(first posted 11/29/2011) Of all brands that tried to make the name “Special” for its cars actually seem, well, “special,” no one did a better job of framing that name as a unique model better than Buick. But by the end of its life the sparkle and special attention to the cheapest Buick lost its glow.
For a solid twenty years when you bought a Buick Special, indeed, you were buying something “Special.” Special in the way that you were finding the cheapest way into the cachet of the Buick Brand, which still meant a lot in terms of quality and prestige.
By 1958 that meant you got a 18 1/2 foot behemoth that could out glitter just about any Cadillac for a few more dollars than a comparable Dodge. After a blowout of nearly 382,000 Specials alone in 1955, demand for each proceeding and more glittery Special waned. The overtly Special 1958 Special was the last buxom Buick to wear the nameplate.
When 1961 came around, and that special way of luring buyers back into the showroom was needed, the venerable badge showed up again on the new Y body Senior/Luxury Compact. What better way to make such a foreign concept for Buick Buyers (Uni-body construction, Aluminum V8, under 200 inches long) seem so familiar? It didn’t hurt either that the Special looked like a then current LeSabre on a Tab and Cigarettes Diet.
The problem was the new Special wasn’t special enough; well, in regards to comparison to how brilliant the no frills Falcon was shining in the marketplace. So enter the Skylark badge, to refresh memories of a spectacularly glamorous halo convertible from seven years before. As Sport Compacts go, the Skylark did the luxury element best.
Although the Skylark didn’t dominate the proceedings right away like the Monza in the Corvair family did, by 1966 it was definitely the more “Special” of the two A-body intermediates. Only four years after it won Car of The Year for the Fireball V6, the Special was an also ran.
One of the main problems was that it no longer looked “Special.” One of the great things about buying most proceeding Specials was it didn’t look (and perhaps didn’t feel) cheaper than a more expensive Buick. And in some years (but definitely not 1958) the simpler details of the Special were more tasteful and discreet.
Now it was positively dull. Tasteful in that General Motors 1965-67 “Bill Mitchell at his prime” period look that looks pretty handsome without lots of tacked-on details. But why spend the extra money for the plain Special when you could get a more glamorous Chevrolet Malibu Four-Door Hardtop for the same (or perhaps less) money?
The gap significantly closed when Chevrolet fleshed out the Chevelle/Malibu family to similar dimensions as the rest of the A-Body family for 1966. In the first two model years the Chevy A bodies were closer to 195 inches in length, compared to the 202-206 inch spans of the Buick, Olds and Pontiac ones. And all four of the family were available with the fresh air fun of being a Four Door Hardtop.
Sure, you got a superior base six cylinder engine (or am I opening up a new General Motors engine debate?) with the Special. But you still got a two Speed Automatic, although not based in as obsolete school of thought as the Powerglide. The build quality can be assumed to be greater, but with each and every year the gap between the slapdash nature of Chevrolet assembly and Buick Fine Car was getting smaller and smaller.
It can be safe to assume that every last sale of these bargain basement Buicks went to old ladies and widows that knew nothing other than their husbands brought them a Buick Special every three years, and they traded to the next Buick Special three years later. It’s the same concept that weirdly kept Buick alive on a steady diet of The Roach (the A -Body, and lesser extent, W – Body Century) nearly 30 years later.
Which will be an interesting change in the used Car Market even 15 years from now. There won’t be basic, well kept and maintained basic Buicks. None of the current Buick lineup offers this type of car. Craigslist won’t be filled with bench seat barges of all sizes with ribbon speedometers and the smell of stale perfume and pantyhose. And a thick stack of maintenance records.
Are we a better car culture because of this? Or is there some subtle magic, some weird comfort that there’s always some old lady out there with a low mileage Buick for sale for a cool grand – because she had her license revoked due to vision problems – gonna be lost on all future generations of beater shoppers. Only time will tell.
Gee, thanks for this. My mid-teen years have just flashed before my eyes again!
My best friend’s dad bought one of these. Brown/dark tan – “saddle mist”, perhaps?, four-door sedan, matching color interior. DULL all the way. I wondered, when his dad made pretty good money for the time, WHY? His 1961 Rambler was much fancier, by far. Shoulda bought the Malibu, or at least a pillarless hardtop to make it worthwhile. It was a solid, work-a-day car, though, and I don’t recall my friend ever relaying complaints to me about it. Maybe that’s just what it was supposed to be, after all.
My dad’s 1960 Impala Sports Sedan was infinitely cooler than that Buick. Just the same, it was the very first NEW car I had ever ridden in up to that time! I think I even got to drive it once, sometime after I got my license.
Two great memories: it had FACTORY AIR CONDITIONING and the power steering that enabled those (in)famous one-finger turns. It was certainly less ponderous-feeling than my dad’s Impala, though, so that was a plus.
I’m not sure about this, but did Oldsmobile have a similar model? My uncle who was a prominent St. Louis lawyer (and somewhat wealthy) also drove one of these, if not an Olds. Mist green, 4 door sedan, very plain-looking, but my family, whether us as working-poor, or my aunts and uncles, who were much, much better-off, lived under the radar in many ways and didn’t flaunt anything they had. My dad never had a new car, and the 1960 Chevy was over 5 years old when he had to replace his broken-down 1953 Dodge.
I do not remember the “Special” sidescript on the rear door, though. Apparently, it was, but what an odd place for a name. It doesn’t work.
Laurence, you’re killing me…
“did Oldsmobile have a similar model?”
Oldsmobile’s A-bodies in this era were the F-85 and Cutlass, which had a relationship that was similar to the Special and Skylark.
I dont know about that script location either, during that era, and for decades later, Buick liked to place the script all the way at the end of the car, close to the tail lights, they did this all the way through the 2000’s
Yes, that’s the right place for the “Special” script on the side. Never were many of these around…
My Dad bought a very basic Buick Special in 1966, when I was 19. He had a long commute, primarily on interstate calibre highways in Mass. (128 and 3). It was a four door sedan, goldish-brown with a black interior. It had the V6 with an economy axle ratio, and a 3-speed column shift. It had a comfortable interior, spacious trunk, a quiet ride, reasonable handling (my Dad installed spring dampers so it cornered better), an AM radio that sounded better than any I’d heard, and a nice cast grill that was superior to the Malibu’s stamped aluminum. He put on 90k miles, and it never had a major repair in the six years he owned it.
That “special” Buick pictured looks like the Buick version of Murilee’s Impala Hell project. Perfect candidate for demolition derby!
I wouldn’t say it’s that far gone. It’s relatively rust free (a native bay area car, Local defunct Buick Dealership plate frames and all) and a lot of the Chrome and trim is in great shape (like the random Special badge on the door).
I’d consider it a nerdy easy restoration project, especially if it’s bare bones as I assume (225 V6, Turbine Drive no power steering or brakes).
Even in the 1960s, Buick couldn’t grasp the concept that it was in the business of selling premium cars. Why Buick offered this car at all is a mystery. That it was offered with a 6, dog dish hubcaps and a 2 speed automatic (and I am guessing 3 on the tree manual as standard equipment) is an early indication that GM was going down the wrong road. If the Special had really been special, there would have been no need for the Skylark. As it was, though, the Special was the strippo mid sized Buick for those old line GM buyers who still thought that a strippo Special was a “better” car than a nicely equipped LeMans or Malibu.
Chevelle 300 sedan. That’s what my friend’s dad had, only it was called “Buick Special”!
Um, at that time you could still get a LeSabre or a Wildcat with a 3 on the tree transmission and dog dishes as well…..
True, although I would strongly suspect that your odds of finding a Special with a three-speed gearbox would be considerably better than finding a LeSabre so equipped. (Just because it was nominally standard didn’t mean they really built very many of them that way!)
I’ve seen a few, not common, but the manual was the standard transmission in the big cars until 1969-1970 believe it or not, the point was that really high levels of equipment that we consider essential today was not standard faire back then, even air conditioning was not standard on a Cadillac until 1974.
Any Buick salesman in the ’60s would rather be flayed publicly than let a dog-dish, 3-on-tree strippo Special go out the door. Those poverty-class cars were put in the back lot to show people just how cheap (in all senses of the word) a Buick could be, while the salesman would be steering customers to at least a Skylark, or better yet, one of the well-equipped fullsize cars.
“…Some weird comfort that there’s always some old lady out there with a low mileage Buick for sale for a cool grand…”
It is comforting – that describes the original owner of my Imp. Plus Le CenturSabres are the last mass market for whitewalls, so when they’re gone, we’ll be stuck paying for mediocre Cokers.
There’s always Diamond Back tires. They take modern radials and vulcanize whitewalls onto them.
oh how cool!!! thanks for this, BOC!
What was described here, is the dilution of brand that is SOP in the General and nearly universal in every auto company. A brand is established; they lay out their turf; and once there they try to expand it…to where they forget why they’re there in the first place. And in the process, they rely on older customers who buy that brand because they’ve always owned that brand; who do no comparisons and purchase out of reflex.
Buick did it. Cadillac did it. Mercedes did it, as they fell from a pinnacle of engineering to purveyor of overpriced, troublesome hardware that depreciates more in the first year than some the PRICE of some entry models.
Once that happens, a brand is finished. The choice is to start from scratch, accept the commodization of the product line, or pull the plug.
Interesting points about brand dilution–trying to think, which brands have not done this? Bristol? (Which of course no one’s ever heard of and sells a few dozen cars a year, if that many.)
After reading TTAC and spending time here (given that there’s a lot of overlap among the readership), I’ve come to understand that: 1) All modern cars suck, except possibly the Ford Panther platform cars; 2) Those sort of suck too.
Every car brand has done it. Using Bristol as an example, if you don’t expand the envelope of the car’s image and brand, then you become a Bristol, a footnote in modern terms.
Using Toyota as an example, what the heck is a Scion? Toyota’s Saturn? Three or four seemingly random cars plucked from the global Toyota empire, grouped together as a brand in North America. I would also say that Toyota has gone GM, at least in the non HSD lines, concentrating on trucks and SUVs, and letting it’s bread and butter Corolla sedan to rot on the vine.
Honda is another great example. Whither the Element, the CRZ and the Crosstour? The-so-bad-we’re-revising-it-before we-can-sell-it Civic? Who’s running the ship over there?
VW is either going to either succeed wildly with this new ‘world domination’ plan, or fail miserably. I don’t even care to speculate, because I’m stunned by the audacity of the plan.
Brand dilution. Every one does it. Some do it better than others.
So are they doing it again with the new Verona?
I do find it strange that Buick discontinued their largest car and introduces a new, small one.
Buick is trying to be Pontiac, now.
Which is beyond bizarre. Why the hell wouldn’t they just keep Pontiac and close Buick?
As Buick was the cornerstone GM was built on, closing it would be wrong on many levels…
Why not bring Buick and Pontiac together as “companion brands” in one store? It would keep the luxo customers aspiring for Cadillacs happy with Buick’s traditional offering; and give the hotshoe kids who’re starting to make it, a place to get their performance goods.
Closing Buick might have been wrong. But what they’ve done instead is just as wrong.
China. They buy more Buicks than we do.
If I had to guess, it’s for two reasons. One, being a convo I had with my old Pontiac salesman a few months back, upon the loss of the Pontiac line, they no longer had an entry level car to sell. Used cars have their place, but the entry level car comes with a warranty and new car financing rates, some things that people want to a certain extent.
Two, CAFE. GM has to meet CAFE regs, and even with e-Assisted LaCrosses, they aren’t going to make the numbers.
I have yet to see a new Verano, and I am curious about it. I’m not the sort of person who sees themselves as a Buick customer (give me 10 more years, tho) and as of this moment I see no reason to buy a Verano over a Cruze. Once I see a Verano in the flesh, so to speak, that may change.
Funny that the 1958 Special was advertised as the “Air Born B-58 Buick”, which almost has to be a reference to the contemporary B-58 Hustler bomber–which in no way resembles a ’58 Buick.
And the Mach 2 B-58 was a failure in its “marketplace;” Gen. LeMay hated it, and it had several operational problems. Still, a real hot-rod of a bomber, sort of succeeded in role by the FB-111.
B58 literally cost more than its weight in gold. Also spent a large part of its (extremely brief) operational life either grounded or under restrictions.
Total failure as a bomber but still a neat technical exercise from the same era that gave us the moon landing. Sometimes I wonder if some sort of air-launched space vehicle could have been developed to be carried like its weapons pod.
A lot of times, in GM’s past, what made or broke separate same-body models was the engine.
Did this one have the 225 V6? As has been discussed many times, for all it’s rough running that engine would stand up and dance when you mashed it. Even with PowerGlide, it would have been an impressive ride.
And I guess that’s my biggest “Why would you buy this?” over a Malibu question. The Fireball V6 from what I’ve read is a rough, rowdy and ready to rumble engine as 6 cylinders of the times go. I think in either Car Life or Motor Trend’s tests of the 1962 198 Cube version it was able to clear 60 in under 13 seconds.
So you got a better 6. But it was still the base engine in the Skylark (and for that matter Cutlasses too). You might as well get the flashier Skylark and save on the powertrain, if it wasn’t all that far off from the base V8…
I’m not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination, so take these comments with a grain of salt, but from reading various articles, my understanding is that the rough running nature of the V6 was due to there being an odd number of cylinders in each bank which caused them to fire unevenly.
The Buick two-speed was not Powerglide — it was a different two-speed unit that Buick called Super Turbine 300. Its big distinction was that until 1968, its torque converter had a variable-pitch stator. Olds and Pontiac used the same unit, although Pontiac didn’t have the switch-pitch feature.
Buick Special hmmmmmm not really a recognized brand here not since the 30s. buying the Special meant you could afford the non stripper Holden until the badges changed in 68. Since WW2 Buicks were no remttance private imports or used imports our GM range didnt extend much past Chevy.
I KNEW Thats what was in the Clue! Why didn’t I guess?!
I always liked this car. I remember my 4th grade teacher Miss Lynch had one in that same gold.
Gotta love the B-58 Buick ad.
I don’t have the sales numbers but my recollection was that the Skylark far out sold the Special when they became mid-size. Again going on recollection F 85s and Tempests seemed to make up a larger percentage of their respective brands mid size sales. So it might be considered a success for being tempting enough to get you in the door but “bad” enough to move you into the Skylark.
My wife’s grandmother has a ’64 two-door with 19k original miles. A total stripper, fireball v-6, three on the tree, radio delete, and I can only assume manual steering and brakes. It hasn’t been driven in years, but looks pretty pristine under its thick coat of dust in the garage. I’m in love with that car and have hinted around at buying it. It’s a big family but I think her kids are more interested in the ’66 Riv and ’38 Roadmaster.
A boring old Special is right up my alley.
Step up the hinting!!! Make the wife start begging to buy it. That sounds like too sweet a Curbside Classic to not call your own.
“Why Buick offered this car at all is a mystery.”
The mid size market was a new hot segment in the mid 60’s, BOP wanted in. Also, GM dvisions all competed with each other, too. Overlap even started in the 50’s with low priced full size Buick Specials. For the A body, Pontiac had the base Tempest, and Olds the F-85. They appealed to those who still thought ‘the low priced three’ brands were too cheap.
There were many plain full sized LeSabres bought by elders in the 60’s, too, Owners never thought of them as ‘GM B Bodies’, but as Buicks and nothing else.
Yes, this didn’t last, but who at GM then could predcit that Japan and Korea would be huge competition?
The 1961 ‘senior compacts’ were born out of the 1957 recession. AMC and import sales boomed, while a lot of new mid-price ’58 Detroit products kind of tanked. Customers (and hence dealers) suddenly wanted compact economy cars, and the best GM could do on short notice was give some Buick dealers a few Opels to sell and offer Pontiac dealers the English Vauxhall. The idea was that everybody except Cadillac would have their own compact, kind of a spiritual revival of the old companion-make program of the late twenties. (The fact that that program hadn’t worked out particularly well commercially probably had a lot to do with the decision not to try to position them as separate marques this time.)
By the time the Y-body senior compacts arrive for MY1961, the economy was in somewhat better shape, and initial buyer response to the Oldsmobile and Buick iterations was way below expectation. Since the senior compacts were fairly expensive to built (unit construction, aluminum V8s, the Tempest’s rope drive), they probably lost money. A year later, Ford brought out the midsize Fairlane, which offered more car for similar money. Since it was clear that there WAS a market for that kind of thing, GM decided to replace the senior compacts with somewhat larger (i.e., Fairlane-size), conventionally engineered intermediates that would be cheaper to build, and thus more profitable at a realistic volume level.
But it all went back to ’57-’58, and dealers screaming for something to sell customers who wanted more fuel efficient compact cars.
At least initially, there was some thought of giving the senior divisions badge engineered Corvairs. Styling studies were prepared of all three. The Pontiac edition, named Polaris, had some rather attractive distinctive front sheetmetal. The Buick and Olds studies were obvious Corvair clones. I’ve heard it said that the rear engined B-O-P cars were abandoned due to the initial sales success of the Falcon/Comet, but I wonder if there was enough time for that. I would think work on the front engined B-O-P compacts must have started at or before the time the Corvair and Falcon first hit the market — even though the B-O-P compact platform does use a lot of the Corvair structure.
The Polaris would have been an attractive car.
At this point every GM division seemed to have their own Sloan steps for customers to climb. The late 60’s and early 70’s are the GM glory years to me. I grew up in middle-management neighborhoods and most of the cars were GM, speicifically BOP. I rode in alot of Vista Cruisers, Sport Wagons, Delta 88s, Cutlasses and Skylarks, with the occasional Ford, Chevy or Chrysler.
This is how Buick turned into the quintessential old people car that I know and love. Now, they just make tin cans with four cylinders and bucket seats (yuck!).
Yeah, Buick’s current NA lineup leaves much to be desired.
Who ever thought you could be nostalgic for the W-Car Century?
The cheapest running and driving car I ever owned was a ’65 Special sedan that I acquired for $185 in 1989 or thereabouts. It makes the ’66 in this story look good. I invested a few more dollars in some bondo and fiberglass to plug the worst rust holes, and a very cheap radio/cassette player (the car was a factory radio delete model!). I got about a year’s use out of it as is and could have kept it longer if I had felt like rebuilding the carb.
In this case I think the Buick is ever so nicer looking, although the 1966 Malibu Is a beautical car as well. I see Your point in this case. Although in most, I see the situation as Why settle for The Chevy Model When Depending on whose styling you like best, for a $100-300. more you could have had The Pontiac or Buick model. Olds as well. All Sweet rides I imagine, The last of the Simple unadorned lines Bill Mitchell was known for, good restrained taste of the 1960’s.
This gets me wondering: What’s the “little old lady’s” car on sale today? That will be “mint” on the used car market in 5-10?
Ya, won’t be much Buicks. Maybe few LaCrosses.
Maybe there is no such thing anymore?
This must have been the Buick my mother was driving when she got married in ’70. My father remembers it as a “compact Buick”. Sure.
I only have a picture of part of it…the windshield and part of the hood.
She dumped it for a Bug not much later.
Today’s ‘mature lady’ car is the common biege/tan Camry or Corolla, slowly going down the middle lane at 61 mph, now that most speed limits are 70 on highways.
I still cringe when I think of the 66 Buick sport wagon that I sold for peanuts in the late 70’s It had an immaculate interior. The wagon also had the vista cruiser roofline.
A nice,nice stationwagon
I owned one of those “B-58 Buick” Specials, a two-door hardtop in green. Yep, it was big. It also had, if you can believe it, as much chrome at the rear as at the front!
How ’bout that Ford “Custom” from the other day. Even less “custom” than the Buick was “special”.
As for the Pontiac Corvair variant, DeLorean fought that off, seeing impending disaster. He did use Corvair parts in the 1961 Tempest. My dad bought the 1961 Tempest wagon new and it now considered the American BMW before BMW – perfect 50/50 weight distribution, 4 cylinder w/ 4 wheel independent suspension. Dad’s was pretty basic – auto, am radio, hubcaps and virtually no chrome.
The inferior Ford and Mercury products were cheap but sold well so GM followed Ford’s low brow formula. BMW developed the market and is a huge success today. Pontiac Olds and Mercury are gone and Buick only exists because of China until China shows them the door.
My friends mother has a 1966 Special Deluxe It was noted that model was better trimmed It was blue with a blue vinyl interior. Back then cars were sold basically a la carte with even an AM radio optional. Theirs was pretty well equipped even had a clock! Buick LeSabre was a popular model with teachers at my school. In ‘68 they had that 400 model with bigger engine and 3 speed automatic. As for air conditioning Sears did a brisk business selling after market units (hung under dash). My dad had one installed in our 1968 Fairlane and that took all day.