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.
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.
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 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.
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 (50 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.
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.
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.
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.
36 CommentsAdd a Comment
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.
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.
Very good point Tom ,the Buicks were ahead of the pack in many ways!
A few years ago, I told my wife I was buying her a Buick. She complained bitterly that Buicks were “old lady cars”. I came home with a superb condition, ‘03 Regal GS. She no longer sees them as old lady cars.
I’ve always admired Buicks for a number of reasons, although this is the first I’ve owned. Thank you for the wonderful history.
For 2003, the supercharged Regal GS did not lack for straight-line performance, that’s for sure!
My dad had a ’55 Century convertible. I have an ’08 Lacrosse Super. Thanks!
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.
Ah, the memory grows dim. (I did remember that it was The Arsenio Hall Show, but not the date.)
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.
And yes, as a GN owner since ’86 I’ve drank the cool-aide.
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.
‘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.
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!
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
did buick make an aluminium engine or heads for the 1965 wildcat grand sport 445 4bbl
Not to my knowledge, no.
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 ?
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.
Hello Aaron, We just purchased a 1968 Skylark Custom Convertible VIN# 4446782115758. It has the 350 – 4 with functional hood vents, compatible air cleaner and all the GS350 badging. I can not find any information on a 68 GS350 Convertible. Is this a factory vehicle or a clone. Thank you for your time.
Winnipeg, MB Canada
For 1968, the GS350 was not a Skylark even in name — the A-body Gran Sport was notionally a separate series — although even before that, the GS sub-series was identifiable by the a VIN. So, the fact that this car has a Skylark Custom VIN means that it’s not a factory GS350.
There was a 1968 GS400 convertible, whose VIN began with 44667, but so far as I know, there wasn’t a GS350 convertible. If there had been, based on GM’s 1968 VIN format, the first five digits of the VIN would have been 43467. (You can find VIN decoding guides in resources like the Krause Standard Catalog of Buick or online, generally through some of the Buick clubs or forums. Doing a web search on “Buick VIN decoder” reveals several.)
Again, because the VIN identifies the car as a Skylark Custom, it seems likely that that is what it is and that some past owner just added the GS350 identification and hood/air cleaner. If there wasn’t a factory GS350 convertible — which seems to be the case — I’m not sure that would even qualify as a clone so much as a “tribute,” but I guess that’s a matter of semantics.
a friend of mine, has a buick skylark grand sport thats been setting in his storage lot since 1980. blue with white interior. i remember it having a 300 v8 and 4 speed and power brakes…. bucket seats, steering and pedals, motor and tranny and radiator and grill, are gone. still has glass. the kid that had it, is still alive, so might get a good title from him. my brother wants the car. he has a stock 455 buick motor with stage one exhaust manifolds and bop 350 turbo with lock up converter, he wants to put in it.. i had a red 65 buick grand sport with factory dual quad 401 with 4 speed. sold it long ago, to a guy in sioux falls, s.d.. i had quite a collection of nailhead buicks, back in the late 80s.. sold them all to one guy in denver… junkman, alliance, nebr..
For the win a 67 gs 400 or a 70 gs455…..not a stage 1.
I was one of the lucky ones that had a 68 California GS. Picked it up from a salvage yard and spent 2 weeks cleaning and polishing. Unfortunately I fell asleep behind the wheel late one night on a secluded road,went into the ditch and hit a culvert. Destroyed the car but thank God it was steel unlike today’s cars and I walked away. Broke my heart that I had destroyed a classic.
Great article as we have come to expect from Aaron. One minor correction…….the 1948 Caddy was a flathead V8 rather than a straight eight.
Whoops, that was a careless error, no doubt triggered by saying “Cadillac and Oldsmobile.” (Obviously, Oldsmobile had a straight eight while Cadillac had used V-8s since 1914!) I’ve amended the text.
Do you know if Buick made a 1967 gran sport sportswagon, as I have a owners manual that says GS400 sports wagon. If so how many were made.
To the best of my knowledge, they did not offer the combination you’re presumably thinking of: viz., a Sportwagon with the GS-400 engine and suspension. For 1967, the GS-400 (as it’s styled in the brochure) was listed as a separate series, available only in two-door — coupe, hardtop (“sport coupe”), or convertible — styles. So, what’s the owners’ manual on about? While it’s not uncommon for owners’ manuals to list combinations that were contemplated but never actually offered, there ‘s a more likely possibility in this case.
In 1967, the normal automatic for Buicks with the smaller 300 cu. in. and 340 cu. in. engines (that is, the A-body Special/Special Deluxe/Skylark/Sportwagon and the B-body LeSabre) was the two-speed Super Turbine 300 (which the ’67 brochure styles as “SuperTurbine,” one word). However, if you bought a LeSabre or Sportwagon Custom, you could order a more powerful four-barrel version of the 340 (with 260 gross horsepower rather than 220) combined with the three-speed Super Turbine (or “SuperTurbine”) 400, better known as TH400. To the everlasting confusion of future historians and collectors, the brochure describes this as the “‘400’ package,” signified by a little red “400” badge after the nameplate.
What about the “GS” portion? The early brochures indicated that a GS appearance group was optional on two-door A-bodies. This was not the GS-340, which isn’t mentioned in the early brochures, but rather appears to have been a standalone option. (This would explain the ’67 Skylark convertible I saw some years ago that had a GS-style grille and moldings, but no GS-340 or GS-400 identification.) My guess is that the GS-340 package was added during the year as a hasty merchandising effort, although without salesman’s guides (which I can’t find for ’67), I couldn’t say with certainty if the GS-340 supplemented or replaced the GS appearance group. Anyway, the brochure doesn’t indicate that the GS group was available on the Sportwagon, but doing so would have been easy enough, and it’s possible that Buick at least considered doing that. A Sportwagon with the GS group would likely have been available with the “400” group, although again, this did not mean the GS-400 powertrain and suspension, but the 340-4 engine with three-speed automatic.
To my knowledge, the division that got closest to offering a Supercar variant of their midsize wagon was Oldsmobile, which put together a prototype 4-4-2 Vista Cruiser a year or so later. Oldsmobile let a bunch of the enthusiast magazines drive it, I think in an effort to drum up interest in a production version. There were, as I recall, a few ’64 wagons with the B09 Police Apprehender package, but that wasn’t exactly the same thing.
Anyway, without seeing the pages you’re looking at, that’s my best guess as to what they meant!
That was a good article on Buick history.My older brother had a white 1969 GS Riviera.That 430 V8 was quick for a big car.His friend had a black 1970 GS stage 1 Skylark.It would bury the speedometer with a carload of people so fast it was amazing..GS 350 Skylarks are also quick and fun but for a slam you into the back of the seat ride nothing else beats a torque monster 455.
I had a 69 GS350 Bought it June of 1970 It was a 4sp. Hd that car for 2yrs. I did pretty good against the Goats 442 Road Runners won a few but not many against them but let me tell you that car could take a beating and it handled well in the snow rain drove it through a Blizzard on New Years Eve with no problems put 55000mi. on it and never changed the clutch I used to power shift that car the sound of that cold air induction when you put it to the floor was amazing. Sold it with 70,000 mi on it when I got married because my wife could never drive it. Just did regular Maintenance. Also had a 93 Roadmaster another great car, 74 Luxus Conv. that was pretty but couldn’t get out of it’s own way going up hills my foot was in the carburetor.
I think a GS350 with a four-speed was a pretty rare car for 1969. Too bad you weren’t able to keep it!
I’m disappointed that there is no mention of the 1986 Century Gran Sport. It was a very limited production run of 1,029 cars. All 2 door notch backs with the 3.8 liter motor and 4 speed automatic transmission. I would like information regarding the suspension system (stock or upgraded?) and how many were manufactured with the optional electronic digital boards?
Thanks for any information you can pass my way.
At the time of writing, the only information I had about that model was what little Before Black had, which wasn’t much. (They quote production at 1,024, BTW.) However, the Old Car Manual Project now has some’86 Buick brochures, including a folder specifically for the Century GS. That brochure indicates that the Century Gran Sport had the Gran Sport suspension with 205/60R15 tires and that the electronic instrument panel was standard equipment. Interestingly, the tires are NOT the same used on the Regal Gran Sport, which were 215/65R15.
Nothing technical…just a thanks for an interesting history, naming lots of people I enjoyed working for. Chicago was the go-to place for Buick in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s – which is when I worked for them here….back when GM was operated by ‘car-guys’, not accountants. Happy memories of good times.