A few weeks back I shared with readers my earnest but brief three-day escapade to New Hampshire to perhaps buy a vintage car. The car that drew my affection was a 1961 Buick Special Skylark.
I’ve always been a big fan of smaller B-O-P (Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac) cars from General Motors that appeared in dealerships in the fall of 1960. I then greatly admired the smaller-sized cars, and they remain some of my favorites.
Many readers may not know that not only did Buick introduce the Special for 1961, but sister divisions Oldsmobile and Pontiac got a versions of the Special’s Y-platform. They were named the F-85 and Tempest.
Older readers may recall that American-built compact automobiles arrived from the Big 3 in the fall of 1959 as 1960 models. The second round of compacts – the senior compacts – started to arrive in spring 1960. They were labeled senior members of the compact class by the automotive press because they were slightly larger than the initial Falcon, Corvair and Valiant compacts and came with a higher price tag and luxury features.
It’s no surprise why the mid-priced senior compact cars came about.
In 1957 and early 1958, Mercury, Dodge, Buick, Olds and Pontiac dealers all read in industry news accounts that the Big 3’s low-priced divisions (Chevy, Ford and Plymouth) were getting small cars for 1960. The news about the compacts-in-development would have been making the rounds when the country was experiencing a brief-but-severe recession, and sales of mid-priced full-size cars took a terrible tumble.
Popular mid-priced cars like DeSoto and Mercury saw sales tumble by more than half. It didn’t escape automaker’s attention that during the recession American buyers were making a quick shift to preferring smaller, more economical vehicles like the Rambler and the Volkswagen Beetle.
The first senior compact to arrive in spring 1960 was the Falcon-based Comet from Mercury. In the fall of 1960 Chrysler Corp. gave Dodge dealers the Valiant-based Dodge Lancer. GM made Buick, Olds and Pontiac dealers happy with the B-O-P senior models Special, F-85 and Tempest.
When GM engineers started to create the new B-O-P compact cars, they first looked at the all-new Z-platform being developed for the radical rear-engined Chevy Corvair, which was being readied for a fall 1959 introduction.
I’ve seen several photos of Buick, Olds and Pontiac clay proposals using the Corvair body. The cars would have been nearly identical to the Corvair with the exception of the front grille and rear taillights. While GM abandoned this plan, the resulting front-engine, rear-drive Y-platform created for the B-O-P cars used many Corvair body inner body pieces. The shared pieces are especially noticeable when compared to their station wagon offerings.
The front engine/rear-drive B-O-P senior compacts arrived at dealers in mid-fall 1960. Buick’s Special, Olds’ F-85 and Pontiac’s Tempest were offered initially in 4-door sedan and wagon configurations. Mid-year, a two-door coupe was added. In 1962, all were given a hardtop (except Tempest) and a convertible to sell. The Y-bodies used monocoque construction (unibody) for structural support.
They all shared a 112-inch wheelbase, averaged 188.6 inches in length and weighed about 2,800 pounds. These figures compared to Chevy Corvair’s 108-inch wheelbase, 180-inch length and weight of 2,315 pounds. For comparison purposes, my 2013 Buick Verano has a 105.7-inch wheelbase, is 184 inches long and weighs 3,300 pounds.
First year sales were decent. Tempest, the lowest priced of the three, sold 100,783 units. Buick followed with 86,868 Specials sold, and Olds moved 76,394 F-85s.
Back in the day GM encouraged competition between its divisions. So in that spirit the Special/F-85/Tempest were developed with a variety of engines and drivetrains, some not shared among the three nameplates.
Buick engineers apparently thought that a Buick should have a V-8 under the hood. As a result an all-new 215-cubic-inch engine with an innovative aluminum block was developed. The two-barrel engine produced 155 horsepower. Later in the year, when the special-trim Special Skylark was introduced, its standard engine was a four-barrel V-8, producing 185 hp. The 215 V-8 was later sold to British Leyland and appeared in models like Rover, Land Rover and Morgan. The 155-hp V-8 was also Tempest option.
Buick surprised the industry in 1962 by adding to the option list a 198-cubic inch, cast iron “Fireball” V-6 engine that put out 135 hp. This engine was created using many of the same design parameters of the aluminum V-8. This V-6 would eventually become a GM workhorse and be sold on nearly all its divisional cars from Chevy to Buick. Known as the 3800, it appeared numerous times on Ward’s 10 Best Engines list. Over 25 million 3800 V-6 engines have been produced.
Olds opted to use the Buick aluminum engine in 1961 but used different cylinder heads, camshafts, carburetors and compression ratios. In 1962 Olds introduced the turbocharged F-85 Jetfire coupe and convertible. The Jetfire’s turbocharger helped the 215-cubic-inch engine produce 215 hp. Coincidentally Chevy also went the turbocharger route on its Corvair Spyder model.
Pontiac engineers were very inventive with the Y-platform and created their Tempest with an unexpected rear-mounted transaxle coupled to a torque shaft within a longitudinal tunnel. Pundits called the shaft a “rope drive.” To power the Tempest engineers designed a 195-cubic-inch straight-4 engine – the Trophy 4 – which was cleverly derived from the right cylinder bank of big brother Bonneville’s 389-cubic-inch V-8. The Tempest could be ordered with the Buick Special’s aluminum V-8.
In 1963 Pontiac dropped the Buick aluminum V-8 and offered instead its big cast iron 326 V-8 as a Tempest option. As can be expected, the powerful V-8 gave the lightweight Tempest some pretty impressive straight-line performance. Over 52 percent of Tempests in 1963 were ordered with the 326.
When Chevy’s Corvair introduced mid-year its sporty Monza model in 1960 to tremendous success, it didn’t take long for the B-O-P senior compacts to follow suit. Buick introduced the Skylark, Olds the Cutlass and Pontiac LeMans. All featured attractive, upgraded interiors with bucket seats being the most noticeable addition.
The senior compacts in their three years of production were good sellers. It appears that word of mouth was good as their sales increased each year from 1961 through 1963.
It should be mentioned that GM engineers scored two Motor Trend Car of the Year nods with their Y-bodies. In 1961 the Pontiac Tempest was given the Golden Calipers for the car’s innovative 4-cylinder engine and rear transaxle drive. In 1962 the unexpected V-6 Fireball engine in the Buick Special garnered recognition.
GM was on a roll.
The rear-engined Corvair won the Car of the Year award in 1960. It could be said without argument at the time that General Motors, with three trophy wins in a row, was the dominant automaker in the world.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.