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, included 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.
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.