Ed Rollert was presumably aware of the renaissance then taking place at Pontiac, under the leadership of Bunkie Knudsen. Pontiac’s situation had been nearly as grim as Buick’s was, but Knudsen was resuscitating it with an emphasis on sporty performance. There was a growing market for sporty and pseudo-sporty cars and Pontiac was exploiting it for all it was worth. Pontiac was nominally in a lower price bracket than Buick was, but whatever the corporate rhetoric about price hierarchy, GM’s divisions had seldom hesitated to poach one another’s business. We suspect that Rollert and Withers decided that Buick would be in a better position if it could get a little of Pontiac’s action.
Cultivating a sporting image for Buick was not a straightforward or easy task. Pontiac had forged its new identity in NASCAR and drag racing, but Buick had been out of that game for a while and GM management had officially banned competition in 1957. Although Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac had continued to support private teams under the table, the corporation was beginning to crack down. GM president Jack Gordon went so far as to bar Buick from publicizing a staged durability run — hiring stock car drivers to drive two new Invictas 10,000 miles (16,100 km) at an average speed of 120 mph (193 km/h) — on the grounds that it would violate the spirit of the racing ban. It was clear that senior management would not tolerate even a “private” Buick racing effort.
There was no reason, however, that Buick couldn’t offer performance-themed street cars. One of the first new models initiated during Rollert’s tenure was the Skylark, a better-trimmed version of the new Special senior compact with a 190 hp (142 kW) version of the small aluminum V8. This was followed a year later by the full-size Wildcat, Buick’s answer to the sporty Oldsmobile Starfire and Pontiac Grand Prix.
The Wildcat, which took its name from a series of plastic-bodied show cars of the mid-1950s, was a sub-series of the Invicta line, which had replaced the Century in 1959. Like the Century, the Invicta used the shorter-wheelbase chassis of the base LeSabre, but had Buick’s biggest engine, 401 cu. in. (6,572 cc), with 325 gross horsepower (242 kW). The Wildcat was distinguished by its interior, which had Ford Thunderbird-style bucket seats and a center console with a shiny but virtually useless tachometer.
The Wildcat wasn’t any faster than a standard Invicta, but it had excellent performance: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in the low 8-second range and a top speed of around 130 mph (210 km/h). The first Wildcat was basically a limited edition, accounting for perhaps 2,000 sales in 1962, but it returned for 1963 as a separate series, eventually superseding the Invicta. Buick also applied the “Wildcat” name to all its big V8 engines.
The major news for 1963 was the Riviera, a crisply styled hardtop that Buick had “won” in an internal competition with Oldsmobile and Pontiac. The Riviera offered Buick’s latest V8, a bored-out 425 cu. in. (6,965 cc) engine with 340 hp (254 kW) and 465 lb-ft (628 N-m) of torque. The 425 was also available on the Wildcat, allowing it to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 7.5 seconds. In 1964, there was also an optional “Super Wildcat” engine with two four-barrel carburetors and 360 gross horsepower (269 kW).
Neither the Wildcat nor the Riviera was a runaway hit, nor was the Skylark, but those products, combined with cleaner styling and progressively improving quality, brought a steady revival of Buick sales. In 1964, the division sold more than 500,000 units for the first time since 1956. Buick’s market share, however, still hovered at a bit over 6%, well below its fifties peak.
At the same time, Pontiac was ascendant. Its 1964 sales were over 700,000 units, and its market share was 8.5% and climbing. While Buick was not about to abandon the near-luxury field — its big Electra 225 was now encroaching on Cadillac’s turf — Pontiac had become the one to beat.
BUICK GRAN SPORT
In early 1963, GM chairman Frederic Donner issued an unequivocal cease-and-desist order to all divisions still involved in racing. Looking for a way to sustain their performance image, Pontiac came up with a new idea: transplanting its 389 cu. in. (6,375 cc) V8 into the new A-body intermediate line. Although the new Pontiac GTO option was an end run around a corporate policy limiting the A-bodies to 330 cu. in. (5,408 cc) engine displacement, it was an immediate hit and the publicity it generated contributed significantly to the division’s impressive 1964 sales totals.
While Oldsmobile had cautiously tested similar waters with its small-block 4-4-2, Buick had not. Its 1964 A-body Special and Skylark used either the 225 cu. in. (3,692 cc) V6 or a new iron-block 300 cu. in. (4,923 cc) V8, based on the earlier aluminum V8, but with a wider bore and longer stroke. The V8 had either 210 or 250 gross horsepower (157 or 186 kW), no threat to either a GTO or GM management’s sense of propriety.
The success of the GTO prompted the corporation to raise the displacement limit for the A-bodies to 400 cu. in. (6,555 cc), which opened the door for Oldsmobile and Buick to follow Pontiac’s example. For Buick, however, that was not quite as easy as it had been for Pontiac. All Pontiac engines had the same external dimensions and the standard 326 cu. in. (5,340 cc) V8 and the GTO’s 389 cu. in. (6,375 cc) engine weighed within 30 lb (14 kg) of one another. By contrast, Buick’s big Nailhead was physically larger and about 160 lb (74 kg) heavier than its 300 cu. in. (4,923 cc) small-block V8, making the big engine a tight fit for the A-body.
Buick engineers Dennis Manner and Cliff Studaker were working on a new big-block engine, but it was not ready for production, so they had to modify the existing 401 cu. in. (6,572 cc) engine to fit under the hood of the A-body Skylark, which required a new air cleaner, exhaust manifold, accessory drive, and oil pump. Pontiac general manager Pete Estes, seldom short of chutzpah, actually complained to senior management that the Buick 401 exceeded the new displacement limit for the A-bodies, but as uneasy as GM leadership was about excessive performance, they were not inclined to argue about a deviation of less than one cubic inch (around 22 cc). Nonetheless, Buick tactfully labeled the big engine as 400 cu. in. in the A-body, even thought the engine’s actual displacement was identical to the 401 used in Buick’s larger cars.
Buick’s new GTO fighter, dubbed Gran Sport, was an option package for Skylark hardtops, convertibles, and sedans. The package included the big engine, rated at 325 gross horsepower (242 kW), plus a slightly stiffer suspension and a few cosmetic and trim changes. The only cataloged powertrain choices were the optional four-speed manual gearbox and two-speed Super Turbine 300 automatic. Two out of three buyers chose the latter.
The Skylark Gran Sport was less a Buick GTO and more a 7/8th-scale Wildcat. Its sole engine was 10 hp (8 kW) shy of the GTO’s base engine and the big-engine Skylark outweighed the GTO by at least 150 lb (69 kg). The Buick’s only sporty interior touch was the optional tachometer, still mounted uselessly on the floor. It had a boulevard ride, softer than the GTO’s, with nose-heavy handling and similarly lackluster brakes. The Skylark was quieter and calmer than the GTO, but those were not attributes that won points with boy racers. Buick did adapt the Super Wildcat’s dual four-barrel intake manifold for the Skylark Gran Sport engine, but it was available only as a dealer-installed option, and was relatively rare.
The Gran Sport’s acceleration was on a par with the new big-engine 4-4-2’s, but fell short of even an automatic GTO. Since the Skylark cost more than a Tempest or Olds F-85, the Gran Sport had the dubious distinction of being both slower and more expensive than both of its A-body rivals.
Moreover, the younger buyers who gravitated toward the GTO weren’t sure what to make of the new entry from Flint. The median age of GTO buyers was 25 and there weren’t many 25-year-olds buying Buicks. While the Wildcat and Riviera had gotten good press from the various car magazines, those cars were pricey runabouts for tycoons, well beyond the means of the typical Baby Boomer. The sales figures for 1965 tell the story: about 75,000 GTOs, just over 25,000 4-4-2s, and fewer than 16,000 Skylark Gran Sports. Still, Buick’s total sales were up almost 90,000 units for 1965 combined with a welcome 10% boost in market share, so the Gran Sport models certainly hadn’t hurt.
The Gran Sport was Ed Rollert’s last hurrah at Buick. In June 1965, toward the end of the 1965 model year, he was promoted to group vice president of the car and truck group. He went on to become GM’s executive vice president, but he died of a heart attack on November 27, 1969, at the age of 57.
Rollert’s successor at Buick was manufacturing chief Bob Kessler. Most of the division’s other key personnel remained the same — Rollie Withers, Lowell Kintigh, and Buick chief stylist Dave Holls — so Rollert’s departure brought no dramatic changes in Buick’s modus operandi.
Buick remained determined to promote the Gran Sport brand. In addition to the Skylark and Riviera Gran Sport models, there was now a Gran Sport Performance Group for the Wildcat. The pricey $381.01 package included the single-quad 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc) engine, heavy-duty suspension, and Positraction. A handful of cars had the dual-carburetor Super Wildcat engine.
The A-body intermediates were restyled for 1966, but the Skylark Gran Sport was otherwise little changed. Buick was concerned about its performance deficit, however, so there were some several powertrain developments. Although the division was forbidden to participate in formal competition, its dealers were not, so Buick came up with a limited-production engine, the L76, for customers interested in drag racing. The L76, available only as a dealer-installed option, include the Quadrajet carburetor from the 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc) Wildcat 465 engine and new pistons that gave a higher compression ratio, yielding 332 gross horsepower (248 kW). A few months later, there was a more widely available optional engine, using the Quadrajet and camshaft of the Wildcat 465, but a standard compression ratio. It was rated at 340 gross horsepower (254 kW), although curiously it wasn’t offered with manual transmission. Such options gradually improved the Gran Sport’s credibility with the enthusiast press.
Such publicity was a step in the right direction, but Buick still couldn’t match Pontiac’s merchandising blitz or sheer showmanship, which left the Gran Sport at a distinct disadvantage in both image and sales. While GTO sales peaked at nearly 97,000 units in 1966, the Skylark Gran Sport managed less than 14,000. Sales of all Buick A-bodies were down by more than 25,000 units, so the Gran Sport wasn’t drawing many customers to the mundane Skylark and Special either. Buick’s restyled Riviera Gran Sport accounted for around 5,700 units in 1966 while the Wildcat Gran Sport package sold only 1,244 copies, less than 2% of Wildcat production.