“Eddie Grace’s Buick...got four bullet holes in the side” (opening lines of Tom Waits' 'Kentucky Avenue' - from the 1977 Blue Valentines album)
What’s the story behind the iconic front fender bullet holes? We have to go back to 1948 when Joe Funk, a modeler for Buick, got the okay from Buick’s head of design, Ned Nickles, to cut four holes in each front fender of Nickles’ Roadmaster convertible. The holes were fitted with lights that were then hooked up to the distributor. The lights glowed amber when a cylinder fired, like the fire-spitting exhaust of a WW2 P-51 Mustang.
Manufacturing manager Edward Ragsdale chided Nickles for ruining his new car, but Buick general manager Harlow Curtice loved the look. In fact, he ordered the holes added to the ’49 model Roadmasters despite the release date being only months away.
Due to expense and complexity, the portholes - branded ‘Cruiser-Line Ventiports’ by GM marketing - didn’t come with amber lights like Nickles’ car, but they did purportedly act as heat extractors on the 1949 models.
The next year the port holes were moved from the fenders to the hood’s sides, but no longer functioned as vents - closed up after owners complained kids were putting cigarette butts in their cars’ engine compartments.
Buick HQ heard about the cigarette butts in the form of negative owner feedback passed on by their dealer network. The best known feedback was from a boys’ school headmaster who complained to his dealer that students were pissing in his port holes!
Other owners complained that snow got in the ventiports and as the car warmed up, would melt and slosh around inside the fender liner leading to premature rusting.
The portholes were altered year-to-year: from big, round openings to flattened ovals on the ‘57s. The number of portholes showed where the car fit in the model hierarchy: a “four-holer” was a top-trim car, a “three-holer” an entry-level model.
After a two-year hiatus, the portholes were back for 1960, but were now squared-off and no longer actual holes, but die cast badges. Most Buicks wore them in some form or another through the 1960s (except the flagship Riviera) but after 1971 only certain models came with Ventiports. By the early 80s they were a thing of the past.