Fantastic Gran Sport Machines – A History of Buick Muscle Cars

By vukasin

What is your first thought when somebody mentions Buick? Do you think of those big, comfortable cruisers? And what about those luxury SUVs with no interesting features? In fact, most people picture those nondescript ’80s sedans their old neighbors used to drive. Unfortunately, most people think of Buick as one of those companies that tend to produce boring cars for boring people.

But you may be surprised to know that Buick was also one of the biggest names in muscle car history. That is right, luxury Buick was one of the most powerful forces during the heyday of the classic muscle car period as well as long after. Along with Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, Buick produced some perfectly designed and engineered muscle cars. And, they were among the fastest, most powerful automobiles Detroit produced at the time.

And since Buick was and still is GM’s upscale brand, they called those models “gentleman’s hot rods.” That is because they incorporated power and performance with restrained looks and luxury features. Of course, those muscle car Buicks were a bit more expensive than the models from Chevrolet, Ford or Dodge. However, this has made them even rarer today and out of the focus of mainstream collectors.

So here is a list of the best classic muscle cars and performance machines from this legendary brand. You will be amazed to see how many respectably fast muscle cars Buick produced as well as how they changed the industry. So, keep reading to learn about those classics that could burn some rubber in big style.

  1. Buick Skylark GS

The 1964 model year was important for Detroit. Ford presented the Mustang, Pontiac presented the GTO, Plymouth presented the Barracuda and Oldsmobile presented the legendary 442. For sure, the muscle car era had officially begun. But Buick wasn’t in that market since they were more oriented to mature buyers who wanted luxury over performance.

However, the managers at Buick thought the company should jump in the performance bandwagon. So, for 1965, Buick presented two muscle models and entered the segment. And the first of those two was the Skylark GS. They based the GS on their popular mid-size Skylark.

Interestingly, Buick took the Pontiac formula, which was to use a light mid-sized car with a big, powerful engine. They put a 400 cid engine into the lightweight Skylark body. And the Gran Sport, or GS for short, was born.

The Nailhead engine produced 325 HP and had high compression heads, delivering a convincing performance. Always famous as an engineering company, Buick didn’t just add a big engine and released the car. They also improved suspension and braking to create a competent machine.

The reacted appropriately, so they sold over 15,000 of them in just one year. Buick proved that the muscle car market was big. They knew the company should introduce more such models. And they did.

  1. Buick Riviera GS

In the early ’60s, Detroit was aware of those luxurious European Gran Turismo coupes coming to America and selling in significant numbers. Performance-oriented buyers didn’t want those big, heavy domestic coupes. Although they had the power, they didn’t provide the handling or feel of a sports car. So, instead, they turned to Ferraris, Maseratis, and Jaguars for that performance car excitement and prestige.

So, GM decided to capitalize on this trend by introducing a fresh new luxury model. It would come great styling, a cool name and enough power to put all those European coupes to shame. They presented the Buick Riviera in 1963. And it immediately became one of the most interesting cars on the American market. With the combination of sleek and elegant styling, a modern interior and the powerful Buick Nailhead engine, the Riviera was an instant best seller.

This made it the first real competitor to the famous Ford Thunderbird. But, Buick wanted more, so they introduced the legendary Riviera Gran Sport or GS in 1965. The car featured a revised suspension and a bigger 425 engine. Also, it came with a host of other performance upgrades. In this version, the Rivera was a true world class automobile with 360 HP and acceleration times of 7.9 seconds.

And that was better than most of the sports cars of that period. The Riviera as a model stayed in production until 1993. However, it was the first three generations, especially the GS that has remained one of the best luxury muscle cars Detroit ever produced.

  1. Buick Wildcat GS

They introduced the Wildcat in 1962 as was one of the first personal luxury coupes. It featured a performance-tuned engine and other go-fast options. And since it was a Buick product, they guaranteed the luxury appointments and upscale options. Even before the Rivera GS or the muscle car craze, Buick noticed there was a big market for a full-size coupe with the performance of a sports car.

Young and successful people wanted an upscale product that looked expensive, but still had enough power and driving dynamics to make every day driving fun. In those days, luxury coupes like Thunderbirds or Eldorados were all large, heavy cruisers with soft handling. So, that is why Buick introduced the Wildcat. Available as a regular four-door hardtop, two-door coupe or a convertible, the Wildcat was a separate model.

Under the hood was a powerful V8 from the top of Buick’s engine lineup. However, the success of the Skylark GS and the Riviera GS inspired Buick to offer the GS package on the Wildcat, too, but just for 1966. However, the package was much more than just two letters on the trunk lid. It consisted of a Riviera 430 V8 engine with 340 HP and a chrome air cleaner.

They added a revised suspension and brakes, and even Posi-traction limited slip differential. This made the performance even better than the regular Wildcat. And lastly, the GS package was available for both the coupe and the convertible.

  1. Buick Gran Sport 340

The 1967 model year was important for Buick muscle cars because they introduced a new model, expanded their offerings. And that new model was the Gran Sport 340. It wasn’t as fast or powerful as some other cars, but it was important since it introduced the new concept of affordable performance. Muscle cars had become more expensive with every new model year.

So, the managers at Buick realized they needed a more affordable, but still attractive model to draw in buyers with a limited budget. And that is how the Gran Sport 340 was born. They presented the car before the 1968 Plymouth Roadrunner. And they built it using the same principle as one of the best affordable muscle cars.

The Gran Sport 340 had a 340 V8 engine with 260 HP. And its provided decent acceleration numbers and top speed. Buick equipped it with an updated braking and handling package, elegant graphics and sporty design details. Also, they gave the Gran Sport 340 a low base price.

But if you wanted more, you needed to invest in options that raised the price, so the GS 340 wasn’t quite the bargain anymore. Despite the innovative thinking behind this model, Buick only sold 3,600 units. And that makes this car rare today. Interestingly, most buyers preferred the power and performance of the GS 400 model, which was just a few hundred dollars more.

  1. Buick Gran Sport 400

The 1967 model year saw the redesign of the Skylark range. And that included the Gran Sport 400 model. It got a new name, a new engine, improved performance and a new look. Under the hood was a lighter, more powerful unit with the same displacement. However, it delivered 340 HP, matching the power level of the Riviera GS.

Also, the new Gran Sport 400 also featured a revised suspension, slightly bigger dimensions and better brakes. Car fans loved the new 400 that could propel this light mid-size coupe to 0 to 60 mph in around five seconds. And since Buick was famous for overengineering their cars, the Gran Sport 400 was a competent handler and stable, even at high speeds.

  1. Buick Skylark GS 350 and California GS

All mid-size GM models got a fresh new sheet metal for 1968. And the Buick Skylark line was no exception. The new design was sportier with lower roofline, wider track and semi-fastback rear end. So, Buick’s muscle offerings received two new models, the GS 350 and the California GS.

Both cars were bottom line muscle cars that replaced the Gran Sport 340 from 1967. As the name suggests, the GS 350 had a 350 V8 with 280 HP. And they also gave it some go-fast goodies like performance suspension and brakes. The buyers liked the GS 350 more than they did the previous models, so Buick sold 8,000 in 1968 alone.

The California GS was basically the same car, but for sale only in California. It featured the same engine with the same performance. However, it had a slightly different appearance package, badges and a vinyl roof.

  1. Buick Gran Sport 455

The Buick GS 455 is special and interesting in muscle car mythology. As with all other GM muscle cars, they limited the Buick Gran Sport to 400 cid. But, in 1970 when GM lifted its ban on engine displacement, Buick introduced a strong model they named the Gran Sport 455. This car featured the famous 455 V8 rated at 360 HP.

And it could launch this big, heavy car to 60 MPH in just around 5.5 seconds. This was lightning fast in 1970 and its speed is still respectable today. In fact, the power output wasn’t that far from the 1969 GS 400. But the torque figure was significantly higher, so the mighty 455 engine delivered over 500 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers made it one of the strongest muscle engines of all times.

And it was this characteristic was what launched Buick into the front row of the most powerful models of the period. However, since it was a Buick, they equipped the GS 455 with updated standard equipment. Also, it had a long list of optional extras. So, in a modern-day package, this super luxurious modern muscle car offered a pleasant, yet blisteringly fast ride.

But for those who found the 360 HP and 510 lb-ft of torque wasn’t enough, Buick offered the extremely rare, expensive Stage 1 and Stage 2 kits. They included different intake systems, high compression heads, beefed up engine internals and sports exhaust. However, those cars are extremely rare since most customers were unaware of the existence of such options. So, most Stage 1 and 2 buyers were professional drag racers.

  1. Buick GSX

The 1970 model year was a watershed year for American muscle and performance models. Never have there been so many great models available. And thanks to steady sales and the great reception of their muscle models, Buick unveiled the ultimate muscle car. It was in the form of the legendary and scarce Buick GSX. The GSX stood for Gran Sport Experimental.

And it was the visually upgraded Gran Sport with a Stage 1 performance package. The GSX debuted in 1970 with an aggressive graphics package not typical for Buick products. It was available in two bright colors, Saturn Yellow and Apollo White. Also, it came with a front and rear spoiler and functioning hood scoops. It also had side stripes and Rally wheels.

The power output was the same at 345 HP/510 lb-ft. But because the Buick 455 was significantly lighter than the Chevelle 454 or Plymouth Hemi 426, the GSX was a sure winner in street races all across America. However, despite all the qualities of the GSX and numerous accolades by the motoring press, Buick built less than 700.

Unfortunately, the GSX package added $1,100 over the price of a regular GS 455. So, this price boost proved to be too expensive for most buyers. So although he GSX option was available in 1971 and 1972, Buick produced them in even smaller numbers.

  1. Buick Century GS

After 1970, the muscle car segment decline started. And in just a few short years, those glorious muscle cars disappeared from the scene. Buick tried their best to deliver great performance in luxury package. But after the slow sales of their 1971 and 1972 models, they decided to kill the GSX package.

However, in 1973, they renamed their Skylark line the Century. And that meant the engineers at Buick managed to sneak one more proper muscle car model, the Century GS. The Century GS was a Colonnade-style intermediate coupe. In fact, it was similar to those Pontiac and Oldsmobile intermediates with the characteristic front-end design. But the GS was just an appearance package that mimicked the looks of previous models.

The standard engine was the 150 HP 350 V8. However, if you optioned for the 455 Stage 1 big block, you could get 270 HP with revised brakes and suspensions. This version delivered some performance, so car fans consider it the last true Buick muscle car. However, the number of Century GS Stage 1 cars the produced in 1973 is low. They only made around 700 of them with four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmissions.

  1. Buick GNX

The story of this model is an interesting one. Back in 1982, Buick started experimenting with turbocharging its line of standard V6 engines. The results were satisfying, so the Buick engineers got permission to develop a performance version that would deliver better acceleration figures.

Soon, there was the Buick Gran National with 175 HP, which wasn`t impressive, but it was a start. However, in the next couple of years, the Gran National got a bigger engine and more power. This made it go from 175 HP to 200 HP, and finally to 235 HP. With those numbers came acceleration times of less than six seconds, making those black Gran Nationals seriously quick cars.

But in 1987 came the ultimate version they called the GNX, or Gran National Experimental. It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6, but with 275 HP and 0 to 60 mph times of 4.7 seconds. Nobody expected such a bold move from Buick. After all, Buick was a company for old people producing cars without any excitement.

And suddenly, there was a turbocharged V6 coupe that broke every classic muscle car mold out there. And, it was even faster than a Ferrari. At that moment, the Buick GNX was the fastest accelerating production model in the world. But at $29,000 it wasn’t exactly budget-friendly. However, legend says some owners paid for their cars just by street racing them for money.