Buick : 1966 Skylark

1966 Buick SkylarkIf there's one thing you can say about cannibals it is you know who you're eating and it's not as awkward as sometimes walking into a greasy spoon some place, ordering some meat of questionable vintage and then enjoying some sort of soda that's allegedly cola.

In the auto market, too, you know who you are eating if you are cannibalizing your own company's market as you try to make your division look like the leader and everyone else out there is just the follower; in other words, you know who you are eating.

It was a case like this that actually did in the mid-range General Motors market in 1966 when Buick decided to rebody its highly successful Skylark, while the other GM divisions not only took the parts out of Buick's performance bin, they put them together at a lower cost and the result, as they say was history. The Skylark moved upscale and its muscle days ended at the end of 1966.

In 1965, though, it was "the bomb" for performance addicts. Buick and its Skylark could do no wrong. The other divisions were the ones who had to play catch up, but with 1966 Buick, which may have had something to do with its own demise in the performance market (you know reload, blow off another toe), did a few things you really wouldn't expect an already successful automaker to do.

Whether it was corporate hubris or just plain short-sightedness, we'll never know as none of us was privy to the design meetings where the new Skylark was developed for 1966, however, when that model year rolled around the Skylark sported a new body and the power was increased for the Gran Sport.

The only problem was at a time when this bruiser was being improved and its cost was rising, the General's other divisions were cutting costs and making their cars cheaper and just as powerful. Oh, they may not have been as innovative as the Skylark was – it was that – but they didn't have to make their cars innovative, they just had to make them inexpensive enough for average gearheads to drive, which is what they did (the Pontiac Tempest certainly fills that bill).

Maybe the new lines made it look too upscale for performance addicts as the sail panels extended past the rear window making it recessed and changing the entire look of the Skylark. The same is true of the front end where they decided to used a blacked-out grille and they added a set of phony hood scoops and dummy side scoops by the wheel wells. Actually, the additions looked great but they didn't do a thing, except allow dealers to raise prices. As the commercial of the era went, the new pieces sure "tasted great and were less filling." In fact, they didn't fill anything at all, except corporate ledgers.

It was really a shame, too, because underneath the shiny chrome add-ons the heart of the Skylark still was beating. Buick was still using its giant-killer 401 "Wildcat 44F" engine, mated to a four-barrel carb that gave that mill the ability to crank out 325 horsepower all day long. And, an even hotter version of the engine made its appearance during the model year, a 340 which helped to increase performance.

Another piece that helped keep the performance quotient up was the addition of easier breathing dual exhaust that made this vehicle even hotter than it was. And, to handle the additional power the Buick engineering team dropped in a heavy-duty suspension that featured a heavy-duty stabilizer bar.

To haul this moving mass of metal back to normal space, the Buick engineering team dropped in metallic brake linings (they were still shoes and linings and they did fade after one or two major hits, but that was the era).

That the gearheads were running the design shop for the Skylark was evident from the fact that not only were three- and four-speed trannies available, a three-speed auto was also on the order sheet. The key to this end of the vehicle was the final ratio. You could order one of six final rear end ratios that ranged from 2.78:1 to 4.30:1. With this kind of range available, it's little wonder that the Skylark was the rager that it was. Indeed, when you went for the throat with the big engine and right rear end, Positrac was not an option. It was standard.

Indeed, the tuners at Buick actually limited the 340 at 4,600 rpm but they offered stump-pulling torque of 445 pounds-feet around 3,000 rpm. Performance was definitely tilted toward the drag end of the car wars. The Skylark could pull 0 to 60 clocks of under 7 seconds all day long when it was rigged out for performance and the same car could come out of the quarter in 15 seconds at between 95 and 100. Those are some numbers.

Buick did everything right with the 1966 Skylark. They gave it balanced handling and stump-pulling performance. They also priced themselves out of the market as the three Skylarks available – coupe, convertible and Gran Sport were priced between $3,000 and $3,200, in a day when a real gearhead could have a 4-4-2 for $1,000 less. The same was true of the GTO. As a result sales fell off with this model year and by 1967, the Skylark had moved from performance beacon to family sedan – oh,how the mighty had fallen.