Big Sky Buick – Jerry Gray’s Home-Built Road-Tripping 1952 Buick Riviera
The combination of craftmanship, style, and do-it-yourself attitude found in hot rodding is shared in some ways among other pursuits. You can often find a common bond between rodders, motorcyclists, woodworkers, gunsmiths, vintage airplane fans, and other hobbyists who are passionate about their craft. Many enthusiasts find themselves alternating between several such pastimes, as Montana’s Jerry Gray did when he shifted gears from winged wonders to four-wheeled pursuits.
“In 2002, I completed a homebuilt airplane,” Jerry says. “After flying it around Montana, I decided to fly to Florida to attend the Sun and Fun airshow. I spent a week and had a great time. After returning home, when attempting to land on my father-in-law’s short grass strip, things went bad, and I totaled the airplane.
“Of course, my wife saw the episode,” Jerry continues. “After the insurance company paid for the loss, my wife Suzy said, ‘Jerry you like old cars, why don’t you build one and forget about flying.’”
Jerry took Suzy’s advice and built a fiberglass ’32 Ford Vicky on a TCI frame with a RamJet crate engine. “We drove it around for about four years, then decided we wanted something a little more comfortable,” Jerry says. “The Vicky was sold, and now lives in Hawaii.”
That “something a little more comfortable” ultimately came in the bulbous, king-sized shape of a 1952 Buick Riviera Roadmaster. It was a literal field car from Nebraska, purchased off eBay for $1500 in 2009. Never one to shy away from a big project, Jerry dove right in on a four-year frame-off build in his home shop, with the goal of crafting a comfortable long-distance cruiser.
The project got off to a strong start when Jerry ordered a custom frame from Art Morrison Enterprises, eliminating the time and hassle of upgrading the stock underpinnings. The new chassis provided a performance-based independent front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, a 9-inch rearend on a triangulated four bar setup, plus the peace of mind of Wilwood disc brakes and a sturdy, all-new foundation. Jerry elected to keep the cruiser all-Buick, installing a ’72-vintage 455c.i. big block V8 topped with TBI injection from Howell Engineering and backed with a 700R4 automatic transmission. The 15-inch Truespoke wire wheels harken back to the optional factory Buick wires from the era.
The weathered Buick body was stripped, repaired, finessed, and brought back to a condition that’s arguably better than new. Jerry had help with the bodywork from a friend and the car was painted right there in the garage using a distinctive PPG Desert Rose hue on the body complemented by Copper Metallic on top. Fresh brightwork helps it maintain that ’50s flair, with mini LED lights adding a glow to the Buick portholes.
Inside, Jerry kept things classy and comfortable by having Mike Wood upholster the stock seats and other soft parts in a combination of brown and ivory distressed leather. Modern upgrades included a heated front seat, Custom Autosound stereo, Stewart Warner gauges augmenting the stock instruments, and an IDIDIT tilt column supporting the stock wheel.
Did Jerry succeed in building a comfortable cruiser? We’ll let him answer. “The Buick is our summer road car,” Jerry says. “Suzy and I travel approximately 9-10,000 miles each year, visiting friends and family and attending various car shows and events. The Buick now has 66,000-plus miles.”
Naturally, when you put that many miles on an old car, you generate some interesting stories along the way. “While visiting friends and family in Oklahoma in 2016, we arrived at a motel in the early afternoon,” Jerry says. “It was very windy, but I decided to open the side-opening hood and wipe off the engine. Just as I was about to close the hood, a gust of wind blew the hood completely off, landing on the parking lot asphalt. After picking up the slightly warped and damaged hood and placing it back on the car, I purchased a couple of straps and secured it to the fender wells. After driving home, I decided I did not want to repaint the slightly damaged car. I purchased a used hood and drove to my friend’s body shop. Brett McGinley agreed to repair and repaint the lower body color.”
Jerry says Brett finished the repair job by airbrushing a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on the underside of the hood. As for the old hood, it now serves as the awning to the side door of Jerry’s home shop. It’s a good reminder that any worthwhile endeavor has its risks – how you respond to them will help determine your success.
Photos by Jerry Gray