Curbside Classic: 1966 Buick Skylark Gran Sport – The Understated Buick Of Musclecars

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(first posted 10/21/2013)     The 1964 Pontiac GTO unleashed a tiger, sales wise as well as performance wise. Needless to say, everyone wanted in on the action, even the relatively staid Buick division. It got a bit of a slow start, with its Skylark Gran Sport appearing in the spring of 1965 for a mid-year introduction. And even its name, Skylark Gran Sport, was rather reserved, compared to GTO, SS396 and 4-4-2. But that’s not to say the GS didn’t have its appeal or fans, as Charles Platt made abundantly clear in his memoir of a rust-bucket ’67 Gran Sport.

Buick 1965 Gran sport

The GTO formula was well-established and predictable, by this time. But in 1965 Buick went about it in a very understated manner, shown here with an elegantly dressed woman more likely to step out of something altogether quite different.

Meanwhile, GTO ads were taking a decidedly different tone. Are you sure you’d really rather have a Buick? Not surprisingly, the results were overwhelmingly in favor of kicking ass with the right foot to coterie high-fashion. In 1966, Pontiac sold just shy of 100k GTOs; Buick managed to sell just 13,816 Skylark Gran Sports.

Buick 1966 Gran Sport br

Marketing- wise, the 1966 Gran Sport started out of the gate still pretty sedate with this shot from the brochure. A bit more down to earth, but she wouldn’t have lasted long in the casting call for the Pontiac GTO tiger ads.

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By this time, building a mid-size muscle car was a well-known formula: Drop in an engine out of the larger cars into the intermediate A-Body, but not to exceed 400 cubic inches, as per the edict from the 14th floor. The ’64 GTO busted the 330 inch glass ceiling, so now it was reset at 400 inches (for a few years). Just one itty-bitty problem in Buick’s case: the closest sized big-block nailhead V8 measured 401 cubic inches. But Buick got an exemption for one year, probably because the new V8 family to replace the nailhead was coming the very next year.

Don’t let the “Wildcat 445” sticker confuse you like it did me when I was a kid. It took me a while to realize that Buick was using torque numbers to identify its engines back then, rather than cubic inches or horsepower. Speaking of, the base GS engine was straight out of Electra, and rated at 325 (gross) hp. Feeling like it wasn’t keeping up perhaps, Buick offered a mid-year option with 340 hp. That knocked a second of the sprint to 60, to about 6.8 seconds. And the 1/4 mile was knocked off in a decent 14.9 seconds @ 95 mph. Your ET and trap speed may vary…but the GS was beginning to flex its muscles.

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1966 was the end of the road for that rather unusual engine (full nailhead history here). It first appeared in 1953, so its fourteen-year life span was rather short, compared to the V8s in the other divisions. It’s odd cylinder head configuration and tiny valves were not conducive to good breathing, and it needed very aggressive cams to generate competitive horsepower, leading to a rather lumpier idle than one might expect in a staid Buick Electra. I suspect Buick engineers knew that it was also a combustion chamber that would be difficult to de-smog, so for 1967, a wholly new big Buick V8 family appeared.

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The Gran Sport interior wasn’t exactly overtly sporty either. So much for even a different steering wheel. And the gauge cluster was all-Skylarky.

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It should not come as a surprise that the majority of Gran Sports came with the automatic (the “Super Turbine 300” two speed automatic). For those wanting to shift the standard three-speed or optional four speed for maximum performance had better have a designated tach-watcher in the passenger seat to call out the approaching red-line, because placing this tiny little instrument way down there on the floor was a pathetically bad joke. It’s details like this that made American muscle cars hard to take seriously by European sport sedan fans, despite their performance.

But testers at the time generally gave the GS good reviews, for its all-round capable manners and abilities, even if it wasn’t going to scare a hemi-GTX or any of the other really hot cars of 1966 in stop-light drag. Or take on a BMW 1600 on the twisties. The GS sat on a beefier convertible frame, and had the usual complement of heavy-duty components in its suspension, brakes (still drums in ’66), rear axle, and wherever else it counted. The looks were not just skin deep.

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Yes, the GS was a handsome car, although that could be said for all of its re-styled ’66 GM A-Body stablemates.

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The basic shape and tunnel-back roof line was shared by them all.

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The biggest differences were on the ends, and the Buick’s were undoubtedly the most conservative of the bunch, consistent with its family genes.

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This well-kept ’66 even sports its original wheel covers; the only thing missing are red-line tires.

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Its proud owner even wanted to show off the pristine trunk. A CC first? Except there’s no tire under that spare tire cover. The trunks on these GM mid-sizers were a bit of an afterthought, inasmuch as the space was pretty shallow and chopped up.

Buick 1967 GS 340-02

Perhaps because of modest sales, or just to extend the line down-market, in 1967 there was a GS 340 alongside the GS 400, now powered by the new (actual) 400 CID engine, and with 340 hp standard. The ’67 was only subtly restyled, but the GS got a decidedly more aggressive look. And with a year or so, there would be “Stage” versions of the 400 (and eventually 455) that would turn out some very serious power indeed. But that’s a story for another day.

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Related: Charles Platt’s Memoirs of a ’67 GS400