Story and photos by Al Rogers
The Alfred P. Sloan Museum automobile collection at the Sloan*Longway in Flint, Mich., houses incredibly historic vehicles such as a 1910 Buick pickup, 1913 Chevrolet Classic Six, 1951 XP-300 General Motors concept car, 1963 Buick Riviera Silver Arrow I concept car and the pictured 1910 Buick 60 Special race car. Lucky for me, the museum allowed me to photograph each of these notable vehicles.
For our photo shoots, the vehicles were carefully removed from the museum storage facility where they’d been stowed away for years. Former museum caretaker Jacob Gilbert and his team of volunteers prepped each vehicle, then transported it to a private location. I’m always intrigued to see how an automobile that normally spends most of its life in captivity comes to life and undergoes a transformation when allowed to strut its stuff outside its usual four walls. Such museum pieces rarely get an opportunity to show their lines in natural light and when they do, I like to sit back and take it all in as the vehicle settles into the setting and starts to take on a look of its own. When I finally find the optimal angle to photograph them, it’s as if they’re smiling while looking directly into the lens.
Of the six automobiles I photographed from the Alfred P. Sloan Museum automobile collection, one really came to life. That car was the collection’s 1910 Buick 60 Special race car, which raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “Brickyard.” There it recorded a top speed of more than 105 mph — a very impressive figure 107 years ago.
This was a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with the motoring legend known as “The Bug.” Although named after an insect, the Buick 60 Special race car has the same basic bullet-nose shape of a classic soap box derby race car — except on steroids.
Building a faster Buick
In 1907, under the leadership of William C. Durant, Buick launched one of the most successful racing operations in the United States. Durant had already grasped the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” business strategy and allocated an impressive sum of $100,000 to form a racing team. With this incredible six-figure budget for a race team, Durant had the resources to go after the best drivers to pilot his race cars.
He recruited Louis Chevrolet and “Wild” Bob Burman to pilot the two 1910 Buick 60 Series race cars for the annual Indy race. Burnam had an all-out driving style when he piloted a race car and was regarded as one of the fastest men alive. His philosophy was “It either holds together and I win running wide open, or it breaks and I lose.” Buick took advantage of the slogan and used it as a marketing tool to create additional buzz for increasing foot traffic into Buick showrooms.
For the 1910 Indy race, Buick built two 60 Specials in only three weeks: one for Chevrolet and the other for Burman. Each had a 622-cid four-cylinder engine with pistons nearly the size of oil cans. Buick used the race to promote the benefits of its valve-in-head passenger car engine so, of course, the race car featured overhead valves.
Prior to 1910, an Indy race car was designed for two occupants with a two-seat driver and passenger layout. Holding onto the steering wheel was the driver’s duty while the passenger was a master mechanic who knew the race car’s iron guts inside and out. However, the 1910 Buick 60 Special had a narrow single-seat body design making it an integral part of the new era of driver-only race cars.
The 1910 Buick 60 Special was unusually streamlined for its time with a nose of rounded aluminum. The flat radiator was replaced by tubes that wrapped around the cowl. One-piece aluminum discs covered each wood-spoke wheel to increase air flow and improve wind resistance.
It was not unusual for drivers to give their race cars names and to draw public interest. Burman called his 60 Special “Space Eater.” After seeing the car in public, the race car community immediately called it “Bug” and it’s the name that stuck.
A ram’s head was painted onto the rounded nose to show Buick was “butting” its way back into Indy racing claimed chief engineer Walter Marr. It was a radical look designed to draw attention, and it worked.
The over-the-top design of the Bug was enough to capture the public eye, especially when the race car’s engine was roaring and flames were shooting out the exhaust. The aerodynamic 60 Special looked fast sitting still, and it was every bit as quick as it looked. However, it had one serious design flaw.
At the 1910 Indianapolis time trials, the Bug’s recorded times were in the 105-mph range.
Unfortunately for Buick, the Bug was only this fast when racing in a straight line. When Chevrolet and Burman put the nose of their Bugs into a turn or tried to maneuver around other race cars in traffic, it took everything they had in their arsenal to keep the cars from driving into the wall or spinning out of control. The cars’ narrow wheel track was a serious design flaw that made it nearly impossible to handle the cars on the oval race track.
At the end of the day, the Buick “Bug” did not live up to Durant’s expectations and it missed the mark on the oval race track. The “Bugs” were rarely raced after their debut at the 1910 Indy race and they ultimately failed to win a single race.
The 60 Special photographed here is believed to be the Bug raced by “Wild” Bob Burman. It was found in a Kansas barn by Charles Howard, Buick’s famous West Coast distributor. Horse racing fans will also recognize Howard as the owner of the legendary racehorse “Seabiscuit.” Howard passed it on to Charles Chayne, Buick’s chief engineer from 1936 to 1951. Chayne was known for his collection of vintage automobiles and often judged at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. He was a great caretaker for the Buick Bug and eventually donated it to the Alfred P. Sloan Museum.
Periodically, the 1910 Buick 60 Special race car is showcased in one of the rotating displays at the Sloan*Longway museum’s Buick Gallery and Research Center. However, it’s outside where the car really shines.
On the day of our photo shoot, Gilbert exercised the museum’s Bug. He fired up its 622-cid four-cylinder engine and smiled as red flames shot out of the open exhaust. The car was then put through its paces as Gilbert drove it across the asphalt pavement to get the fluids moving and stretch its legs before pulling it back into the enclosed trailer for the trip back to the museum. The unique sound of the four-cylinder engine crackled through the air as Gilbert put it through the motions. All the while, red flames shot out from its engine bay to light up the dusk sky.
From our meeting, it would go on to meet a modern-day automotive celebrity. Not long after our photoshoot, Jeremy Dimick and Jacob Gilbert from the Sloan*Longway transported the Buick Bug to southern California to be featured in an episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage.” Leno even got behind the wheel to pilot the Bug on the open road. The episode is very informative and you’ll get a kick out of seeing Leno work the controls of the Bug while driving it on the street.
Watch the Buick Bug on “Jay Leno’s Garage”
See the Buick Bug at Sloan*Longway Buick Gallery*
303 Walnut Street
Flint, MI 48503
*Museums rotate displays so if planning a trip around viewing one car, contact the museum to verify the museum will be open and the car visible before you leave.
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