by Pete Phillips, BCA #7388, Bugle Editor
Parked right outside the convention center door during most of the meet was this replica of Buick’s 1954 Wildcat II concept car. You would have been forgiven if you thought it was the real thing, which is housed in the Sloan Museum’s Buick Gallery in Flint, Michigan. But this is a replica of the original, and represents an eight-year labor of love-some might say obsession-by owner Ken Mitson.
Ken has owned Buicks since 1966, when he bought a new Riviera, so he is hooked on them. After finishing a complete restoration of a 1953 Skylark, he was wondering what would be his next project. He had fallen in love with the Sloan’s Wildcat II, due to its beautiful flowing lines, and thought that it could be a really neat, cool project if he could get close enough to it to take hundreds of measurements and photos. Right here, it should be noted that Ken owns a couple of manufacturing companies-one that builds pipe-making tools and one that builds high-performance race car parts. So he has some expertise that the average person lacks.
Ken befriended Jeff Taylor, the Curator of the Buick Gallery, and talked him into being allowed to take photos and digitized drawings of the 1954 Wildcat II when it returned from the Pebble Beach car show one year. When Taylor called and said the Wildcat II was arriving back at the museum, Ken and his paint and body man flew up to Flint, set up a digitizing camera, established a grid system with the ability to add dimensions to the photos, and “shot a zillion pictures” as Ken tells it. The photos were loaded into a computer, blown up to actual size, and big digital cut-outs were made to guide the fabrication of the fiberglass panels which make up the car.
What followed was months and years of whittling, cutting, gluing, and building molds for the fiberglass panels. Ken’s objective was to reproduce the original car’s appearance, but to make it more drivable and handle more like a sports car. The original Wildcat II has a 322 Buick V-8, Dynaflow transmission, torque tube, and lever-type shock absorbers-in other words, 1954 Buick chassis and drive train technology. “It’s more of a push-toy than a real car,” says Ken.
The Wildcat II’s design is based on an early Chevrolet Corvette, including the cowl, windshield, and body design. So, Ken’s first search was for an early Corvette body and frame. He found a 1956 Corvette frame and a complete 1954 Corvette body in a guy’s backyard, and bought them. Then, he got a 425 Buick nailhead V-8 and set about updating it. The 425’s block, cylinder heads, crankshaft, and oil pan are from the Buick engine, but everything else is new, using the latest engine technology. For example, it has the latest fuel injection system, computer-driven controls, electronic timing, oxygen sensor, hardened valve seats and guides, a solid lifter cam-all of the things that a modern, high performance engine has. According to Ken, the horsepower output is about 450 h.p.
The car’s suspension is also updated. Ken bought a late 1980s, burned Corvette, took the suspension parts off of it, and married it to the older chassis so that it now has four-wheel independent suspension. The transmission is an aluminum, T-10, Borg-Warner four-speed. The car was finished just in time for the South Bend Buick meet, and Ken managed to put all of 10 miles on it before the show. He says it is like driving a new passenger car today. We thank Ken Mitson for bringing this work of art to the meet.