Curbside Classic: 1971 Buick Skylark GS – A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle Inside an Enigma

Looks can be deceiving…

Winters are a lean time for spotting curbside classics in northeast Ohio. As a relatively new author to Curbside Classic, I don’t have a huge library of photos taken in previous summers to draw upon and create posts during the long winter hibernation, so I was looking at a dry spell of CC posts until the spring. Sometimes fate intervenes when you need it the most, as it did the other day when I spotted this stunning silver 1971 Buick. Even more fateful is that this is my second 1971 Buick post in three days. I guess I need to buy a lottery ticket!

This isn’t just any run of the mill Curbside Classic. For starters, it looked like it just rolled off the showroom (at first glance anyways). Closer inspection revealed a little surface rust and patina from being parked outside, but still it is an incredible find. It also came with a mystery; two if you count the mystery of why this car is just sitting outside in the elements with no plates in the middle of an Ohio winter.

The bigger mystery is exactly what kind of Buick this is. Keen-eyed observers will notice that I titled this article Buick Skylark GS, which isn’t really a thing, as the Skylark and GS were considered separate models in 1971. Let’s consider the evidence, shall we.

Exhibit 1, the Skylark badging on the rear quarter panel, which at first glance is what I thought I was dealing with. However, there is that odd Stage 2 badge underneath, which we will come back to momentarily.

Surfboards not included.

According to photos from the 1971 brochure, actual GS models have a GS badge on the front fender, which our featured car lacks, and no badge on the rear fender. So case closed, this is a Skylark then. Well, not so fast dear reader. Allow me to present Exhibit 2:

This example has proper GS badging on the grille and trunk lid.

And for Exhibit 3, it also has the correct GS three-spoke steering wheel and GS badges on the doors of it remarkably well-preserved (or restored) interior.

Last, and perhaps most convincingly, it has the correct GS hood with dual functional air scoops (compare to the detail picture in the brochure below).

So the preponderance of evidence, as civil litigators would say, would seem to indicate that this is a bona fide GS, which I am inclined to agree with.

And yet, I am unsatisfied – there is still the matter of the misplaced Skylark badge, and the even more enticing Stage 2 badge. But first a little history lesson:

As even the most casual automotive enthusiast knows, Pontiac created the Muscle Car in 1964 by dropping a larger (but not yet their largest) engine in their intermediate Tempest model. Surprisingly, a proper writeup of the GTO has never been done on CC, but the story of its creation is an interesting one, and Paul Ingrassia has a nice overview in his book Engines of Change that is well worth the read.

The car that started it all

The GTO proved immensely popular (and profitable), so GM’s other divisions were quick to enter the fray with muscle cars of their own (save for Cadillac, which did not have a midsize model). Of GM’s muscle cars (Pontiac GTO, Oldsmobile 4-4-2, Chevrolet SS, and Buick Gran Sport), the Buick GS is easily the least well-known, which is a shame because it is likely the fastest of them all.

For 1971, the entry-level engine for the GS was Buick’s 350 cubic inch 4-bbl. small block V8, good for 260 (gross) hp. From there, one could step up to the 455 cubic inch big block, rated at 315 hp. If that wasn’t enough for you, Buick would upgrade the 455 with the Stage 1 package, which got you freer breathing heads and a hotter cam. The Stage 1 package was officially good for “only” 345 hp in 1971 (360 in 1970), but the actual output was almost certainly much higher.

But wait, there more. If you wanted a side order of handling to go with your GS, well then step up my friend to the GSX, the zenith of Buick’s performance heap. Available with or without the Stage 1 engine, it sported wide oval tires and anti-sway bars for better handling, and racing stripes, a hood mounted tach and a rear spoiler for better looks (I guess).

1971 Buick GSX

Ordering the hottest GS was not a straightforward affair, as it required selecting the correct option packages, and occasionally dealer installed add-ons. Buick appears to have intentionally downplayed the Stage 1 option: The 1971 full line brochure makes only passing mention to it, but with no description only the cognizanti knew what it actually was. Similarly, the GSX package was represented only as an appearance package, with no mention of the handling improvements.

By now you may be wondering “What about Stage 2?” Surely the existence of a Stage 1 implies a Stage 2 (and beyond). Well here is where we leave the hazy world of low profile options and secret DSO codes and enter the downright murky world of off the books dealer-installed option packages. Stage 2 has also been the subject of much rumors and speculation, or what we now call “Internet Gold.”

Buick almost certainly produced at least one GSX Stage 2 prototype for 1970. It was later dismantled, or maybe caught on fire, or possibly it was abducted by UFOs. But it definitely existed, probably.

Stage 2 was also available as a dealer installed package, and purportedly included headers, forged high-compression pistons, an 850 cfm Holley carb, and tunneled heads (I haven’t been able to locate any documentation or order guides, so it is impossible to know for sure). It is difficult to imagine all this gear being installed at the dealership, as it amounts to pretty much a complete engine rebuild. It is even more difficult to imagine this being more cost-effective than doing your own build, unless the Stage 2 came with a full factory warranty. One has to wonder how many Stage 2 badges were sold to owners who “lost” theirs. Surly more than the total number of kits!

Depending on which source you believe, as many as 15 Stage 2 upgrades were sold in 1970, with most being dealer installed, but possibly a few Gran Sports coming with Stage 2 direct from the factory. Or not. One source who worked in the factory purportedly witnessed the production of over 100 Stage 2 heads.

You see where this is headed: Without any surviving documentation or build sheets, it is difficult to be sure how many Stage 2 packages were built or sold, or even what exactly the Stage 2 kit included beyond the badge. So we are left to comb through the collective recollections of people who swear they saw a Stage 2 at a dealership at one time or another.

Given this, Stage 2 finds should be on par with Elvis and Bigfoot sightings. But a cursory Google search will yield one or two dozen genuine Stage 2’s. Some openly admit to being tributes or clones, but most do not. They can’t all be authentic. Or can they? Since virtually all the Stage 2 kits were sold over the parts counter, there is almost no way to authenticate any Stage 2, as there are no build sheets or VIN codes. More pointedly, if I were to install all the Stage 2 engine components, badges, and stickers on my ’71 GS today, is this any less authentic than a person who did the exact same thing 45 years ago? George Washington’s axe indeed.

But back to the featured car: Notice that the entire Stage 2 discussion above centers around the 1970 model. There is no evidence (even of the anecdotal kind) that any Stage 2 kits were sold in 1971. That said, if the Stage 2 upgrade was indeed available over the parts counter, there is no reason to suspect that it couldn’t have been applied to a 1971 GS, which had essentially the same 455 engine as a 1970 GS.

“Authentic” Stage 2 badge

Here’s my theory, based on my Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction: While the car appears to be well-preserved, the wear marks on the instrument panel betray the fact that this was at one point a well-worn car that has since been restored. My guess is that it is a genuine GS, but that all four fenders had rotted away and were replaced with donor parts from a Skylark. The GS fender badges were then not reapplied to the front fenders, nor were the Skylark badges removed from the rears.

The Cragar wheels indicate that the owner is not highly concerned with originality or authenticity, so he was likely unconcerned with the mismatched badges. And the Stage 2 badge? While it certainly appears to match those on “genuine” Stage 2 cars, those badges were applied to the front fender, and not the rear as on our featured car. My guess – A nod or a wink to the few people who would get the joke. After all, Stage 2 emblems are readily available on eBay.

So what is your theory? Did I misread the clues? Is this restomod, or possibly a Stage 2 tribute car? Or maybe an attempt to craft phony Stage 2 GS from Skylark bones to cash in on the lack of a proper authentication mechanism? If indeed every car has a story, then this one’s is certainly still shrouded in a veil of Schrödinger-like uncertainty. Let the speculation begin!

Update – 01/26/2017

On a hunch, I decided to go out of my way driving home from work today to see if the car was still there, and it was. Indeed, it appears not to have moved since my original photo shoot several weeks earlier. The (slightly blurry) photo above still shows it sitting out in the elements, slowly rotting away. It was raining when I took this photo today, and if you look closely you can see rust starting to form on the chrome wheels.

Anyways, I managed to grab the VIN this time.

It is really hard to tell in this photo, but the first five digits are 44437, which indicate that this car is not a GS at all, but is in fact a Skylark Custom in GS drag. This means they my theory in the original post of this being a genuine GS was dead wrong. Congratulations to commenter Sarcasmo for being the first to correctly solve this puzzle.