By M. Park Hunter
Photos by the author
This article originally appeared in the November 18, 1996 issue of AutoWeek. Call 800/678-9595 for subscription information.
No one would have been surprised to see a long-haired prophet marching around Detroit in 1970 carrying a sign reading, "The End of the Performance Car is Coming!" High performance had become almost a religion among American drivers, but there were dark days ahead.
Shocking insurance premiums for muscle and pony cars scared off buyers, while tightening government emissions regulations sapped power. Famous names like AMX, GTO, Roadrunner and Mustang faded fast, offering less oomph and garnering fewer sales each year after 1970. Still, there were a few bright spots. Buick, one of the lesser-known builders of muscle cars, managed a surprisingly toasty Stage I option for the '72 Skylark GS.
How hot was it? Scorching enough to win its class at the National Hot Rod Association's 1972 Pomona Winternationals. Armed with Buick's 455 cubic-inch big block, school teacher Dave Benisek smoked a GS through the quarter mile in a record 13.38 seconds. With an automatic transmission, no less. Benisek ran in the C/Stock Automatic class, with mild upgrades from stock including open exhausts, stickier rear tires, a 4:30:1 rear end and 5700 rpm shift points. Motor Trend claimed the stock version would turn a sub-15 second quarter.
These kinds of numbers don't surprise Buick buffs. The Buick GS Club of America (912-244-0577) is an unrepentant bunch of go-fast gearheads devoted to blowing off such hallowed icons as the Ford 429, Chevy 454, and even the sainted 426 Hemi. Their monthly magazine, GS-Xtra, is packed with technical tips for the Buick 400-430-455 family of big blocks produced from 1967 though 1976.
These heretics preach the GS gospel: "Our engine is holier than thine." Literally holier, with whopping 2-inch intake valves, bigger than even the monster Mopar 440 or Pontiac 455. Buick engineer Clifford Studaker had started the new big block design in 1964 determined not to repeat past mistakes. The first-generation Buick V-8s had been nicknamed "nailheads" because their small valve size and twisted intake and exhaust routing restricted maximum power.
Studaker consequently paid a lot of attention to breathing. Exhaust valves 1.625 inches in diameter complemented the gaping intake valves. Intake port area increased 18 percent over the nailhead, and exhaust ports were 56 percent larger. Semi-wedge combustion chambers and dished pistons provided efficient combustion for the mass of air and fuel fed from the new Rochester Quadrajet carburetor.
Forged rods and a 3.25 inch main crank journal contributed strength to the design. To save weight, Buick broke its own tradition by not extending the block below the crank centerline. Along with new casting techniques, this produced a big block V-8 100 pounds lighter than similar Chevy and Chrysler engines.
The box-stock 455 still wasn't enough for some of the performance faithful, so Buick offered the Stage I option. In 1972 this meant a hotter cam, larger valves, revised tuning, better cooling, higher-revving and snappier automatic transmissions, and a positraction rear end. The '72 Stage I 455 was good for 270 of the newly-standardized net horsepower.
Unfortunately, government and insurance company pogroms had decimated the devout. Of 679,921 Buicks built in 1972, only 8575 were GS Skylarks. A miniscule 81 were Skylark GS Stage I convertibles. Most were thrashed and trashed long ago. That makes a drive in Steve Ledger's car akin to sighting a weeping statue. Despite its rarity, Ledger likes to blow out the cobs periodically: "I drive it, you're damn right I do."
While cold, the engine idles unsteadily, shaking the entire car and threatening to quit any moment. A minute of warm-up and a quick blast on the highway soon soothe the beast and it becomes surprisingly docile. Stabbing the throttle produces good off-the-line performance, marred by the slightly mushy automatic.
Passing power is jaw-dropping awesome. Downshifts are optional, fortunate with the lethargic transmission. Those eight coffee cans of exploding gasoline under the hood could probably launch the Space Shuttle through small holes in traffic.
If the engine is sinfully great, the rest of the car edges a bit closer to plain old sin. The tan interior and round gauges aren't bad for a '70s motif. But cowl and body shake, even on relatively smooth roads, quickly saps confidence and reminds you of Motor Trend's 1971 parody of Buick's slogan: "When better cars are built, Buick will import them." They referred to the German-built Opel, not a paragon of quality itself.
Handling on the squirmy bias-ply tires is what you'd expect from a muscle car. With that big lump of iron up front, the GS corners like a bar room dart. Often, the throttle is as useful as the steering wheel for changing the car's direction. Did we mention how much fun it is to drive like this? To modern drivers sedated by today's blandly competent sports cars, this hair shirt experience is a call from the wilderness.
If the Skylark seems no more than the sum of its parts, a heated-up luxury car engine in a mediocre intermediate-size body, then Bubba, you ain't got the faith. On the other hand, if the spirit moves you forget the scarce and wobbly Stage I convertible and look for one of the 728 coupes built. Look for matching VIN numbers on the body, engine and transmission. A fifth digit "V" denotes an original Stage I. If everything checks out, you've found your chariot and you'll never be late for church again.
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Unfortunately, image quality is currently limited by my hardware. These pictures may be updated with higher resolution and greater color clarity in the future...
|Despite the rarity of his '72 Buick GS Stage I convertible, Ledger likes to blow out the cobs periodically: "I drive it, you're damn right I do."|
|The GS shared the muscular stance of its GM siblings, the Chevelle, GTO and 4-4-2.|
|You might not be able to read that GS logo on the corner of the trunk, and maybe it's hard to believe this is a Buick, but the dual exhausts leave little doubt why you're eating this car's dust.|
|Few '70s automobile interiors would win fashion awards. Nevetheless, the instruments are all there and this is a comfortable driving environment.|
|Twin nostrils on the hood force feed cold air to the hungry monster below...|
|Beneath the snake nest of emissions hoses lies Buick's smokin' 455 cubic inch Stage I engine. Net horsepower of 270 commands respect even today.|
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Copyright 1997 M. Park Hunter. This page and its contents written, photographed, designed, slaved over, etc. by the author. Please do not copy anything without my permission.
Reset May 20, 1997.