Three Steps After Sunday

Much like discontinued brands, some rather old models of existing car lines can be hard to place: what is a Buick Wildcat in new money?

This car seems to be a second series, from 1965 to 1970. That still isn’t enough. Hermeneutics comes into the picture here because we want to know the meaning of this car.

The Wikipedia entry is less useful than whatever Curbside Classics might write because it is not a collection of personal insights, rather just a litany of references that need checking. Here’s what I gleaned from the fact check: going back to 1942, Buick had a range of full-size cars sold as the Century. After a short pause, Buick resumed using the name in 1956-1958. From that line of cars sprang the Invicta which was (deep breath) a mid-size Le Sabre body with a large capacity Buick engine, the Nailhead (this was when engines had nicknames). In modern terms this might be like a Merc E-class with an S-class engine. From this Invicta series came the Wildcat

which was another full-size B-body car sold as a two-door convertible, two door hardtop, four door hardtop (the car here) and a four-door saloon. As to engines, GM offered three V8s of 7-litres-plus capacity. That’s nearly two  gallons of displacement.

The Centurion superseded the Wildcat in 1970 – we featured one here earlier. This represents Buick’s hayday in quality. The Centurion oozed solidity (today’s Wildcat less so). I’ve really skimmed the surface here so I am only slightly confident in saying this: the Wildcat is a full-size performance oriented car from a brand normally selling sub-luxury. In today’s money it’s a big, high-performance Opel with comfort trim, perhaps a faux-coupe Insignia and not the standard 5-door.

This brings me to interpretation, the hermeneutics. I’ve had to explain this car in terns of other cars and only done so to the point where I imagine you, the reader, knows the reference without need for further reference: Wildcat-Invicta-Century plus the concepts “Buick” and “V8”, B-body.

What would really clarify this car’s place in the scheme of things would be a timeline or family tree or a kind of tachometer diagram showing the Wildcat’s position in relation to Buick’s price range and size-range. In those terms: the Wildcat is a sidespring off a main branch and is one of Buick’s more expensive and sporty cars.

The work required for this would be tremendous: historic price lists for all the Buicks of a given year, plus features and dimensions of its peers.  I realise again that GM must have had an imperially huge bureaucracy of administrators to manage this plus product planners who knew a) all the elements that could be combined and b) how they related to other GM ranges and c) how they related to the competitors and d) how any possible product combination related to earlier ones. We often imagine that Communism created huge and lumbering bureaucracies but GM and Ford must have had more clerks than the Pentagon.

So, I suppose the Wildcat was intended to make sense (as in “have meaning”) for customers who had preconceptions of Buick and performance plus who knew that a Wildcat was not a Pontiac-kind of car nor a Cadillac-kind of car either nor just an Invicta.

At this point I haven’t even got into the actual substance of the engineering that these ideas rest on. Just as we can’t easily read old English, I feel we can’t easily read this car. You had to know 1965 before 1966 makes sense, you had to be there.

From the school of Land-Windermere

Was this period not truly one of Byzantine product complexity? And am I assuming too much when I say the planners knew what they were doing? I don’t believe they could really put a precise meaning on a 7.0 litre V8 hardtop four-door with bucket seats from a brand like Buick. They had a huge parts-bin of interchangeable components and hoped that among an infinite number of combinations there was a winner. They did sell a lot of B-body cars, true; was the optimum combination not hidden in the welter of choice?

To try to answer my opening question, a 1966 Wildcat might be the same as a BMW 6-series four door coupe with a 12 cylinder enginee, the 5-series tail-end lamps and a kind of soft luxury interior nobody does any more (warm colours, soft fabrics and suede), making it a banker’s hot-rod for today’s upper middle class.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

10 thoughts on “Three Steps After Sunday”

    1. For me the late 60s cars and late 80s cars are the most appealing. The brand has had several high points and that doesn’t exclude the early 60s. The dog-leg a-pillars don’t appeal to me and so most American cars from then are not so attractive to me.

  1. Terrific car. Product planning at this time was indulged by a very receptive market; not every car had a buyer, but there were many buyers to be had. In turn, what a magnificent car this is: an engine with a capacity as big as a builder’s bucket, and every crease of the sheet metal exudes confidence. When the American bubble finally burst it did so sharply, but I for one am glad that cars like this had their time to exist.

    1. Some combinations had uptake in the low 1000s. As you say, they had the market covered. Buick fell from this perch very fast, in line with a stagnating economy.

  2. That’s your ’64 Buick Wildcat fitted with aftermarket ugly wheels. Would likely have the 401 V8 (6.57 litre) engine with some unlikely amount of power for the “catalog”, probably 325 SAE hp gross, or 250 net. The 425 (6.97 litre) was an option with probably an advertised 30 or 40 horsepower extra.

    Buick had dumped the torque-tube drive for the ’61’s after four decades of it being standard – the SD1 had a far more complicated setup than Buick ever used. Watts linkage? Outrageous cost! A Panhard rod would do. Location arm on the tube? Good Lord, the Buick pivot did that all in one! The Panhard rod led to all full size GM cars waggling their behinds when they slowly rolled into driveways across even small curbing or larger stones, the body being shoved left and right by the too short Panhard rods as the suspension compressed and rebounded ever so slightly on marshmallow springs. Four bar linkage with the top two splayed diagonally got rid of the Panhard, while Vauxhall also used this from the late 1960’s on.

    Buick had three lines of large, larger and massive cars, plus the Riviera “personal lugshury coop” and the Special midsize for the impecunious who were wannabee fanbois of the real thing. In those days you wouldn’t believe the old wives’ tales, myths and legends that your average person believed about different makes, leading to people somehow swearing allegiance to a particular brand. The differences underneath between all GM’s big cars began to shrink for the ’61s in having three link coil sprung rear axles plus Panhard rods, but chassis were still different between Chevy, Pontiac, Olds and Buick, plus the Caddy.

    1965 saw the first rationalizations of chasseze (new word0). GM had 50% of the market so all divisions had their own engines – even the 215 V8 had different block and heads (the poorer one, the Buick is what Rover bought – Sir Black Jack Brabham and Repco snapped up the better Olds version and did rather well in F1 1966). The difference was four head bolts per cylinder for the Buick, five for the Olds.

    The Wildcat was your basic “sporty” smallest Buick large car. The Invicta was a bit bigger and the 225 was so long you couldn’t manage a three-point turn on an average street. Buick were upper, upper middle class, with the 225 limo occasionally being allowed to substitute for a Caddy in a parade, local officials willing and no volunteer Caddy owners stepping forward. Oldsmobile was just a tiny step below with the upper middle class vibe and delusions of grandeur with the 98 Regency against the 225, Pontiac did middle-plus, and Chev was your bog standard car for everyone else – which was middle class, like Ford. The US had no admitted lower class but worker types who were middle class. Plymouth was a bit lower status though and nobody had a clue what Dodge was but another Plymouth in disguise. All these cars were huge except the ’62 thru ’64 Plymouths and Dodges being noticeably smaller – all rectified by a giant bag of air for 1965 called the Plymouth Fury in three trims.

    You can’t slot these cars into a modern slice-up like today’s. Times were different. Try putting Europe’s 1964 cars into today’s terms – vehicles were all over the place in size, configuration and so on. Just announced Super Land Crab against Zephyr and what Rootes car exactly? Buick managed to flog 511,000 cars for 1964, so a few piffling variations were nothing. Here’s the sales by model:

    You can read a bit about the engines as well. Buick Nail heads had tiny valves and didn’t rev. Oldsmobile tended to do the tufted upholstery with large buttons, btw, and had Rocket V8s. All these barges were quiet with a slightly metallic whoosh if you goosed the accelerator, and all rocked with the torque reaction due to Sof-T springs and dampers filled with 20 weight oil. They oozed torque, and wafted.

    In all truth, they were abominable to drive unless you drove slowly in town, then allowed the super smooth ride to emerge on the open road. My back used to sweat into the Pontiac vinyl just concentrating driving smoothly on curvy two lane roads, but owners used to congratulate me on my smoothness. Turn before the corner gently to take up chassis slop, be smooth with the steering, and being wide they’d corner pretty well. Be abrupt and you’d be all over the place, and that’s the way most drivers were with one finger power steering. Around these parts with our two lane main roads, not much of it open, they wallowed like ships at sea. An average Ford or Chev was better, Chrysler even more so. But your typical North American liked torque, room, a soft ride and a bit o’quiet, or had been trained to like it, and so small furrin’ cars were viewed with disdain and derision. Yes, you’d have had to live in the culture to understand. Chrome, er stainless steel, beat good panel fit every time, and them four cylinder engines are good for nuthing.

    The 1965 Wildcat was really quite good looking though, as were all the GM full-size cars that year.

    It took until the late 1970s though before these big cars handled half-decently, the 1977 GM B bodies – direct engineering lineage from this Wildcat barge. Any decent set of shocks will help out these old timers a lot. That and a complete rubber re-bushing of the suspensions, which costs next to nothing if you do it yourself – parts are cheap and probably harder than originals anyway.

    BTW, spied a Dino this morning. Didn’t even know there was one around. It’s British Sports Car Day here today, where old MGs, Spridgets, Spits, E-Types, TRs, an SP250 and various hangers on like a ’53 Sunbeam convertible put on a public display. The Dino looked to be heading to that meet, ready to trash the Brits so far as the public’s concerned. Oooh, a Ferrari, even if unofficially it isn’t.

    1. A good reply, worth an article in itself. I’ll amend the text after I have absorbed the content (the driving technique bit is priceless). More to follow…

    2. Having spent more time peering at Wikipedia’s official image of the Wildcat, I see my error. It is a 1964 and Buick sold this for two years. It had a 123″ wheelbase; no mention of the Invicta – it was originally a sub-series then a successor. The Invicta stopped in 1963 (wheelbase then 123″).
      I can’t really keep up with this which is why I need to make diagrams.
      From Bill’s explanation (which might be the second time I’ve provoked someone into offering it, sorry) I discover my own template for a car range is wrong. Broadly Buick offered three similar-but-different cars (big, large and huge). So, differentiation at GM was more interbrand than intrabrand. I have to get that straight one day.

    3. I read that again – and to be honest it’d be a shame to edit my text because the reply would be rendered less meanigful. I am imagining that to drive a mid 60s sedan successfully means driving with care; I suppose if done like that these may very well have been pleasant means to get around.

  3. Richard, it’s so hard to put into words the experience I went through as a car nut. Imagine yourself at the age of eleven, a kid from Portsmouth UK and already with a small library of car books, suddenly taken by ship to a new land. The first two cars I noticed after leaving the Customs and Immigration Hall and meeting Dad who’d gone out to Canada several months earlier, were a ’59 Chevrolet and a ’59 Cadillac. Talk about culture shock! I could not believe these things actually worked – they seemed like mere props parked there.

    Then I went through school and university and in 1969 won a scholarship to go back to the UK for postgrad mechanical engineering studies in vibration theory. So almost exactly ten years later, after absorbing North American car culture in depth as one can only do as a teenager, there I was in London being highly impressed by how well Jag XJ6 rear suspension handled manhole covers. And I mean just standing there watching the textbook response of how I imagined it should be done with steel springs. Remember vibration theory, isolation from vibration and so on was my field of interest, which also explains how I got into turntable arm/cartridge and speaker design. A car suspension is a vibratory system when the vehicle is in motion, but has limits placed on its behaviour that may deviate it from the ideal. These limits are the need to provide reasonable steering and handling, as well as road imperfection absorption.

    In 1969, British roads were a fantasy of smoothness to me compared to the average road in Canada. Here, the ground freezes for a good three months each year; when the thaw happens in late March, ground filled with water recently thawed from ice resembles a quivering jelly. Large trucks are not allowed to travel on these roads for a two-week period each Spring, because doing so completely breaks up the asphalt surface. We still get ripples, potholes, humps and heaves left afterwards when the ground firms up again. Certainly really major roads have deeper foundations, but in areas of low population density and available funds, you do what gets you a minimum standard. In these conditions, which also exist in Michigan where the US manufacturers hang out, it’s no wonder that soft springing and rugged design of the mechanicals were of far greater importance than they were in the UK.

    To see the remnants of the absolutely hopelessly useless British cars from the 1950s and 1960s that were sent out cheap on export for dollars dealing with these conditions was to have all my patriotism and enthusiasm for British is Best flung back in my face as shame. It was obvious that Morrises, Austins, Hillmans, Standards and Triumphs were just Not Good Enough. Heaters were completely marginal, engines that tootled around British cities and had a decoke at 25,000 miles, were not suited for daily use in Canada. The exception that proved the rule were just the Mk II Ford Consul/Zephyrs and Zodiacs. Those things were tough, tougher even than the first Falcons which morphed into the Mustang. They also did something that the other British cars never did – they started in cold weather, like below -14C.

    The VW Beetle was a nasty little piece of junk to drive, but they started and absorbed road punishment. However their heaters were non-existent. So if you wanted a small car, starting and running were prioritized over comfort. Volvos gradually came into the picture because they did what VWs did, and had heaters that after an hour of running heated up the metal dashboards as well as the interior. Toasty.

    Meanwhile, your average purchaser of a Detroit vehicle just hopped in and drove off. The vehicle had actually been designed for prevailing conditions. There were no Alec Issigonis types literally guessing from afar what a North American specification for a car should be, and being of the distinct opinion that what was good enough for the UK was good enough for colonials. It was not. In the engineering world itself, British goods, whether instrumentation or production were regarded as completely inferior. Inferior, to drive the point home again.

    So when I returned to the UK in 1969, I found that the Brits still had this superiority complex going, based on nothing but opinion, so far as I could tell. It certainly wasn’t based on reality. Southern Region trains didn’t or couldn’t run when there was an inch of snow! Amateurish. As years have gone by, products such as cars have sort of equalized between nations, and petty things such as actually starting, running for a few years without needing decoking, and decent HVAC system are standard.

    So when Euro people look back at the older American cars and have a jolly good laugh at Yank Tanks, bad handling and so on, they forget several things. First, you could persuade these things to corner since no tyres were particularly good anyway, and that fellow in a Mustang 289 four barrel with bad dampers didn’t even notice you were racing him in your Cortina GT as he swept by, passing you on the aforementioned poorly paved roads with the thrust of a real bit of get up and go.

    To the British cars of uselessness, I have to add Renaults as being similarly out of place, along with Fiats. I am an equal opportunity disser! Of course there are vehicular exceptions here and there on both sides of the divide, and lovely pieces of engineering interest me no matter where they come from, even if the execution is greatly outdone by the concept. But in the end to the average punter shorn of patriotism or blind allegiance to a marque, what people want is a reliable and durable good they can rely on for dependable day-to-day service. My argument is that back in the 1950s and 1960s and in that vein, American cars had everyone else by the short and curlies. It just took a while for blokes like me to recognize that beyond the Dan Dare styling and combined not much interest in out-there engineering or agile handling, Detroit had it going away for quite a while if one is honest. That’s how that ’64 Buick can sit there in good nick, never having to have had to put up with the conditions it was designed for.

    1. Your post illustrates something curious about British management in those days. I don’t suppose it even occurred to the managers to look at the conditions prevalent in their new market. Yet not a few of the managers and decision makers must have visited the US and even, earlier, learned from wartime that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. I guess one could excuse the first wave of cars’ for not being up to snuff. How did the dealers not yell the message back to the suppliers and not be heard?
      I do think that USican cars are designed for their market and some thrive over here. By the same token, European cars are broadly well-matched to theirs with some Italian cars being outliers. Swedish cars and German cars seem most able to work outside their “home” areas though today I see any differences as marginal whereas up to the 80s the differences were more marked.
      I like to think my view of American cars is quite balanced. I might even be more forgiving of their shortcomings because I have low expectations. I know the Cadillacs and Buicks I like aren’t very fast or very handly-drivey. I only want them to go and stop and be comfortable.

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