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10-4! Upgrading the Maisto '55 Buick CHP

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A hot late-summer afternoon in 1955. You're on a long vacation, blasting north on California's Highway One in your (nearly) new Chevy.

The cross-country drive was long and tiring but worth every mile now. The scenery along the Pacific Coast Highway is gorgeous, including the scenery walking around the beaches. Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" is roaring out of the radio, but your Chevy's 265 Power-Pack engine sounds even better. 

Suddenly you see a black blob up on the road up ahead.  A Buick. Some old geezer, poking along at the speed limit. 

On the 1955 General Motors ladder, Buick occupies the Number Two rung, right under Cadillac.  Buicks are solid cars for solid citizens: doctors, lawyers, bankers and the like.  Cars for conservative people who can afford Cadillacs, but think Caddys are too flashy. Movie stars and the nouveau-riche buy Cadillacs. People like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, both of whom certainly resemble at least part of an early Fifties Cadillac...

You blast past the Buick, giving the geezer a cheery wave.  A few seconds later a big shark-mouth grille and the chrome letters KCIUB suddenly fill your rear-view mirror, along with a blinking red light and the sound of a screaming siren. 

A cop in a BUICK?  Really?  You mumble a phrase your grandchildren will use one day on the internet:  "WTF...?"


The 1955 Buick, Model 68

In the 1950's, the California Highway Patrol was one of Detroit's best (and most demanding) customers. For 1955, no less than six car companies aggressively competed for the CHP contract. The winning low bidder was a vendor who had never built CHP vehicles before: Buick.

Since nothing in the Buick catalog fit CHP requirements, the carmaker Frankensteined together something new, the Model 68.  That model was never sold to the public. It was built for the CHP and nobody else. These were some of the first cars built exclusively for police service, unlike the usual stock sedans fitted with lights and a siren.

Nearly a decade before Pontiac unleashed its GTO, the Model 68 was basically a muscle car, a factory-built hot rod.  Its base was the lightest, cheapest Buick Special 2-door sedan. The Special came standard with a 264 cubic inch, 188-hp V8 engine. 

Buick dropped the bigger V8 engine from its Century model into the Special and also bolted on the whole Century front clip.  That was a serious power upgrade, to 322 cubic inches and 236 horsepower. The Model 68 also got the biggest brakes available, from the heavy, top-of-the-line Roadmaster model.

Those Century front fenders gave the Model 68 an instant identifying feature:  4 front fender portholes like more expensive Buicks, instead of the Special's 3 portholes. And while the Model 68 was a fleet car built to a contract price, it was equipped like any other Buick, with niceties like full interior carpeting and arm-rests.

The CHP added its own equipment: an under-hood siren and under-dash police radio with a big whip antenna.  A red spotlight was mounted on the driver's side and a clear spotlight on the opposite door.  A single amber blinking light sat on the driver's side of the package tray.  Because the CHP swapped equipment out of wrecked and retired cars, the amber light was mounted on a piece of plywood for quick removal.

Buick only built 270 of these cars (some sources say 268).  For CHP research purposes, half were equipped with the Dynaflow automatic transmission, and the other half with the manual three-speed. One story says the CHP very quickly had a problem with the manual-transmisson cars:  drivers liked to run them up to about 70 mph in second gear, leading to some...maintenance issues.

That wasn't the only problem.  The Model 68 had plenty of go but not enough stop, even with its big Roadmaster brakes.  On the dyno, the Model 68 clocked a top speed of 108 mph.  Stopping that big Buick from high speed turned out to be downright scary; the brakes faded quickly to nothing under hard use and brake system components had a high failure rate. Steering and handling were Titanic-like. In general for 1955, Buick set high production records, at the usual cost of quality control. 

Neither GM nor the CHP seemed very happy with the Model 68 experience.  Some sources estimate that, with all the re-engineering, Buick lost money on the contract.  And after 1955, the CHP never bought cars from Buick again.

As far as I can find, no original Model 68 cars have survived.  Several "tribute" cars have been built, most copying Broderick Crawford's famous ride in the first season of the "Highway Patrol" TV show. One of the most famous tribute cars is a 2-door hardtop, not the correct sedan body.

Here's a link about the real car Maisto copied for its '55 Buick CHP die-cast, with info provided by its builder/owner. He built his tribute on a Century 2-door sedan, not a Special, and Maisto copied the (wrong) Century nameplates on the rear quarters:




For a cheap model (around US $10), the 1/26 scale Maisto CHP Buick is very nice.  It includes most of the correct CHP equipment, right down to 1955 California government "E-code" (Exempt) license plates. 

As usual with die-casts, the plastic parts of this kit are not regular styrene.  They're a soft plastic that's a real pain to sand and thin. The plastic parts get "fuzzy" when sanded and require a lot of clean-up with a sharp knife. 

The worst part of this model is its flat silver, non-chrome side and window trim.  That just looks wrong.  I used Bare Metal Foil on the side spears and window bottoms, and Molotow Liquid Chrome for the windshield and rear window trim.  Added open vent windows made from clear plastic sheet, and used the Molotow pen to add the chrome trim around them.

Maisto got the CHP lights right, but missed one obvious piece of gear:  that big whip antenna.  It was held down with a small clip on the rain gutter. I found the antenna base in the parts stash and made the hold-down clip from a tiny piece of photo-etch metal scrap.  I drilled thru the antenna base and added an antenna made of stretched sprue. That let me add the "ball" on the end, by simply heating the sprue. The antenna is also painted with Molotow Liquid Chrome.

INTERIOR: I put lots of work into the interior...which was pretty stupid, since most of it is invisible now.  The "before and after" pix below show the changes. 

The basic interior got rear armrests/ash trays added, along with quarter-panel upholstery made from very thin corrugated metal. It matched the front door upholstery almost perfectly. The front door armrests were scratch-built from Evergreen half-round strips.  The carpet is black embossing powder. 

The seats come molded with a good 3-D upholstery pattern.  They got a dark wash and some dry-brushing with light gray oil paint, to pop out that upholstery detail.

I also added the plywood board under the amber package-tray light, along with 4 tiny photo-etched Phillips-head screws from Lion Roar.  These boards were probably painted black, but then it would have disappeared.  Maybe the CHP Shop Supervisor took a day off...

STEERING WHEEL: this annoyed me. Its back was perfectly flat with no finger notches.  (See photos).  And it's generally just blah. I found an exact sized wheel in the parts stash and sanded it down until it fit the Maisto wheel from the back.  Added the Chest-Buster chrome bullet in the middle of the wheel from the parts box, and painted in something like the Buick crest. I also cut off the clunky shift lever/turn signal stalk, drilled thru the steering column, and replaced both with stretched sprue.

DASHBOARD:  see the photos.  From left to right I added the headlight switch, wiper switch and heater control switches/knobs, all made from stretched sprue. I also built the small control box hanging under the left side of the dash, with toggle switches and indicators for the lights and siren.  The instruction sticker above the control box is a random HO-scale decal.  The keys and key ring are from Model Car Garage.

I moved the loudspeaker to its correct place beside, not under, the police radio.  I carefully shaved the microphone off the Maisto dash and made it fatter with plastic scrap.  Then made a coiled cable from spark-plug wire and hung the mike on the dash, where it belongs.

A couple of photo-etched instrument bezels fit the 2 Buick dashboard pods perfectly.  Glued those down and filled them with Future to get the clear-glass look over the bezels.

Maisto provides the radio-delete plate on the dashboard but it's the wrong shape and size.  In the end I just added Bare Metal Foil and some grooves.  I also added a decal to the round clock-delete plate on the right side. Look closely and you'll see a pair of sunglasses on top of the dash. 

Comments and criticisms welcome. Sorry for some awful photos, hope to upgrade the camera soon. 




















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I love your story telling Mike!

This '55 reminds me of me Great Grandmothers Buick. Hers was a '54 (similar type roofline and windshield but a hardtop), and was red/black two-toned. That's probably (along with my Dad's '55 Plymouth) one of the first cars I can remember seeing when I first knew what a car was. Interesting enough, I can remember hearing her say that was the very reason she always bought Buicks. They were not as "showy" as a Cadillac, yet still had the same comfort and a lot of the features of those Caddies. Her last Buick would be a '58 Roadmaster Limited----talk about a chrome BEAST! She stopped driving sometime in the later '60's due to failing eyesight, but she loved those Buicks though!

Very nice and interesting build, and I don't ever remember seeing a Buick police car done up before! I'm a big believer in taking a diecast and do whatever it takes to get the model you want. It's still a model, that happens to be cast in metal. ;)

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I have one of these waiting to be assembled your post has given me idea to finish mine

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NICE!   I bought a Franklin Mint '55 police car a while back - hey don't hate me - was like $12.   I thought a BelAir would be kinda flashy but it's a nice enough model.   I really like your Buick.   And ya can't get one in plastic. 

I think if I were to make any suggestion, it would be to paint over the chrome bumpers with some black Detail It wash fluid.  It really makes chrome look less toy like, imo.   And if that worked on this build, it would go from nice to spectacular.    I have not tried it on a diecast like this, but have used it on kit chrome and HotWheels chrome.   Really helps give the chrome some depth

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Great background story on the CHP Buicks. I remember these as a child living in Santa Monica at that time. I do remember that the CHP also tried a few Oldsmobile 88's based on the same formula but never heard how that turned out. I only recall seeing one or two Old's so I don't think that was of the same scale as the Buick's. They used '67 and some '68 Oldsmobile Delta 88's that were equipped with the 425 cu in engine and suspension and brake upgrades in later years.     

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