Four summers ago, I was back in my good, old hometown of Flint, Michigan for my twenty-year high school reunion. I realize I name-check the Vehicle City often. If I had to do consecutive, nonstop pushups right now numbering each time I’ve written the word “Flint” in a post for Curbside Classic since becoming a contributor a couple of years ago, I probably couldn’t do it. No matter. It ain’t the prettiest town in the United States, and the flow of GM money through this area has been reduced from a river to a creek, but Flint is, and will always be, the place I consider homebase and such a big part of my identity.
During this particular reunion weekend celebration with fellow Flint Central High School alumni, so many memories came flooding back. Little treasures like the sight of this ’69 Skylark seemed to materialize from out of nowhere, and it wasn’t even during the week of one of several, annual car festivals that happen within city limits during the summer season. This example is one of just over 6,500 Skylark Custom convertibles built for the model year. All ’69 convertibles were Customs, and prices started at $3,152 (about $20,500 in 2016). Buick’s 230-hp 350 V-8 was standard on the Custom, propelling the convertible’s starting weight of roughly 3,400 pounds.
This particular Skylark seemed to be a darned-near perfect metaphor for Flint at present: looking more than a little busted and needing major work, but mostly complete with good bones and definitely, and without question, worth saving. “Flint” and “Buick” had been synonymous for almost a century. Though Buick had been founded in Detroit in 1899, it was headquartered in Flint from 1904 for over 90 years before moving back to Detroit in 1998.
It’s a tricky and complicated thing, Flint’s relationship with Buick (and with General Motors). How does one remove that part of one’s cultural identity that is inextricably tied to a corporation that defined so many aspects of the community’s collective psyche, once that company has largely shut down operations in the area? GM’s mark on Flint is like a tattoo of an ex that cannot simply be lasered off, and the remaining GM jobs are like spousal support on which the city is still somewhat dependent. No fewer than four major factories (including Flint East pictured above, née AC Spark Plug) that collectively used to employ tens of thousands of people have ceased to exist. Many smaller, peripheral businesses and jobs have also disappeared, failing when the income just wasn’t here anymore.
To be clear, I am not trying to establish causation or spark a political debate. Qualified scholars (versus mere car-enthusiast bloggers like me) have written about the downfall of the American working class, and that’s not my intent here. The war between the right and left halves of my brain is conflict enough for me on most days. It’s just that the sight of this Skylark resonated with me emotionally and got me thinking. This car, in many ways, seems to embody where the birthplace town of General Motors has been – and also the possibility of what could yet be.
It’s true that I’m blinded by emotion when it comes to Flint. It’s that lack of completely rational thought that makes me entertain occasional thoughts of moving back to a place which clearly isn’t the same as it was twenty-five years ago when I last was a citizen there. Would it be this same kind of blind love that would make someone see the potential in this ’69 Skylark – seemingly the least popular of its A-Body siblings in this particular model year – and commission or commence a frame-off restoration?
The cost of sending this Skylark to the shop for a thorough rebuild could very well end up being more than the car would ultimately be worth on the market. Such a purchase and project would have to be spurred by emotion, as many classic car purchases are. Flint is in the middle of its own partial restoration: a gargantuan project of having many of its old water pipes replaced – pipes that had been leaching lead in toxic levels into the homes of its residents. I do realize that the difference here is that while the restoration of this car might be a labor of love, the restoration of Flint’s water system and clean drinking water for its residents is an absolute necessity.
That said, this generation of Skylark has always seemed to me to have the most “feminine” styling among the GM intermediates of its day. Of course, cars, being manufactured objects, are gender-neutral, but there’s a flowy grace and bird-like daintiness in the Skylark’s curves that, to me, do not suggest automotive aggression as convincingly as the lines of a comparable Chevrolet Chevelle, Pontiac LeMans, or Oldsmobile Cutlass (in no particular order). This Skylark – she’s a lady.
And boy, does this Skylark ladybird look a little sad. It looks mostly complete, and from its outer body panels, it doesn’t look like there’s much (if any) rust, and it’s dent-free. It’s sitting on what appears to be Pontiac Rally II wheels, and the top looks in good shape. I wonder how well she runs, and I have forgotten the asking price. When I’m home in Flint, I like to patronize older, established diners and restaurants in the Flint area. I always hope to overhear conversations of long-time residents – former “shop” guys who used to work at one of the seven factories, or small groups of older, fancily-dressed ladies who never miss their weekly lunch appointment.
In fact, that’s what this Skylark really reminds me of: a fancy, mature-aged Flint-lady. Her white top is like a bonnet on her curly, coiffed beehive hairdo. She remembers the high times of shopping downtown on South Saginaw Street, and of top-floor dining at the University Club at the recently-imploded Genesee Towers skyscraper. When I look at pictures of this car, I’m filled with profound longing: hoping for its restoration as well as that for my hometown, and just for the ability to go home someday. Both projects are going to take some major elbow grease, but that’s what my townsfolk have always been known for.
All photographs taken by the author in East Flint, Michigan, in August 2012.
Related reading on the ’69 Skylark from Tom Klockau: Curbside Classic: 1969 Buick Skylark Custom – No, It’s Not A Chevelle….