Yesterday is Here Today

"They sure don't make them like they used to." How often have you heard that refrain when it comes to automobiles? But the fact is, they are starting to make them like they used to, at least in terms of styling. Every one of the Big Three American auto makers has recently reached into its historic bag of tricks to pull familiar design elements that they hope will delight today's car buyers. Ford Motor Company is enjoying success with its new-old two-seat Thunderbird; Chrysler has gone the retro route with its PT Cruiser and its concept Dodge Power Wagon; and General Motors has joined the fray with its Chevrolet BelAir show car.

GM's Buick division is also hoping its long-abandoned "signature" styling cue can help revive its fortunes. That's why its all-new 2003 Park Avenue Ultra has three "portholes" on each front fender. The portholes harken back to Buick's heyday as one of America's most popular upscale brands.

Like the first portholes, those on the 2003 Ultra are functional, providing some underhood cooling, but GM is quick to admit that also like the originals, they are primarily a styling element -- a reminder of Buick's design heritage as the brand begins its centennial year in 2003. Just so you're clear on the concept, the six portholes on the Ultra are directly related to the number of engine cylinders. The Ultra is powered by a supercharged 3.8-liter 3800 V-6.

Buick's "portholes" were created by legendary Buick designer Ned Nickles, who also created the Buick "hardtop convertible," which wasn't a convertible at all but a hardtop without a pillar between the door windows and the rear side windows. Another of his contributions was the "sweepspear," a bright metal sculpture that swooped down the side of the car and kicked up over the rear wheel opening.

According to Buick lore, the portholes happened almost by accident. In the late Forties Nickles cut holes in the sides of the hood of his own 1948 Roadmaster convertible and behind them he installed amber lights attached to the distributor. The lights, flashing on and off in time with the cylinder-firings, suggested an unusually powerful engine with flaming exhaust. A subtle guy, this Nickles.

Where did he get the idea? While some car buffs think the idea for portholes came from the 1910 Buick Bug racer with its large and dramatic engine exhausts in the hood, Nickles said he actually was inspired by World War II fighter planes, which also gave us Cadillac's tailfins.

When Buick Manufacturing Manager Ed Ragsdale saw Nickles' custom work, he told General Manager Harlow Curtice that Nickles had "ruined" his convertible. Curtice, however, was intrigued. He liked the portholes so much that even though the 1949 Buicks were only seven months from production, he ordered them on the new cars, but without the flashing lights. Originally named VentiPorts, portholes made their debut and brought instant recognition to Buick.

Children soon learned they could identify a model by the number of portholes. For the next decade a variety of models sported three or four portholes, but, bucking the trend, a few Buicks didn't have any. After a nine-year run with portholes, the '58 Buicks left them behind. The following year the porthole-free '59 Buicks had the benefit of all-new styling, big fins and a new model lineup: LeSabre, Invicta, and Electra.

But it appeared Buick buyers wanted portholes, so GM brought them back. In 1960, the formula was four portholes for Electra and three for LeSabre and Invicta. They were not much like the big, bold round portholes of 1949, however. They were merely small, elongated chrome decorations.

For 1963, when Buick introduced the Riviera, which is considered one of the most attractive cars of the era, it was without portholes. But the all-new Buick Wildcat, also introduced as a '63 model, was festooned with three portholes. The following year, the Wildcat offered an unusual variation: three vertically stacked portholes on the fender behind the front wheels.

Small decorative portholes appeared on at least some Buick models into the early 1980s, ending with the Electra in '83. The limited-edition Regal GNX of 1987 had fender vents that some people called portholes, but Buick doesn't take a strong position on that either way.

Buick then went more that 10 years without even considering portholes, until they showed up on the concept 1999 Buick Cielo. Cielo was a hit with auto show audiences and the press, so portholes appeared on the concept 2000 LaCrosse, which was also an auto show hit. But just to make sure, Buick designers tested portholes again on the 2001 Bengal show car, honored as "best of the best" of all concept cars unveiled at international auto shows that year.

So portholes are back on a production Buick, and if they can help division avoid the said fate of its sister, Oldsmobile, which preceded it to a centennial year, then we can all be happy about the return of a styling legend.

A fan of the old school, Villeperce, France-based writer Tom Ripley revels in the return of the styling cues of the Fifties.