The Buick Roadmaster
Keith Horsfall is a bit of a Buick fan.
The Alliston, Ontario-based enthusiast is not only president of the McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada, he’s also founder of the Buick Club of America’s “Modified” chapter, and editor of two Buick club newsletters.
Plus Horsfall’s owned roughly nine Buicks, from a ’65 Riviera Gran Sport – his first Buick, purchased in ’74 – to his current 2014 Enclave daily driver.
He’s so deep into the brand, there are things about it he takes for granted—like Buick’s iconic “porthole” fender vents.
Horsfall doesn’t look twice at them any more, and notices them only when they’re missing, like they were on his ’97. “We bought a set of stick-on vents for that one,” he says.
Those stick-ons let the car symbolically carry on where similarly styled Buicks of the past left off. “The portholes are an identifier,” Horsfall says. “They’re just Buick.”
The vents: then
In 1948, Joe Funk, a modeler for Buick, got the OK from Buick’s head of design, Ned Nickles, to cut a set of holes in the fenders of Nickles’ Roadmaster convertible and fit them with lights hooked up to the distributor; they glowed amber when a cylinder fired, like the fire-spitting exhaust of a fighter plane.
His supervisor, manufacturing manager Edward Ragsdale, chastised him for “ruining” his new car, but Buick general manager Harlow Curtice liked the look. In fact, he ordered the holes added to the ’49 model year Roadmasters, even though they were seven short months away from production.
The portholes, branded “Cruiser-Line Ventiports” by GM’s marketing, didn’t come with amber lights like Nickles’ car, but they did act as heat extractors—at least on the 1949 Buicks they did.
The next year they moved from the fenders to the hood’s sides but no longer functioned as vents, closed up after owners complained kids were stuffing things in their cars’ engine compartments.
(This Russell Brockbank cartoon, which inspired the Ventiports’ “mouseholes” nickname, points to another reason they may have been shut up.)
The portholes switched year-to-year from big, round openings to flattened oval shapes, but were present across Buick’s lineup through to 1957. Up to that point, the number of portholes showed where the car fit in the model hierarchy: a “four-holer” was a top-trim car, a “three-holer” more entry-level.
After a two-year hiatus, the portholes were back for 1960, but they were now squared-off and modernized. Most Buicks wore them in some form or another – some, like the flagship ’63 Riviera, didn’t – but after 1971 only certain models came with Ventiports. They were gone by 1983.
Horsfall says while the absent portholes probably weren’t a deal-breaker for most Buick buyers – “I don’t think anybody was going into a dealership and saying ‘I want a car with portholes on it’” – enthusiasts did appreciate the iconic styling cue.
So in 1999, Buick hinted that they were bringing them back, by sticking a set of portholes on their Cielo concept; they appeared again on concepts in 2000 and 2001 before being reintroduced on the production 2003 Park Avenue Ultra. Best of all, through to that model’s end in 2005, they were fully functional again.
The vents: now
Judging by the number of cars you see wearing them, in 2015, aftermarket stick-on fender vents are more popular than ever before.
“In this day and age, the cars all look the same, so people have to do that so they know it’s theirs in the parking lot when they walk up to it,” says Horsfall.
But for Buick, portholes aren’t the draw they once were: though the entire lineup wears the iconic vents, the only mention of “port” in any of the brand’s 2015 press releases is in reference to USB ports.
Part of the reason is that Buick wants to move away from using the portholes as a gimmick and have them serve a purpose again.
“We want Buick to be a beautiful brand, and we want to be authentic and honest,” explains Bregt Ectors, Buick’s global strategic design manager. “And if we executed portholes the old way, we wouldn’t really be doing that.”
Moving forward, he says Buick will fit portholes to a car only if they add visual value—that’s why you’ll see them on the 2016 Avenir styling concept, but not on the new Cascada convertible.
“[On the Avenir], the portholes tie into the body side sculpture, and lengthen the front end,” says Ectors. “It’s like jewelry on the side of the car.”
“The Cascada doesn’t have them, because, well, frankly it doesn’t really need them. We’re not just adding it on for adding-it-on’s sake.”
He says they’re also looking at making the portholes really functional again, and that the design team held long discussions about whether they could make the Avenir’s portholes work by making them cooling vents, or even by incorporating side marker lights into them.
Ectors knows enthusiasts like Horsfall are glad to see the portholes are back, functional or not, and says while you might not see them on every future Buick, it’s unlikely they’ll go away altogether.
“If it fits the car, we’ll do it,” he says, again referencing the Avenir. “It is a cue that’s part of our history, and like I’ve said, this car would not look as good without it.”
With files from The Buick: A Complete History by Terry Dunham and Lawrence Gustin