Wouldn’t You Really Rather: A Brief History of the Buick Gran Sport

The words “sporty Buick” have never quite rolled off the tongue, but over the years, Buick has produced a surprising number of performance cars, from the speedy prewar Century to the turbocharged Grand National and GNX. From 1965 to 1975, it even offered its own entry in the burgeoning Supercar market: the Skylark Gran Sport. This week, we take a look at the history of Buick muscle and the career of the Skylark Gran National, GS400, GS455, and GSX.

1965 Buick Skylark GS yellow badge

FIREBALL AND NAILHEAD

For more than 50 years, every time Buick has released a performance-oriented model, it’s been greeted with puzzlement, not unlike the public response to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on a late-night talk show in 1992. In a way, that’s odd because Buick has built some of the hottest passenger cars to emerge from any GM division. Buick was an early advocate of free-breathing overhead-valve engines (an arrangement now universal for modern passenger cars) and even set a number of speed records before World War I. As we’ve previously seen, the 1936-1942 Buick Century was one of the fastest American production cars of its day, becoming very popular with hot rodders.

1937 Buick Special engine
The OHV straight eight of Buick’s 1937 Special. It was 248 cu. in. (4,065 cc) and rated at 100 hp (75 kW).

Such feats of speed were not, however, a major part of Buick’s brand image, which focused on a cloud-like ride and posh, Cadillac-like interior appointments. Shortly before World War II, Buick general manager Harlow Curtice even developed a semi-custom Limited model with bodywork by the coachbuilder Brunn, although complaints from Cadillac made it short-lived. The advent of the smooth but slushy Dynaflow automatic in 1948 only cemented Buick’s image as a prestigious but rather staid land yacht, the prototypical doctor’s car.

While Cadillac and Oldsmobile led the switch from flathead straight-eight engines to OHV V8s in the late forties, Buick was in no great hurry to follow suit, since the division’s big OHV straight eight still equaled the output of the early postwar V8s. Also, a 90-degree V8 would be shorter and lower than a straight eight, but also wider, which presented packaging problems for Buick’s existing cars, designed around inline engines; for that reason, the V8 concepts with which Buick engineers experimented in the late forties had narrow (22- and 35-degree) bank angles. Buick didn’t start production work on a 90-degree V8 until 1950, by which time the division was looking ahead to a newer generation of cars with lower, flatter hood lines.

1940 Buick Century Sport Phaeton front 3q
The 1940 Buick Century had the 320 cu. in. (5,247 cc) straight eight of the Roadmaster and Limited, boasting 141 gross horsepower (105 kW). In 1941, it added Compound Carburetion, giving it 165 gross horsepower (123 kW) — the most powerful American production car of its day. The lighter Centuries could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in around 12 seconds and a top speed of perhaps 103 mph (165 km/h). At the time, production cars that could crack the 100-mph mark were not common, especially in the middle-class price brackets.

Despite that slow start, Buick’s 322 cu. in. (5,272 cc) V8, which debuted for the 1953 model year, was among the hottest of the new crop of engines. Developed by Joseph Turlay and Verner Matthews, it had a then-unusual pentroof combustion chamber design, which offered the thermal efficiency and short flame travel of a hemispherical combustion chamber with less bulk and weight. Although its valve area was relatively small, the V8 was a free-revving engine, capable of 6,000 rpm in proper tune. The “Nailhead,” as it soon became known due to its nearly vertical valve stems and relatively small valves, was also quite compact and it was one of the lightest V8s of its time: about 65 lb (29 kg) lighter than Cadillac’s V8 and about 110 lb (55 kg) lighter than the Chrysler FirePower, both of which had similar displacement. In production form, Buick tuned the V8 more for torque than outright horsepower, but there was considerable potential. Had it not been for the advent two years later of the Chevrolet V8, which offered even greater potential in a still-lighter, cheaper package, the Buick V8 might have become a favorite of the shade-tree tuner crowd. Even after the arrival of the Chevy small block, there was a brief vogue for the Nailhead among hot rodders like Max Balchowsky and Tony Nancy. Buick even took a brief stab at NASCAR, winning two races in 1955.

Even in pure stock form, the new Buick V8 was formidable enough. By 1954, its second year, it was up to 200 hp (149 kW) and 302 lb-ft (408 N-m) of torque, among the most powerful passenger car engines in America. In 1954, Buick revived the old Century nameplate, marrying the engine from the big Roadmaster with the shorter, lighter chassis of the Special. The Century was hardly a small car, but it weighed more than 400 lb (190 kg) less than a Roadmaster, which made for muscular performance.

1955 Buick Century Riviera front 3q © 2007 Brain Toad/Nick Young (used with permission)
The 1955 Buick Century had 236 gross horsepower (176 kW), providing formidable acceleration. By locking the Twin Turbine Dynaflow in Low, an ambitious driver could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in just under 10 seconds and hit a top speed of about 107 mph (172 km/h). Even a Chrysler C-300 would be hard pressed to match the Century at around-town speeds, although the Chrysler was much faster all out. (Photo: “1955 Buick Century” © 2007 Brain Toad (Nick Young); used with permission)

The division didn’t go out of its way to promote the Century, or any Buick, as a performance model. Buick subscribed to an older and simpler philosophy: that luxury cars should naturally be able to outrun cheap ones. Even the entry-level Special had fine performance, although its handling was soggy and its brakes were inadequate. That was fine with buyers, who snapped up new Buicks at an unprecedented rate. By 1955, Buick controlled nearly 10% of the American market, selling more than 700,000 cars.

THE ED ROLLERT ERA

Buick’s remarkable success soon slipped a gear. Responding to the increased demand, general manager Ivan Wiles (reportedly with some instigation from Harlow Curtice, who had become president of General Motors in 1953) greatly stepped up production, which had a negative effect on quality control, traditionally a Buick strong point. Customer word of mouth began to sour, exacerbated by unpopular styling for 1957.

Around that time, the U.S. economy began a sharp dip, which combined with heavy-handed design and troublesome new options — the short-lived Air Poise air suspension and complex Flight-Pitch Dynaflow transmission — to turn the 1958 model year into a complete rout. Sales fell to around 240,000 units, less than a third of 1955’s peak. While 1959’s total sales were better — a bit under 285,000 — Buick’s market share slumped to less than 5%.

Ed Ragsdale, who had replaced Ivan Wiles as Buick’s general manager in March 1956, ended up becoming something of a scapegoat for the whole mess. It was true that Ragsdale had been Buick’s general manufacturing manager since 1949 and the decline in assembly quality had occurred under his watch, but the order to increase production had come from Wiles and Curtice, who had also approved the 1957-1958 styling and the use of the triple-turbine transmission — an interesting idea that was probably not ready for mass production. By 1959, though, both were gone. Wiles had retired in December 1957, followed in August 1958 by Curtice, who was succeeded by former Cadillac general manager Jack Gordon. Ragsdale, now lacking management support, retired in 1959, several years ahead of GM’s normal retirement age of 65.

1959 Buick Electra 225 convertible front
The wild styling of GM’s 1959 cars was directly inspired by the 1957 Chryslers, which left GM designers in mortal fear of losing their styling leadership. Public reaction was mixed at best and many of these designs have become notorious as symbols of Detroit excess. This is an Electra 225, which replaced the Limited as Buick’s top-of-the-line model in 1959. It’s 225.4 inches (5,725 mm) long on a 126.3-inch (3,208 mm) wheelbase, powered by a 401 cu. in. (6,567 cc) engine with 325 hp (242 kW). With air conditioning and other options, it weighs close to 4,800 lb (2,180 kg) at the curb.

With Buick in such bad shape, its top job was not an attractive post. Candidates knew that if the division collapsed — a real possibility given the magnitude of its decline — it would reflect badly on them. At least one GM vice president allegedly rejected the position when it was offered to him.

In late April 1959, GM announced Ragsdale’s replacement: Edward D. Rollert. Rollert, who’d been at GM since the early thirties, had spent the early fifties as the general manager of the joint Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac plant in Kansas City, Kansas (later the first GMAD plant), where he had supervised its conversion to military production; the Kansas City plant built both cars and the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak fighter. In 1955, GM transferred Rollert to run the Harrison Radiator Division in Lockport, New York, where he had cemented his reputation as an aggressive and demanding leader, one of GM’s rising stars.

When Rollert arrived at Buick, the 1960 models were already done, and the 1961s were close to finished, but no one had much confidence that they would sell. The 1959 Buicks had had all-new styling, bigger engines, a much-improved chassis, a new ad strategy from a completely different ad agency, and even new model names, but it had been to little avail.

1959 Buick Electra 225 convertible rear 3q
Although the public wasn’t sure what to make of the Batmobile styling, the 1959 Buick offered some useful mechanical improvements, including better suspension geometry, a wider track, and a stiffer K-type frame. It also had much-improved brakes: big finned drums. As in 1958, the front drums were aluminum for better heat dissipation, although the inner surfaces were iron-aluminum alloy to reduce wear. Buick used these brakes for another decade, although front discs superseded them by the late sixties.

Rollert wasted little time in filling Buick’s top slots with his own people, many of them fellow alumni of Purdue University, Rollert’s alma mater. In short order, he appointed Roland Withers as general sales manager, Bob Kessler as head of manufacturing, Gerald Rideout as PR director, and Oldsmobile’s Lowell Kintigh as chief engineer. There was immediate friction between the new arrivals and Buick’s long-time veterans, but Rollert was able to make significant strides in repairing Buick’s tarnished image for reliability, including giving quality control manager John Gretzinger new authority to address problems on the line.

Despite the new blood, 1960 was Buick’s nadir. Sales had fallen to fewer than 254,000 with no signs of improvement and market share didn’t even reach 4% — only half of AMC’s share. Buick’s 1960 models were not bad cars, but the division desperately needed a new direction.

1960 Buick Invicta convertible front 3q
The 1960 Buick line differed only slightly from the 1959, although the Triple Turbine and air suspension options were both discontinued and the convex grille of the ’59 was replaced by a concave unit. This was the last year for Buick’s torque-tube rear suspension, which the division had used since 1938. It was replaced in 1961 by an open driveshaft and live axle, located by control arms. The Invicta was one of the smaller Buicks: 218 inches (5,537 mm) on a 123-inch (3,124-mm) wheelbase, weighing around 4,500 lb (2,040 kg).

23 Comments

Add a Comment
  1. Aaron, I don’t know how you keep cranking them out every week; just the research you must need to do for each article gives me a headache.

    I believe that the quality of your work is right up there with Richard Langworth or Pat Foster; I seriously think you should consider picking a subject marque and start writing a book. I would be one of the first ones to buy it.

    In the meantime, if I might suggest as a future topic the Ford Pinto or the Maverick? (Yes, I know you touched briefly on the Maverick earlier but I believe it deserves a full article of its own.

  2. This story needs to be told. Too many younger car fans think only of Buick since 1987, and think the GN was the “only” performance Buick. And assume that they have been ‘irrelevant’ and ‘outdated’ since the beginning.

    In fact, Jalopnik.com once featured the 1970 GS-X in a list of performance cars, but then dismissed it from its low sales #’s saying ‘I guess nobody wanted a sporty Buick’. I wanted to reach in and shake up the website! They didn’t so the math and see that the GS-X was limited edition, and they ignored the GS history.

    1. Very good point Tom ,the Buicks were ahead of the pack in many ways!

  3. My dad had a ’55 Century convertible. I have an ’08 Lacrosse Super. Thanks!

  4. I always enjoy this site but have one small correction concerning “then-President Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on a late-night talk show”: Clinton’s performance on [i]Arsenio Hall[/i] occurred in 1992 when he was still a candidate.

    1. Ah, the memory grows dim. (I did remember that it was [i]The Arsenio Hall Show[/i], but not the date.)

  5. When I was in high school (late 90’s) a friend of mine drove a mint early 80’s Riviera T-type. For what it was, it had surprising acceleration.

    Hardly comparable to the hey day of 70’s muscle car wars, but it certainly was obscure and luxuriously awesome in its own way. That has been the only Riviera T-type I have ever seen.

    Thanks for the good read.

  6. One mention that wasn’t mentioned is the FORMIDABLE torque Buicks were known for in ’70 – ’72. In the Stage One package, 510 ft. lbs of pavement-shredding, stripe-bending, tire-smoking torque was king of all GM cars. Not even the vaunted SS454 LS-6 could match it.

    The hi-torque numbers are far more fun than the hi-horse numbers. Street guys know torque is the real king. And Buick ruled.

    Wolf
    And yes, as a GN owner since ’86 I’ve drank the cool-aide.

    1. The article does indeed mention the 455 Stage 1’s gross torque output — see the top of page four.

      The Buick’s 510 lb-ft rating was monstrous, and it edged out the Chevy 454 LS6 and Olds 455 W30 engines (albeit only by 10 lb-ft), but it wasn’t the king of GM, at least in terms of rated output. That honor goes to the 1970 Cadillac Eldorado, whose 500 cu. in. engine had gross ratings of 400 hp and 550 lb-ft of torque. Naturally, the Eldorado wasn’t about to win many drag races, since it weighed nearly a half ton more than a big-engine A-body, but if you’re talking about bragging rights, the Caddy wins.

  7. ‘Buick’s 322 cu. in. (5,272 cc) V8, which debuted for the 1953 model year, was among the hottest of the new crop of engines… Its vertical valve stems earned the engine its nickname, “Nailhead.”‘

    I wasn’t around at the time, but I’m a little dubious that the “nailhead” term was applied to the Buick V8 anytime soon after its introduction. My understanding is that the term makes reference to the engine’s supposed puny valve (head) sizes. In fact, leaving aside the Chrysler Firepower, the Buick V8’s valve sizes were pretty much in step with the rest of the industry in its displacement range, at least until the arrival of the 2nd generation V8 engines in 1958, if not longer. By the early 60s, the Buick cylinder head design did indeed begin to constrain further growth of the valves relative to more conventional wedge cylinder heads, which is why I had always assumed the “nailhead” nickname came from that era and not sooner. Even then, the difference in valve sizes between the “nailhead” and its mainstream contemporaries wasn’t that big.
    For example, IIRC, the Olds 394 and Buick 401 of the late 50’s-early 60’s had the same or very similar valve sizes.

    1. Trying to track down the origin of nicknames can definitely be tricky business, as aficionados of World War 2 airplanes will tell you. There are all kinds of supposed nicknames that were of much later coinage, or even invented by some clever press office.

      While the moniker later became associated with the size of the valves, you’re quite right that that wasn’t really a concern during its early days. As the text notes, I suspect the nickname was coined not because of the valve size, but because of the appearance of the valve stems — since they stand straight up, I imagine somebody offered that they looked like nails sticking up out of a board. (The Chevy 396 acquired the "porcupine" nickname very soon after its introduction, for comparable reasons.) Exactly when that happened, I honestly don’t know. It may have been coined by some anonymous hotrodder during the early Buick V8’s brief heyday in that realm, or it may have popped up later, to distinguish it from the later, second-generation V8.

      If anyone has seen specific references to the nailhead nickname from before the mid-sixties (in old issues of [i]Hot Rod[/i] or the like), please let me know!

  8. “Buick restyled all its cars except the Riviera in 1968”
    I think you’ll find that there was pretty strong continuity in the the full sized cars’ styling between 1967 and 1968. Only really noticable changes were to grilles, bumpers, and taillights.

    1. Yeah, the ’68 was a facelift of the ’67 shell. I was referring primarily to the intermediates, so I reworded the text to reflect that.

  9. Thanks for a great article. As the owner of a ’69 Skylark hardtop, I’m always pleased to see more stories about them.

    I prefer to think of the rear quarter panels on my 69 Skylark hardtop as ‘curvacious’! And love the sweepspear- nothing like it on the road today.

    Please keep ’em coming!

    Cheers,
    Chris

  10. Thank you for a great article on the history of Buick and its performance throughout the years! As an owner. of a 1970 GS 455 Stage 1(Hemmings’ Muscle Machine Of The Year 2006) and a 1987 Grand National (original owner),both these cars hold a place in history of the top 10 quickest musclecars of all time.
    The performance both these cars have to offer is truly outstanding!

    Thank you once again for the great article.
    .

  11. Aaron,only one question-why didn’t you mention Buick Engineer Dennis Manner for the development of Buick’s second generation V8 engines? Dennis was not only responsible for the entire new V8 engine but also was responsible for the Stage 1 and the Stage 2. He also was one of the ones responsible for the .Turbo and Supercharged V6 engine projects. Omitting him from Buick history would do him a terrible disservice. He should be recognized here because he is regarded as the father of the later Buick V8.

    Thank You.

  12. i have a 1965 buick superwildcat convertible. It has dual carter 4-bbls and a 4-speed. On a 1 to 4 basis with 1 being showroom and 4 a rust bucket, my car is a solid 3. Can someone tell me what the value is on my car? Thanks,

    1. I’m afraid I can’t help with valuation — to be perfectly honest, if you picked up a current collector car price guide, you’d know more than I about it. Sorry!

  13. I am looking for a skylark conv. I found on, a 1969 skylark custom conv. 350 4 bbl….but it has air induction. Vin says it is a skylark. What is the origin of the air induction. Hoped it was a gs sleeper but nope. So what do you think it is?

  14. did buick make an aluminium engine or heads for the 1965 wildcat grand sport 445 4bbl

  15. I have a 67 GS400 with a 430-4 motor. It’s been bored 30 over with oversized Jahns Pistons and rings. How can I calculate the new displacement ?

    1. To calculate the displacement of a reciprocating engine, you first take the bore and divide it by two. You then square it, multiply by pi (3.14159 etc.), and then multiply by the stroke and the number of cylinders. So: (bore / 2)^2 * pi * stroke * cylinders.

      The bore of a Buick 430 is 4 3/16ths inches (4.1875). Taking it 30 (hundredths) over gives you 4.22 inches. The stroke is 3.90 inches, so if you plug the new bore into the formula above, you get 435.9 cubic inches. In metric terms, that’s 7,143cc — give or take, depending on how precise you are with rounding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. (Terms of Use – Reprint/Reuse Policy) Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes.