(first posted 1/3/2014) After the brilliantly adventurous 1961 Buick Special failed to make much of a splash in the market, Buick (along with the rest of GM’s midmarket divisions) went the opposite direction with the 1964 model. We present to you the 1964 Special. What was so special about it?
The 1961-63 Buick Special (CC here) had been a good idea, at least when it was being thought out in 1958 and 59. There had been a recession on, and compacts (in America and from abroad) had been quite the growth industry. Having a car of compact dimensions had been a life preserver at Studebaker with the ’59 Lark (if a temporary one), and if having a compact could sell Studebakers and Ramblers, then GM could not afford to overlook that market.
However, the Y body Special had not been the success that the boys at Buick expected. It had sold decently, but not in the kind of numbers that excited folks used to a pretty substantial market share. While planning the car’s 1964 replacement, the market was becoming muddled. Compacts were getting larger (Studebaker and Rambler) while some larger cars were getting smaller (’62 Plymouth and Dodge). Ford was first into a genuine middle ground, staking out a segment that would become known as “intermediate” with the 1962 Ford Fairlane and Mercury Meteor. Within a few years, this “small, medium and large” size classes would become fairly standardized, but in the early 60s, it was still in flux.
For 1964, the intermediates from all four popular Divisions would share a new “A body”, a designation not used since the demise of the 1958 Chevrolet and Pontiac. This new A body would be thoroughly conventional affair. Gone was the unit construction, the aluminum V8, the two piece driveshaft, and almost everything from the earlier Y body that had been so technologically interesting. In its place was a conventional frame, conventional powertrains, and a size almost perfectly between modern compacts and full-sized “standard” cars. In fact, these cars were quite close in size to the Buick Special of ten years earlier.
The Buick Special (and Skylark) would share a new V8 engine. In place of the fascinating but troublesome aluminum 215, would be a new engine with a block cast from good old ‘Murcan iron. Based on the 215’s architecture, the new engine would displace 300 cubic inches (4.9 L) from a .25 inch increase in bore and a substantially longer stroke. The engine would retain aluminum for its cylinder heads and intake manifold. The new engine’s output would be a more Buick-like 210 horsepower with a two barrel carburetor, and 250 horses with a four pot and higher compression.
Even with this new engine, it is plain that Buick was still being punished for its bet on the earlier 215. Because the Division was still working with that earlier engine’s foundation, it came to market with the smallest V8 engine of pretty much any competitive car. Oldsmobile’s 330 and Pontiac’s 326 provided a substantial displacement advantage over the Buick 300, which was barely larger than Chevrolet’s aging 283 and even the ancient size-limited 289 in the final U. S.-built Studebaker. Even (especially) in its later 340 and 350 cube versions, the Buick small block V8 would have an unusually long stroke to get its displacement due to the narrow bore centers inherited from the old 215. Also, the odd, rough Fireball V6 (Paint-Shaker V6 might have been a more truthful name) would carry over, though it would now be up to 225 cubic inches (3.7 L).
Buick also continued with its two speed automatic transmission, the Super Turbine 300. Really, by 1964, was there any reason for a car in Buick’s place in the world to be equipped with a two speed automatic? Not that Olds or Pontiac were any better off in this regard. GM seemed to be in a sort of automatic transmission wilderness during this era, from which it would not emerge until the Turbo HydraMatic began to filter through the line. Even the ’64 Ford Fairlane now sported the new three speed C4.
Two speed automatics notwithstanding, it can be safely said that GM nailed the new intermediate market right from the beginning of the 1964 line. Buick’s version finally started to sell in decent numbers, approaching 200,000 units in 1964, now handily outselling the LeSabre. The car did a nice job of mimicking the styling of the larger Buicks, which were not unattractive cars in 1964.
I saw this Bronze Mist Special Deluxe sedan in a restaurant parking lot in Muncie, Indiana after I dropped my middle son off at his dorm one day last fall. I was not excited enough to take pictures before going through the drive-up for a coffee, and the car drove off before I could shoot it. After Thanksgiving break, I was back and so was this Special. I decided that the car fates had given me another chance, so I stopped for pictures first. As I was leaving, I got to meet the young owner who happens to work there, and who drives this car every day. It was no surprise to learn that he bought the car from longtime elderly owners, who plainly lavished lots of care on this old car.
It was only then that I got to see the one feature that makes this Special special after all. I have looked at a lot of old cars, but have never before seen a car equipped with factory air conditioning, yet without a radio. Have you? Didn’t think so. Also, even though the first owners would not pop for a full-on Skylark, they saw fit to pay for the spinner wheelcovers. Jason Shafer was exactly one day early with his piece on oddly equipped cars, because this one should have been the poster-child.
As I watched the owner fire up his Wildcat V8 and drive away, I contemplated this car’s place in the universe. Was the transition from the 1961-63 Y body to this car the ultimate fulcrum in GM history? The General’s takeaway seems to have been that the technically adventurous does not sell, while competent but boring is something that can be taken to the bank. It is tempting to denigrate the company for adhering to this philosophy more often-than-not in the coming decades, but my conclusion is that this car had everything that customers wanted in a smaller Buick in 1964. This car offered good portions of style, performance and durability. Other cars could out-do the Special in one or two of these criteria, but few could offer all three. And isn’t this what made people really rather have a Buick?