As my parents celebrate their 50th anniversary this winter, I can appreciate, among other things, that they’ve stayed together long enough that I never had to deal with the prospect of a stepsibling. The introduction of a new “parent” would have caused enough trauma for a kid who almost ran away upon seeing his first substitute teacher, but having to share a bathroom with even more little people??? Other than my sister, who already claimed it as her second bedroom??? Make me a hobo pie and send me on my way, I’m having none of it. Buick fans, however, are more than happy with their stepchildren, which is handily the nickname they’ve bestowed on their 1968 and 1969 intermediates.
In a way, Buick intermediates were always stepchildren. Even my 1965 Skylark is less common and more commonly inexpensive than its brethren, including the Cutlass, Chevelle, and LeMans. One must turn the calendar to 1970 before Buick began to earn the respect its divisional siblings were afforded. Even today, the 1970-’72 GS models are among the only Buick muscle cars to truly equal the esteem of their GM rivals.
Nevertheless, that was not the case in 1968, when General Motors introduced sweeping updates to its entire A-Body lineup. Road testers swooned over the new GTO in particular, which earned “Car of the Year” honors from Motor Trend (although many dispute the validity of that long-standing award). The Buicks, on the other hand, earned a lukewarm reception. Detractors felt that their styling lagged behind the other new A-Bodies, although anyone viewing one from the front would be hard-pressed to find any obvious flaws.
The general consensus is that GM’s wayward mining of nostalgia might have been to blame. The faux-sweepspear pressed into the side of this ’68 Skylark terminated at a squared-off wheel arch that wasn’t anywhere near as racy as the full cutout of a contemporary LeMans.
Here is a 1969 GTO for comparison.
Still, time has a way of making people forget, and to most, the 1968 and ’69 Buick A-Bodies are just cool old cars, although they’ll rarely be as valuable as an equivalent Chevelle. I recently had the good fortune to photograph three 1968 models on the same weekend, and there is a touch of family nostalgia for me in each.
When I was in college, my uncle rehabilitated a ’69 Buick Special Deluxe post coupe, and we both spent the summer at the local skill center performing rust repairs, including installing the last new quarter panels in stock at Sherman Parts. I would do the welding and he and I both would do the cutting and fitment. The shop instructor was an old-school bodyman, and he did the painting, which was about a half-degree too shiny over our decent-but-not-great bodywork. Although our work would win no awards from Chip Foose, or even a local bondo-slinger, my uncle had a running and driving car that fall. He sold the car within months for some reason, but working on that car is still a fond memory, and I learned a lot.
Unlike my uncle, many owners of “stepchildren” are fiercely loyal to their cars, at least from what I’ve seen on my favorite Buick forums. Typically reliable Buick mechanical bits form the foundation of all this conservatively controversial styling. The Stage 1 package was available on the Buick’s big-block 400, now in its second year of production. Skylarks were propelled by the new-for-’68 350 small block, which was unrelated to any other GM 350, which is a fact that seems to confuse a lot of people who are just learning about old cars. Buick engines have their quirks (don’t they all?), mostly relating to their oiling system, but when operated within their design parameters, they lasted a long time.
Buick interiors were always well-fitted, perhaps a step above their stablemates, with the “Fasten Seat Belts” admonition placed front and center on the ribbon speedometer being the only thing that gives away Buick’s inherent conservatism. This GS400’s rare four-speed option (without console) replaces the more common column shifter…
Which can be seen here on this bench-seat-equipped Skylark convertible (in dark blue, one of my favorite colors). The owner of this car replaced the, OK I’ll say it, ugly original steering wheel with a Buick sport wheel, which was used all the way up through the 1970s.
The original wheel can be seen on this Skylark, which is equipped with a console and neat “basket-handle” shifter for its automatic transmission. Chances are good that this Skylark, like many, is equipped with a two-speed Super Turbine 300 automatic (which is NOT a Powerglide, regardless of what all the Facebook Marketplace ads say). The 1968 version lost its “Switch-Pitch” torque converter, but it would still be a couple years before the Turbo 350 took over light-duty automatic duty exclusively. All General Motors divisions suffered with the two-speed for too long, but the ST300 was at least reliable. It just wasn’t very exciting.
These 1968-72 GM A-Bodies have never interested me as much as their boxier predecessors (a really cool ’69 LeMans hardtop that needed work notwithstanding), but these three Buicks cried out for attention on this particular weekend.
Cinderella waiting for her Prince Charming is too obvious a metaphor in this case, but I think the “stepchild” moniker works for these underappreciated collectibles. Although I grew up in a house without stepsiblings, I can sympathize with those who had to make it work; after all, many have used that experience to become extremely adaptive adults (I’m married to one). These Buicks seem to have found a home with people who love them for what they are, and there’s got to be a message in there somewhere.