COAL: 1980 Buick Skylark – My Six Months of Anguish With a GM Deadly Sin

1980 Buick Skylark, similar to mine but different color

1980 Buick Skylark, similar to mine but different color

Disclaimer: Do not read this article if you are depressed, sad, melancholy, or despondent – it will only make your condition worse.  It can also elicit a chuckle at how much bad luck one person can have.

1979 Subaru Wagon from internet

1979 Subaru Wagon from internet

In 1980 I was working and living in upstate New York at Plattsburgh AFB, located near Lake Placid and about thirty miles from the Canadian border.  A gorgeous area, albeit quite cold and with a significant amount of snow.  When I arrived I had bought a new 1979 Subaru 4WD Wagon – which along with the AMC Eagle Wagon, were familiar sights on those wintry roads.

The Subaru was a great car for that area – it would just scamper right through the snow.  However it had two major liabilities; first, it was small – very small.  To drive it I had to scrunch up, with knees at the same level as my elbows.  Second, the four-speed manual needed a fifth gear.  I made trips back to Ohio every six months or so and at 65 mph on the expressway the little 1.6 litre flat four was spinning over 3K rpm.

So I decided to look for something larger, and perhaps a little sportier, but still good in the snow.  GM’s X-Cars had just been introduced and were getting strong, positive reviews.  They were Compact in size, but with the interior room of an Intermediate, with the choice of a thrifty four cylinder or a more powerful new 60 degree V6 motor, and  they were front-wheel drive.  Motor Trend selected the Chevy Citation as its 1980 Car of the Year (a choice that they have yet to live down).

I looked at several GM brands but the Buick dealer had a very nice Skylark two-door coupe, in black, with a black and white houndstooth interior.  It also had the V6 and was a 4-speed manual.  I took it for a spin and was impressed.  The interior room was indeed as large as a typical intermediate.  The V6 was smooth and had a “revvy” nature, very similar to a Chevy small-block.  Handling was better than most domestic competitors.  The only thing I didn’t quite like was the cable shifter – it had an artificial and somewhat cheap feel to it.

But the overall initial impression was good – so after a little dealing, I left the Subaru and drove the Skylark off the lot.

And so the nightmare began…

The first week went by with little issue – but giving it a good wax one day I noticed quite a bit of orange peel in the paint.  I took some polish to it but it didn’t improve much.  Over the course of ownership, I never could buff the orange peel out – a symbol of GM’s “cheap” approach to this car.

Then several weeks later I noticed that the rear wheels would lock up prematurely when braking.  With our first dusting of snow, I could feel the rear end stepping out – not good.  I took it back to the dealer and met for the first time the Service Manager – Sherman.  “Sherm” (I got to know him quite well) said he’d look it over and after a day or so, he called and said they had adjusted the rear brakes.  He also said, “don’t expect a whole lot of improvement – they all do that”.  And indeed, there was a little improvement but I still had to carefully modulate the brakes, especially when the roads were slick.

Several weeks later, the clutch pedal started acting up – making a loud ratcheting sound when depressed and released.  I went back to see Sherm and he kept the car for a couple days, then called and said they had replaced the clutch pedal.

The clutch pedal was now fine but about a month later the transmission started having issues – first, shifting became much harder.  Then, it would jump out of gear with a loud “BAM”.  Finally, as I was heading to the dealer it slipped out of gear and just locked up – the gear lever was frozen and wouldn’t move at all.

A tow to the dealer and Sherm said; “I think your transmission is shot.”  We’ll have to order a new one and it will take at least a week, maybe ten days for us to replace it.  I really needed a car for work – this was before “courtesy cars”, so I asked the Sales Manager if he had something he could loan me.  He thought for awhile, then pointed at a rusted 1972 Ford Country Squire – with a broken back window – “How about that?”  As they say, beggars can’t be choosers…

After about ten cold and drafty days, Sherm called and said the car was ready.  As suspected, the transmission had been defective.

Back on the road again – well, at least for three months.  Then I started to smell gas one night after a fairly long drive.  Popping the hood, I noticed gas leaking from the base of the carburetor.  Geez…  Call the tow truck and back to the dealer it went.  Sherm had it for a couple days and then said to me; “I’m not really supposed to tell you this but your carburetor wasn’t torqued to specs at the factory – we replaced the gasket and tightened it to specs – it’s fine now.”

But that was it for me – I’d had enough of that car trying to kill me.  I traded it in after just six months – the shortest period I’ve ever owned a car.

Fortunately our founder Paul had much better luck with a similar Skylark during his radio station days.  I’m glad he managed to skip the pain and aggravation.

Previously I posted an article on my 1969 Olds Delta 88 – that car had over 100K miles on it and the only thing I replaced was the water pump – and even with all those miles it still felt rock solid and well made.  Fast forward a decade and this is what mighty GM had become.

So, I hope this tawdry tale didn’t depress anyone over their breakfast.  Just smile – after forty years, I can chuckle a little about it now too…