Bill Vance: Wildcat added performance to Buick lineup

Buick built its reputation on solid, conservative cars, the type favoured by people such as doctors, bank managers and school principals. It featured silky overhead-valve straight-eight engines exclusively from 1931 to 1952, changing with the times to an overhead-valve V-8 in 1953.

Buick exuded an image of muted prestige — more than an Oldsmobile, but not quite the ostentation of a Cadillac.

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Occasionally, however, Buick stepped out of its conservative character and into the performance arena. Examples were the light-bodied, big-engined 1936 Century with 160 kilometre-per-hour top speed. Another was the audacious, turbocharged 1984 Grand National with eight-cylinder performance from a six-cylinder engine.

Then there was the Wildcat, an unexpectedly feral name for Buick that it used on concept cars from 1953 to 1955. The production Wildcat was built from 1962 to 1970 and appropriately dubbed the “Executive Hot Rod” by Car Life magazine.

The 1962 Wildcat arrived as a mid-year sub-series of the Buick Invicta, created by fitting an Invicta hardtop coupe with their most powerful Electra 6.6-litre (401 cu. in.) 325-horsepower engine.

To emphasize its “sports luxury” character, the Wildcat got a vinyl roof and stainless-steel side and rocker-panel trim. Inside were bucket seats and vinyl accents. It had a console-mounted gear lever for the standard equipment automatic transmission, and there was even a tachometer on the console.

In spite of propelling 1,978 kilograms, the big V-8 gave strong performance. Car Life reported zero to 100 km/h in 8.9 seconds, to 160 in 27.5 seconds and a top speed of 182 km/h. They also reported fuel consumption of 12 to 15 mpg (U.S.).

Buick expanded the Wildcat into its own series for 1963, replacing the Invicta. Power steering and brakes were now standard, and body styles were two- and four-door hardtops and a convertible. It received the obligatory new grille, and side trim running from headlamps to doors encompassed receding “ventiports,” popularly known as portholes, a Buick hallmark since 1949.

The Wildcat went into 1964 without major changes, although it added a four-door sedan. It also got an optional 7.0-litre (425 cu. in.) V-8 with 340 horsepower, or 360 with two four-barrel carburetors.

This is the combination that inspired Car Life’s Executive Hot Rod nickname. They tested a 1964 360-horsepower Wildcat with the now optional and very un-Buick-like four-speed, all-synchromesh manual transmission and stump-pulling 3.91:1 rear axle. It did zero to 100 km/h in a quick 7.7 seconds and topped out at 185 km/h (115 mph).

For 1965, the Wildcat got the rounder styling of GM’s large cars and moved up from a 3,124-mm wheelbase to the Electra’s 3,200. The new styling proved so successful it gave Wildcat its best-ever 99,000 sales.

The Wildcat continued pursuing its performance image for 1966 with a Gran Sport option on its coupe and convertible. It featured the 340-horsepower engine and came with a limited-slip differential, stiffer suspension and optional quicker steering.

Some engine de-proliferation came for 1967 with the switch to Buick’s new V-8, a replacement for the original engine that dated back to 1953. To satisfy the stylists’ request back then for a narrower engine, engineers gave the ’53 V-8 vertically positioned valves. This made it narrower, but also limited valve and inlet port diameters.

The new V-8 alleviated these breathing limitations with more efficient domed combustion chambers. It came in two displacements: 6.6 litres (400 cu. in.) with 340 horsepower; and 7.0-litre with 360 horsepower, the one the ’67 Wildcat got.

The Wildcat had few changes for 1968, and then for 1969 it moved back onto the shorter 3,129-mm LeSabre wheelbase. It also got a moderate re-styling and a new grille.

However, 1970 would be the Wildcat’s last year. It received a small wheelbase stretch to 3,150 mm and another styling retouch. The 7.0-litre received a 3.175-mm bore increase, bringing displacement to 7.4 litres (455 cu. in.) and horsepower to 370, the Wildcat’s highest ever.

By this time, model offerings were back to a coupe, four-door hardtop sedan and convertible, the smallest number since 1963. When Wildcat sales dipped to just 23,600 from almost 70,000 in 1969, General Motors discontinued it.

The name would lie dormant until revived in 1983 as another Buick concept car. The Wildcat had completed the circle from show car to production car to show car.

The Buick Wildcat was a luxurious high-performance machine with some un-Buick-like sporty characteristics. It exemplified the big, brawny 1960s American car, the last decade the industry was free to build cars pretty much as it wished with limited government intervention.

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