Curbside Classic: 1962 Buick Special – A Truly Special Buick

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This car may not look it, but the 1962 Buick Special was a groundbreaking car for the entire modern automotive industry.  It wasn’t the car’s compact size or the fact that it was a small car made by an upmarket brand.  The 1962 Special was more special than that.  Give up?  Go past the break and learn why.

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The Buick Special was an institution at Buick long before this car came out.  The original Special was introduced as Buick’s entry-level car in 1936, and kept that place in Buick’s lineup through the 1958 models.  1959 marked a clean sweep through Flint, with a new tri-shield logo and three new models.  The old Special, Century, Super and Roadmaster were gone, at least for the time being.

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About this same time, planning was underway for a radical change in GM’s lineup – the compact car.  Even more radical, a compact would not be limited to Chevy and Pontiac; compacts would be offered at Oldsmobile and Buick dealers as well.  The Y-body platform would be of unit construction and was originally intended to be shared between Buick and Oldsmobile. But Pontiac lacked enthusiasm for the Corvair, and latched onto the Y- body as well for its 1961 Tempest.

We have previously covered the Oldsmobile F-85 (here) and the Pontiac Tempest (here), so today will be the Special’s day to be, well, special.  The 112 inch wheelbase of the Y body made them a bit larger than a typical compact of the times.  The wheelbase would grow to 114 inches in 1964 and be called an A-Body intermediate.  This was a bit less than the original 1936 Special, which was on a 118 inch wheelbase.

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With its 1961 model introduction, the Special would continue the Buick tradition of offering nothing but eight cylinder cars.  But this newest V8 was a bold and fascinating affair, quite unlike anything else made at the time.  It was a 215 cubic inch (3.5 L) unit whose block and heads were made of  lightweight aluminum.  The rated 155 horsepower (190 with optional four-barrel carb) might seem tame, but this was really fairly impressive from the engine’s small size and was well suited for the lightweight car (2666 lbs quoted shipping weight).  This combination (likely with a manual transmission) won the Mobilgas Economy Run for 1961 with an average of 24.7075 mpg.  So much for the old joke about how “my Buick can pass anything but a gas station.”  A slightly revised version of the aluminum 215 with different cylinder heads would power the 1961-63 Olds F-85 and Cutlass as well.

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In addition to the three speed manual, the Special was available with Dual Path Turbine Drive, a two speed automatic with a torque converter.  The car’s low height was made possible by a special two-piece drive shaft with a constant velocity joint, much like the one employed by Cadillac.  Low?  Yes.  Inexpensive to replace?  Uhhhh, no.  In fairness, most Buick customers of that era would not be expected to keep the car beyond five years anyhow, and the CV joint was certainly good for that long.

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OK, you have been exceedingly patient during this long wind-up, so you shall now be rewarded with the reason that made the Special special: Its new engine for the 1962 model, the Fireball V6.  Named after the old Fireball (straight) Eight of the 1930s and 40s, this would be the first Buick with six cylinder power since 1930.  Even more significant, this would be the first American production car with a V6 engine.

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Aaron Severson has a very comprehensive history of this car and its unique engines at AUWM (here).  There, he explains that the V6 was more or less a quick-fix in an attempt to add sales by making the Special cheaper and more economical.   Twenty years later, the quick and easy solution would have been to spray paint a bunch of Chevy 6s turquoise and call it done.  But General Motors of the early 1960s did not work this way.  A Chevy six in a Buick would have been the kiss of death in Buick showrooms in 1962, so the engineers in Flint found another way.  They started with the 215 V8, and by removing two cylinders and by casting the block and heads in cast iron instead of aluminum, Buick came up with an economical six quickly and cheaply.

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The initial displacement through 1963 was 198 cubic inches, and its horsepower rating was 135, only twenty ponies shy of the 215.  The unfortunate side-effect of the engine’s baked-in compromises was that it would of course retain the 90 degree V of the V8.  The result was an engine with an uneven firing order that was, shall we say, not very smooth.  An unusually heavy flywheel and extra soft engine mounts would only partially mask the Harley-Davidson-like power plant shake.  The Fireball was also heavier than the V8 from which it was derived.  However, these compromises had the benefit of getting the V6 from the slide rule to the showroom in only a year.

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The importance of this engine in American automotive history cannot be overstated.  Today, the V6 engine is very much the modern analog to the overhead valve V8 that defined a modern engine a generation ago.  And this little engine was the one that kept the V6 flame burning long enough for the configuration to come into style twenty years later, when its unique combination of good power and small external size would make the V6 a natural in the front drive era.  Who would have imagined in 1962 that this odd, rough little power plant would have the effect on the industry that it did?

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Not Buick, as it turned out, at least initially.  Buick lost faith in its little diamond in the rough and, after the 1967 model run, sold the thing to Kaiser Jeep, which renamed it as the Dauntless.  Later, Buick had seller’s remorse, and bought the tooling back from AMC, which by then had also given up on it in favor of the AMC straight six.  It was Buick’s good fortune that the tooling mounts remained in place on the factory floor, and the production equipment was essentially bolted back down to its original mounts, providing almost instant V6 gratification for Buick.  Slightly enlarged to 231 cubic inches, the former Fireball was back behind the tri-shield emblem for 1975, and the rest is history.  If there is something with a V6 in your garage (OK, something other than an early 60s GMC truck), this car is its progenitor.

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In all, the Special was only modestly successful.  In its first year, the four door sedan sold at a rate of about half that of the corresponding LeSabre, and the addition of the V6 and the upscale Skylark model improved things for 1962, to about 150,000 units.  The ’62 V6 model also earned Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award.  However, 150,000 units was not really a seriously successful car in GM-land in those years.

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Was the “senior compact” Special a good idea?  Chrysler thought not, haughtily advertising that there would be no junior edition to devalue the Chrysler buyer’s investment.  The Special certainly had the capability of being an upscale second car in an era when a second car for the Mrs. was almost never as large or luxurious as the “good car” that the Mr. would drive to the office or the station.

As it turns out, the Y body Special’s only real legacy to GM, America and the world would be its engines.  The aluminum 215 would have its own odyssey to the U.K., where it would have a long and fruitful life powering a raft of cars including Rovers, MGs, Morgans, and Range Rovers.  But its most significant contribution was from the V6, an afterthought of an engine that would eventually become the most influential engine design in the U.S.  Special, indeed.

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