COAL: 1978 Buick Skylark – Short Term Ownership

GM is dead; long live GM! In our last chapter, the Sunbird had been resigned to the crusher, due to an accident while taking it to the mechanic, and suffering enough damage that the insurance company decided it wasn’t worth repairing. I had two months of college left before graduation, and I was in need of some wheels. Quickly.

The $2000 check from the insurance settlement was burning a hole in my pocket, and I had big plans for it. I started shopping new cars, trying to find something that would fit my unknown budget, as I didn’t have a job lined up yet for after graduation.

I don’t remember how many dealers I visited, but I do remember ending up at a Ford dealer, scoping out the 1985 Escort hatchback. When I had the earlier accident with the Sunbird, I was given a Mercury Lynx as my loaner vehicle while the Sunbird was restored to (semi) drivability. Small, nimble, stick shift – all the things I was looking for. Except for one thing – the car I had chosen had the diesel engine. While it was the largest displacement engine available for the Escort at the time – 2.0L vs. the 1.6L or 1.9L gas engines – it made a paltry 52HP. Which made it slow. No, make that sloooowwww. Still, it had that new car smell, and a new car warranty, and I wanted it. I made a tentative deal with the salesman for $2000 down and $150/mo, with the first three payments deferred until after I had graduated.

I called my folks to bring them into the plan, and to hopefully get their blessing and to co-sign on the loan. My parents quickly put the kibosh on it, patiently explaining to me that making a multi-year financial commitment without any guaranteed income was not the wisest course of action.

Back to the drawing board, and to the classifieds I went. I figured I’d just get something to hold me over until I graduate, figure out where I was going to live and work next, then get something more permanent when I got there. Wherever “there” was.

I saw an ad for a Buick Skylark coupe, with the 350 V8 and 3-speed automatic. The Skylark was the Buick clone of the Chevrolet Nova (and other badge engineered copies). While it was pretty big, at least when compared to the Sunbird I owned and the Escort I coveted, it was still on the small end of the spectrum as far as GM went. The ad copy made the car seem like a pretty good deal – I believe the asking price was $1200 or so. When I saw the car in person, I could tell it had been resprayed a metallic blue shade, and the back half of the roof was white vinyl. The kicker was the faux wire wheels the car was sporting. Sharp! I negotiated the price down to $1000 and had myself a new (to me) car. (Pictured at the top, it’s the only surviving photo.)

Arizona had some rudimentary emission laws in place in 1985, so I had to get my car to pass in order for it to get registered. Which it didn’t. So I took it to a local shop to have things fiddled with (I don’t remember the details of what), and back for a retest. Another fail, and another trip to the shop. Third time was the charm, so I was legal to ply the roads of the metro Phoenix area.

In the two months I had the car, I probably put another $500-750 into it, between the emission fixes and new tires. Being 21 and pretty ignorant, I got two tires, which were all I needed, based on price. Turns out the two tires I kept on the car and the two new ones I purchased were very different – bias ply? Whatever it was, the car was squirrely as all get out on the concrete highways. Every time I changed lanes, the front end and back end didn’t seem connected to each other. In NASCAR parlance, it was “loose”. I kept my speeds down to keep the car in one piece. It also developed – or always had – a miss in the engine. But, since I had eight cylinders, I figured seven would be enough to get me where I needed to go. I didn’t have any issues with the sturdy 3-speed automatic transmission, and the A/C blew cold air, which was a delight compared to the suffering I endured when I had the Sunbird.

It was comfortable to drive, the velour covered bench seats were soft and it exuded all the qualities of GM’s attempt to make a small car feel large. I don’t remember the mileage when I bought it, and I probably didn’t put more than a couple thousand miles on it in the time it was in my possession. I don’t think anybody rode in the car with me, until the week before I sold it. I never took it on any road trips; I never trusted it enough to leave the city limits, frankly.

My folks and best friend flew out to Phoenix to attend the graduation ceremonies, and the morning before the festivities started, my dad and I took the Buick to a buy-here, pay-here lot to sell it off. As we suspected, the engine was not all there, and we were offered $350 for it. Not having many options, we took it.

I’m sure there aren’t a lot of folks who suffer 65% depreciation on a car in 60 days, but I managed to do just that. The proceeds of the sale were enough to pay for the rental car and other costs to move my belongings back to Southern California – where I had a job waiting for me, courtesy of my dad – to begin the next chapter of my life.

(The rental? A Ford LTD wagon, white with faux wood siding. My friend and I had a great trip home.)

Once there, I was again in need of a car of my own. Again, my dad helped me with the purchase, though I rejected his advice on what he thought I should get.