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Oh, Skylark, Won't You Lead Me There? The Strange Tale of the Buick/Rover 215 and the 3800 V6


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Oh, Skylark, Won't You Lead Me There? The Strange Tale of the Buick/Rover 215 and the 3800 V6

Written by Aaron Severson

Sunday, 02 March 2008 14:14

From the "what tangled webs we weave" department comes this odd tale of how Buick's efforts to build an economy car in the early 1960s gave birth to the premier British hot rod engine and a V6 that is still powering new GM cars some 45 years later. In the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, we've got some 'splaining to do...


By the end of World War Two, Buick, second from the top the General Motors model hierarchy, was firmly established as a "semi-prestige" make. If it didn't quite have the snob appeal of Cadillac or Packard, it was still highly respectable, the kind of car a doctor, lawyer, or bank vice president might own. It was, in short, an aspirational car for middle-class buyers, an enviable position that earned it a consistent fourth-place ranking in U.S. auto sales, exceeded only by the Low-Priced Three: Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth.

In the early fifties, Buick introduced a new, entry-level model, the Special, which was priced only about $200 more than a Chevy Bel Air. This was down-market for Buick, taking it into the price range occupied by Oldsmobile and the higher-end Pontiac models, but it was very successful, albeit largely at the expense of Buick's corporate siblings. For GM's mid-price divisions to eat each other's lunch like this flew in the face of the doctrine laid out by Alfred P. Sloan in the twenties, but the strategy worked well for Buick. Sales rose to more than 737,000 for the 1955 model year, more than 40% of which were Specials. That was an almost 50% increase over Buick's normal volume, taking it to third place in the industry and beating Oldsmobile and Pontiac by more than 150,000 units.

Alas, Buick soon fell victim to its own success. By 1956, its wild sales growth and the attendant rapid increase in production had wreaked havoc on Buick's traditional quality control. As word spread about how problematic new Buicks were becoming, buyers began to shy away. That hesitance was exacerbated by unpopular styling and a disastrous new transmission, the Flight Pitch (Triple Turbine) Dynaflow. The final straw was the recession of 1957 and 1958, which nearly crippled the mid-price market. As a result, Buick sales for the 1958 model year plummeted to barely a third of their '55 peak, leading to an extensive housecleaning of the division's leadership.

The recession, as we have seen, produced a sudden spike in the popularity of compact economy cars like AMC's newly revived small Rambler and the imported Volkswagen Beetle. Chevrolet was developing the compact, rear-engine Corvair for 1960, but that did nothing to help Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick, which had been hit much harder. Starting in 1958, GM imported a limited number of European Opels and Vauxhalls for Buick and Pontiac dealers, but it was strictly a temporary measure while the corporation prepared a more considered solution.


In a move reminiscent of Alfred P. Sloan's ill-fated Companion Make program of the late twenties, GM management decided that Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick should have their own compact sedans, code-named Y-body. Based on the body shell of the Corvair, each would be dramatically smaller than the divisions' full-size cars, but bigger and plusher than the Corvair. When they appeared for the 1961 model year, they were swiftly nicknamed "Senior Compacts."

Buick's senior compact, which went on sale on October 5, 1960, was dubbed the Special. Although Buick general manager Ed Rollert had discontinued the old Special line in 1958, it had been a sales success, and Buick management may have thought that slapping a familiar name on the new car would help put buyers at ease.

Some reassurance was necessary, because the revived Special was a major departure for Buick. Except for limited number of Opel Olympia Rekords Buick had imported from 1958 to 1960, the new Special was the smallest car the division had offered in more than two decades.

The '63 Special was 192.1 inches (4,879 mm) long on a 112-inch (2,845-mm) wheelbase. It was considered a compact at the time, although it is roughly the size of a modern Toyota Camry or Ford Mondeo. This is a Skylark Sport Coupe, which had a base price of $2,857. 32,109 of these cars were produced for 1963, making it the second most popular Special model; the best seller was the four-door Special Deluxe sedan.

Like the Corvair, the Y-body Special had a unit body, rather than the larger Buicks' body-on-frame construction. It was about 4 inches (101 mm) longer than the Corvair in wheelbase, about 8 inches (203 mm) longer overall. Despite being more than two feet (63 cm) shorter and about 1,500 lb (680 kg) lighter than a Buick LeSabre, it gave up surprisingly little interior room. Unlike the Corvair, the Special had an entirely conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout and suspension, meaning that it drove like any other American car, with a soft ride, light steering, and predictable understeer. The Special even had a V8, a brand-new 215 cu. in. (3.5 L) all-aluminum engine.



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