Today’s Buicks are mostly pleasant, but unexceptional, sedans and SUVs made for the Chinese market (oh, and also sold in the U.S.!). It wasn’t always so. Buicks had an important place in GM’s ladder of brands as the top non-Cadillac. For most of Buick’s history, they were “doctors’ cars”. Classy, luxurious and consistently handsome cars signifying a level of achievement by the owner but not so ostentatious or pretentious as Caddys could be. At least that was the image. Buick got involved in the compact, midsize and muscle car markets, so the image was self-diluted in many ways. Still, it held pretty well until this century, when the Sloan ladder has become more of a step stool. Settle in to see twelve more drool-worthy Buicks I slobbered on during Scottsdale, Arizona’s January auction week.
One thing that stood out at the Barrett-Jackson auction (the most appropriate Arizona auction to sell a Buick at) is that they had a lot of expensive Buicks. Of the 35 at B-J, 12 sold for over $100,000. Buick prices averaged about $10,000 more than Barrett-Jackson’s overall vehicle average ($74,700 vs $65,692).
The 1953 Roadmaster Skylark convertible above exemplified this trend when it sold for $143,000. As I’ve noted in my Olds and Cadillac auction articles, this Skylark was sold individually as one of a set of four cars that were introduced at the 1953 GM Motorama, all running through Barrett-Jackson back-to-back. The Buick was actually the least expensive of those four, but not the least expensive ’53 Skylark there. B-J had a yellow one sell for $73,700 and also a white one sell for $176,000.
I would take the red one as it’s the only one of the three without a continental spare. I much prefer the 1953 model over the 1954 with its enlarged wheel openings and sloped rear deck (like this black one sold at B-J last year). The Skylark was a two year only model that in 1953 was a submodel of the Roadmaster series. I love that Buick’s series were called Special, Super and Roadmaster. Very cool names.
1953 saw the introduction of Buick’s V8, the 322cid “nailhead”, putting out 188hp in the Roadmaster/Skylark. This was a unique and successful design, though at 14 years, not particularly long lived. Paul wrote a CC article on the nailhead several years ago you can link to if you’re interested in the whole story on this unusual engine.
Also noteworthy in Buick’s ’53 line up was the last of the wood-trimmed station wagons. Barrett-Jackson sold this 1953 Roadmaster wagon for $101,200. I was going to put it in my wagon article recently, but decided to hold onto it and put it with the Buicks because it is just so sweet. As with a few other cars in my articles, I did not photograph this one myself because while I was in the indoor tents at B-J at the end of the day, the batteries ran out on my camera and my phone. No matter, these owner supplied pictures show this glorious car well.
Though the structure is steel, all the wood is real. If you want the beauty of a woody, this hybrid approach is pretty ideal. The car is tighter and more practical to use and maintain than the pre-1949 pure woodys, but it still looks amazing. The cars may not have stayed beautiful for long for owners who housed their cars outdoors, but as a pampered collector car now, the wood should last forever.
Buick used the Roadmaster name through 1958, then resurrected it briefly in the ’90’s. I consider it in contention for the Coolest Car Name Ever (and owning a ’96 Roadmaster wagon does not make me biased!). Special and Super also were casualites of Buick’s new 1959 naming system, though Special came back as Buick’s entry level compact and midsize models in the ’60’s. Super has regrettably never reappeared as a separate model, though that’s for the best now as I don’t think Buick has sold a car worthy of the name in many years (there was a Super trim level Lucerne in 2008-11 with a 292hp version of the Northstar V8 and Lacrosse in 2008-09 that had a 300hp 5.3 LS4 V8, which admittedly is kind of super- thanks JPC and WS).
A note on station wagon survival rates. Buick made 1,690 Skylark convertibles for 1953. Barrett-Jackson has at least one almost every year in Scottsdale, and sometimes in their other auctions. Buick made 2500 station wagons for 1953 (Super and Roadmaster combined, all woodys). This is only the fourth 1953 wagon to come up in their auctions since 2001, plus a handful of other ’49-’52 wagons during that time. Perhaps these numbers show owner reluctance to part with their wagons in addition to survival. By the way, that 2001 sale was for $24,200! I wish I could have bought one back then…
Many 1950’s Buick convertibles sell for over $100k, so this 1956 Century convertible looks like a good value at $44,000. It’s not a Roadmaster or a fresh concours-quality restoration, but it’s perfectly suitable for car shows, cruise ins and general driving enjoyment. Those bumper extensions seem to stick out forever!
The styling is unmistakably Buick, with its portholes (or VentiPorts) and side sweepspear trim. Many consider the 1936 Buick Century to be the original muscle car as it was perhaps the first to use the formula that would be commonly used later of putting the engine from the larger bodied models into the smaller body to make a faster car. Dropping the Century after 1942, Buick returned to the original Century formula in 1954. The 1956 Century rode the 122 inch wheelbase B body from the Special, but used the top engine from the 127 inch wheelbase C body Super and Roadmaster, with which it shared its eight proud portholes.
Big fifties steering wheel is present and accounted for. Also common on cars of the era are handsome dashboards, which the Buick certainly has. Speedometer isn’t very sporty but it does have full gauges: fuel, temp, oil and amps.
The Century’s 322cid V8 made 255hp. For the first time since 1921, Buick had only one displacement engine for 1956, available in two states of tune. Specials had a 220hp version while all others got the more powerful version with higher compression and four barrel carburetor.
I’ll bet lots of Curbside Classic readers remember this distinguishing detail on the ’56 Buick. It’s perhaps the only car (along with the ’57) ever to announce exactly what it is on the grille emblem. Buick was definitely proud of their cars at that time, and for good reason. They were awesome!
Buick hit a high water mark in 1955-56 when it held third place in the U.S. auto market for the first time in at least 25 years (thanks JPC), behind Chevy and Ford, but ahead of Plymouth and every other brand. It wouldn’t be until the late sixties that they’d achieve that volume of sales again and after 1956 they wouldn’t hit third place again until 1982. Buick achieved their all time sales high in 1985 (same year as Oldsmobile). Like Oldsmobile, they dropped off quickly after that but never went into Olds’ terminal tailspin in the ’90’s. Around that time, in one of history’s unpredictable quirks, the Chinese discovered that they love Buicks. Today, Buick sells several times more vehicles in China than they do in the U.S. (Additional info from commenters: Buicks have been esteemed by elite Chinese since the early decades of the automobile before the 1949 revolution. That status positioned Buick to sell big numbers as more regular Chinese could buy cars over the last 20 years.)
Proving that auction lightening can strike in the most unexpected places is this 1962 Buick Electra 225 Sport Coupe at Silver. I photographed it because it’s a ’62 Electra, a car not commonly seen and a treat for a Buick lover such as myself. It’s the only one I saw in Scottsdale, not surprisingly. However, the car itself was pretty unimpressive. The seller’s description was minimal, it had cheesy wheels and the paint was very tired looking and worn through in places. It may have been mostly original, but as it sits now is in strictly curbside classic condition.
Barrett-Jackson had a similar car, but appearing in pictures to be much, much nicer, at their 2017 Las Vegas auction that sold for $15,400. Silver never made their results available online, but it was on their top 10 list reported by Hagerty. It was number 3, as a matter of fact, at $76,680! What’s up with that?!
Buick’s entry in the new musclecar category was the Gran Sport, represented well by this 1966 Skylark Gran Sport selling for $33,000 at Barrett-Jackson. The GS was actually introduced as a mid year Skylark option in 1965, then moved to a separate model designation when Buick’s version of the handsome new GM A-bodies came out for 1966. I’m a fan all of the ’66-67 A-bodies, but have always been especially fond of the Buick. It’s a nice, clean design with good flowing lines. Like the other GM intermediates, especially the Oldsmobiles, styling echos its big brothers in the showroom.
Gran Sports in 1965-’66 had the “Wildcat 445” version of the nailhead V8, which was the standard engine on Wildcats and Electras. The last year for Buick’s original nailhead design, it was a 401cid engine making 325hp and 445lbs-ft of torque (hence the name). Through 1966, Buick marketing was very coy about their V8s, always calling them “Wildcat (insert torque rating)” and rarely mentioning displacement. In the era of bigger is better, using the larger torque number just made sense, especially since Buick’s engine put out higher than average levels of torque.
Interior design was likewise clean and tasteful. Full width dashboard is very Buick. The red GS badge was the only difference from regular Skylarks. This car has the optional Super Turbine 300 two-speed automatic transmission, with three-speed manual standard and four-speed available. Bucket seats and console were optional, as of course was this car’s air conditioning.
Buick was not peoples’ first thought when looking for intermediate performance cars, as evidenced by total GS sales of 13,816 in 1966, a pale comparison to the 96,946 GTO’s Pontiac moved. While vintage Buick muscle is still not nearly as common today as are other brands, Barrett-Jackson did also have a 1966 Gran Sport convertible, which sold for $79,200.
An interesting thing I noticed when perusing Buick’s 1966 brochure at OldCarBrochures.com (a great website) is that all their “1966 Tuned Cars” are shown only with women. Nowhere does a man appear. Does that mean they were marketing to men or to women?
After a brief two year dalliance in ’68-’69 with more busy styling, Buick’s midsizers returned to their clean look, exemplified well by this 1971 Skylark convertible at Russo and Steele. Sadly, it was a no sale. I’m guessing that’s due to a high reserve rather than a lack of interest in the car, because it looked very nice. Not a show winner by any means, but a very solid car with no glaring deficiencies that would take away from its being a really fun cruiser.
This car should be a pretty affordable way to get into an attractive, relatively uncommon classic hobby car. Who can resist a red convertible? Value guides say you would expect to pay high teens/low 20’s for an example like this one.
Buick dropped their proprietary V6 after 1967, providing a Chevy I6 standard through 1971 (no six in ’72). This car, however, has the optional Buick 350cid 2-barrel V8 making 230hp backed up by the Turbo 350 automatic. A 260hp 4-barrel version was the only other Skylark option. Even with air conditioning like this car’s, GM engines still looked good and not buried too badly under the hosing.
Apart from the top and interior colors, it looks very similar doesn’t it? A case study in the value of a model and an engine, this 1970 GS 455 Stage I sold at Barrett-Jackson for $170,500. The sale was well above the value guides and even exceeded the two showpiece GSX’s there (a yellow 1970 for $148,500 and a white 1970 for $139,700). Buick muscle cars may be less popular, but that doesn’t mean they are any cheaper.
If you’re looking for a cheap way to get into some Buick muscle, you may consider super sizing it. Russo and Steele had a 1969 Wildcat that sold for only $9,000. A clean driver, it may not have been quite stock as it had a floor shifted manual transmission. Wildcats were only listed as having a column shifted three-speed manual standard, not that very many probably left the factory that way. The only tranny options were autos. This car does have its 430cid engine, which was factory rated at 360hp.
I’m a sucker for full size performance models, so it’s a good thing I didn’t come with any money in my pocket! Those long, long plus-size lines are so comely, for me anyway. GS emblem is owner added.
You’re all probably familiar with this car, Buick’s latter day mid-size muscle hero. Unlike Chevy and Olds, whose Monte Carlo SS and 442 had mildly enhanced versions of their carbureted V8’s, Buick took performance more seriously. They introduced their turbocharged 3.8L V6 for 1978 making up to 165hp, not bad for the time, and committed to continually enhancing it. The-little-engine-that-could gained fuel injection for 1984 and an intercooler for 1986, allowing the Regal Grand National to come into its own as a legitimate modern day performer with power levels not seen since the early ’70’s.
Buick’s ’80’s muscle cars were recognized as special immediately and many were bought as collector cars. So, low mileage cream puff Grand Nationals are a staple at Scottsdale auctions. The 1987 Grand National above had 13k miles and sold for $38,500.
Like most engines in the ’80’s, it wasn’t much of a looker, but unlike most engines in the 80’s, it really brought the goods. The 1986 intercooler put power up to 235hp, then one final boost for 1987 brought 245hp and 355lb-ft of torque (more than the Corvette!). Really impressive numbers for the time, and all out of an engine that in its mild base form made 110hp.
Buick was able to take their pleasantly refreshed and mild mannered 1981 Regal and somehow ingeniously turn it into the menacing, all business ’84-’87 Grand National. I think they absolutely nailed the styling. I love the ’86-’87 wheels and consider this to be one of the best looking cars to come out of the ’80’s. It was hardly modern in 1987, but it looked the part then and I think it still does.
The interior, though, is straight out of 1978 and not in a good way.
This year Barrett-Jackson was something of a 1987 Buick showroom, offering several examples of the final year of Flint’s performance car. Since well-preserved, stock, low mile GN’s are all very similar and fairly common, value corresponds closely and consistently to mileage. This 1987 with 23k miles sold for $31,900. They also had a 1987 with 7400 miles for $42,900 and a 1987 with 5700 miles for $45,100.
If you wanted the ultimate Grand National, B-J had a 1987 GNX, the limited production special edition. 1987 was by far the Grand National’s highest production year at 20,193, though the GNX only saw 547 examples made (most of them probably surviving, in good or better condition). The GNX’s enhanced engine put out 275hp and was said to be underrated. B-J’s example sold for $126,500.
In true ’60’s fashion, Buick also offered the GN’s engine and all the mechanical features as options on the regular Regal. B-J had a very cool, white 1987 Regal Limited with 33k miles. The price of $22,000 seemed like a pretty good deal for a rare semi-sleeper.
Bringing us back to Curbside Classic territory, Russo and Steele’s back field displayed a 1983 Riviera. This one has the XX (20th Anniversary) package. Buick made 502 of these, which were replicas of the convertible Indianapolis 500 pace car, minus the droptop and special engine.
I am a fan of this generation of Riviera. GM nailed the downsizing, in my opinion. They are right-sized for their mission and styling is clean and tasteful and just differentiated enough between divisions for each car to have its own look. I will say that the Eldorado is my favorite of the three, with the Riviera coming second. But the Riv gets bonus points for having reliable, if boring, engines available through the entire run. It also gets more bonus points for the T-type, with it’s crazy-handsome aluminum wheels and turbo V6 shared with the Regal. Not to mention the convertible Riviera. And the super cool optional chromed steel wheels. How many bonus points is that? Maybe it is my favorite after all…
I didn’t catch how many miles it had, but it was in clean driver condition. It was powered by the optional 140hp 307cid V8, which has the right number of cylinders but isn’t a huge power upgrade over the standard 125hp 4.1L (252cid) V6. Buick pretty extensively modified the exterior, with things like real wire wheels, special paint, unique grille, brown window, bumper and rocker panel trim and 24k gold plated emblems.
The biggest modifications were inside. Brown leather had special suede inserts, carpet was extra thick and almost a whole walnut tree gave its life for each car. The E-bodies are always great places for those who love the clubby atmosphere afforded by huge quantities of woodgrain, but the regular cars only required plastic trees to be felled to build the panels. The XX used genuine wood on the doors, dash and steering wheel, suitable for knocking on when trying to pass other vehicles.
The best thing about this uber Riviera? Some brougham lover picked it up for only $4,750. If it was as solid mechanically as it was cosmetically, that seems very reasonable.
Now we start getting to the really good stuff. The ’63-’65 Riviera is on most everyone’s short list of the most attractive American cars of all time. It was Bill Mitchell’s finest hour (which also gave us the ’63-’67 Stingray Corvette). Barrett-Jackson had this 1963 Riviera representing the inaugural model year. It was said to have its original interior and to have been repainted in a non-original pearl white color. While not a blue chip investment, this Riviera would be an enjoyable and affordable way to fill your garage with beauty for $19,250.
This interior shot doesn’t belong to the auction car. Neither this car or the one below had good interior photos online, so I lifted this off the internet. It’s the same color as the auction car, whose interior looked to be in very good condition. I had to throw the interior photo in because, like the exterior, it’s one of the best looking of the era, if not ever. You’ve probably seen them before, but it’s worth looking at an early Riviera interior any time you get a chance. The ’64 is my favorite interior, as it has available real wood veneer panels on the center console to match the door panels. The ’65 does as well, but they changed the dash color from aluminum to black.
This is the auction car’s engine. It is the same 401cid “Wildcat 445” 325hp engine Buick used in the ’66 Skylark GS shown earlier. A 425cid “Wildcat 465” version was available that made 340hp. A nice touch is the finned valve covers, complemented by a finned valley cover running under the intake manifold. Man, they really used to put some effort into making engines good looking. Buicks also sported perhaps the biggest air cleaners ever.
Oh my, we’re getting serious here. You can tell this is the real thing because lesser cars gave it a wide berth out of respect under the tent at Russo and Steele. The 1965 Riviera Gran Sport sold for $97,900 (including buyer’s fees). A high price, but I could totally see paying it. Even more so in person, this black beauty sings a siren song that any man attracted to ’60’s styling would struggle to resist. I wasn’t even there to buy and I had a hard time walking away from it. That guy in the photo was standing there for a long time, too.
1965 changes were not real significant for the last year of the Riviera’s first generation. Most obvious was moving the headlights outboard of the grille, stacked and concealed behind doors at the end of the fenders. Taillights were moved into the bumper and the fake side vents were removed in favor of smooth sides. All this gave the ’65 a slightly cleaner look, which is why it’s the favorite of the first gen years for many folks.
1965 was the first year for a Gran Sport option on Buick’s flagship. The package included the “Super Wildcat 465” 360hp dual 4-barrel carb 425cid engine (optional on non GS cars), larger (2 1/4 vs 2 in) exhaust pipes, 3.42:1 limited slip axle, and engine dress up. Special hubcaps were standard, but most are seen with Buick’s beautiful trademark five spoke chrome wheels. An optional ride and handling suspension was available (on all Rivieras) that dropped the ride height by one inch. Despite the Gran Sport option not being extremely substantive, the ’65 GS is the most coveted first gen Riviera and accordingly the most expensive.
If this immaculately restored Riviera wasn’t expensive enough for you, Barrett-Jackson had a red 1965 Riviera GS that sold for $117,700.
That does it for the Buick highlights. Except for one car. That one I will write up in a separate article running tomorrow, because I am declaring it to be my favorite car of all I saw in Scottsdale.