Car Show Classic: 1963 Buick Special Sedan – What I Say, What I Do

Everyone is to some degree a hypocrite, although some forms of hypocrisy are admittedly harmless.  Take mine, for example.  Much of my automotive picture catalog consists of wallflowers, oddballs, four-door sedans, and the one-time mundane, including this fantastic 1963 Buick Special.  My garage on the other hand is rife with two-door hardtops and convertibles, with only one exception (the Dart wagon).  Therefore, the wide chasm between what I ogle at shows and what I take home smacks of false pretenses.

I too own a Buick Special (seen here).  Of course, nice ’53 Special sedans are out there, but I fell in love with this one: a 45R Riviera, Buick’s code for a Special two-door hardtop.  It’s not as practical as the sedan, but when I roll all four windows down it simply looks spectacular, if you like cars from this era.  You may not like cars from this era, but it’s hard to deny that my hardtop is flashy – you can see why someone hung onto it for years (I’ve had it for 18 years myself).  Of course, I’ll take pictures of hardtops and convertibles at shows, but more often than not, I’m racing toward the well-preserved sedans and four-door hardtops.  Few saved them, so it’s a special treat to see one that’s been cared for.

Such is the case with this ’63 Special.  It’s a sedan in Bronze Mist, an inexpensive Buick in an inoffensive color intended to reliably get you back and forth to work, perhaps even at the Buick plant.  A glamour boat it is not.  But I ran around this thing like an idiot, taking pictures, delighted that it still exists.  Seeing great old Buicks is nothing new in Flint where they were built, but it never gets old for an inveterate Buick lover such as myself.

I too own a ’63 Buick (seen here).  It is at the other pole of the Buick lineup from the Special, one of the most expensive Buicks one could buy and certainly one of the best-looking American cars of the 1960s.  It also might be one of the most commonly seen 1963 Buicks today, since many buyers took care of them from new.  They were costly and coveted, and therefore they are arguably not as rare an event as the Special sedan is today.  But is it a Special sedan that I coveted for years?

Perhaps it should have been.  I sometimes think about how much money General Motors spent on dead ends in the 1960s.  The platform for this Special, along with its Tempest and F-85 contemporaries, hung on for a mere three model years, earning a major restyling for the third.  General Motors knew they were completely revamping their compacts into body-on-frame intermediates in 1964, and they still spent the money on a total reskinning for the unit-body compact’s ultimate interpretation.  Perhaps the most attractive of the three model years, the ’63 Special is Mitchell-era clean in a compact package that is perfect for just driving around, enjoying the old car life.  And it has traditional Buick ventiports, which is more than I can say for my Riviera.

The highlight of this Special, however, is its engine, the 198 cubic-inch “Fireball” V6.  This is another example of what could have been a dead end but wasn’t.  According to Norbye and Dunne’s Buick: The Postwar Years, Edward Rollert (Buick’s General Manager) asked his powertrain engineers to design a cheaper engine for the Special, since its expensive aluminum 215 wasn’t (go figure) as profitable as it could have been.  The odd-fire V6 was a compromise in many ways, but Buick engineer Joe Turlay had already done the math, allowing Buick to tool up and introduce it as standard in the Special for 1962, an unbelievably short amount of time.

Two digressions:

1. The original aluminum 215 hamstrung Buick in its small-block V8 efforts for years.  Since the 215 (and the V6) were designed around bore centers of only 4.24 inches, they were forced to increase displacement (even after switching to cast iron construction) by way of an increased stroke.  The eventual 350 was an undersquare engine, with a 3.8 inch bore and a 3.85 inch stroke.  Compare that to the Oldsmobile 350 with its 4.057 inch bore and 3.385 inch stroke.  That doesn’t make the small-block Buick a bad engine (I have a 300 in my Skylark, and it’s been great), but it limited its ultimate performance potential and future growth.

2. I once asked the owner of a ’62 Special convertible if the V6 in his car idled as roughly as its reputation suggested.  He started the engine to show me and my dad how it ran.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an engine rocking so hard in its mounts; whether the engine was running poorly or if that’s just the way they run is lost to time.  Also lost to time is the owner’s opinion of what constitutes a smooth-running engine.  I still don’t know if he was trying to prove that they run smoothly or roughly; I simply went “oh” and thanked him for his time.  He said nothing else.

Regardless of whether the Special was V6-or-V8-propelled, the dashboards of all GM compacts were clean and tidy.  This Special has the fairly well-regarded Dual Path Turbine Drive transmission, another GM dead end from the time just before they streamlined their transmission operations.  GM in the early 1960s was fascinating because they had the volume and therefore money for a good bit of divisional autonomy, for good or for bad.

Buick temporarily left the compact market behind after 1963 for the more lucrative intermediate market, and the success of the 1964 Chevelle, Tempest, F-85, and Special show that that was a wise decision, even though the restyled tail on this ’63 Special is very well done.

That left the GM compact market to Chevy with its Nova and Corvair for the time being, which is probably as it should have been in regards to the traditional Sloan Ladder.

I too own an updated GM intermediate (seen here), the slightly upmarket successor to our featured Special.  Of course, I could have bought a nice Special or Skylark four-door sedan when I was young, poor, and wanted another old car.  But no, I had to get the flashy two-door hardtop.  Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself for being a bit of a hypocrite; after all, it’s not like I’m showing up in an LS-powered ’69 Camaro or anything like that.  I’m still a bit off the beaten path, right?  Still, what I’m snapping pictures of and what I’m driving home in are often a little bit divergent.  Maybe next time.