My Christmas list will forever include one of the four forward-thinking compacts produced by General Motors in the early 1960s. But my lust is strongest for the special song sung by Buick dealerships in 1962. When I really would rather have a Buick, 1962 is the year.
Much has been written about the development of the B-O-P compacts, here on Curbside Classic and elsewhere; I won’t rehash the details here, especially since we’ve already been inundated with reminders of their frequent Car of The Year accolades. However, I will reiterate that each of them ended up with a rather unique personality–not surprising, since they were conceived during the GM transition that took their brands from divisional autonomy to badge-engineered cloning.
The Tempest, with its flexible drive shaft, Trophy 4 engine, and swing-axle rear transaxle adapted from the Corvair, was the wildest of the bunch. Oldsmobile had hoped to pioneer front-wheel drive with V6 power, but they and Buick ended up producing relatively conventional vehicles.
On the surface they looked like scaled-down versions of their big brothers, but their aluminum V8s and unit construction put the junior Olds and Buick in a different league–and not only from their siblings, but from every other kid on the compact-car playground. As twins often do, each tried a few ways of asserting its own identity, right down to the number of head bolts and the shape of the combustion chambers in their 215 cu in aluminum V8s, as well as the number of gears in the transmission.
One thing they did agree on was offering a line-topping coupe with bucket seats and a little more zest under the hood, something undoubtedly inspired by the 1960 Corvair Monza, which was having a ball at the epicenter of the sporty compact market. As a longtime purveyor of fine things, Buick calibrated a four-barrel carburetor for its Skylark V8, giving it a zippy 185 horsepower, and also stitched together a tasteful interior. Despite a late, mid-season introduction, some 12,000 reborn Skylarks went out Buick showroom doors.
Eventually, the 1962 lineup would expand to include a very handsome convertible, and the V8 would receive an additional five horsepower. While the senior Buicks became dull as bricks for 1962, the Special/Skylarks kept their jaunty flanks for another model year. Also of note is the Car of The Year award-winning Fireball V6. Although not available in the Skylark, you COULD get that rambunctious engine in a lower-spec Special convertible.
For an asking price within shooting distance of your garden-variety Impala Hardtop Coupe with a 283 V8, you could slink into the sexy Skylark with a lighter body, a more powerful V8, and sprightlier performance. While not an overwhelming success, the Skylark held its own in the burgeoning luxury compact market.
If the Corvair Monza inspired the conception of the Mustang, the Mercury Cougar owes a lot to the Skylark and the original Olds Cutlass. Yes, GM responded with their own pony cars in 1967, but the Firebird always remained a few prestige points behind the Cougar. The faux-luxury interior in the Cougar XR-7 seemed more pint-sized Riviera than gussied-up Mustang, leading one to think that Buick threw away an awesome opportunity.
Relatively expensive to produce and not exactly a volume seller, the unibody Special/Skylark was pretty much doomed from the start. Plans to replace them with truly “downsized” big cars in 1964 were solidified after a clobbering at the hands of the new 1962 mid-sized Ford Fairlane further pressured GM to move “bigger.” It didn’t seem to matter that in the ’60s, this was probably as close as Buick would come to offering a balanced, well-rounded automobile that wasn’t the Riviera.
With just under 9,000 units sold new, the 1962 convertibles are somewhat rare beasts. About 2,000 more of the duller-in-hindsight 1963 models went out the door before the Skylark/Special entered puberty (and intermediatehood) a foot longer and 200 pounds heavier in 1964.
Although most reviewers of the day preferred the 1963 styling to that of the previous year, I think it’s fairer to say that the newer models presaged a “Generic Buick” look, which–thankfully–seems to have ended, albeit only because today’s Buicks are essentially Opels with more chrome.
Just about every early-60’s styling trend GM threw at the public (save the Corvair’s character line) has gone the way of the dinosaur. There’s something to be said for Bill Mitchell’s early attempts to meld the flamboyance of the ’50s with the cautious optimism of the next decade. The 1961-62 Buick compacts represent one of most cohesive designs from that transitional period. Although they’re basically 1961 Buicks left in the dryer too long, the absence of two feet of fluff really works. Rarely in the decades to come would the styling of an ordinary Buick convey such an air of sportiness.
Their styling is my only justification for loving these Buicks so much. Yes, I could say that they performed well enough, were well-crafted, and offered interior appointments of timeless elegance–and yes, some of you would refute any or all of those points. To me, however, they illustrate the once-high standard set by even slightly above-average American cars of the day–and that turning away from the qualities that set you apart often precedes a very great fall.