Buick may not have the same go-for-the-throat, high-performance reputation as other carmakers, but there's no shortage of classy machinery from the men in Flint. Here's a rare pair that illustrates Buick's effort to appeal to opposite ends of the market spectrum.
A budget-oriented performance offering, don't confuse this '69 California GS with a GS350 or GS400. The full doorframe and fixed B-pillar give it away. Regular GS350 and GS400 Skylarks were only built on the pillarless hardtop body shell, while the California GS is based on the el cheapo Special Deluxe thin pillar coupe. These things weren't sold nationally, so don't be surprised if you've never seen one.
All '68 and '69 California GSs were built with bench seats and had automatic transmissions, though '69s like this one came with superior three-speed Turbo 350 transmissions in place of the two-speed Super Turbine 300 used in '68 California GS cars. Happily, the California GS shared its 280hp 350 with the GS350. Buick built 3,574 California GS models in 1969, compared with 6,305 GS350s and 9,387 GS400s.
The Riviera has always been Buick's flagship offering. This one lacks the supercool '65-only clamshell headlamp doors, so we know it's a '63 or '64-which have their horizontally positioned quad headlamps exposed over the egg crate grille. We'd scrounge up a GS-only dual-quad setup for the nailhead mill, adapt a T56 manual transmission, and give it a slight nose-up Super Stock stance.
Buick's fabled aluminum front brake drums are finned to dissipate heat. Their integrally cast iron friction linings are not rebuildable but are amazingly durable. You'd have to run the shoes down to bare metal to cause harm. Pontiac's eight-lug wheels of the same time period use a similar bimetal brake drum strategy. Unlike Pontiac, Buick only mounted aluminum drums up front; the rear drums were conventional cast iron.
* In 1908, Buick was America's number-two carmaker, producing 8,820 units. The number-one spot was held by Ford with 10,202 cars built.
* Twenty-one years before Kenny Bernstein's Buick Reatta-bodied Funny Car hit the scene in 1988, Ron Pellegrini's Super Bird was blazing the quarter-mile. It's blown 392 Chrysler was cloaked under a Fiberglass Ltd. '67 Skylark body shell.