Curbside Classic: 1987 Buick Skyhawk Coupe – Once Like Sparrows

(first posted 4/25/2017)    One of the things I enjoy most about April in Chicago is how rapidly spring seems to manifest itself once the snow melts for the last time.  I’m a pretty early riser, and on the morning I drafted this piece, I took a brisk, pre-dawn walk to my local health club to the beautiful songs of a choir of birds.  Their chirps and calls seemed to reverberate against the houses and apartment buildings lining my neighborhood’s narrow streets, intensified by the utter silence of everything else around us that was broken only occasionally by the whoosh of a passing, elevated CTA train.  Combined with the fresh, cool air and the sight of budding trees, this five-minute walk was exhilarating.

My mind often wanders off on tangents (I consider it one of my more endearing foibles), and these morning birds brought to my recollection a later-edition Buick Skyhawk I had spotted a few years ago along this very same street.  When I had first found our featured car, my initial thought was to wonder just how many years it had been since I had last seen one.  Like spotting my first cardinal (a pale female) just a few weeks ago, the sight of this Skyhawk had brought back a ton of memories.

These may not seem as common to many of you U.S. readers as GM’s other J-Body variants, but where and when I grew up, they were as common as sparrows.  My 80’s childhood in Flint, Michigan – the former world headquarters of Buick Motor Division and the birthplace of General Motors – was heavy on tri-shield pride, regardless of where any given Buick had been built.  I’d say that when new, this generation of Skyhawk was probably the second most-popular J-car in town after the Chevy Cavalier.  There were a few Pontiac Sunbirds, and the Olds Firenza was downright rare, but there were lots of Skyhawks.  Our neighbors, the Elias, had one.

In reality, Skyhawk sales usually sat squarely in the middle of the J-Car pack throughout its entire, eight-year run: For ’87, Chevy moved about 346,000 Cavaliers, Olds sold about 26,000 Firenzas, and The Excitement Division moved 107,000 Sunbirds.  (For completists, there were also about 14,500 buyers who quite literally “fancied” the Cadillac Cimarron.)  As it turns out, our featured notchback coupe was the most popular of the four Skyhawk bodystyles for ’87, with about 21,000 sold out of 47,000 total that year.

I was in the second grade when a local news story featured a brand-new, beige, ’82 Skyhawk four-door sedan that had rolled off its carrier and into the Flint River, not far from my elementary school.  (Trust me when I tell you that given the state of the Flint River, especially then, there was probably no salvage on that car.  Not a buck.)  My first impressions of the new, J-Body Skyhawk at the time were, and in no particular order: 1.) They added a sedan and wagon, and swapped the previous coupe’s hatchback for a trunk – wow!; 2.) Wait, though… the new coupe doesn’t look quite as sporty as the old Monza-clone; and 3.) It looks a lot like the new Sunbird, especially from the back.

Indeed, it took this kid a little longer than it should have to differentiate the Skyhawk’s rear fascia from that of the Sunbird.  From the front, the differences were more obvious, with the Pontiac carrying a vestigial trace of the “beak” shared with other Ponchos.  I thought the ’87 restyle of the base Skyhawks, that slightly flattened the slope of the front nose cone, was deft.  The blackout treatment of the headlamp surrounds, combined with the rectangular, sealed-beam quad headlamps, gave the base cars a slightly meaner, butcher, more predatory look – as would befit a hawk.  The hidden-headlamped facade that had been introduced for ’86 on that year’s new Sport/Hatch model (which was later available for any body style, even the wagon), was beautiful, though I felt it didn’t mesh well with the blocky styling of the non-hatchback bodies.

I can’t vouch for this car being an ’87, but I chose that model year to write about simply because if was the first year of this restyle, which lasted through swan-song ’89.  Base power for ’87 came from a Chevy-sourced, 90-hp, 2.0L OHV four-cylinder (discontinued the next year), with a Brazilian-built, Opel-designed SOHC four with the same displacement (a bored and stroked version of the previous year’s 1.8L) also available, in normally-aspirated and turbocharged versions yielding 96 and 165 hp, respectively.  With this coupe’s starting weight of just over 2,300 pounds, the base engine / 3-speed auto combo would have delivered a 0-60 time of about 12.5 seconds – not great for an upscale subcompact of its day, but certainly not bad enough to declare it a deathtrap, either.

The engine and exhaust note of this ’87 Skyhawk didn’t make music nearly as sweet as that of the birds that had serenaded me last week.  I can faintly remember the buzzy, nasal whirr of the four-cylinder engine from many of these cars pulling away in traffic.  I’ll bet that based on Buick’s core demographic, probably 90% of them came with the 3-speed auto.  I didn’t get a peek inside this one for verification.

As a kid, I had started to wonder if Buick was going to add another “bird” model to its nest.  After all, the concurrent Skylark seemed only nominally larger, and both bird-car names started with “Sky”.  This prefix seemed redundant, almost like naming a boat a “Waterfish”.  So-naming these cars didn’t appear to be for the purpose of any legitimate literary device.  Did one really need to be e. e. cummings or Langston Hughes to come up with something better?  Dang it, Flint.  To your credit, though, you didn’t dust off “Wildcat” or “Invicta” – powerful, dynamic names, in my opinion – for use on these small cars.  After all, Oldsmobile reused “Starfire” for the Firenza’s little predecessor.

I haven’t seen this Skyhawk for at least a couple of years now.  Like so many birds in the winter months, I presumed it had just flown away after the college graduation of its owner, who looked to be the age of a student at nearby Loyola University.  The dealer sticker on the trunklid indicates this car was sold by Schepel Buick-GMC, which is still in business in Merrillville, Indiana (about 50 miles and an hour and fifteen minutes from this neighborhood).  To the gentleman to owned it at the time I took these photos, I hope you can appreciate, with your firsthand experience, just how far small cars have come since about ten years before you, yourself, came down life’s assembly line.  And to you, little bird, I hope you’re still nesting somewhere comfortably.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
January 25 – February 11, 2013.