(first posted 11/29/2011) Of all brands that tried to make the name “Special” for its cars actually seem, well, “special,” no one did a better job of framing that name as a unique model better than Buick. But by the end of its life the sparkle and special attention to the cheapest Buick lost its glow.
For a solid twenty years when you bought a Buick Special, indeed, you were buying something “Special.” Special in the way that you were finding the cheapest way into the cachet of the Buick Brand, which still meant a lot in terms of quality and prestige.
By 1958 that meant you got a 18 1/2 foot behemoth that could out glitter just about any Cadillac for a few more dollars than a comparable Dodge. After a blowout of nearly 382,000 Specials alone in 1955, demand for each proceeding and more glittery Special waned. The overtly Special 1958 Special was the last buxom Buick to wear the nameplate.
When 1961 came around, and that special way of luring buyers back into the showroom was needed, the venerable badge showed up again on the new Y body Senior/Luxury Compact. What better way to make such a foreign concept for Buick Buyers (Uni-body construction, Aluminum V8, under 200 inches long) seem so familiar? It didn’t hurt either that the Special looked like a then current LeSabre on a Tab and Cigarettes Diet.
The problem was the new Special wasn’t special enough; well, in regards to comparison to how brilliant the no frills Falcon was shining in the marketplace. So enter the Skylark badge, to refresh memories of a spectacularly glamorous halo convertible from seven years before. As Sport Compacts go, the Skylark did the luxury element best.
Although the Skylark didn’t dominate the proceedings right away like the Monza in the Corvair family did, by 1966 it was definitely the more “Special” of the two A-body intermediates. Only four years after it won Car of The Year for the Fireball V6, the Special was an also ran.
One of the main problems was that it no longer looked “Special.” One of the great things about buying most proceeding Specials was it didn’t look (and perhaps didn’t feel) cheaper than a more expensive Buick. And in some years (but definitely not 1958) the simpler details of the Special were more tasteful and discreet.
Now it was positively dull. Tasteful in that General Motors 1965-67 “Bill Mitchell at his prime” period look that looks pretty handsome without lots of tacked-on details. But why spend the extra money for the plain Special when you could get a more glamorous Chevrolet Malibu Four-Door Hardtop for the same (or perhaps less) money?
The gap significantly closed when Chevrolet fleshed out the Chevelle/Malibu family to similar dimensions as the rest of the A-Body family for 1966. In the first two model years the Chevy A bodies were closer to 195 inches in length, compared to the 202-206 inch spans of the Buick, Olds and Pontiac ones. And all four of the family were available with the fresh air fun of being a Four Door Hardtop.
Sure, you got a superior base six cylinder engine (or am I opening up a new General Motors engine debate?) with the Special. But you still got a two Speed Automatic, although not based in as obsolete school of thought as the Powerglide. The build quality can be assumed to be greater, but with each and every year the gap between the slapdash nature of Chevrolet assembly and Buick Fine Car was getting smaller and smaller.
It can be safe to assume that every last sale of these bargain basement Buicks went to old ladies and widows that knew nothing other than their husbands brought them a Buick Special every three years, and they traded to the next Buick Special three years later. It’s the same concept that weirdly kept Buick alive on a steady diet of The Roach (the A -Body, and lesser extent, W – Body Century) nearly 30 years later.
Which will be an interesting change in the used Car Market even 15 years from now. There won’t be basic, well kept and maintained basic Buicks. None of the current Buick lineup offers this type of car. Craigslist won’t be filled with bench seat barges of all sizes with ribbon speedometers and the smell of stale perfume and pantyhose. And a thick stack of maintenance records.
Are we a better car culture because of this? Or is there some subtle magic, some weird comfort that there’s always some old lady out there with a low mileage Buick for sale for a cool grand – because she had her license revoked due to vision problems – gonna be lost on all future generations of beater shoppers. Only time will tell.