12 February 2016

Muscling In

AFTER LANGUISHING IN THE SHADOWS OF PONTIAC AND CHEVY MUSCLE, THE CARS FROM BUICK AND OLDS FINALLY GET A LITTLE LOVE

What was the first muscle car? The 1949 Olds Rocket 88? The 1955 Chrysler 300C? The 1957 Rambler Rebel? Car guys have argued the point for decades. However, most agree that when John Z. DeLorean and his engineering team at Pontiac famously exploited a loophole in GM policy to create the 1964 GTO by stuffing a 389-cubic-inch V-8 in the Pontiac Tempest, they created not only the first muscle car but also the muscle car era. They also stirred up sibling rivalry within GM, which, in turn, brought us some of the best (if not the flashiest) muscle cars of all: The Oldsmobile 442 and Buick Skylark Gran Sport.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S
While DeLorean and legendary adman Jim Wangers targeted the youth set, the more mature Oldsmobile and Buick divisions knew their customers were not as interested in stripped-down, inexpensive muscle. They knew their customers wanted subtle yet potent performance, without sacrificing quality or comfort. Oldsmobile was first to jump in after the GTO, hurrying the 4-4-2 option package into production in April 1964 for the F-85 Cutlass line. It was essentially the B-09 Police Apprehender Pursuit Package renamed “4-4-2” (for four-on-the-floor, four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust) option. It was a comprehensive upgrade with a beefed-up frame, tweaked suspension geometry, big wheels, big brakes, and front and rear anti-sway bars. The 4-4-2’s 330-cid, 310-horsepower mill, while some 59 cubes down from the GTO, certainly didn’t handicap the car’s performance; this first-year version was truly athletic, with 0–60 mph times in the seven-second range, the quarter-mile in the mid-15-second range and handling to match. The $285 cost of the option was clearly money well spent judged by the seat of one’s pants, but not if you were hoping those bucks would get you noticed; the 4-4-2 was an extremely subtle package when it came to appearance. The car was so subtle, in fact, that if you didn’t notice those dual tailpipes, the redline tires, or the very small 4-4-2 emblems, you’d miss it. Equally subtle were its sales. Just under 3,000 people checked the option box compared to more than 30,000 folks who drove home a new 1964 GTO.

A GOOD SPORT
But let’s not forget about Buick. For 1965, it launched a corporate counterattack in the form of the Gran Sport option on its own A-body, the Skylark. Fitted with Buick’s now-somewhat-long-in-the-tooth “Nailhead” 401-cid V-8, yet called a 400 to comply with the new 400-cubic-inch cap placed on intermediates by GM, it produced 325 horsepower. Much like Oldsmobile’s 4-4-2, the Gran Sport option was well thought out and included the best parts Buick had to throw at it — a beefy boxed frame, stiffer suspension with revised mounting for the Gran Sport’s stronger rear axle to fight wind-up, upgraded brakes and a stout front anti-roll bar. Dual exhaust was standard, of course, along with a three-speed manual; a four-speed manual and an automatic were optional. Much like the 4-4-2, the Gran Sport was a competent performer yet quite understated in appearance, a combination that appealed to some 15,000 buyers in its inaugural year. And lest you think Olds would soldier on with the smallest engine of the bunch, fear not. For 1965, the 4-4-2 received the Olds 400-cid engine. The four-speed was no longer standard with the option so Olds quietly changed the meaning of the 4-4-2 name to 400-cubic-inch, four-barrel and dual exhaust.

As the horsepower wars raged on in Detroit, muscle cars progressively became more muscular. Pontiac continued on its path of in-your-face A-body performance and advertisements, as did Chevrolet with the Chevelle SS line. Yet somehow Olds and Buick added more muscle to their muscle while maintaining the upscale feel and balance of performance over their corporate stablemates. Well, at least Buick did, because by 1966, the 4-4-2 was duking it out pretty hard with the GTO. That year saw the new W-30 performance package for the 4-4-2, which added Ram Air to its Tri-Power engine, with a hotter cam and special components, its battery in the trunk and a 4.33:1 gear out back. In other words, the W-30 was a stripped-down dragstrip brawler from Olds. And while Olds was intent on the 4-4-2 being the muscle car to beat, Buick went the other way and introduced the GS 340 and GS California models, the latter really just an appearance package, to be sold alongside the GS 400, which remained the premier performance Skylark.

LUXURY MUSCLE, EVOLVED
By 1968, both the 4-4-2 and Gran Sport would become standalone models, just like the GTO, with the Gran Sport name being dropped for GS 400, while the GS 340 became the GS 350. The new-for-1968 A-body redesign brought with it a more muscular-looking 4-4-2 and a less muscular-looking GS, with its very pronounced side swoop terminating in half-skirted wheel openings. If nothing else, it made bolting on a big set of Day Two mag wheels with fat tires nearly impossible on the GS, but, I suspect your parent’s dentist probably wasn’t interested in that when he bought a new GS anyway. Stodgy styling aside, Buick wasn’t getting weak under the hood, especially in 1969, when it introduced the all-out muscle package, the Stage 1, a Ram-Airfed torque monster that was a lot stronger than any ignorant stoplight challenger would have expected from a Buick.

Oldsmobile also hit 1968 with one good DeLorean-style trick up its sleeve: The Hurst/Olds. It wasn’t a 4-4-2, and there was a good reason for that. To get around GM’s 400-cid cap for the Cutlass, Oldsmobile joined forces with Hurst to build the Hurst/Olds using Oldsmobile’s new 455-cid engine. Division brass claimed that subcontractor Demmer Engineering in Lansing, Michigan, would install the specially prepped Ram Air 455 rather than it happening on a GM assembly line. Nothing could have been further from the truth: Olds was installing the H/O engines on the line and simply shipping the cars to Demmer to apply the black two-tone treatment, hand-painted pinstripes, and other trim details to the 515 Peruvian Silver cars built that year. The Hurst/Olds returned in 1969 as well, the inconspicuous silver and black of 1968 replaced with a striking Cameo White paint job with Firefrost Gold stripes. More noticeable were the 1969 H/O’s pedestal-mounted rear spoiler and two mailbox-sized hood scoops that were lettered with “H/O 455.” Restricted only by the production capacity of Demmer Engineering, just 906 H/Os were produced for 1969.

Another sheet metal refresh came for both the Cutlass and Skylark lines in 1970, with the new GS now appearing quite muscular, including bulging fenders and fully radiused rear wheel openings. Clearly both Buick and Olds were ready to counteract Pontiac’s wild GTO Judge, which had debuted in 1969. And this returned fire is what would make 1970 the pinnacle of styling and performance across the entire GM A-body lineup. It didn’t hurt that for the 1970 model year, GM dropped the intermediate car engine size restriction across all brands. Without any covert assembly line installs needed, getting 455 cubic inches under the hood of your GS or 4-4-2 wasn’t an issue.

Don’t think that they were alone, though, as Pontiac had its own 455 engine option available (although the Ram Air IV 400-cid unit was still the top dog). And of course Chevrolet put its Chevelles into nuclear mode with the addition of the 454-cid, 450-horsepower LS6 powerplant. Unquestionably, the top 4-4-2 for 1970 was the W-30, and the mad scientist Dr. Olds was sure to let us all know it in Oldsmobile’s psychedelic (and somewhat haunting) ads of the day. Offered with countless performance options, Olds even had an optional W-27 aluminum center section for the rear axle, absolutely unheard-of componentry for a production muscle car. Most importantly was that visually the W-30 was a knockout. With some of the best stripes ever used in the muscle car era (running front to back on both the sides and on top of the car) and bright red injection-molded plastic front fender wells, there was no question this was one special 4-4-2. Its performance didn’t disappoint, either; with 0–60 mph in under six seconds and the quarter-mile in the high-13-second range, the 1970 W-30 was a mover.

As you would expect from Oldsmobile, it still retained the luxurious interior its clientele would want, along with the fantastic chassis and suspension tuning that had been a hallmark of the 4-4-2 since day one. A W-30 wasn’t a cheap date, nor was it something traditional Oldsmobile buyers would flock to, so production was low, with roughly 3,100 coupes, hardtops and convertibles built for 1970.

As safe as it would seem to assume that Olds out-muscled Buick yet again for 1970, it would be incorrect. Because in 1970, beyond the GS 455, Buick rolled out the GSX — a $1,100 option that came with a wing on the back as standard equipment. On a Buick! Oh my. The GSX took everything that was great about a GS 455 and made it look like a proper muscle car and thus very un-Buick in the process. Much like the GTO Judge and the 4-4-2 W-30, the GSX looked the part, with a blacked-out hood and an aggressive body side stripe that wrapped around the rear of the car over that standard rear wing. Only two exterior colors were available, Saturn Yellow or Apollo White, and only black interiors were offered. The GS’s 455 engine was standard for the GSX, while Buick’s wild Stage 1 455 was optional. The Stage 1 engine was rated at 360 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque. Yes, five hundred and ten. A GSX Stage 1 455 provided performance on par with Mopar’s famed 426 Hemi-powered ’Cudas and Challengers, yet with comfort and handling that made the Mopars feel decidedly taxicab-like. Just 678 non-traditional Buick buyers brought GSXs home in 1970, and combined with their styling and performance, these rare cars have been cemented as the top Buick muscle car of all time.

As quickly as the muscle car era reached these dizzying heights in 1970, in a flash the descent began. For 1971, compression ratios and horsepower fell like deck chairs off the Titanic, and by 1972, what passed for performance from Detroit, with few exceptions, was quite sobering. And just like that, the muscle car era flatlined.

Today, just like when they were new, Buick and Oldsmobile muscle cars can be classified as “executive grade.” They have all of the performance of their siblings from other GM brands, and in some cases a lot more, but also add exemplary levels of ride, handling and luxury into the equation. The rarest of the bunch, such as the W-30 and Stage 1 cars, will always be at the very top of any list of the best muscle cars of all time. And rightly so, because both the Buick and Oldsmobile divisions proved that they didn’t have to sacrifice their unique feel to compete in one of the greatest eras in American automotive history.

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