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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.