looking for something that new, Doyle was intrigued when the man mentioned the ’52 Buick. And when he asked about the car’s condition and got the reply “Well, there is a little mark on the fender,” Doyle had a hunch it might be worth investigating further.
The car was parked in the barn as promised—no surprise there. But he found the condition shocking: It was completely rust-free. “I thought it was going to be rusted right up to the door handles,” Doyle says. “We started it up and got it running and we drove it. That car ran perfectly—the brakes weren’t great, but it ran perfectly.” But old cars are known for their capricious nature, and the Buick was no exception: Doyle made the deal, put the car on a trailer, and brought it back to his home in northern Minnesota. “I thought I’d show my wife what a great car I’d bought,” he says. “But I started it up and got it to the end of my driveway and it quit running. And I could never get that car to start again. It was like it left its home and wasn’t going to run anymore.”
Luckily, Doyle had the skills to renovate it. He’s been working on cars since he was 14, and has been the owner of Arrowhead Auto Body for 12 years. Although he grew up working on cars, collision repair wasn’t his first career—he was a senior merchandise manager at JC Penny after college. But he worked on cars out of his parents’ garage to pay for his education, and when a friend of his who owned the shop offered to sell it, Doyle jumped at the chance. Doyle now employs 18 people at the 10,000-square-foot facility, working on somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 cars a month. (Car accidents are commonplace in this area: “There’s a lotta deer and a lotta snow up here,” he explains.)
The Buick is not Doyle’s first restoration project: “This is probably the seventh or eighth car I’ve done,” he says. His love of restoration started early, with the first vehicle he ever owned: a 1950 Ford pickup. (He still has it.) His father used the truck as transportation at the family’s cabin, but when Doyle was just five years old, his dad promised he’d turn it over once Doyle turned 16. “I think he thought I’d lose interest by that time,” Doyle says, laughing. “I started working on that truck when I was 14.”
The experience came in handy when Doyle pulled the ’52 Buick out of storage seven years after he’d rescued it from the barn. The goal of the frame-off restoration was performance, so Doyle replaced the original engine with a 572-inch, big-block Chevy motor. The front suspension was shot, so he changed it to a Mustang 11 front end, and used a Ford nine-inch for the rear. It now boasts disc brakes all around, and has a 4L80 overdrive transmission. “Basically,” he says, “the whole drive train’s been completely redone.”
And that extended stay in the barn? It turned out to be a blessing, preserving the car’s exterior. “There was no rust, so that was a nice thing,” he says. “It didn’t need any metal replacement at all.” The original interior was also in good shape, but Doyle refinished it with custom leather. For fun, he changed out the gauges, replacing them with custom instruments specifically built for the car. “Other than that, it’s pretty much stock inside,” he says.
As for the future of the Buick, time will tell. Right now, Doyle’s just enjoying the ride—literally. “In the last few years,” he says, “I’ve got about 5,000 miles on it. I’m going to hang on to this for awhile unless I get sick of it.” But he doesn’t anticipate that happening anytime soon. “It’s a big Buick, a big-riding, heavy car. At 700 horsepower, it’s really fun to drive. It’s a great cruising car.”