Curbside Classic: 1965 Buick Wildcat – Sabre Tooth Cat Or Dodo Bird?

(first posted 12/13/2011)    What were the sabre tooth cat or dinosaurs really like? We’ll never know what it was like to actually encounter one in the wild. We can re-create them up to a point, and our youthful imaginations can fill in the rest, but it’s never going to be quite the same. Kind of like the Wildcat: a near-mythical creature that’s difficult to fully grasp unless one actually bought one, and just who was that exactly? Who would have actually bought what amounted to a Buick Electra with a veneer of sportiness? I’d ask the man who owned one, but I’m afraid he’s probably extinct too.

The whole premise of the up-scale full-sized sporty car was a fleeting premise indeed. That is, by the time it finally came into being. The original 1953 Wildcat was one of so many GM Motorama wet dream-mobiles. Every division trotted out seemingly endless variations on the format that started with the grandaddy of them all, the Buick Y-Job: “sporty” two-passenger roadsters. That was obviously the car of the future, even if the front end looked like it belonged on a six-passenger sedan.

Since the mid-fifties were the peak reproductive years that spawned the baby boomers, it stands to reason that two-passenger roadsters would be the ideal for a dream car. Dream on indeed, while schlepping the kids to the pool in an elderly Plymouth all-steel wagon.

When GM finally built its first roadster, the Corvette, it quickly realized that the gap between dream and reality was a lot bigger than imagined; and they almost pulled the plug. If Buick was going to really build a Wildcat, it was going to have to be a lot more in the realm of wishful thinking than a genuine dream car.

And so it came, in 1962, along with that host of similar soon-to be extinct stablemates: the Olds Starfire and Pontiac Grand Prix. Well, the GP cleverly evolved into something rather different, but its role was taken over even more briefly by the oddly-named Pontiac 2+2. If ever a car should have been named 3+3, that was it.

And here he is, our mythical Wildcat owner, shown buying flowers for his long suffering wife. Fortunately, his newest able secretary is along to help him make all the right choices.

The 1962 through 1964 Wildcats shared the LeSabre’s 123″ wheelbase, and were of course a higher performance and higher trim version of that bedrock of upper-middle class accountant-mobile. Buick’s “nailhead” V8s in 401 and 425 cubic made sure that it lived up to some semblance of its name.

But in 1965, the Wildcat adopted the 126″ C-body wheelbase of the Electra 225. I know that the black 3-Series convertible isn’t quite lined up in the back with the Buick, but this picture does give some degree of idea what a big car this was: 220 inches, to be precise.

The GM divisions played all sorts of funny little games with their B and C bodies. Pontiac stretched the ass-end on their long-wheelbase Star Chief and Bonneville, as pointed out so painfully here. But as best as I can tell, Buick added its extra three inches in the front end, unless my eyes are playing tricks on me. I’m pretty sure though.  Either way, the Wildcat was hardly lithe.

The 1964 GM A-Body intermediates upset the apple cart when it came to performance cars, so making the ’65 Wildcat even longer and heavier was hardly an issue. It sold well enough, and the profit margins were as big as it was. What’s not to like?

Buick’s styling in 1965 was fairly restrained, given the new Coke-bottle corporate theme. But Buick’s strong horizontal themes rather diminished that somewhat, and the hips just weren’t as big. Muted, understated; just what Buick buyers were happy enough to snap up. The only ambitious aspect was the grille, a remarkable three-dimensional affair, with lots of texture.

Exemplifying the taming down of GM’s big sporty cars were the interiors. Whereas the Wildcat and its ilk were practically defined by the first-time introduction of buckets and consoles on big cars, that period was brief. Within a few years, that was strictly optional. 3+3 seating was back.

Plenty of room in the rear, obviously. Just don’t take it out on the freeway with the top down, if anyone’s riding there, unless they’re into category 5 hurricane-force winds.

Yes, as kids growing up in the sixties, the Wildcat was almost real, yet not quite. We knew they existed, and occasionally saw them, and certainly fantasized over them.  But it was never our parents or their friends that drove Wildcats. Must have lived in the wrong neighborhood. But here’s the living proof that someone did.

Within a few years, the Wildcat was gone, replaced in 1971 by the Centurion. Which reflected a brief muddle on Buick’s part, as that was probably an even scarcer car than the Wildcat. And much more vague in its purpose. The gap between the LeSabre and Electra was soon shrunk anyway.

So what are we left with? Memories of time spent behind one, tooling down I-80 much faster than its chassis, tires and brakes were really designed for. Yes, the Wildcat had some fangs under that long hood. The new 430 cubic inch engine was as fine as any of its kind, and GM finally put a “normal” automatic behind it. How fast would a Wildcat go, flat out? Probably mighty close to 130. Care to find out for yourself?

Its ironic that GM’s cars finally got some decent handling and brakes just as engine power was going down the toilet. But then evolution isn’t always symmetrical, and sometimes results in freaks of nature, evolutionary dead-ends, whose days are short lived.