While the Pontiac GTO is often considered the first muscle car, 25 years earlier it was Buick, not Pontiac, that set the pace as America’s leading purveyor of speed and style, offering the fastest production sedan in America: the 1936–1942 Buick Century. This is its story.
Pity the second-generation Chevrolet Camaro. Born late — a delivery fraught with complications — it was nearly snuffed out in adolescence. Although it survived to a ripe old age, the second-gen Camaro has never inspired the same nostalgia as its beloved 1967-1969 predecessor, perhaps because it arrived in the fray of one of the most contentious public debates of the 20th century: the battle over automotive emissions and the use of lead as a gasoline additive. This is the story of the 1970-1981 Chevrolet Camaro and the rise and fall of leaded gasoline.
From the “what tangled webs we weave” department comes this odd tale of how Buick’s efforts to build an economy car in the early 1960s gave birth to the premier British hot rod engine and a V6 that was still powering new GM cars some 45 years after its original demise. This is the story of the 1961-1963 Buick Special and Skylark, the aluminum Buick / Rover V8, and the long-lived GM 3800 V6 engine.
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Bill Mitchell, styling chief of General Motors from 1958 to 1977, presided over quite a few hits and a number of duds in his long career. Some of those designs still spark controversy — few as much as this one. Critics were divided on this design when it first appeared and even today, there’s a love-it-or-hate-it attitude toward it. This week, the history of Buick’s infamous 1971–1973 “boattail Riviera.”
NOTE: This article, originally written in 2007, was revised extensively in November 2010 to correct a number of factual errors.
This car’s engine has been much maligned and its muscular styling still conjures up bad memories of gold chains and exposed chest hair, a last gasp of disco-era glory. It was Pontiac’s first turbocharged production car, but it also brought down the curtain on a storied era of unique Pontiac engines. This is the story of the little-loved, often-forgotten Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Turbo.
For more than half of its 80-year history, the Pontiac Division of General Motors has tried, with varying degrees of success, to present itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, with an advertising tagline proclaiming, “We Build Excitement.” Once upon a time, however, Pontiac was a stolid, sensible, rather dull family car whose claim to fame was that it was “priced just above the lowest.” To see what Pontiac used to be before Bunkie Knudsen went racing and John DeLorean twisted the tail of the Tiger, let’s take a look at the 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Chieftain — the last boring Pontiacs.
What does nearly every car produced anywhere since the days of the Model T have in common? Other than wheels, it’s the inevitability that sometime, somewhere, somebody has stuffed a small-block Chevy V8 into it. We’ve yet to hear of a V8 Prius and there might be a Russian ZiL or two that remains innocent of the Mouse Motor, but everything else from ’32 Fords to RX-7s, has at one time or another had the ubiquitous Chevrolet engine stuffed under the hood — or wherever else it might fit.
The author recent met some of the members of the South Coast CORSA (Corvair Society of America) chapter and had a chance to see some of the cars owned by the members. Aside from Greg Vargas’s cherry black Monza (pictures of which appeared in our recent Corvair article), we also came face to face with a highly unusual example of the Corvair breed: Chuck Rust’s Crown V8 Corvair, a car that is no longer quite a Corvair, but a Corv-8.
From 1958 to 1977, the head of General Motors Styling was William L. (Bill) Mitchell, protégé and anointed successor of the legendary Harley Earl. Mitchell was just as contentious and flamboyant as his mentor, but his tastes were somewhat more restrained, bringing about a new era of crisp, confident styling that was perfectly suited to the prevailing mood of the early 1960s. One of the best designs of Mitchell’s tenure — and one of his personal favorites — was the 1963–1965 Buick Riviera, a stylish coupe that finally put GM on the map in the lucrative personal luxury market. But if things had gone according to plan, the Riviera wouldn’t have been a Buick at all, and it came to market only after a strange and complicated journey of missed opportunities, corporate politicking, and sibling rivalry.
For nearly five decades, Cadillac was the standard-bearer for luxury cars in America. That dominance was not won through technical innovation or forward-thinking product development, but through styling leadership. Although the division produced some gorgeous cars in the early thirties that are acknowledged as classics, Cadillac’s position as a true styling leader can be traced to one car: the 1938-1941 Cadillac Sixty Special. This enormously influential model was laden with then-radical features that have since become the industry norm. The Sixty Special also launched the career of William L. (Bill) Mitchell, GM styling chief Harley Earl’s eventual successor and one of the most influential men in the history of the American automobile. This is the story of the Sixty Special.
Thirty years ago, many believed this car would be the last American convertible. It wasn’t, but it did mark the end of the line for that uniquely American concept: the full-sized open car. This is the history of the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
Designing, building, and marketing new cars is expensive, even for the largest automakers. If they’re strapped for cash (e.g., BMC in the fifties and sixties) or overcome by hubris (e.g., General Motors in the eighties), it’s tempting to share platforms between models or even slap a new grille a new badge on an existing model and pass it off as a new product for a different division — a technique sometimes called badge engineering. As confusing and potentially alienating as badge engineering can be for consumers, imagine how the people at their divisions feel when they’re handed an existing product and told to make something new and different out of it. Such was the case with Pontiac’s “pony car,” the 1967–1969 Pontiac Firebird and Firebird Trans Am.
Nobody, least of all Ford, expected General Motors to take the success of the Ford Mustang lying down. Still, it took two and a half years for the General to field its challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, and despite the Camaro’s fresh styling, a broad selection of engines, and a blinding array of options, the Mustang outsold it two to one.
If they couldn’t beat the Mustang on the showroom floor, Chevrolet decided, they would at least beat it at the track. GM was not officially in racing, but that didn’t stop Chevrolet engineers from concocting a fearsome homologation special to qualify their new baby for Trans Am competition: the Camaro Z/28. This is the story of the 1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro and Z/28.