There it was, on the pullout on Seavey Loop Road, with a plaintive note in the windshield, as we were heading out to Mt. Pisgah for our semi-daily nature immersion: An X-Body Buick Skylark, a car whose legacy is so much greater than its modest footprint. The only GM Deadly Sin that I’ve ever “owned” (as a company car), but mine was quite well behaved. In fact, I was rather impressed at the time, that GM could come up with something so modern, space efficient, brisk, and good handling. I feel a bit sheepish confessing that now, like those auto journalists that raved about the X-Bodies after their first drive of carefully prepared pre-production versions. Father, I have sinned: I…um…rather liked a GM Deadly Sin.
But then I did have something of a spiritual experience in one once. Maybe this is a GM Divine Grace.
The note in the windshield note is dated 5/10/20. We came by and shot this on 5/14. And when we came by again on 5/16, it was still there, but with a warning sticker on the side window, from the local authorities. Hmm; who is going to get it first: the unwanted kind of tow truck or the owner? Maybe the tools/parts were hard to come by? Waiting for divine intercession?
This is how the last of their kind so often disappear: un-elegantly. No Death With Dignity. Although I rather suspect that if this Skylark could take that option, it just might.
After 37 years, it’s looking a wee bit tired. I’m probably being harsh, because this will likely bring tears from some of you hard-core Rust-Belters.
All it has to show from its long life in rainy Oregon is some organic scum growing where the pollen stuck to the dirt. If left alone, that will eventually support lichen. And then eventually moss. But a good power washing would (dis)solve that problem stat.
If our Western Oregon climate was as perpetually gray and wet as it’s often made out to be, the vinyl top would still be healthy.
The reality is that our Mediterranean climate includes a long dry and sunny season; we can go 5-6 months with nary a rain; maybe a few random drops. And the result is vinylnoma, a terminal case here.
The 1980 Skylark that came to live with me for almost two years was pure white, no vinyl top, had the optional wider wheels and low profile 70-series tires (blackwall, natch), and the standard wheel covers. Our engineer at the tv station had carefully pored over the brochure and option sheet, and ordered the fleet of four identical ones to be as aesthetically amenable to our West Los Angeles import-loving sensibilities as possible. That was a bit of a stretch at the time, as among our cohort of young and (mostly) well educated professionals (Yuppies, in other words) in W. LA in 1980 felt the same way about Buicks as would a similar demographic today. We wanted European cars, or Japanese, if economically necessary. There were two or three Mercedes W123s in the parking lot, a couple of Rabbits, a Dasher, a BMW 2002 (or two) and a Bavaria.
But this engineer was still in utter thrall of GM, and convinced that the X cars were the second coming of Saint Mark of Excellence.
Issues with the new X’s were starting to surface in the press already, most notably their tendency to lock their brakes prematurely, due to GM leaving off a critical component: a load-sensing rear brake proportioning valve. I had only come to know what they were from my Peugeot 404, which had one:
Something like this one from a Toyota pickup: its lever arm senses when the body rises in relation to the axle, as during a hard braking, and reduces pressure to the rear brakes. In a FWD car, with its lightly loaded rear axle, this is essential. I had observed Citations with locked rear wheels coming to a screeching stop in traffic one or twice.
Oddly, our Skylarks didn’t show this behavior. Ours were ordered with HD suspension and the fat tires, as well as every HD part available on the fleet order list, so maybe that compensated for that tendency. But drivers complained, the NHTSA sued GM, and GM ended up winning in 1987. Oh well; it was just one of many various maladies these early X Bodies embodied, like barely-functional manual transmission linkages, driveability issues, etc. The very cheap interior of the Citation was an instant turn-off, and had a rep for premature degeneration. The X-Cars had a number of recalls, and their reputation plummeted quickly. My DS write-up on the Citation goes in greater detail.
I’m not sure which engine is under the hood of this one, but it’s giving off an Iron Duke vibe. Which is pretty impressive, considering it’s not running, or even capable of running anymore. If it was running, it would be noticeable from some distance, thanks to the excessive NVH of that august engine. Ah, that really was unfortunate, to saddle Detroit’s most ambitious new car in just about forever (which is quite true) with an engine straight out of the…1920s? In 1929, Chevrolet’s new six replaced its four, and GM never made another rough and tumble four until the 1962 Chevy II four, which is what the Iron Duke essentially was, with a bit of window dressing from Pontiac. And that Chevy II four was widely rejected, rarely bought, and ultimately given Death With Dignity in 1970. And then an even rougher four replaced it in the Vega… ok; compared to that paint shaker, the Iron Duke was suitable for bringing a massaging Lazy Boy to life, on the high setting.
Meanwhile; never mind, let’s not meanwhile about the Japanese fours. It’s a waste of time.
Needless to say, the KSCI Skylark fleet all sported Chevy’s new 60 degree V6, something of a mini-me SBC, for better or for worse. Pushrods, a carb, and not the smoothest V6 by far, but it had a certain SBC-like urge to it, unless it was saddled with a too-heavy S-10 Blazer or Jeep Cherokee.
As the newly-minted GM of the station, I had the pick of the litter. And just how did I pick which one of the four was going to be my steed? By driving all four, flat out, and seeing which one pulled the hardest. There was more variation in that than should really have been the case. It reminded me of the variations in each of the 12 supposedly identical 35′ New Look buses at Iowa City Transit. I can assure you that #4 pulled the hardest, and quite noticeably so. It wasn’t #6, pictured above; in fact, that was one of the slower ones in the fleet.
The beauty of buying GM vehicles in fleets is that you’re bound to find a good one; the larger the fleet, the better the odds. And the one I picked pulled hard; forward as well as to the left. That was the reality of the early X Cars; the whole front subframe sort of crabbed under hard acceleration, a different sort of torque steer. Never experienced it in any other car.
This is a Skylark Limited, as were ours. Plush; a mini-me Electra, actually. And that was pretty smart on Buick’s part. 1980 was the utter depths of the second energy crisis, and unlike in the depths of the first one, when big car divers traded in their big barges for wretched little Pintos and such, now they could turn them in for a very nicely trimmed very compact Buick. No wonder the Skylark sold so well, and continued to sell well even after its other X-Body relations were on life support, or adding a “II” to their nomenclature.
And for being such a short car, merely 182″ long, its interior accommodations were shockingly good. The Germans would call it a raumwunder (space miracle). Well that same basic body with a space-wasting longer front and rear ends became the venerable GM A-Body, and nobody complained about its interior room, at least not until late in its life.
I remember sitting back there one afternoon, on the drive back from our San Bernardino studio with two other co-workers. I asked one of them to drive so I could meditate. And I had one of the deeper meditations I’d had up to that point in my life. In bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-10 in the San Gabriel Valley smog. Anybody who says you have to be in a cave or on a mountain or a retreat to meditate well doesn’t know their mantra from a Manta.
Looking at the back seat of a Skylark Limited will always bring back a special flash of memory for me. Will this be the last time?
So I have a soft spot for what I called GM’s Deadliest Sin. There’s something quite utterly perfect about that.