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

THE BUICK GS455

By 1970, all domestic cars had some form of primitive emission controls, taking a modest but noticeable toll on performance. In response, GM finally lifted the limits on displacement, allowing the divisions to install their biggest and most powerful engines in the intermediate Supercars. As observers had predicted three years earlier, Buick bored the 430 cu. in. (7,041 cc) engine to 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc), replacing both the 430 and the GS’s 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) engine. In standard form, the new GS455 was rated at 350 gross horsepower (261 kW). The Stage 1 package was again a factory option. This time, it was officially rated 360 gross horsepower (269 kW), but its gross torque rating, 510 lb-ft (689 N-m), belied that modest figure; whatever its official rating, it was one of GM’s most powerful engines.

1970 Buick GS455 Stage 1 engine
Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac all had 454/455 cu. in. (7.4 L) engines in 1970, but Buick’s was one of the most potent of them all. Many observers thought its 360-horsepower (269 kW) rated output was suspiciously modest. This one has the optional Cool Air package, drawing intake air through the twin hood scoops. The 455 was very similar to the superseded 430, but the block had many minor changes, including larger main oil galleries and beefier main bearing caps.

A properly equipped GS455 Stage 1 was now a match for all but the very meanest contemporary Supercars. It wasn’t quite as fast as a Hemi Challenger or a Ram Air IV GTO, but it was capable of running the quarter mile (402 meters) in less than 14 seconds with trap speeds of 101-103 mph (163-166 km/h). Its dragstrip performance was limited more by the traction of its bias-ply tires than by the output of its engine. If that wasn’t enough, the Stage 2 package remained available over dealer parts counters.

1970 Buick GS455 scoops outside
With the Cool Air package, the GS455’s hood scoops were functional — the air cleaner is sealed to the scoops, forcing the engine to draw in cool outside air — but several period testers expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the scoops’ size, shape, and position. Buick claimed the cold-air intake provided up to 8% more horsepower, although rated output was unchanged.

Rollie Withers, Buick’s general sales manager since 1959, was promoted to the presidency of GM Canada in 1968. His successor, O. Franklin Frost, took a more assertive approach to marketing, and Buick ads soon proclaimed the Gran Sports “Automobiles to Light Your Fire.” The new campaign was less theatrical than Olds’ Frankenstein-like “Dr. Oldsmobile” ads, but seeing Buick ads make allusions to the Doors was more than a little surreal.

Despite its newfound muscle, the GS455 was relatively unobtrusive by muscle car standards. The hood scoops and fat Wide Oval tires set it apart from the Skylark, but it was still a Buick, so there were none of the tape stripes and candy-colored paint so common to the genre. Perhaps feeling they were missing a bet, Buick addressed that deficiency with a mid-year limited-edition option called GSX. Introduced at the New York Auto Show in early 1970, the GSX was an appearance package, including front and rear spoilers, black stripes, sport mirrors, and a Pontiac-style hood-mounted tachometer. To increase its visibility, it was available only in Apollo White or vivid Saturn Yellow.

1970 Buick GSX front 3q © 2009 Mitch Prater (used with permission)
Many, but not all, GSXes had the Stage 1 engine, which cost an extra $113.75 (compared to $199.05 in a regular GS455). The four-speed manual transmission was standard, but many buyers ordered the Turbo Hydra-Matic 400 for an extra $42.24. Although the GSX was only offered in Saturn Yellow or Apollo White (referencing the contemporary Apollo lunar missions), some cars were special-ordered in other colors. The bulge aft of the hood scoops is the hood-mounted tachometer, popularized by Pontiac a few years earlier. (Photo: “1970 Buick GSX” © 2009 Mitch Prater; used with permission)

The GSX option was very expensive, priced at $1,195.87 — the price of a decent used car in those days. More worringly, a typical buyer could expect to lay out a similar amount each year for insurance. Many underwriters seemed to consider a car like the GSX an incitement to riot.

Cost — first cost, cost of insurance, cost of fuel — was rapidly becoming the Supercar’s Achilles’ heel. The added complexity of emissions controls, lower compression, and unleaded fuel posed technical challenges, but they were manageable as long as there were still enough buyers to justify the expense. The target market being unable to afford either the cars or the insurance was another matter. By 1970, the most desirable Supercars could easily approach $5,000, far too pricey for any young buyer without a trust fund.

Worse, the market was also a moving target. Unmarried 18-year-old buyers facing the prospect of military service might not think twice about pouring half their income into a hot car, but at 21, fresh out of the Army, newly married, with babies on the way, those same customers had other priorities. Older buyers, the kind who’d bought Super Wildcat Rivieras a few years earlier, could afford the tariff, but were unlikely to appreciate nuclear yellow paint or gaudy tape stripes.

1970 Buick GSX rear 3q 2010 Mopar89 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The Buick GSX was introduced as a mid-year option in 1970 and continued into 1972. Sales were limited indeed: 678 in 1970, 124 in 1971, and only 44 cars in 1972, some of which had the smaller 350 cu. in. (5,724 cc) engine. (Photo: “1970 Buick GSX in Saturn Yellow” © 2010 Mopar89; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)


By 1970, even Supercar stalwarts like the GTO and Dodge Charger were flagging. Considered in that light, the 20,000-odd Gran Sports Buick sold that year was really not bad. In fact, the GS actually outsold the Oldsmobile 4-4-2 for the first time. However, only 678 of those cars had the GSX package. Limited edition or no, it was a sign of how far removed the GSX was from the tastes of most Buick buyers. Given a choice between Pontiac-style performance and pseudo-Cadillac luxury, Buick customers clearly preferred the latter.

COLONNADE

The A-body was slated to be redesigned in 1972, but it was extended an extra year because of a lengthy UAW strike in the fall of 1970. The GS continued, but was no longer a separate model, just an option for the Skylark; 8,575 were sold.

The new intermediates finally arrived in the fall of 1972. Buick abandoned the Skylark name, reviving the old Century badge for the new A-body. It made an interesting comparison with the Century of the mid-fifties — the new car had a significantly shorter wheelbase, but was actually longer overall and about as heavy.

Despite its lackluster sales history, Buick apparently decided there was still a market for the Gran Sport option, which remained available on two-door Centuries. Most had the 350 cu. in. (5,724 cc) small block, although 728 buyers ordered the optional Stage 1 455, now rated at 270 net horsepower (201 kW). Total sales were only about 6,600. Century buyers were more interested in the new Regal, Buick’s answer to the popular Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which sold over 91,000 units in 1973. (Lee Mays, who retired just after the ’73s went on sale, had apparently changed his tune about Monte Carlo-type cars; he later called the Regal his proudest achievement at Buick.)

1974 Buick Century GS Stage 1 © 2010 Dmitriy Leybovich (used with permission)
The OPEC embargo sapped whatever market remained for a Buick Supercar. Total Gran Sport production for 1974 was only 3,355, even though the option cost only $108. Only 478 of those cars had the 455 cu. in. (7,468 cc) Stage 1 engine. By comparison, the Regal sold almost 67,000 units that year. (Photo: “1974 Buick Century GS” © 2010 Dmitriy Leybovich; used with permission)

The 1974 model year was the last hurrah for the 455 in the A-bodies. The OPEC oil embargo began just after the ’74 cars went on sale and only 579 buyers ordered the big engine. The Gran Sport option lingered into 1975, but it was now just a $171 tape-stripe package. The most powerful engine available offered only 165 net horsepower (123 kW).

Despite the OPEC embargo and the demise of its performance models, Buick did quite well throughout the seventies. Sales for 1973 set a new record, more than 820,000 units. The energy crisis caused a brief slump, but by 1976 Buick sales again approached three quarters of a million units.

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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