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

GS 400, GS 340, AND THE CALIFORNIA GS

Buick’s next-generation big-block V8 finally debuted for the 1967 model year. The new engine was developed by Dennis Manner and Cliff Studaker, who had worked with Joe Turlay on the design of the Nailhead while still a student engineer. The Nailhead’s pentroof combustion chamber was discarded in favor of a domed wedge shape, in some respects an elaboration of the design used by the old aluminum small block.

1967 Buick GS400 intake manifold © 2009 SoulRider.222/Eric Rider (used with permission)
Some versions of Buick’s new V8 had this stylish dual-inlet plastic air cleaner, known to modern collectors as the “Star Wars” air cleaner; it was included on the 1967 Gran Sports and optional on other models as part of an engine dress-up package. The new engine had bigger ports than the old Nailhead, allowing larger valves. Both 1967 engines had 2.00-inch (50.8mm) intakes and 1.63-inch (41.3mm) exhausts compared to 1.875 inches (47.6 mm) and 1.5 inches (38.1 mm) for the earlier 401/425. (Photo: “1967 Buick Gran Sport 400 engine.” © 2009 SoulRider.222 (Eric Rider); used with permission)

There were initially two versions of the new V8. One was 430 cu. in. (7,041 cc), replacing the 425 in the Riviera and full-sized cars, while the other, intended specifically for the A-body, was 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc). (Both engine had the same 3.90-inch (99.1mm) stroke, but the 400 had a narrower bore.) The new engine was about the same overall size as the old and retained the same bore spacing, leading several observers to note adopting the old engine’s bore would bring displacement to an impressive 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc).

The new engine was not dramatically more powerful than the old, but had better breathing, allowing similar output with a milder cam and smaller carburetors. The new 400 was rated now at 340 gross horsepower (254 kW) while the 430 claimed 360 hp (269 kW) with a single four-barrel carburetor, matching the discontinued dual-carb Super Wildcat. Both versions were mildly tuned and there was potential for considerably more power.

1967 Buick California GS front
All 1967 Buick GS models had false hood scoops and GS badges; this is a rare California GS with the 340 cu. in. (5,574 cc) V8. The Buick 340 was an enlarged, all-iron version of the 300 cu. in. (4,923 cc) engine introduced in 1964, a direct descendant of the 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum engine of 1961-1963. In GS form, it was rated 260 horsepower (194 kW).

The Skylark Gran Sport was now abbreviated “GS” and was available both in big-block GS400 form and as a less-expensive GS340 hardtop, powered by the small-block 340 cu. in. (5,574 cc) engine. The latter was naturally tamer than the GS400, but was usefully cheaper and commensurately easier to insure.

The GS400, fortified with the new engine and the newly optional three-speed Super Turbine 400 (Turbo Hydra-Matic) transmission, was considerably stronger than previous big-engine Skylarks. It still wasn’t as fast as the hottest Ram Air GTOs, but it was now a match for the Oldsmobile 4-4-2 or Chevrolet SS396. Front disc brakes were newly available, which gave the Buick a much better chance of slowing down.

1967 Buick California GS front 3q
The 1967 GS340 was normally available only as a hardtop coupe, but Los Angeles-area Buick dealer Mickey Garrett suggested a special version for the West Coast: a pillared coupe called the California GS. It was trimmed like a GS340, but it came standard with styled steel wheels and the Super Turbine 300 automatic, giving more than adequate (if not especially muscular) performance.

This newfound muscle did little to invigorate sales. Buick sold only about 17,500 GS400s in 1967 along with about 3,700 GS340s. The division had given up on the Wildcat Gran Sport, although most of the pieces could still be ordered separately, and the Riviera GS accounted for fewer than 5,000 sales.

If Buick was not exactly redefining the Supercar genre, it also wasn’t suffering. While sales of the A-body Special and Skylark were unimpressive, Buick’s 1967 market share was higher than it had been in a decade. Buick hadn’t done any particular damage to Pontiac sales, but it had taken a chunk out of Oldsmobile; in 1967, Buick edged out Olds for fifth place in total U.S. sales.

1967 Buick California GS name badge
The California GS was available only in California in 1967, although a similar budget model was offered on a wider basis in 1968 and 1969. It had a base price of $3,128.68; fewer than 1,600 were sold in 1967.

STAGE 1

Buick restyled its midsize cars in 1968, abandoning the crisp lines it had favored since 1961 for a curvier, massive look with semi-skirted rear wheels and a revival of Buick’s old side spear trim. The new idiom was hardly sporting, but it made the intermediates look more like full-sized Buicks. Buick A-body sales rose more than 10% for 1968, which spoke volumes about the priorities of the typical Skylark buyer. (Technically, the Gran Sport was no longer a Skylark. Buick belatedly followed the lead of Pontiac and Oldsmobile and made it a separate series in GS350 and GS400 forms.)

The new GS400 may have looked a trifle effete, but there were encouraging noises from the engine compartment. Buick engineers had been working with Bill Trevor, an instructor at the GM Training Center in Burbank, California, and their unofficial liaison to the Southern California drag racing community. By late 1967, an array of decidedly racy hardware was appearing in Buick parts lists: hotter camshafts, oversize main bearings with four-bolt caps, lightweight pushrods, heavy-duty oil pumps. Presumably hoping to capitalize on the much-publicized multi-stage rockets used in the Gemini and Apollo space programs, Buick packaged much of this equipment into “Stages”: a reasonably streetable Stage 1 and a track-bound Stage 2 setup, available through the parts departments of knowledgeable dealers. Before long, there was even a cold-air intake system, comparable to Pontiac’s Ram Air set-up.

1968 Buick Skylark Custom hardtop front 3q © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The 1968–1969 Buick Special/Skylark/GS revived the sweeping side spear trim of early-fifties Buicks, a controversial touch. To our eyes, the styling looks best in convertible form; in hardtop or sedan form, the side sweep emphasizes the pronounced ‘hips’ and bulbous hindquarters of the 1968–1969 A-body, not necessarily to flattering effect. Like all 1968 GM A-bodies, the two-door models now rode a shorter, 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase. They were 4.3 inches (109 mm) shorter than the ’67s, although they weighed somewhat more. (Photo: “1968 Buick Skylark Custom” © 2014 Greg Gjerdingen; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Despite the Stage 1 and Stage 2 packages, the GS400 still seemed a trifle ambivalent about its Supercar mission. Without the dealer-installed accessories, it was no more powerful than the 1967 GS400 and the new body was somewhat heavier. In standard form, the GS400had still a typically Buick-like ride and the interior remained innocent of gauges or other sporty touches. The GS350, powered by a new 350 cu. in. (5,724 cc) small-block V8 with 280 hp (209 kW), was even more sedate.

The inevitable result was that Buick was again the poor relation among GM’s intermediate Supercars, selling 21,514 units (plus an unknown number of California GS models) compared to almost 34,000 4-4-2s, nearly 88,000 GTOs, and around 60,000 Chevy SS396s. Buick’s overall sales, however, were up 15%, the division’s second-best year.

1969 Buick Skylark sedan front 3q © 2010 BullDoser PD
Four-door Specials and Skylarks of this vintage rode a 116-inch (2,946mm) wheelbase, 4 inches (101 mm) longer than the coupes and convertibles. By the late sixties, buyer interest in the basic Special was evaporating. The plain Special was dropped in 1968, leaving Special Deluxe models. Even those vanished in 1970. (Photo: “Buick Skylark Sedan” © 2010 Bull-Doser; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

The 1969 Buick intermediates were more of the same, although the Stage 1 engine was now a factory option, as was the Cool Air system with its functional hood scoops. So equipped, a GS400 was capable of running the quarter mile in the high 14-second range with trap speeds over 100 mph (161 km/h), better than most stock GTOs. Pontiac buyers paid little heed; Gran Sport sales fell to just over 13,000, about a third of those the tame GS350.

The fact that Buick didn’t simply throw in the towel at that point says a great deal about the appeal of the Supercars to contemporary automakers. From a manufacturing standpoint, a car like the GTO or GS400 differed very little from a workaday Tempest or Skylark and the added cost of the unique trim, springs, and other components was seldom more than a few dollars. However, the performance model commanded a significantly higher price. Since most of the really expensive equipped was optional, its cost could be passed directly to the customer with a healthy margin tacked on for good measure. If the GS400 had had a unique body and running gear, it would have been a money loser, but the investment was so low that the division could make a profit even at lower volumes.

We assume that’s the reason Buick’s new general manager, Lee Mays, didn’t cancel the slow-selling GS when he replaced Bob Kessler in April 1969. Mays, who had been general sales manager of Chevrolet until he clashed with new general manager John DeLorean, was a conservative salesman of the old school and reportedly had little affection for specialty cars. At Chevrolet, he had opposed the Monte Carlo, which later proved to be one of the division’s most profitable products. Nonetheless, the GS earned an encore for 1970. It would be one of the most audacious models in Buick’s long history.

1969 Buick GS400 Stage 1 engine
Buick rated the 1969 GS400 Stage 1 engine at an unassuming 345 hp (257 kW) compared to 340 hp (254 kW) for the regular GS400. Car Life, one of the least wild-eyed of the era’s enthusiast publications, estimated that the real difference was closer to 50 hp (37 kW).

37 Comments

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  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!

    2. 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.

      1. For 2003, the supercharged Regal GS did not lack for straight-line performance, that’s for sure!

  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

    1. Not to my knowledge, no.

  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.

  16. 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.
    Dan Iwanchuk
    Canada Auto
    Winnipeg, MB Canada

    1. Dan,

      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.

  17. 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..

  18. For the win a 67 gs 400 or a 70 gs455…..not a stage 1.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

    1. I think a GS350 with a four-speed was a pretty rare car for 1969. Too bad you weren’t able to keep it!

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