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

WOULDN’T YOU REALLY RATHER HAVE A BUICK?

Buick never entirely gave up on performance models. In the late seventies, it launched its turbocharged V6, which ultimately spawned the fearsome Regal Grand National of the eighties. There was a sporty S-Type Riviera in 1979 and 1980 and by 1983, Buick, now under the leadership of Lloyd Reuss, had launched performance-themed T-Type versions of most of its lineup. Buick also made a new assault on NASCAR in the early eighties with considerable success.

A corporate reorganization pushed the division back toward family cars in the late eighties, but the Gran Sport badge returned in 1991. If the supercharged, FWD Regal Gran Sport of the late nineties and early 2000s was not exactly a muscle car, its performance would embarrass a fair number of its A-body predecessors. Despite all that, when the division recently floated the idea of an all-wheel-drive Regal sports sedan with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, many observers still wondered if it were too sporty to be a Buick.

1996 Buick Riviera supercharged badge
Late-model Rivieras and 1997-2004 Regals could be had with the supercharged version of Buick’s 3800 Series III (231 cu. in.) V6. The L67 iteration found in this 1996 Riviera had 240 net horsepower (179 kW) and 280 lb-ft (378 N-m) of torque.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that branding matters. Pontiac spent decades saying that it built excitement, and many people believed it, although Pontiac built more than its share of underpowered and forgettable cars. When that division’s epitaphs were written last fall, fans remembered the Gran Prix, GTO, and Trans Am, not Pontiac’s staid early-fifties cars or half-baked modern efforts like the Daewoo-engineered Le Mans. Conversely, for all the Grand Nationals and Gran Sports that rolled out of Flint, the image most people still have of Buick is of wafty Roadmasters and block-long Electra 225s.

Some days, life just ain’t fair.

# # #


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this story included the 1970-72 Buick GSX Registry, c. 2008, www.buickgsx. net/, accessed 28 June 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1965-1967 Buick Gran Sport,” HowStuffWorks.com, 25 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1965-1967-buick-gran-sport.htm, accessed 21 June 2010; “Autos: New Driver at Buick,” TIME 27 April 1959, www.time. com, accessed 21 June 2010; Arch Brown, “1970 Buick GSX Stage I: The Velvet Hammer,” Special Interest Autos #146 (March-April 1995), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 110-117; “Buick Wildcat History and Information,” Timeless Rides, n.d., www.timelessrides. com, accessed 28 June 2010; “Car and Driver Road Test: Plymouth GTX,” Car and Driver November 1970, reprinted in Plymouth 1964-1971: Muscle Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2003), pp. 123-127; Terry B. Dunham and Lawrence R. Gustin, The Buick: A Complete History, Third Edition (Kurtztown, PA: Automobile Quarterly, 1987); Jim Dunne and Jan P. Norbye, Buick 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: MBI, Inc./Motorbooks International, 1993); John Ethridge, “67’s vs. 66’s: Engine Evolution Typified by Buick’s New V-8?” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 9 (September 1966), pp. 30-32; Craig Fitzgerald, “1973-1974 Buick Gran Sport,” Hemmings Muscle Machines June 2004; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Tim Howley, “1962 Buick Wildcat: A Buick with Bite,” Special Interest Autos #144 (November-December 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks, pp. 86-93; Pat Harmon, 1973-1975 Buick Century Gran Sport Registry, 19731975centurygsregistry. freehosting. net, accessed 28 June 2010; John F. Katz, “1967 Buick GS 400: The Image Changer,” Special Interest Autos #172 (July-August 1999), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Buicks, pp. 101-109; Richard M. Langworth, “Something Ventured, Nothing Gained: The Story of the 1957-58 Buick,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17, No. 5 (February 2001), pp. 8–21; Richard M. Langworth, James M. Flammang, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great American Cars of the ’60s (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1992); Terry McGean, “1967 Buick GS-340,” Hemmings Motor News May 2009; “Munson Medical Center Receives $500,000 Gift: Helen Rollert-Riordan makes gift in memory of late husband Edward D. Rollert,” Munson Healthcare Regional Foundation, Spring 2004, www.munsonhealthcare. org, accessed 27 June 2010; Tony Nausieda, “History of the Buick Nailhead,” Car Craft February 2009, www.carcraft. com, accessed 21 June 2010; George Nenadovich, “1968-9 Skylark/GS Buyer’s Guide” and “1970-2 Buick Skylark/GS Buyer’s Guide,” Buick Performance, n.d., www.buickperformance. com, accessed 21 June 2010; George Nenadovich and Dave Knutsen, “455 Head Comparison: Regular 455 head, Stage 1 and Stage 2 heads,” Buick Performance, n.d., Buick Performance, www.buickperformance. com/ 455hdcompare.htm, accessed 21 June 2010; Peter C. Sessler, Ultimate American V-8 Engine Data Book: 2nd Edition (Motorbooks Workshop) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1999), pp. 6-19); Jay Storer, “Vintage Buick Nailhead Engines – Buick Nailheads,” Street Rodder, streetrodder.automotive. com, accessed 21 June 2010; Daniel Strohl, “One of…” Hemmings Muscle Machines #17 (February 2005); Jeff Tann, “Building a Better Buick: Performance-Rebuilding a Buick Nailhead,” Rod and Custom May and June 1999; Rich Taylor, “PM Comparison Test: Muscle Then and Now,” Popular Mechanics November 1985, pp. 76-79, 165-167; Joseph D. Turlay, assignor to General Motors Corporation, “Engine,” U.S. Patent 2,856,909 A, filed 12 November 1952, issued 21 October 1958; C. Van Tune, “Retrospect: Buick Gran Sport 1965-1972,” Motor Trend Vol. 46, No. 12 (December 1994), pp. 102–105; and J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980).

We also consulted the following period road tests: Griff Borgeson, “Buick’s New Century,” Motor Life April 1954; Jim Lodge, “Road Test: ’56 Buick Special and Century,” Motor Trend June 1956, “Road Test: Buick Century,” Motor Life March 1955; “The 1956 Buick Century,” Motor Life May 1956; and Jim Wright, “A Wildcat from Buick,” Motor Trend August 1962, reprinted in Buick Performance Portfolio 1947-1962, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); “1964 Buick Wildcat: The Executive Hot Rod — Just the Thing for Tired Blood!” Car Life April 1964; “Buick GS 350,” Road Test June 1970; “Car Life Road Test: California GS,” Car Life June 1967; “Car Life Road Test: Buick GS 400,” Car Life March 1968; “Car Life Road Test: GS 400,” Car Life January 1967; the Cars Staff, “Cars Road Test: Stage 1 GS-400: The Adult Supercar,” Cars July 1969; the Cars Staff, “Cars Road Test: The Electric Banana,” Cars October 1970; Eric Dahlquist, “‘When Better Cars Are Built’…The GS400,” Hot Rod January 1968; “Freeway Flyer: Buick GSX-455 gives performance where once only austere roadability prevailed,” Road Test September 1970; Steve Kelly, “2 Skylark Gran Sports Road Test,” Motor Trend July 1966; Steve Kelly, “Mister Muscle of 1970,” Hot Rod November 1969; Steve Kelley, “Road Test Skylark & GS 400,” Motor Trend April 1967; Steve Kelly, “Stage Left,” Hot Rod February 1972; Bob McVay, “2 Buick Wildcats Road Test,” Motor Trend June 1964; Bob McVay, “Skylark Gran Sport Road Test,” Motor Trend May 1965; Tom McCahill, “McCahill Tests the Buick Wildcat,” Mechanix Illustrated June 1963; “The Feel at the Wheel: A Brace of Buicks: Skylark vs GS 455 Stage 1,” Motorcade March 1970; and Jim Wright, “Buick Skylark Road Test,” Motor Trend December 1963; all of which are reprinted in Buick Riviera 1963-78 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); “6 Super Cars!” Car and Driver April 1966, and “The American Muscle Car,” Road Test June 1967, reprinted in The Great Classic Muscle Cars Compared (Muscle Portfolio), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999); “Car Life Road Test: Buick Skylark & Gran Sport,” Car Life Vol. 13, No. 3 (April 1965), pp. 45–50; John Ethridge, “Ferocious GTO,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 2 (February 1965), pp. 28-32, 52; and “Buick Wildcat,” Car Life Vol. 9, No. 6 (July 1962), pp. 50-53; and Bill Sanders, “Without a Taste of Geritol,” Motor Trend Vol. 22, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 66-68.


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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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