This post is about Buicks. So, what are we doing at the drag strip? Well, the 1960s and 1970s represented the muscle car era and everybody wanted to play, even Buick. Buick’s corporate image wasn’t exactly performance oriented. In fact, it was anything but. But the muscle car wars caused a lot of weird things to happen, among Detroit’s auto makers and not even Buick could overlook a fired up youth market with thousands of dollars to spend on cars that would give them a good old stop light rocket ride. If Buick was going to play in this market, though, they were going to do it their way. Welcome to the wonderful world of going fast in luxury.
The Buick Reputation
In the annals of American motor sports, you won’t find the name Buick mentioned very often. With a few notable exceptions, those luxury cars from Flint, Michigan have always been more associated with the good life. Buick’s reputation for luxury and quality isn’t lost on auto restorers like Lee Hurdelbrink. “I think the Buicks have always had that reputation of being a quality car and a style car all the way from the 20′s on up and when you get to the 60′s it was the same thing. It was just about near the top of the line of General Motors, just underneath the Cadillac and the quality of the finish, I think was done a little better than maybe on some of the other GM cars.” Buick fought it out with Cadillac and Lincoln for the luxury car dollar. And Buick’s management couldn’t have cared less about the performance car market. Their customers were prosperous adults, looking for an up market car. Definitely not 18 year olds with an after school job and a heavy right foot.
But there was a phenomenon happening in America in the sixties that no one could ignore. America’s youth were becoming a major consumer force. Two of GM’s divisions were the first car makers to capitalize on this. Buick’s management wasn’t crazy about going after the youth market but they could read a balance sheet. When Pontiac sold almost 32,000 GTOs in 1964, the folks in Flint decided that this bandwagon might just be worth climbing on, even if it was a little noisy and undignified.
The 1965 Buick Gran Sport
When Buick got into the muscle car game, one thing was for sure: Buick’s muscle car would be all Buick and as everybody knows, Buick is where better cars are built. Thus was born, the Skylark GS.
“When Buick released the Gran Sport in 1965, it was a rush to market product to compete with the GTO. You gotta remember that Pontiac literally caught everybody asleep when they came out with the GTO and everybody scrambled to come up with a car or a package similar to the GTO. Buick’s version was called the Gran Sport. It was based on the A body, just as the GTO was. It had a little better trim package, was based on the Skylark model, little bit of trim package. ” Said Paul Zazarine of Amos Automotive Publishing.
Muscle cars are made by putting big engines in lightweight bodies. In Buick’s case, that body was the Skylark. It was budget priced compared to the bigger Buick but it had the full range of options, trim, and luxury items found on most other high line cars. Where most intermediates might look and feel a little economical, the Skylark always felt like a bigger car.
“The interior on this model could be purchased with all vinyl or with the cloth and vinyl and this is the cloth and vinyl and it’s held up very well and so it looks just like it did when it came out of the shop in ’65. A little more attention to detail and a little more attention to style.” Explained Lee Hurdlebrink, referencing his Skylark. Buick also had the other components they needed. The 325 horse power, 401 cubic inch Wildcat engine. The 401 was a bit long in the tooth by now, tracing its roots all the way back to 1953. But in a 3500 pound car, it had enough oomph to get the job done.
Elucidating on the Skylark, Paul Zazarine said: “Buicks were essentially known as nail heads because the valves were so small in diameter. So the car was at a distinct disadvantage right from ’65 until the late 60′s.”
“The old nail head 401 was not developed as a performance engine. But it had to have a lot of torque to get these big cars down the road. Well, the younger guys found out that it also did pretty good wheel spins. And that made for a pretty impressive display at the drive-ins on Friday and Saturday night. ” Said Tom Shaw of Musclecar Power Magazine.
“A friend of mine in ’65 had- his dad had a ’65 Gran Sport and we used to love to get it out on the highway. It had two speed automatic and it wouldn’t come out of low gear, which is first gear, ’til 105 miles an hour. We had a lot of fun with that one, too.” Recalls Don McIntosh of Marietta, Georgia.
All Gran Sports were built on the Skylark convertible frame: a more rigid , heavy duty chassy than the hard top frame. The Gran Sport option package also contained upgraded brakes and suspension, wide tires and wheels and those all important GS badges everywhere. The GS option added $200.53 to the cost of the Skylark in 1965 and since the GTO and the 442 had been so successful with a little over the top marketing, Buick’s ad men tried a little hot rod advertising of their own.
“The ’65 Skylark GS was a big departure for Buick and so was the advertising campaign that the car appeared in. The ’65 ad called the Skylark JS a ‘howitzer with windshield wipers.’ Buick knew the market they were going after.” Remarked Tom Shaw.
Buick sold 15,780 Skylarks in 1965, roughly one fourth the number of GTOs sold that year. In a company like GM, though, where success is measured by selling hundreds of thousands of cars per year, it was plain to see that Buick’s main emphasis was still on the big luxury models.
The 1967 Buick Gran Sport
The GM intermediates were due for another redesign in 1966 and muscle car buyers flocked to the showrooms. The ’67 Gran Sports could have been called more the same only faster. With minor trim changes, the ’67′s looked like the 66′s but there were major developments under the hood. The nail head was gone. For 1967, Buick’s engineers rolled out their brand new 400 cubic inch engine. Still following the decades old Buick philosophy of producing horsepower at low RPMs, this engine was rated at 340 horsepower and 440 foot pounds of torque at 2800 RPM with a single four barrel Rochester Quadrajet Carburetor.
The two speed Buick super turbine 300 automatic transmission was finally laid to rest, replaced with a much heavier duty turbo hydromatic 400 three speed. The standard rear axle ratios were still the very Buick like 278 with the automatic and the 323 with a four speed. Assuming you could get a four speed, that is. Don McIntosh found out just how difficult it was to get a Buick GS with a four speed transmission: “I went to every Buick dealership in Atlanta trying to buy this car and no one had one on the lot and no one would special order it for me. They all said that they couldn’t order a four speed car. I was willing to put money down on it. And it finally came to the last dealership and my last hope was D.L. Claiborne and it was far from my house but the young saleseman said he’d be glad to take my order and I knew exactly what I wanted. As a matter of fact, they even had the order filled out.”
The 1968 Buick Gran Sport
The redesign of all of GM’s intermediate cars for 1968 caught everyone by surprise. Buick reasserted their luxury and high style heritage and sales showed the GS to still be a popular car with fans of going fast luxuriously. 26,345 people slapped down the close to $4,000 sales price and those that ordered liberally from the option list for things like four season air conditioning, power windows, and all the other creature comforts pushed their final drive out price into the stratosphere. After all, we’re talking Buick here. This was no stripped down economy car.
“It has an AM/FM original radio, an AM/FM eight track. A speed minder. This car may be really more unique than actually was recorded.” States car enthusiast Jack Holding of Dover, Florida. With a GS you could have all the luxury options and still have all the power you wanted. “The car is phenomenally powerful. You just have to watch yourself because with the four speed the wheels will just spin.” But the big news for the Gran Sport wasn’t the new spin in ’68. It was the new heart in ’69.
If you thought muscle cars had been a big hit with everyone up until now, 1969 hit you like a runaway freight train. Out on the street it was a nightly game of King of the Hill. Buick had been holding up it send of this game for the past three years and doing quite well, even though GS owners still had to put up with people constantly asking them, “Hey, what kind of car is that?” Buick solved this identity crisis with a large dose of marketing hype and muscle to back ti up. “People would pull up alongside of me all the time and think this was an Oldsmobile or a Chevelle or whatever and finally when I tell them it was a Buick they say, ‘Buick?!’ and when we would run, they understood that the car was a lot faster than they ever imagined.” Remembers Don McIntosh.
In March of 1969, Gran Sports with a stage one option package started appearing in the showrooms. “The GS 455 stage one was unlike anything that had come before. One of the magazines of the day said that it if you put GTO sheet metal on this thing, you couldn’t build enough of ‘em.” Says Tom Shaw.
The stage one option was the source of all this extra horsepower. A new cab shaft and a tricked up Rochester quadra jet provided much better breathing on the intake side. And a shot of cold air came from a new hood with cold air intakes flung directly to a new air cleaner. On the exhaust side, two and a quarter inch dual exhaust pipes ran all the way out the back and a very un-Buick-like 364 to one axle ratio was standard in the positraction rear end. Buick claimed just a 10 horsepower increase with a stage 1 from 340 to 350 but in actuality it was quite a bit more than that. Buick kept right on with their philosophy of building engines to make good usable street horsepower. The Stage 1 was a perfect execution of that philosophy. Word travels fast on the street and very soon everyone knew about the Stage 1′s. If you lined up against one of these, you had your work cut out for you. Stage 1 400s propelled the GS to quarter mile times in the low fourteens on street tires. On slicks, with open exhaust, high 13s were a done deal. And if you could find any speed parts for the Buick engine, mid to low 13s were right there. The problem was, there wasn’t any speed equipment being made for Buicks.
According to Don McIntosh, “Performance parts were not available for Buicks, the only thing that Buick offered over the counter was the CAM shaft and the heads.”
And, according to Paul Zezerine, “The Stage 2 heads, which were some beautifully engineered, beautifully designed heads that flowed exceptionally well, all of a sudden you’ve got a Buick that’s going out of the drag strip and just cleaning house. It was not unusual to see these cars in the 13s with just a little bit of tweaking.”
The 1970 Buick Gran Sport
1970 was a watershed year for the auto industry in America, particularly for those building high performance car, which was practically everybody. The lid had blown off on engine sizes, Ford had their Boss 429, Chrysler had their 426 Hemi, Chevy had their 454, and Pontiac, Buick, and Olds each had their own version of the 455. And you could still get premium case for around 30 cents a gallon. It was the best of times. In 1970 the Wildcat engine was punched out to 455 cubic inches and the stage 1 heads and the other GS goodies were added.
Gran Sport really came alive with the 1970 with the invent of the 455. Here was an engine that put out 410 foot pounds of torque: more torque than a Hemi. The Stage 1 455 was rated at 360 horsepower at a typically conservative 5000 RPM and produced an astounding 410 foot pounds of torque, the most torque of any American production car ever. This was the ultimate Buick muscle engine.
Even with a Stage 1 455s astounding performance, the magazine writers called the car a sleeper. Buick owners wondered, “What do we have to do to get some respect around here?” So after five years of building Gran Sports, hundreds of thousands of cars sold, Buick finally got into the image game. They called it the GSX and it was a bona fide in your face road rocket.
“Image was a big part of the muscle car scene. And the Buicks to this point had been very sedate. Tame colors, low key badging on the exterior, but with the GSX, that changed. Big Saturn yellow paint job, bright wheels, big hood scoops, loud stripes. This was unlike any Buick that had come before.” Said Tom Shaw.
“The GSX was probably one of the best packaged and balanced muscle cars that came out of Detroit. Not only did it have a pretty intensive graphic package and small wing in the back. It also had better suspension and that was one of the things a lot of people overlooked, was how well engineered the suspension and brakes were on the GSX, so whereas a lot of companies were putting graphics and pop art decals and what have you on the car, Buick was putting some serious engineering underneath, too. And you really have to give them credit for that.” Explained Paul Zazarine.
Like the GTO judge, the GSX was an appearance and performance option to the base Gran Sport, the first thing to go was all the corny Buick side trim and the fake portholes. Next, they opened up the wheel wells to accommodate some serious rubbers. An entire aerodynamics team went to work designing a real spoiler for the GSX that not only looked cool but actually worked. In 1970, nothing said muscle like an outrageous paint scheme so the GSK was offered in just two colors at first: Saturn yellow or Apollo white. The car’s graphics featured a broad black stripe running from the font fender down the flank of the car and up over the rear wing. A black out hood treatment with an 8000 RPM hood tack and G60 15 Goodyear polyglass rubber were standard. Collectively, the entire package made the statement, “I’m for real.”
Other than the wild paint and graphics and the GSX badges in the grill and on the rear quarters, no other identification appeared on the car’s exterior. Not that any was necessary. The GSX set an all new standard of brand identification among American muscle cars. Still, the Buick standard of quality and luxury was there, along with the stripes, the spoilers, and the wide wheels, the GSX enjoyed the reputation of luxury associated with Buick’s top of the line cars.
As the performance decades came to a close in the early seventies, gone were most of the really exotic high RPM cars. But the ’71 Stage 1 455 with lower compression still had the power to create 13 second quarter miles. At the same time, conspiracy was afoot in the land. Its target: the American muscle car. But nobody would ever consider a Buick distressed merchandise. Despite its performance, Buck’s heritage was quality and luxury and there were advantages to not being so bold.
Don McIntosh gets a bit wistful when he remembers how insurance prices soared at the beginning of the 1970s: “The Hemi Cuda, I really wanted one bad but I found out that the insurance was going to cost me $1200 a year and this was back in 1970. I couldn’t hack it. It was $257 a year for this.”
Restoring a Buick Gran Sport
All over America today, people come out to appreciate these great muscle cars. It’s a chance for them to relive their youth and pass onto the next generation a piece of history.
Lee Hurdlebrink explained the process of restoring a muscle car, saying: “I think, first of all, you’ve gotta like cars and have some interest and be able to do some of the work yourself and basically it’s a labor of love, once you start a project like this, you’ve just gotta carry it through and not try to rush the project. This one took 30 months, it was done mostly on the weekends in my garage and I didn’t try to press it to get it done in any special amount of time, but I wanted it done right and I wanted to find the right parts, so I’d wait until I got the right parts before I finished the project.”
Perhaps because they were such sleepers or because Buick never built them in very great numbers or perhaps because they were just such fine automobiles, today Gran Sports are more than muscle cars, they’re classics.
Paul Zazarine stated, “I think that the ’70 Gran Sport Stage 1, I think the GSX are two very, very popular cars. Very good restoration candidates and I think that they will continue to appreciate in value.”
Steve Schlater found this ’71 convertible and he and his father restored it to original condition. “The car sat for many years with the top down and stay in the garage and was used, basically, as a storage bin. We looked at the floor pans, the floor pans were in excellent condition, the bottom of the doors were in real good shape. Had a little bit of rust on the quarters, which is typical for a Buick. Our goal was to get it up for the Buick GS Nationals, which was the first of May. We broke the motor in on the way down there and we won first place and the 1971 Buick GS convertible class. Getting out, driving it, and being able to mash the accelerator down and just filling the noise, the wind, is just what a feeling! You know, you get a lot of attention with the different people looking at it. It’s just a blast.”
The GS was a wonderful contradiction: awesome speed and opulent luxury. The kind of car only Buick could build. Buick’s guarantee never changed. If you drove a Buick, you drove class. Like they said, wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?
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