In the late 1960s, Buick had a reputation — not unlike the one it’s battling today — as a maker of pleasant cars for dull people. The tri-shield brand sold very nice luxury models but nothing that appealed to kids enamored of the sights, speeds, and smells of muscle cars and illicit drag racing. Imagine the shock, then, when Buick broke out the Skylark’s Gran Sport trim level as a unique model for 1968. With big V-8 engines and a heavy-duty suspension, the GS350 and the GS400 represented a genuine attempt to squeeze in on the muscle-car scene. The only problem was that the GS looked fast but couldn’t always keep up with the competition in a straight line.
It wasn’t until the introduction of a 455-cubic-inch V-8 in 1970 that Buick had a serious drag-strip contender on its hands. The GS455 finally got the attention of the muscle-car crowd, thanks to gross ratings of 350 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque. The unique engine wasn’t shared with any other General Motors brand, so it was special to begin with. Then Buick added a Stage 1 version that included special cylinder heads, a high-lift camshaft, blueprinted pistons, and tougher transmissions. The Stage 1 was officially rated at 360 hp, but fans believe it produced more than 400 hp.
The old man’s brand finally had a quarter-mile fighter. “Dull transportation, you’ve just been scorched,” read one brochure. The new focus on speed was cemented by the GSX. The special package — an exorbitant $1196 option on the $3283 GS455 — was primarily a cosmetic upgrade that included a black plastic chin spoiler, a hood-mounted tachometer, a trunk-lid spoiler, black stripes, black bucket seats, and yellow or white paint. For 1970, the GSX was offered only with the 455 engine, but in 1971 and ’72 the base 350 V-8 could get the GSX package, too. Buick built only 678 GSXs for 1970, and far fewer were made in the two subsequent years.
Jeff Spencer bought the 1970 GS Stage 1 shown here three years ago for one simple reason: “It’s a model I had always wanted.” He grew up washing and detailing cars at his father’s dealership, Troy Spencer Buick, and became a salesman there in 1977 before selling the franchise in 2000 to a nearby Pontiac dealer (lucky for them). Those early days created a lifelong lust for classic Buicks: Spencer also owns a 1965 Skylark GS, a 1969 GS400 Stage 1 convertible, and a 1971 GSX. Just before our visit, he sold his 1971 GS455 Stage 1.
Even in Stage 1 form, the GS455 was often overlooked in speed-crazy early-1970s America. “Buick was always under the radar,” Spencer says. The cars’ comfortable ride, generous sound insulation, and smart interiors reinforced the stereotype that Buicks were for old people, especially compared with similar General Motors muscle cars such as the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, the Oldsmobile 442, and the Pontiac GTO. Spencer recalls that GS buyers, at least those frequenting his family’s showroom in southern New Jersey, tended to be in their late twenties; eighteen-year-olds with an inkling for speed bought the cheaper Chevelle.
The result is that the Buick GS was something of an underground muscle car. “Because they were Buicks, they weren’t as well-known,” Spencer says. The Gran Sports aren’t especially rare, but so many were raced, abused, and modified that unmolested examples are coveted.
Spencer’s unrestored 1970 Stage 1 has covered fewer than 70,000 miles and is in excellent condition. “Everything works,” he promises as we turn the key. The big engine starts immediately and settles into a smooth, loud idle. The car is remarkably easy to drive, with no obvious bad habits hinting at the performance on tap. The view over the wide, creased hood is unobstructed. Clicking the Turbo-Hydramatic transmission into gear produces a shock as the driveline engages, and a jolt announces each upshift on the road. Although the Buick is very fast, the delicate throttle pedal has a gentle, user-friendly tip-in that makes it docile around town. Contemporary road tests reported that the Stage 1 could turn a quarter mile in the mid-thirteen-second range at about 105 mph — impressive even by today’s standards and certainly believable from our brief drive.
The power-assisted steering is fingertip light, although the thin-rimmed steering wheel requires several rotations to execute low-speed maneuvers. Power front disc brakes are reassuringly easy to modulate. The only tricky part is acclimating to the awkward driving position, which locates the bottom of the steering wheel right in your lap.
Soft springs and fat sidewalls absorb road imperfections before they reach the driver’s seat, so the Stage 1 lives up to its brand’s promise of comfort. It bounces and floats over bumps, though, and like many cars of its vintage, it has a lot of play in its steering.
Buick dipped its toe in the performance wars too late, as superpowerful V-8s began to fall out of vogue not long after the GS455 debuted. Gas prices would climb, insurance companies got wise to kids in muscle cars, and emissions regulations stifled engine outputs. Nobody wanted fast cars; Buicks with 7.5-liter engines lingered on dealer forecourts for months. “You couldn’t give anything away in ’72, ’73,” Spencer recalls. “It was over, and, boy, it dropped like that.” By 1972, emissions controls and a switch to net-horsepower ratings shrank output figures to a dreary 225 hp for the 455 and 270 hp for the Stage 1. The era of the fast Gran Sport was over.
That makes the 1968-1972 cars all the more special. At a time when it was mostly peddling cruisers, Buick commissioned a bespoke engine and built a beast. Contrast that with today’s Buick, which builds gussied-up cars on Chevrolet platforms with shared engines, and it’s obvious why collectors love the GS. It’s just a shame Buick waited so long to get into the performance business. Had regulations and fuel prices not killed the muscle-car era so soon, the Gran Sport might have enjoyed a longer reign.
5.7L (350 cu in) OHV V-8, 195 hp (net) to 260-315 hp (gross), 290 lb-ft (n) to 360-410 lb-ft (g)
6.6L (400 cu in) OHV V-8, 340-345 hp (g), 440 lb-ft (g)
7.5L (455 cu in) OHV V-8, 225-270 hp (n) to 315-370 hp (g), 360-390 lb-ft (n) to 450-510 lb-ft (g)
3- or 4-speed manual
2- or 3-speed automatic
Front Suspension Control arms, coil springs
Rear Suspension Live axle, coil springs
Brakes F/R Drums/drums or discs/drums
Weight 3700 lb (est.)
Years Produced 1968-1972
Roughly 65,000 coupes and 7400 convertibles, of which 14,000 were GS455s. Some 6300 Gran Sports had the Stage 1 kit. Only about 850 GSXs were made.
$3482 (1970 GS455 Stage 1 coupe)
Good GS350 coupes go for roughly $15,000. GS400s and GS455s add about $5000 to that. An original Stage 1 kit can double the value, as can a convertible top. The most valuable Gran Sports are from 1970 — the GS455 Stage 1 convertible ($90,000-$110,000) and the GSX Stage 1 coupe ($100,000-$125,000).
The Gran Sport is a sporty, fun-to-drive offering from a brand known for dull cars. (The Grand National and GNX from the 1980s, as well as the modern-day Regal GS and Verano Turbo, are more recent notable exceptions.) Even though the base GS350 doesn’t have an especially strong engine for the era, all examples of the ’68-’72 Gran Sport are powerful enough to re-create muscle-car sounds, feelings, and fun.