At the end of last month, my other half and I took a trip to visit family in the Rust Belt area where northeast Ohio meets northwest Pennsylvania, near the Shenango River. Much about this area reminds me both of the factory town where I grew up (Flint, Michigan) and also the rural area of Ohio on the northwestern part of the state where my grandparents had their farm. This region instantly felt both familiar and nostalgic.
Many aspects of this area (spanning Brookfield, Ohio on the west to Hermitage, Pennsylvania on the east) seem wonderfully and magically frozen in time – if I had to pick a year, I’d say from 1971. A trip to Daffin’s candy store in nearby downtown Sharon, Pennsylvania is like being transported to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory around the time the original movie was in theaters. The decorations and fonts on the various signs throughout the Daffin’s showroom look like something out of one of the better sets on the Lawrence Welk show. And the candies and chocolates are incredible in both breadth of selection and deliciousness. Daffin’s is at once hopelessly square and of the utmost cool, and really must be seen (and tasted) to be believed.
A rusty, Googie-era road sign for defunct steak house John Schuster’s still stands on the side of S. Irvine Ave. in nearby Masury, Ohio, its arrow pointing the way to the former restaurant building which now appears to have been converted for residential use. This entire area has an air of former blue-collar prosperity (like much of the industrial U.S. Rust Belt, including my hometown), with many hints of mid-century glory popping up in all kinds of unexpected places.
It was then no real surprise to see an unrestored ’67 Buick Special in the parking lot of the Sparkle grocery store, with the adjacent site of former, local, single-location retail giant Valley View Discount Department Store in the background. Valley View used to be the place, according to many sources familiar with this area’s history. In the era long before megastores, Valley View was a place at which you could purchase hardware, auto parts, clothing and groceries in a one-stop shopping trip – which was a novel idea at the time. Originally opened in 1959 and closed in 1995, one could say that Valley View was a popular meeting place for folks in this community, even acting as a beacon for tourists passing through. The smell of hot, buttered popcorn wafted throughout from the snack shop, adding to the excitement of shopping at everyone’s favorite store.
All that’s left now is an empty lot from the mostly-demolished (as of 2009) main retail structure and a wonderfully large-scaled sign announcing the parking lot entrance. (Thanks, Walmart.) I wondered to myself if it might have been possible for this Buick Special to have been driven to Valley View or the adjacent, former Giant Eagle grocery store when the car was new. This Special clearly looks like it’s driven regularly (if not daily), and much like the rusty Chevy Cavalier I profiled last month, this old Buick appeared to have rust but very few dents, and also mostly complete trim. Pride of ownership. I wonder what it looked like twenty years ago.
This Special (identifiable against a Skylark by its different bodyside trim) looked wonderfully stock – down to its tri-shield deluxe wheel covers. The Special (and Skylark), along with the intermediates at Oldsmobile (Cutlass, F-85), always seemed to me like the GM A-bodies for grownups. Without the youthful, visual gymnastics of a Pontiac or the everyman ubiquity of a Chevy, I imagine the Special or Skylark buyer to be just a bit older, more deliberative than the average person, and more drawn to enduring class than temporary fad.
(As a sidebar, in my research on this car, I was unable to find any decisive indentifiers which would differentiate a “Special” from a “Special Deluxe”. Initially, I had thought the chrome strip running alongside the car made this one a “Special Deluxe”, but then I found pictures of some pretty “stock”-looking Special Deluxes without that trim, so I gladly welcome any feedback on the subject.)
Maybe it’s partially because of growing up in the 1980’s when “special” was thrown around by grade school kids my age as a put-down, but I never warmed to the moniker “Special” as the name of a car. It just seems so generic, and slightly condescending. “Special Deluxe” sounds even worse, almost like the name of a prepackaged cake mix. (“Try new Duncan Hines Special Deluxe yellow cake with lemon frosting!”) A “special deluxe” could refer to just about anything from a vacuum cleaner, to a toaster, to a cherry pie. It’s like Flint gave the lesser A-body a dull-sounding name to encourage the Skylark upsell. It’s the car model name equivalent of a white box with black, Arial-font letters on it describing the contents. As if pulled from a hat in the Ironic Names Dept., “Special” hardly seems to befit a car with basic styling as tasteful, handsome, and almost elegant as this one.
If production figures indicate any direct correlation to a name-based upsell strategy, that tactic apparently worked. Again, I couldn’t find any external identifiers which would have pegged it as a V-6 or V-8 model (including the front fender-mounted portholes). But for 1967, there were about 20,500 combined Special and Special Deluxe Sport hardtop coupes produced, the most popular of which was the Deluxe Sport coupe with a V-8 (available in displacements of 300 or 340 cubic inches), of which there were about 14,400 produced. This is out of almost an 86,000 total for both the Special and Special Deluxe in any bodystyle. Zero-to-sixty times could range anywhere from around 13.5 seconds with the 225 2-bbl. V-6 and the 2-speed “Super Turbine” automatic, down to about 7.5 seconds with the 340-4 bbl. V-8 and a 3-speed manual.
The Special’s 1967 production figure was eclipsed by the 107,000 Skylarks sold (including the Sportwagon), but by not as wide a margin at this point as I had always assumed. Skylark production figures (including the Sportwagon) would sail past those of the Special for model year ’65 (101,000 Specials against 133,000 Skylarks), and would never look back through the end of the Special’s first unbroken run through ’69. (The “Special” designation would return as a Century submodel for ’75 on GM’s Colonnade platform.) In my opinion, the ’67 Special has cleaner bodyside trim than the same-year Skylark, and the lack of fender skirts on this one is a definite plus.
My first thought was that this Buick must have been someone’s grandfather’s car. It looks just factory-stock and basic enough to have belonged to someone who had lived through a more frugal, less indulgent time in U.S. history, but a little too weathered to have been Grandma’s regular ride to and from home, church and the grocery store. I imagine pleasant, windows-down summer drives in this car along the main stretch of Warren-Sharon Rd. past the Ohio state line into downtown Sharon, Pennsylvania – through the surrounding townships and past barns and horses, old houses with large front porches, barber shops, American flags, and ice cream stands.
Both the car and the old signage at Valley View hark back to a very different time, as it is no longer possible to go “Valley Viewing” as in the 1960’s / 70’s commercial jingle above. I may not ever be able to go back to a place in small-town Ohio exactly like where my grandparents lived some twenty-five plus years ago, but spending time in the communities surrounding the Shenango River last month felt almost like the next-best thing. Being in this charming region which is about fifteen miles northeast of Youngstown, Ohio and spotting this old Buick served as a comforting reminder of a time when American optimism seemed much more prevalent, and when possibilities seemed as wide-open as the Valley View parking lot.
All photos are as taken by the author. With the exception of Daffin’s (photographed November 2013), photos were as taken in August 2015.
Related reading: Paul Niedermeyer’s comprehensive piece on this car’s upmarket stablemate: Curbside Classic: 1967 Buick Skylark – Big Little Car.