If you like kittycats, don’t be embarrassed. I have a treat for you here with a close look at one of the coolest ‘Cats ever. Dog lovers should like it, too. At the end of the article I’ll delve a bit into how the Wildcat fit into Buick’s lineup at the time and historically.
Here’s how you know you’re certifiable: if you can go to multiple car shows/auctions where you see several hundred vehicles you personally like (among a few thousand) and pick out one you love above all others. But certifiably what? I don’t know. My wife would say insane. I’d counter it’s only a case of car crazy, but probably more specifically Buick Obsessive Disorder because I exhibited the same behavior five years ago when I last journeyed to Arizona in January. I still dream about that Riviera. This time it was a charming feline that got ahold of me and made me wish I had gone there to actually adopt a vehicular pet instead of just soaking in the atmosphere of being in the desert surrounded by excellent cars and history for three days.
Included in my long time automotive interests are Buicks, large cars, sporty cars and 60s cars. The junction of all those is somewhere around the 1962-70 Wildcat. Let’s briefly review that cool cat before getting into why this 64 is more special than most.
Buick introduced the Wildcat midyear 1962, as a coupe-only submodel of the Invicta, Buick’s midlevel fullsizer. The new model was initially Buick’s answer to the growing Personal Luxury Car trend and cars like the Ford Thunderbird, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Oldsmobile Starfire.
The 1959-62 Invicta was the successor to the long-running Century model (1936 edition of which some would claim was the first muscle car), which combined the smaller B-Body with the C-Body car’s larger engine. With the introduction of the Riviera for 1963, the Wildcat was no longer primarily a Personal Luxury coupe for Buick. That year it replaced the Invicta entirely in coupe, sedan, or convertible models but continued with the 1962 ‘Cat’s sporting pretensions.
For 1964, the sporting nature of the Wildcat was both diluted and concentrated. It was diluted by having a pillared sedan added to the choices and bucket seats becoming optional across the board. It was concentrated, though, by having more powerful engine offerings. Buick stirred confusion by calling all their V8 engines “Wildcat ###”, whether installed in a Wildcat or not (similar to Mercury calling all their 1964 engines Marauder). They multiplied the confusion by the number following “Wildcat” being not displacement or horsepower, but torque. In the Wildcat’s case, the standard engine was still the Nailhead 401c.i. “Wildcat 445” four-barrel V8 making 325hp and 445lb-ft, shared with the Electra as it had been in 1962 and 63. The Wildcat’s performance status was further enhanced, in comparison at least, by the 64 LeSabre being demoted from its previous two-barrel 401c.i. engine to a 300c.i. (and losing 55hp standard).
The Wildcat didn’t have any chassis enhancements over the LeSabre or Electra that I’ve been able to find, though slightly larger tires were optional on Wildcat only.
The first thing that sets this auction car apart from the pack is its engine. The ‘Cat’s optional engine #1 was the Wildcat 465, a four-barrel version of the Nailhead bored out to 425c.i., making 340hp and 465lb-ft (as the name implies). This had been new in 1963 and available in the Riviera only. Option #2, as seen above in our car, was the Super Wildcat, a new dual four-barrel 425 with special camshaft and distributer that was rated an extra 20hp, with the same torque rating. The Wildcat 465 was also standard in the Riviera and optional in the Electra and the Super Wildcat was also optional in both the Electra and the Riviera, so the Wildcat unfortunately can’t claim any exclusive power.
What was unique to the Wildcat and sets my dream ‘Cat further apart, is a 4-speed manual transmission. This transmission was not available on the Electra or Riviera but was on the LeSabre. Both Wildcat and LeSabre had a 3-speed manual standard, but buying a Wildcat was the only way to get the big block engines with a stick shift.
Being a Buick, the factory wasn’t going to send their car out in the world with a naked rubber shifter boot sticking out of the floor, so performance-minded Wildcaters not interested in buckets got this sharp mini-console.
While cursive handwriting is almost a dead script in 21st century America, it was alive and well in 1964 (fighting cultural decay, we have our 10 year old taking a cursive course, so she can read the Declaration Of Independence and stuff like that). Are there any modern cars using cursive name badges? It’s hard to imagine there would be. Perhaps lost to history is the reason for not having the d flow directly into the c, but I’ll bet there was one.
Now step back and take it in. I don’t know about you, but this is my idea of a seriously handsome 60s car. From the era of peak GM and peak Bill Mitchell, that puts it near the pinnacle of automotive styling for all time. We know there was major room for improvement in handling, safety, and efficiency. It wasn’t long before the demands for those things took a toll on the uninhibited practice of the automotive styling art, seen here in its pure distillation when looks, image, and power were still the most important things in high end models.
The overall effect is that Buick built something of a sleeper here. The Wildcat looks sporty, but not real sporty. The Wedgewood [baby] Blue gives it an unthreatening look, as do the standard hubcaps (this was the first year for Buick’s superlative chrome road wheels, which I’d forgotten were called “Formula Five” in 1964). The original purchaser surely special ordered it and sprung for the top engine, top transmission, limited slip differential, dual exhaust, power steering and brakes, and a tachometer. He forsook any other options that I could spot, like air conditioning, buckets, power accessories, etc. Built for speed? Apparently, which makes sense given that there was no such thing as midsize Buick muscle at this point.
I’m sure there’s an interesting history to be told about this car, but regrettably none was given in the auction writeup.
If it was built for speed, it wasn’t abused. In fact, it’s said to be a mostly original rust-free car with 78k miles, sporting original paint and cloth upholstery, both in near perfect condition. The effect in person was catnip, so to speak, for this guy who has written so much here about loving unrestored original cars.
One would expect a car equipped like this to be rare, but how rare? ~23k of the 84k 1964 Wildcats were coupes. The seller claimed 114 of those had the Super Wildcat engine, though Hemmings Classic Car says it was 366 coupes out of 638 across all Wildcats. Either way, that’s pretty rare. I couldn’t find a 1964 number for the 4-speed, but in 1963 the 4-speed was only put in 346 cars so we could probably safely assume it wasn’t greatly more popular in 64 (the 4-speed was dropped after 1966). How many of those Super Wildcats got the floor rower and how many survive? Can’t be very many!
The price for all this? $35,200 including buyer’s fees. I don’t know the documented book value for this car, but that seems like a pretty reasonable price for what’s basically a full-size muscle car with this level of rarity and originality. Ah, if only I’d come there to buy something…
There have been a number of CC writeups featuring Wildcats and the model is actually a little controversial, around questions like: Was it really a performance car or a pretender? Does it make any sense? Did it help Buick?
The Century had been the “performance” Buick since 1936 and was quite popular in the mid fifties, but the name was dropped in 1959 when the Buick family gave all their kids new, semi-meaningless names. LeSabre and Electra turned out to be good choices, but Invicta never caught on. Sales dwindled and Buick smartly, IMO, gave the model a more evocative name in Wildcat and a more explicitly sporty image. The refocused package was a success, with sales steadily increasing through 1965, far outpacing the 59-62 Invicta. Production headed the other direction after that, but stayed respectable through 1969. Sporty big cars were on the way out and Buick replaced it with the more Invicta-like Centurion in 1971, for some reason, and got Invicta-like sales in return until dropping the mid-level full-size concept entirely after 1973.
I would say the Wildcat was completely in keeping with Buick history before and after. The Century was named in the 30s, after all, for the car’s claimed top speed. Since then, Buick has pretty consistently offered sporty and/or performance models for the minority of their customers who like that sort of thing: GS packages on 65-75 Rivieras, 65-73 Gran Sport Skylark-based muscle cars, all variety of turbo 78-87 Regals including the legendary Grand National, 78-80 turbo LeSabre Sport Coupe, 79-89 S-type and T-type Rivieras, 85-89 T-type Electra and 86-88 Grand National/T-type LeSabre, 91-2020 Gran Sport Regals, supercharged 92-05 Park Avenues and Rivieras. Did I forget any?
Many people think tastefully restrained luxury, not sport and performance, when they think of Buicks. Buick clearly wanted an alternative to that perception for most of their history and the Wildcat was an integral part of that heritage. While the Wildcat may have been impractically large for that role and only been a double-threat (power and looks) rather than the triple threat that came to be expected later (power, looks + handling), it was hardly alone in the U.S. market in that. To its credit, Buick did have above average brakes in the 60s with their relatively large finned aluminum drums. Personally, I think the Wildcat was one of the most appealing full-size sporty/performance cars of that brief period in the 50s and 60s when they were popular.
The Wildcat moved to the Electra’s three inch longer wheelbase in 1965. 1964 was the only year a Wildcat on its shortest wheelbase (123 inch) could be combined with a 360+ horsepower engine and a 4-speed manual transmission. By those metrics, our auction car is the ultimate high-performance full-size Buick. A sleeper, yes, but a sleepy kitty it is not!
photographed at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale, AZ January 26, 2023
for further reading:
Curbside Classic: 1963 Buick Wildcat – I Think I Want To Fight by Lawrence Jones
Auction Classics: Arizona 2023 – It’s Only Original Forever, part 1 of 2 First in my series of auction articles, in case you missed any. Features all-original GM cars. Links at end to the whole series.