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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1953 Buick Skylark Engineering
Dominating the 1953 Buick Skylark engineering news was Buick's new oversquare V-8, the product of Charlie Chayne and his pool of talent. Charlie Chayne, Buick's chief engineer since 1936, had left to take over the General Motors Engineering Staff in 1951. But every Buick through 1954 was the product of his Buick engineering staff.
Dynaflow automatic, power steering, and all the developments of 1953 can be credited to Chayne; so can the XP-300 show car which inspired the Skylark (although its methanol-burning, supercharged V-8 was destined to remain strictly experimental).
At 4.00 x 3.20 inches (322 cubic inches), Buick's new engine had its largest-bore engine in the past 25 years. "Perhaps the most interesting feature is the combustion chamber," wrote John Bond in Road & Track. "Valves are arranged vertically and in line. This requires a specially shaped piston crown to achieve the desired compression ratio, set at 8.5 to 1, the highest in the industry.
"A simple way to visualize this combustion chamber is to think of it as exactly like the four-valve Model J Duesenberg with one pair of valves removed. The Buick V-8 develops .538 horsepower per cubic inch (among the best), weighs only 635 pounds, and is extremely compact, with an overall width of only 26.56 inches." The engine was also short -- so much so that Buick was able to reduce the Roadmaster wheelbase by nearly five inches from 1952.
Good designs live a long time. As Michael Lamm has written, "its heads and manifolds have been revamped several times since 1953, but the basic block served Buick until 1970. In 1959, displacement grew to 401 cubes; in 1963, an overbore brought it to 425. And in 1967 there was considerable structural revision and re-manifolding, but it remained essentially this same little 1953 322-cubic-inch V-8 for 17 years."
To capitalize on the newfound V-8 power, Buick introduced a modified automatic called Twin-Turbine Dynaflow. While keeping the transmission's famed smoothness, Buick engineers worked to overcome its sluggishness by placing twin turbines in the torque converter between the pump and stator.
Claimed benefits were 10 percent more torque, which not only aided acceleration -- no more "Dynaslush" -- but also lowered engine rpm for quieter performance.
Buick made its official announcement on October 6, 1952: "Public interest has been so great that we have decided to manufacture [the Skylark] in limited quantities," said Ivan Wiles. Built on a Roadmaster chassis, it went into production in January 1953, and deliveries began by spring at a cool $5,000 retail.
Buick touted the Skylark's "sports car" features: "Styling is very similar to Buick's present line, except the new bombsight on the front has been recessed into the hood and the trunk lid has a faster slope to the rear. The 'taper-through' fenders, first introduced by Buick a decade ago, are fully cut out to reveal the Italian-made wire racing wheels.
"The new rapier-styled sweepspear molding consists of a fine strip of chrome originating on the front fender and curving gently downward to the rear wheel. From this point it sweeps sharply upward, outlining the wheel housing and flowing back to the taillight. A medallion carrying the Buick crest, located on the rear fender in front of the wheel housing, is the only other decoration on the side of the car." Read that last statement to mean that the Skylark did without Buick's traditional "Ventiports" on the front fenders.
For more on the 1953 Buick Skylark, continue to the next page.
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1953 Buick Skylark Styling and Sales
The dramatic low look of the 1953 Buick Skylark was somewhat of a clever mirage, because the "chop" amounted to only three inches, with the beltline following the slope of the fender line. The front seat was lowered so that the seatback sat level with the tops of the doors.
A short "saddle belt molding" ran from the front edge of the door back to the vent window post. The wire wheels on the prototype came from the Carlo Borrani firm in Italy, but production Skylarks sported 40-spoke chrome wire wheels made to Buick's specifications by Kelsey-Hayes in Michigan.
Interiors of the first production cars were done in Helsinki Red leather with narrow vertical pleats. (This pattern is fairly uncommon, by the way, and some Skylarks have been incorrectly restored with wider pleats.) The red carpeting was likewise special -- a needlepoint style, vulcanized to a sponge rubber base. Later, three other interior colors were added to contrast with a small range of exterior colors. The original, and most often seen, 1953 Skylark exterior color was Olympic White.
One interior feature worth special note was the Delco "Selectronic" radio, a signal-seeking affair with the "seek" controlled by a foot pedal. A dashboard knob marked "more" and "less" allowed one to control seek sensitivity, avoiding the selection of stations with weak signals. There was even an electric antenna -- not automatic, but controlled by a toggle switch to the left of the steering wheel.
Other noteworthy standard features of the Skylark included power everything: steering, brakes, seat, windows, and top. And to indicate the exclusiveness of this special Golden Anniversary Buick, the owner's name was engraved on a tag on the steering wheel, which also boasted an emblem in the center that included the dates -- 1903-1953 -- and sported the likeness of a 1903 Buick (some say it was a 1904 model). Ford, also 50 that year, likewise noted the happy occasion on its steering wheel.
If it was so good, why didn't the Skylark sell better? Because, in a word, it was expensive. In 1953, one could buy a Cadillac convertible for almost a thousand dollars less, and to the country club set a Cadillac conferred a much greater aura of importance. The upper crust simply didn't understand how special the Skylark was.
Although prosperity was a reality in 1953, only 1,690 Americans paid the $5,000 tab to purchase a Skylark. The price was slashed to $4,483 for 1954, but only 836 units left the showroom floor.
For more on the 1954 Buick Skylark, see the next page.
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1954 Buick Skylark
In an attempt to further separate it from the line while reducing its production costs, Buick opted for a different approach for the 1954 Buick Skylark: a Century-based Skylark on the "short" wheelbase.
Actually, it measured a half inch more between the wheels than the 1953 because of the all-new 1954 body design, which saw the Roadmaster/Super go to a 127-inch stretch, the Century/Special to a 122-inch span. So much for all the PR hoopla about the short engine allowing a reduced wheelbase.
Buick went to far more trouble with the 1954 Skylark than the car's anemic sales warranted. With all the 1954 hardtops and ragtops adopting full rear-wheel cutouts, differentiating the Skylark from ordinary models without extensive body alterations wasn't easy.
So the designers worked up trick features, such as deeply scooped fender cavities, some of which were painted red, and an exclusive sloping rear deck with humongous chrome-plated fins housing three-way-visible taillights, a feature inspired by the Wildcat II show car.
Once again, there was no committee review or appeal to higher authority -- the Buick guys just went ahead and did it. According to stylist Ned Nickles, the chrome fins were used because General Motors design chief Harley Earl liked them, and the Skylark in general.
The deck also carried twin ridges sloping down to meet small chrome-plated spacers between the deck and the bumper guards, and deck-mounted backup lamps.
The Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels and the special leather interior made a return appearance. New block-embossed seat and door panel inserts and a bodyside medallion were unique to the 1954 Skylark and are extremely difficult to reproduce today.
There were no significant engineering changes for 1954, although all Buicks switched to tubular front shocks in place of the traditional lever types. The convertible X-members were beefed up and the V-8 combustion chamber was reshaped, giving the 322 an extra 12 horsepower. In its highest state of tune, it cranked out 200 horsepower for the Roadmaster, Skylark, and, optionally, the Century.
Base price of the 1954 Skylark came in at $4,483, about $500 less than the much more highly modified 1953 -- and that seems to be the problem. Despite a 10 percent price cut, Buick's flagship still cost more than a Cadillac convertible. This put it in the wrong territory for a Buick, or any other make in a year when Cadillac so overwhelmingly dominated the luxury car field.
Neither did the Skylark compete well with lower-level convertibles. Except at the rear, the 1954 looked exactly like the Century, yet a Century ragtop cost 50 percent less. Furthermore, despite its use of the Century/Special body, the Skylark was no quicker than run-of-the-mill Buicks. A 0-60-mph sprint took about 12 seconds, while the top speed settled in at 100-105 mph, about the same as the 1953 model.
The Century was the real "hot rod" in 1954; with the same 200-horsepower engine available as the Skylark, the Century weighed up to 450 pounds less, which made a big difference in performance. Even the Century convertible weighed some 300 pounds less than the Skylark.
Buick management was so enthusiastic about the Skylark that they considered expanding the line. Read more about the debate on the next page.
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Buick Skylark Line Expansion
At the height of their enthusiasm, management did dabble with the idea of Buick Skylark line expansion, much as Cadillac would do in 1956 with the addition of the Eldorado Seville hardtop.
At least two 1953 Skylark hardtops were built, and at least one is alive and well in the hands of California collector Jim Ashworth. But these beasts looked rather curious because they used a conventional Riviera roofline and windshield. Somehow, that didn't mesh well with the ultra-low beltline, knocking the lines of the car out of proportion: too much greenhouse.
When general manager Wiles took aim at Plymouth and set out to build 600,000 or 700,000 Buicks in plants designed for 400,000 units, such luxuries as a multi-model Skylark line were quickly shelved. The production result, incidentally, was a third-place finish for Buick during 1954-1956. Unfortunately, a vast sacrifice in build quality from 1955 onward ultimately caused Buick's market penetration to fall to its lowest point since the 1920s.
Yet, even the best management would probably have opted not to keep such luxurious toys as the Skylark in production. Limited edition flagships seemed to work in those days only for top-echelon makes, like Cadillac with the Eldorado. In Cadillac's market -- the one Cadillac would like to have back today -- price didn't much matter.
What mattered was snobbery, and the Eldorado reigned supreme as a status symbol. Buick buyers were solid, well-employed citizens, to be sure -- but they still wrote in the top halves of their checkbooks.
What Buick learned from its experience with the 1953-1954 Skylark was that the carriage trade was willing to pay for a name. But the name they were willing to pay for was Cadillac, not Buick.
Spectacular failures have a way of remaining firmly stuck in the memory of enthusiasts, if not corporations. But Buick did remember the Skylark. In 1961, when Hint named its new compact the Special, it reserved the Skylark name for the Special's top-of-the-line coupe (which also had unique rear-end styling) -- this by a company that two years earlier had broken with the past by dropping Special, Century, Super, and Roadmaster in favor of LeSabre, Invicta, Electra, and Electra 225!
As a compact and then as an intermediate, the Skylark lived on. As late as 1972, Buick still issued press releases describing its current "popular intermediate car" as "the namesake of a special, limited production sport convertible built as part of the division's Golden Anniversary celebration."
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