How a bare-bones ’64 Buick Special taught me the charm of a base model

Perfectly pickled, low-mile cars are reasonably common. Often these preserved beauties are well-optioned, desirable pieces of history like full-classic roadsters of the ’20s, rare muscle coupes, and the elite Euro sports cars. The lesser models that manage to survive are often viewed as a great base for a top-tier clone or hot rod. I used to fall in line with that thinking.

Then I got tossed the keys to a stunningly preserved 1964 Buick Special owned by fellow Hagerty employee and gearhead Reggie Horning.

I jokingly called his Buick a “teacher special,” because it was a nice car that would, in its day, be just in the financial reach of a ’60s teacher if optioned the way his is. (Reggie also happened to be a teacher prior to becoming a member support specialist at Hagerty.)

Reggie’s Buick Special is base model in the truest form. No flashy trim on the exterior. The steel wheels and dog-dish hubcaps stand out in a world of 17-inch wheels being the small option. The paint color could be described as boring, but it’s in remarkably good shape for being 55 years old. Condition can’t hide the truth though, and that truth is that not a single bit of flair worked its way onto the order form for this car. 

1964 Buick Special
Kyle Smith

The trim tag is largely blank, only denoting the paint code and maybe the passenger side mirror. A Fireball V-6 sits under the hood backed by a three-speed manual transmission shifted by a dainty lever mounted on the column. Looking the car over, two of the more interesting bits are likely dealer-installed—the headrests and seat belts on the bench seat.

Which brings up the interior. Opening the door brought flashbacks via my olfactory receptor. The perfume of perfectly aged vinyl—you know the smell. This ’64 Buick has just 17,000 miles on the clock, which is surprising because it’s not optioned like a car that would be tucked away for 50 years. So how did he end up with this cherry base model?

Reggie was drawn in for two reasons. “I am always on the hunt for a good deal, and it really looked like a great car to drop a 455 in and make a nice little hot rod,” he said. “It was already a manual, so putting a four-speed in was going to be that much easier.”

Then he went to see the car. The photos he had seen prior to driving to look at this Buick painted a good picture, but upon seeing it in person he had a change of heart.

1964 Buick Special
Kyle Smith

“It’s just too nice. I have always wanted a hot rod like this, but I just can’t bring myself to cut a hole in the floor for a Muncie,” he said. “A 455 would be great, but the Fireball six moves the car along just fine. It’s too good to mess with.”

The man has a real conscience. For each model in a manufacturer’s line-up, there was someone in history who purchased and pampered a car which may or may not have deserved such great care. Reggie should stand as an example. I have seen more than a few survivor cars meet the business end of a cutting torch simply because they were not deemed significant enough—despite surviving decades without being messed with and dismantled.

Whether building a hot rod or doing a restoration, the often-quoted saying is this: start with the best car you can afford. I am not here to argue that. Well, actually I am. Some cars are too nice to sacrifice upon the altar of the hot rod god. I know a base car like this one feels as though there is nothing lost as the V-6 exits the hood and a 455 gets bolted up—but there is.

Cars—all cars—are time capsules, windows into the past. If only the premium trim levels are viewed as historic, we are bound to misremember automotive history as streets full of big-block muscle and luxury cars. It’s time to respect the base model and acknowledge them as the survivors and special cars they are.

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