BEFORE BUICK MUSCLE CARS
Like just about everyone else at that time, Buick was caught flat-footed at the dawn of the Muscle Car Era in 1964. At that time, they had a typical mix of full-sized cars designed for an older demographic, and were just starting to experiment with mid-sized cars. But the idea of a “youth market” must have seemed foreign at the time, especially to Buick’s product planners, who generally tailored their cars to an older, more established buyer. In the ascending echelon of GM cars, you were supposed to start with a Chevy, then work your way up to a Pontiac, then mature into a Buick, on your way further upscale to Oldsmobile and then finally Cadillac. So, Buick saw themselves as a more mature, more stately brand, a “gentleman’s car”, but the public saw Buick as “an old man’s car”. That wasn’t a bad thing, considering their self-ascribed mission. But, once the rumblings of “The Youth Market” began to show up, like everyone else, Buick scrambled to answer the call, not wanting to be left behind, in this incredibly lucrative new market.
ABOVE: 1964 Buick Riviera.
BELOW: 1968 Buick Riviera.
BUICK MUSCLE CARS TO BE LUXURIOUS
1964 was a truly watershed year for the American auto industry. It saw the birth of the Ford Mustang, which was the world’s first Pony Car, and the introduction of the Pontiac GTO, arguably the world’s first Muscle Car. The rest of the GM brands were quick to catch on. But rather than just build another stripped down car with a big engine, Buick took a different approach. They would build the world’s most luxurious muscle cars. And that’s just what they did.
ABOVE: 1965 Buick Skylark Convertible.
THE FIRST BUICK MUSCLE CARS
It took until 1965 for Buick to mount a response, and this was in the form of the GS (short for “Grand Sport”) option package for the Riviera and Wildcat lines. But, both were too large, heavy and expensive to truly fit the Muscle Car-mold as established by the GTO and Chevelle SS, which was a small, stripped-down mid-sized car with a big block engine out of a full-size, with some sporty cosmetic cues thrown in. But, by mid-1965 they got it right with the introduction of the new mid-sized Skylark GS, which was based on the same platform as its paternal mid-sized siblings from Chevy and Pontiac.
BELOW: 1966 Buick Grand Sport.
BUICK SKYLARK GS
Starting in late-1965, following the muscle car-formula, Buick stuck a big-block 401 “Nailhead” V8 from their full-sized line into the mid-sized Skylark. Because GM had a ban on any engine displacing greater than 400 cubic inches, Buick wisely renamed the engine the “400”. In this application, it was rated at 325hp. The GS package also included heavy duty suspension, larger and prettier wheels and tires, dual exhaust, and GS emblems galore. Multiple performance upgrades were optional. They replaced the 401 Nailhead in ’67 with a new thinwall-cast 400 V8 making 340hp. The high cost of the GS400 prompted introduction of lesser models, such as the GS340 (rated at 260hp) and the GS350 (rated at 280hp).
ABOVE: 1967 Buick GS400 Convertible.
BELOW: 1968 Buick GS400.
BUICK MUSCLE CARS CROWNING GLORY
With GMs 1970 reversal of its “no engine larger than a 400”-rule, horsepower went through the roof…for one year. Then by 1971, it was over, but that’s another story. The Skylark GS got a 455 V8 with 350 horsepower, or 360hp with the Stage 1 option (thanks to a hotter cam, better valve springs & higher compression). In 1970 Motor Trend Magazine tested a new Stage 1 GSX and blew through the quarter mile in a scant 14.4 seconds, hugely impressive in 1970, but made even more so by the GSX’s 3900 pound weight. Motor Trend pronounced it “the fastest production American car had timed in the quarter mile up to that time”. Not bad.
BELOW: 1970 Buick GS455
MODERN BUICK MUSCLE CARS
Of course, 1971 spelled the beginning of the end of old-time performance. Rising gas prices, escalating insurance costs, smog and safety concerns all conspired to strangle the life out of the American Muscle Car. Compression ratios dropped, and so did horsepower. Detroit was wise to refocus their aim on the new emerging “Personal Luxury Car” market (ie: Riviera, Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, Thunderbird, etc.). Buick was no exception, as its GS line got weaker and more luxury-focused. Muscle Cars were now little more than garish stripe packages. But Buick had one more trick up its sleeve that no one was expecting. While V8s were getting smaller and more anemic by the year, Buick leveraged its racing experience with turbocharged V6 engines, and built a whole new kind of muscle car: The Buick Grand National.
THE BUICK GRAND NATIONAL
Starting in 1984, Buick stuffed a high-performance turbocharged 3.8 liter V6 into the midsized Regal, blacked out the exterior, dolled it up inside, beefed up the suspension, and the Buick Grand National was born. It started out with 200hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, which in 1984 was stellar performance, literally in Corvette-territory. And it only got better. An intercooler was added in ’86 bringing 35 more horses, a zero-to-60 time of a blistering 4.8 seconds, and the quarter mile in just 13.7 seconds, handily beating the Corvette in both measures. The Grand National was red hot, and very popular. It’s hard to imagine today (although lately Buick is making a major comeback), but this was a very desirable, much sought-after car, that would run with the very best high performance cars in the world, and it was built by Buick!