Curbside Classic: 1978 Buick Skylark – The Dauntless Little Buick

This Buick Skylark is a tough old cookie. Last week, Paul shared some photos of it taken this year by Cohort contributor William Oliver. I instantly recognized it, having photographed it around 5 years ago in Manhattan before it suffered some unfortunate collision damage. Let’s look back at better times for the ol’ bird and examine the history of the X-Body Skylark.

The Skylark name had been in regular use by Buick until 1972. When it came time to redesign Buick’s intermediate A-Body model, Buick dusted off an even older nameplate, Century, and put the Skylark name back in its cage.

While Buick had shared platforms with other GM divisions for years, there was generally a significant level of visual differentiation. Not so for the 1973 Apollo, a hastily dolled-up version of the Chevrolet Nova in the same vein as the rebadged Pontiac Ventura II and Oldsmobile Omega. Sure, the Apollo had an optional Buick 350 V8 but otherwise the baby Buick was little more than a Nova with some extra brightwork and different details – the standard Chevy 250 six was the same as that in the Nova.

GM’s introduction of the three Nova clones seemed prescient as, just after its launch, the oil crisis led to fuel shortages and higher gas prices. Despite this, the Apollo wasn’t a huge seller – in its first year, Buick sold 32,793 while Oldsmobile sold 59,643 Omegas.

When GM redesigned the compact X-Body for 1975, Buick also received a version. The Apollo name was carried over for the sedan but the coupe and hatchback dusted off the Skylark moniker. All the redesigned X-Bodies had clean, crisp lines and various mechanical improvements such as new front suspension, a thicker front stabilizer bar and front disc brakes.

As before, the difference was in the details. All four X-Bodies used the same body but the Buicks and the Oldsmobiles (and, later, some Pontiac Phoenix models) had wraparound taillights. Front-end design was reasonably well-differentiated among the four although, interestingly, these supposedly premium X-Body variants never got the newly legal and very fashionable rectangular headlights lavished on other GM models – of the X cars, only the Phoenix and ’79 Nova received them.

The base engine in the Skylark was now Buick’s own 231 cubic-inch V6, a powerplant resurrected for 1975 and which continued to be improved over the years and survived into the following century; the Apollo continued with the 250 cubic-inch six from Chevy. Optional engines consisted of Oldsmobile’s 260 cubic-inch V8 and the Buick 350 cubic-inch V8, the latter of which came with either a two- or four-barrel carburetor. A column-mounted three-speed manual was standard on six-cylinder models but a three-speed auto was the popular choice and the only transmission available with the V8s.

GM was embracing the concept of more “European-inspired” trim levels and so both the Apollo and Skylark were available in top-line S/R (Sport/Rallye) trim, in the same vein as the Oldsmobile Omega Salon, Chevrolet Nova LN and Pontiac Ventura SJ.

The S/R, available in all three body styles and with all engines, featured cloth-and-vinyl bucket seats, a console-mounted shifter for the mandatory automatic, a stalk-mounted headlight dimmer, rallye steering wheel and carpeted door trim, as well as a firmer suspension tune.

Not all Skylarks were “little limousines” as its successor was sometimes referred to. This well-worn New York City example is a base 1978 Skylark sedan, likely powered by the 231 cubic-inch V6; the Apollo name and the Chevy inline-six were dropped for 1976. GM’s game of musical engines continued through the rest of the Skylark’s run, the car varyingly using the Oldsmobile 260, Pontiac 301, Chevrolet 305, Chevrolet 350 and Buick 350. The Buick V6, however, was a constant.

There were cheaper Skylarks still. Like the Omega with its poverty-pack F-85 trim, the Skylark could be had as an S coupe for around $100 less than the regular Skylark coupe. The S forewent some minor niceties and came only with a vinyl bench seat. Brochures didn’t feature any photos of it, likely because it was just a price leader aimed at getting people into showrooms so they could leave with a more expensive car.

Though the Buick’s V6 produced just 105 hp at 3200 rpm and 185 ft-lbs at 2000 rpm, it weighed 200 pounds less than the optional V8s. It also stacked up well against the inline-six in the rival Ford Granada and Mercury Monarch. Though the Ford twins were quieter and more refined, they were slower and less fuel-efficient – Popular Science recorded the Skylark as reaching 60 mph in 16.6 seconds (versus 22.7 for the Ford) and achieving 18 mpg in the city (versus 12 for the Granada). The GM X-Body also had the edge in handling given its parts commonality with GM’s F-Body pony cars; the Ford twins had ponderous handling to match their cushy ride.

With their flossier styling and little-LTD driving experience, however, Ford’s premium compacts made bank, especially considering Ford retained the Maverick for truly budget-conscious buyers. Even the Mercury Monarch outsold the Skylark. For whatever reason, Buick did a lot better in this segment than Oldsmobile even though the latter brand was doing better in divisional sales.

One Skylark that sold poorly was the S/R, Buick’s attempts at offering a European-style concept met with indifference. The S/R trio were generally outsold 4-to-1 by the standard sedan alone. For 1978, Buick dropped any sporting pretences and, with it, the S/R trim; most of its features, bar its sportier suspension tune, moved to the new top-line Skylark Custom. A new Sport option package included the S/R’s mechanical improvements. While the take rate of this package is unknown, overall the Custom sold around three times as well as the previous year’s S/R.

The majority of buyers were happy to buy a standard Skylark just like this NYC example, however – the V6 accounted for the vast majority of sales, typically 80-90%, while the regular Skylark continued to outsell the top-line model. The Skylark may not have been the last word in refinement or build quality but it was a steady seller and the mechanicals were durable. How else could this ’78 still be chugging along on the streets of New York City?

Photographed in the East Village, Manhattan in 2014.

Related Reading:

Vintage Review: 1975 Chevrolet Nova LN – Chevy’s Take On A BMW

Curbside Classic: 1978 Oldsmobile Omega – Grandma’s BMW

Cohort Classic: 1975-79 Pontiac Ventura & Phoenix – Seeking Greater Fortune