In the 1950s, Americans were more prosperous than they had ever been. So were America's automakers, who -- in a burst of enthusiasm -- fielded a fleet of glitzy flagship models for 1953. Buick reached high with the 1953-1954 Buick Skylark.
Looking back, it all seems so flaky. Buick built the Skylark because its general manager, Ivan Wiles, saw and liked a customizing job chief stylist Ned Nickles had done on his own 1951 roadster convertible. Buick proclaimed the Skylark "the answer to the European sports car," which is like calling an elephant the answer to an anteater.
Then Buick said they'd only build such a car if they received enough requests for copies of the prototype, which had been doing the car show rounds since the summer of 1952. The truth is, of course, that it was already slated for production.
How different the Detroit of two generations ago! Today a general manager would never okay so radical a product, priced 40 percent higher than the top-of-the-line model, unless it had been through waves of review boards, PR men, lawyers, and government compliance experts.
Nobody would dare call a two-ton land yacht on a 121.5-inch wheelbase "the answer to the European sports car," because among other things, Big Brother doesn't permit a good healthy lie any more. Today's major automakers rarely even contemplate a new model that can't knock off at least 40,000 sales in its first year and amortize its tooling cost within three -- although there are exceptions.
Imagine hanging on to a model that sells only 1,690 copies in its first year because the styling vice president likes it. Yet, that's the only reason Buick built a second-edition Skylark in 1954. It sold 836 copies.
Announced as a public-spirited reply to the thousands of folks who admired the prototype, the Skylark was really a celebration -- a final, grand gesture to cap off the division's Golden Anniversary in 1953.
The milestone was also commemorated with a modern new overhead-valve V-8, new styling based partly on the Buick XP-300 Motorama show car, 12-volt electrics, power brakes, Buick's first alligator hood, and a power steering option for the Special and Super (standard on Roadmaster). Frigidaire air conditioning was also offered for the first time on some models.
The Skylark name was lyrical, poetic, probably inspired by "Hoagy Carmichael's immortal composition," according to writers Jan Norbye and Jim Dunne. There was not even a full-scale clay model built, noted Michael Lamm: "The Skylark went straight from 3/8-scale clay to blueprints and then into metal."
If there was any product planning rationale, it must have been the argument that every company needed a "flagship." And so it seemed, for they blossomed in 1953: Packard's Caribbean, Kaiser's Dragon, Chevrolet's Corvette, Oldsmobile's Fiesta, Cadillac's Eldorado, and the Skylark.
Life was simpler in those days. Companies could do things like this and get away with it, and produce an exciting car besides. With its chopped windshield and radically lowered beltline and full wheel cutouts exposing those gorgeous Borani chrome wires, the Skylark looked like a creation of George Barris, contemporary "King of Kustomizers." Yet the Skylark was a production-line model any buyer could purchase at the neighborhood Buick dealer.
And there was more to it than hefty good looks, for the Skylark was the product of a sterling team of engineers. For more on the 1953 Skylark's engineering, see the next page.
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