Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1964 Buick Wildcat with 425 V8, Dual Quad Carbs and 4-Speed Manual – More Carbs and Gears Are Not Necessarily Better

We’ve recently posted vintage reviews of two other Buicks: a 1963 Riviera and a 1964 Electra 225, both powered by the 325 hp 401 cubic inch version of the classic “nailhead” Buick V8. Both of them performed excellently; the Riviera somewhat surprisingly so, with a sub-8 second 0-60 time.

But for those that wanted even more power, there was also the optional 425 cubic inch V8 available, the “Wildcat 465” (as in its torque) with 340 hp and the “Super Wildcat” with 360 hp (dual four barrel carburetors). Car Life tested a Wildcat coupe with the Super Wildcat engine backed by a four speed manual transmission and 3.91:1 rear axle. Yes, it was fast, but it struggled to put those 465 lb.ft. of torque to the ground through its skinny tires (7.60-15). And who really wanted to bother shifting four gears when two would have been quite sufficient?

Car Life dubbed it the Executive Hot Rod. I guess that works, although I tend to see the buyer of one of these as the owner of a small business, like a machine shop or tire shop or such. And he was of course a hot rodder in his youth, and like so many of them, he fell under the spell of Buick’s nailhead V8.

It powered many a successful drag racer of one kind or another, including “TV” Tommy Ivo’s ultimate exhibition rail, powered by no less than four of them. The nailhead’s small valves — hence the name — ultimately limited its success in the early ’60s, but in the ’50s, thanks to creative ways to make it sing, it was quite competitive. And it earned a rep for being…tough as nails, which probably was the biggest reason Ivo used Buicks, as he was the first to make a living on the drag strips, even if they were exhibition runs and not all-out competitive races.

Not only did the Wildcat “EHR” have the most powerful stock nailhead ever made, but as noted before, it was backed by the four speed manual, and a 3.91:1 rear axle ratio. All of this should have made it faster than the 401-powered Riviera, with its old-school Dynaflow automatic and 3.23:1 rear axle gears. But it didn’t.

The rear tires just weren’t up to the task; larger 8.00-15s would have helped some as well as a lower (numerical) axle ratio. The Wildcat’s rear tires just didn’t want to stop spinning, even on dry pavement.

The result was a 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds, just a hair quicker than the 401 Riviera. And in the quarter mile, the Wildcat tied the Riviera with an ET of 16.00 (16.01 for the Riviera) and a very slightly faster trap speed of 87 mph vs. 85.71 mph. What does this tell us? That these high-torque, high-output engines weren’t really all that suitable for the task they presumably were intended for, certainly not with a 4-speed, a low axle ratio and the standard tires of the times.

Driving up and down the public streets is both a burden and a blessing. It has so much power pouring through its stump-puller gear that it can accelerate from 10 mph in top gear.”  One of the biggest things I’ve learned form reading all these vintage reviews is that the vaunted 4-speed manual was wasted on a lot of them. These cars with their enormous V8s and massive torque curves simply had no need or real use of them. A three speed did the job just as effectively, and reduced the shifting chore. Seriously, a two speed manual would have worked just fine in this one. The testers even recommended it as the lazy way to drive this Wildcat: “starting in either 1st or 2nd…and then shifting into 4th at the earliest opportunity.

Ironically, four speeds often weren’t offered or installed where they were really needed: behind the sixes and the small V8s in the larger cars. There the additional intermediate gear would have been genuinely helpful. Well, that and genuine racing on a racing track, which is precisely why the modern American 4-speed was created: for the high-winding 1957 Corvette, so that its driver could power out of curves at the optimum rpm. Even in the Corvette the three speed was ideal for all but the highest output engines with their peaky torque curves.

There was another issue: the carburetor linkage was not progressive enough, and when the second carb kicked in there was a sudden surge, which could cause the rear tires to break loose in less than perfect traction situations. Is this really how an executive wanted to drive after a long day at the office? Methinks not.

But for those that valued the aural experience of eight barrels sucking in air and the scream of burning tires as well as the sensation of “heart-rending acceleration“, the sensory overload of the unleashed Wildcat was “a memorable experience“.  Once again, I’m thinking hot-rodder turned shop owner, and quite likely using the Wildcat to pull his nailhead powered gasser or rail to the drags on Sunday.

The 425 was the final evolution of Buick’s first V8, which started life in 1953 with 322 cubic inches and 188 hp. In ten years it displacement increased by 32% and its hp by almost 100%. But the nailhead would have a relatively short life, being replaced in 1967 by a new generation of V8s, and ones that never achieved the legendary durability of its predecessor.

The 425 had a bit more bore, and the camshaft was a nick hotter. Buick had to use pretty aggressive camshafts to help compensate for the 1.875″ intake and a 1.5″ exhaust valves; both were substantially smaller than the significantly smaller displacement Chevy V8 engine.

CL ends again with their claim that the Executive Hot Rod “is just what the tired businessman needs to provide stimulation and relaxation at the end of a long day at a hot desk“. And I’m going to say that the Riviera would be the better choice; just as fast and a lot more pleasant to drive. OK; perhaps an executive at a car magazine publisher?

Related CC reading:

Vintage Road Test: 1963 Buick Riviera – Hot Rod Nailhead Buick

Auto-Biography: Wildcat

Automotive History: The Legendary Buick Nailhead V8 – And The Source Of Its Unusual Valve Arrangement

Curbside Classic: 1963 Buick Wildcat – I Think I Want To Fight