The words “sporty Buick” have never quite rolled off the tongue, but over the years, Buick has produced a surprising number of performance cars, from the speedy prewar Century to the turbocharged Grand National and GNX. From 1965 to 1975, it even offered its own entry in the burgeoning Supercar market: the Skylark Gran Sport. This week, we take a look at the history of Buick muscle and the career of the Skylark Gran National, GS400, GS455, and GSX.
FIREBALL AND NAILHEAD
For more than 50 years, every time Buick has released a performance-oriented model, it’s been greeted with puzzlement, not unlike the public response to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on a late-night talk show in 1992. In a way, that’s odd because Buick has built some of the hottest passenger cars to emerge from any GM division. Buick was an early advocate of free-breathing overhead-valve engines (an arrangement now universal for modern passenger cars) and even set a number of speed records before World War I. As we’ve previously seen, the 1936-1942 Buick Century was one of the fastest American production cars of its day, becoming very popular with hot rodders.
Such feats of speed were not, however, a major part of Buick’s brand image, which focused on a cloud-like ride and posh, Cadillac-like interior appointments. Shortly before World War II, Buick general manager Harlow Curtice even developed a semi-custom Limited model with bodywork by the coachbuilder Brunn, although complaints from Cadillac made it short-lived. The advent of the smooth but slushy Dynaflow automatic in 1948 only cemented Buick’s image as a prestigious but rather staid land yacht, the prototypical doctor’s car.
While Cadillac and Oldsmobile led the switch from flathead engines to OHV V8s in the late forties, Buick was in no great hurry to follow suit, since the division’s big OHV straight eight still equaled the output of the early postwar V8s. Also, a 90-degree V8 would be shorter and lower than a straight eight, but also wider, which presented packaging problems for Buick’s existing cars, designed around inline engines; for that reason, the V8 concepts with which Buick engineers experimented in the late forties had narrow (22- and 35-degree) bank angles. Buick didn’t start production work on a 90-degree V8 until 1950, by which time the division was looking ahead to a newer generation of cars with lower, flatter hood lines.
Despite that slow start, 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. Developed by Joseph Turlay and Verner Matthews, it had a then-unusual pentroof combustion chamber design, which offered the thermal efficiency and short flame travel of a hemispherical combustion chamber with less bulk and weight. Although its valve area was relatively small, the V8 was a free-revving engine, capable of 6,000 rpm in proper tune. The “Nailhead,” as it soon became known due to its nearly vertical valve stems and relatively small valves, was also quite compact and it was one of the lightest V8s of its time: about 65 lb (29 kg) lighter than Cadillac’s V8 and about 110 lb (50 kg) lighter than the Chrysler FirePower, both of which had similar displacement. In production form, Buick tuned the V8 more for torque than outright horsepower, but there was considerable potential. Had it not been for the advent two years later of the Chevrolet V8, which offered even greater potential in a still-lighter, cheaper package, the Buick V8 might have become a favorite of the shade-tree tuner crowd. Even after the arrival of the Chevy small block, there was a brief vogue for the Nailhead among hot rodders like Max Balchowsky and Tony Nancy. Buick even took a brief stab at NASCAR, winning two races in 1955.
Even in pure stock form, the new Buick V8 was formidable enough. By 1954, its second year, it was up to 200 hp (149 kW) and 302 lb-ft (408 N-m) of torque, among the most powerful passenger car engines in America. In 1954, Buick revived the old Century nameplate, marrying the engine from the big Roadmaster with the shorter, lighter chassis of the Special. The Century was hardly a small car, but it weighed more than 400 lb (190 kg) less than a Roadmaster, which made for muscular performance.
The division didn’t go out of its way to promote the Century, or any Buick, as a performance model. Buick subscribed to an older and simpler philosophy: that luxury cars should naturally be able to outrun cheap ones. Even the entry-level Special had fine performance, although its handling was soggy and its brakes were inadequate. That was fine with buyers, who snapped up new Buicks at an unprecedented rate. By 1955, Buick controlled nearly 10% of the American market, selling more than 700,000 cars.
THE ED ROLLERT ERA
Buick’s remarkable success soon slipped a gear. Responding to the increased demand, general manager Ivan Wiles (reportedly with some instigation from Harlow Curtice, who had become president of General Motors in 1953) greatly stepped up production, which had a negative effect on quality control, traditionally a Buick strong point. Customer word of mouth began to sour, exacerbated by unpopular styling for 1957.
Around that time, the U.S. economy began a sharp dip, which combined with heavy-handed design and troublesome new options — the short-lived Air Poise air suspension and complex Flight-Pitch Dynaflow transmission — to turn the 1958 model year into a complete rout. Sales fell to around 240,000 units, less than a third of 1955’s peak. While 1959’s total sales were better — a bit under 285,000 — Buick’s market share slumped to less than 5%.
Ed Ragsdale, who had replaced Ivan Wiles as Buick’s general manager in March 1956, ended up becoming something of a scapegoat for the whole mess. It was true that Ragsdale had been Buick’s general manufacturing manager since 1949 and the decline in assembly quality had occurred under his watch, but the order to increase production had come from Wiles and Curtice, who had also approved the 1957-1958 styling and the use of the triple-turbine transmission — an interesting idea that was probably not ready for mass production. By 1959, though, both were gone. Wiles had retired in December 1957, followed in August 1958 by Curtice, who was succeeded by former Cadillac general manager Jack Gordon. Ragsdale, now lacking management support, retired in 1959, several years ahead of GM’s normal retirement age of 65.
With Buick in such bad shape, its top job was not an attractive post. Candidates knew that if the division collapsed — a real possibility given the magnitude of its decline — it would reflect badly on them. At least one GM vice president allegedly rejected the position when it was offered to him.
In late April 1959, GM announced Ragsdale’s replacement: Edward D. Rollert. Rollert, who’d been at GM since the early thirties, had spent the early fifties as the general manager of the joint Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac plant in Kansas City, Kansas (later the first GMAD plant), where he had supervised its conversion to military production; the Kansas City plant built both cars and the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak fighter. In 1955, GM transferred Rollert to run the Harrison Radiator Division in Lockport, New York, where he had cemented his reputation as an aggressive and demanding leader, one of GM’s rising stars.
When Rollert arrived at Buick, the 1960 models were already done, and the 1961s were close to finished, but no one had much confidence that they would sell. The 1959 Buicks had had all-new styling, bigger engines, a much-improved chassis, a new ad strategy from a completely different ad agency, and even new model names, but it had been to little avail.
Rollert wasted little time in filling Buick’s top slots with his own people, many of them fellow alumni of Purdue University, Rollert’s alma mater. In short order, he appointed Roland Withers as general sales manager, Bob Kessler as head of manufacturing, Gerald Rideout as PR director, and Oldsmobile’s Lowell Kintigh as chief engineer. There was immediate friction between the new arrivals and Buick’s long-time veterans, but Rollert was able to make significant strides in repairing Buick’s tarnished image for reliability, including giving quality control manager John Gretzinger new authority to address problems on the line.
Despite the new blood, 1960 was Buick’s nadir. Sales had fallen to fewer than 254,000 with no signs of improvement and market share didn’t even reach 4% — only half of AMC’s share. Buick’s 1960 models were not bad cars, but the division desperately needed a new direction.
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, include 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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