If you asked me what General Motors heaven was, I’d probably point you to 1961-65. It was the last period that GM seemed to have everything right, while at the same time sowing the seeds of its ultimate destruction. And my favorite cars from The General during this period were the Corvair and its half siblings, the Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special. While the Chevy, Pontiac and Olds have been covered at Curbside Classic, we look today at the most pedestrian, and the most haughty of these odd ducks.
When the coupe versions of the original General Motors compacts were introduced after the sedans, they all presented nice blank canvases to attach the tinsel that would make them leaders in the sport compact race, which directly led to the Pony Car explosion. The Special, by mimicking the contoured bullet front end of the full sized 1961 Buicks, foreshadows the long hood/short deck look that would be popularized by the Mustang in a few short years.
Adding more formal blind C pillars (like a mini Thunderbird), as well as just the right amount of chrome trim in all the right places transformed the mundane Special into the reborn Skylark, ready for flight. The transformation (on looks alone) was more successful at making it distinctive than Oldsmobile’s efforts of making a Cutlass out of the F-85 or Pontiac making a Le Mans out of a Tempest. The Skylark (with plenty of help with advertising) looks every bit the part of a downsized personal luxury coupe. The elegant choice for the young lawyer or ad executive that might feel a little silly with a Corvair Monza.
After the surprise success of unloading over 12,000 of the pillared coupes in 1961 despite a mid-season introduction, Buick went whole hog and offered a genuine hardtop coupe and convertible for 1962. And in my favorite color combination of all time: Buick Canary Yellow with some type of red vinyl or leather. Nearly 43,000 of these luxuriant little Buicks found their way to driveways in 1962, now with 190hp burbling from their (misunderstood) aluminum V8s.
In 1963, the body sides became more slab sided, and the ends were brought into line to reflect the changes to the larger LeSabre/Wildcat/Electra 225. The Skylark in particular has more than a passing resemblance from the back to an Electra 225 of the same year, much in the same way the Cutlass that year could pass for a miniature Starfire.
And many car mags at the time mentioned that one didn’t give up much for taking your Buick in a smaller size. The interior detailing, ride quality and sound deadening was good enough to give quite a close approximation of that traditional Buick feel (for better or worse, depending on what you think of what traditional Buick feel means).
It’s hard to believe, but there was once upon a time when General Motors actually knew how to do a small car right. But the market didn’t flock to them in droves. Sure you could characterize the aluminum V8 as troublesome. I put the blame more often at the hands of customers not used to new technology, just as a Corvair could get someone into trouble because they weren’t familiar with the handling characteristics.
Although I can understand from a price point why they might have been hard sell. With a decent set of options, they bounded into that “Well, I could get a pretty decent Impala or Catalina for this money” zone. It might have been a little harder to sell that concept of “bite sized luxury” to a wider audience when one could get a roomier, well optioned Fairlane 500 Sport Coupe with a pretty decent 289 V8 for hundreds less.
Offering answers to questions the market didn’t ask was a foible General Motors would foist upon itself repeatedly. And time and time again when it seems they get the formula just right, they’d go off and kill it and start all over again, more often than not with something that satisfied the accountants.
The solution for Buick (and Olds and Pontiac) was the bone conventional 1964 A bodies. Although the Skylark was able to keep a great deal of its suave elegance for the first two years, by 1966 it had also morphed to include a fender skirted four door hardtop.
And that brings up another odd parallel to the Thunderbird’s trajectory in the 1960s: although the Skylark pulled an “Impala”, and moved down from strictly coupes and convertibles to workaday sedans, the be-skirted Skylark four-door hardtop was one of the most Brougham of all Mid Sized cars of the 1960s. In size, there wasn’t much that separated the Skylark Hardtop Sedan from the Thunderbird four-door Landau. Both cars ditched all pretenses of sportiness and deferred that responsibility to other cars in their respective families (Thunderbird to Mustang, Skylark to the GS and its eventual Stage Packages, and to a lesser extent, the Riviera).
It’s more understandable why Ford took the Thunderbird this route. It was never really a “sporty” car; more a boulevardier with sporting pretensions. And a Thunderbird probably never drove sporty until the Turbo Coupes of the 1980s. But it’s more than a little bit sad to think how GM walked away from the market that is now dominated by German and Japanese near-luxury compacts after (kind of) creating the field and not realizing it in the early 1960s.
Then again, this particular market didn’t really exist yet. The BMW 2002 was still 5 years away from making headway on these shores. The Corvair opened the door, and each of the half sister half heartedly walked through the door, trying on Turbos (Jetfire), downsized big motors (the 326 in the Tempest Le Mans), as well as the details of each brand that (presumably) made them worth the extra cash over the competition.
Then they just threw in the towel, and took the easy way out. Bigger bodies supported by frames and larger profit margins became the name of the game. You can probably sense my palpable sadness that the B-O-P luxury compacts (along with the Corvair) didn’t become permanent compliments to GM’s ever growing standard sized cars. I love this whole family of oddballs, and wish I could have an example of each. I wish everyone could drive one that fits their particular driving tastes (from soft cushy interstate cruiser to fire breathing turbo), to see how they were almost the perfect American Car.
I’ll take mine in my favorite shade of Canary Yellow with the Red Vinyl, please. You say you have a Skylark in that exact combo?