“I banged a lot of nails to get these cars.” Those are the words of Jim Sheils, a 51-year-old Franklin, Massachusetts, construction worker and extremely focused 1966 Buick Skylark GS collector. How focused? His current collection consists of 23 running GS400s plus six parts cars. Keep in mind, we’re not talking 1965s or 1967s, just 1966 models. “Things become a lot simpler when you stick to one single year like I do,” Jim says.
Born in 1965, Jim’s infatuation with the 1966 GS has nothing to do with his birth year. That would make a great backstory, but it’s off by one year to make sense. Rather, it was his 1984 purchase of a 1966 Skylark convertible that lit the flame. “It was totally loaded with every available option,” says Jim. “It had the 340 four-barrel, power steering, power windows, and everything else, but it wasn’t a GS muscle model.” That means it didn’t have the torquey 401-cube nailhead V-8, which Buick used in the 1965 and 1966 Skylark GS400 before switching to an all-new 400 V-8 engine for 1967 and beyond.
The 401 engines in Jim’s Gran Sport fleet are from Buick’s first-generation V-8 family, which debuted in 1953 at 264 and 322 ci, then grew to 364 (1957), 401 (1959), and finally 425 (1963) ci. Though the engine was modern and innovative in many ways, designers Joe Turlay and Cliff Studaker were forced to work around certain restrictions posed by existing mid-1950’s Buick frame and steering-gear architecture. To fit the space previously occupied by Buick’s inline eight-cylinder engines, care had to be taken to minimize width. This led to arranging the intake and exhaust valves vertically, at a 45-degree angle to the cylinder bores.
The resulting cylinder heads reduced engine width to suit the Buick chassis but also forced the use of smaller-than-ideal 1.875/1.500-inch intake and exhaust valve head diameters (on the 1966 GS400, some earlier engines were much smaller). Buick compensated for the restricted breathing potential by tuning the cam, intake, and exhaust manifolds for torque instead of horsepower. This explains why pre-1967 Buick V-8s are called nailheads, and why Buick advertising and air cleaner lid graphics emphasized torque output instead of horsepower.
If you’ve ever wondered, the Wildcat 445 logo on the standard GS400 air cleaner was a reference to the wall of torque unleashed between 2,500 and 4,500 rpm, not the more conventional horsepower or cubic-inch boasts of other Detroit muscle V-8s.
Jim pointed out that while the 1966 GS400’s 325hp rating (340 with the midyear A9 Quadrajet carburetor option) was generally lower than the same year SS396 Chevelle (325, 360, 375), GTO (335, 360), or 4-4-2 (350, 360), its 445 lb-ft of torque, way down at 2,800 rpm, led the field. By contrast, the 396 rated 410 to 420 lb-ft at 3,200/3,600 rpm, the Pontiac GTO 389 rated 424 to 431 lb-ft at 3,200/3,600 rpm, and the 4-4-2 rated 440 lb-ft at 3,600 rpm.
“Since peak torque hits nearly 1,000 rpm sooner in a GS400, you can really feel the wallop in the seat of your pants, even with the two-speed automatic,” says Jim. “The other GM muscle cars take a few more seconds to come on strong.”
The Buick stylists’ unique take on the 1966 General Motors A-Body combined with the instant action when the light turns green explains why Jim is a Gran Sport fanatic. He also appreciates originality and seeks out one-owner survivors whenever possible. “I’m the second owner of six of the cars in my stash. If you wait and have the patience, these cars will come to you.”
Jim is an active member of the Buick Club of America (BCOA) and serves as a technical director, specializing in mid-1960s Skylarks. Founded in 1966 (there’s that number again!), the BCOA publishes a magazine called The Buick Bugle that’s edited by Texan Pete Phillips. Phillips also snapped the pictures here at the 2016 Buick Bash, a one-day celebration of all things Buick held at Jim’s compound. The 2017 Buick Bash is scheduled for late July. To learn more, write Jim at Media note: Special thanks to Pete Phillips and The Buick Club of America, Leonard, Texas, Media of 1,835 GS400 pillar coupes built for 1966, this totally unrestored and original Cream Yellow four-speed was ordered new by Buick employee Cal Hugins. Hugins pulled strings to get its highway-oriented 2.73:1 axle ratio installed on the line. It has only covered 26,000 miles and retains the original 8.25-14 tires.Though the Skylark catalog said it wasn’t possible to combine Cream Yellow exterior paint with a red interior, again, Hugins’ factory connections—and open checkbook—bent the rules. An austere rubber boot surrounds the factory T-handle shifter, as Buick’s sleek center console was only offered with bucket seats.This Saddle Mist hardtop was sold new by Clyde Cole Buick in Warren, Ohio, to a steelworker who specified a black bench seat interior, a four-speed, and a factory-installed 3.55 antispin axle. Though he drag raced it, he also cherished it. The exterior paint is completely original.Despite many dragstrip outings, the totally original interior is well preserved. Collector Jim Sheils says, “I doubt anybody ever sat in the back seat.” This GS has the Carter-AFB-equipped 325hp 401.In 1986, Jim was a 21-year-old line worker at the Framingham, Massachusetts, GM assembly plant on vacation in California when he spotted this Flame Red GS hardtop. It was sitting in the used car lot of Terry Buick in Huntington Beach, where it was sold new to Alice Terry, the dealership owner’s wife. The reality of shipping it back to Massachusetts was too much for Jim’s budget, but after two decades of persistence he finally acquired the one-repaint time capsule in 2006.The Wildcat GS air cleaner tin signals the presence of the Q-Jet–equipped A9 401 with 340 hp. (Standard 325hp GS400 401 lids read “Wildcat 445.”) For reasons unknown, the deeper-breathing 401 was only available with the two-speed automatic, not the three- or four-speed sticks. Though Buick promoted the Q-jet upgrade in a full-color midyear GS400 magazine ad—with a close-up picture of the upsized carburetor no less—sales were minimal, perhaps a few hundred.The Terry Buick A9 GS400 exhibits the unusual combination of bucket front seats and a column-shifted automatic transmission. The D55 center console was offered for $47.05.In another instance when persistence paid off, Jim spotted this GS400 convertible, one of 2,047 built, at a 1985 Buick show in Vernon, Connecticut. Gently contacting the owner every year since, Jim struck a deal with him in 2015. Before closing the deal, the seller demanded a visit to Jim’s garage. “After five minutes and seeing my sincere interest, the guy knew I wasn’t some flipper or speculator, and he agreed to sell it to me.”The stubby half-console inside another four-speed GS hardtop was one of several center console configurations available. The circular pod is designed to house an optional tachometer. When not specified, a round block-off plate with Buick’s tri-shield logo took its place. Like all manual transmission GS400s, this one is powered by the 325hp 401.The base GS400 transmission was a Ford-supplied Top Loader–style three-speed stick that was also offered in the GTO. This pristine Regal Black hardtop was bought new by Randall Davis of Georgia, who saved $184.31 by skipping the wide-ratio Muncie M20 four-speed. The front bench seat saved another $47.39 versus buckets. Davis was reunited with his former car at the 2016 Buick Bash. Jim says, “Randall is 77 and hadn’t seen the car in 26 years, but he turned 20 years old in two seconds when he saw the car he bought new in 1966.”Jim’s lone non-GS A-Body is this all original, 18,000-mile, unrestored Special Deluxe wagon. Though wagons were typically equipped with the base 225ci V-6, this one has the most potent non-GS engine available in 1966, the 260hp 340 four-barrel. Other factory options include the Super Turbine two-speed automatic and upsized 8.25-14 tires. But the real oddball feature is the Rally wheels, which the build sheet verifies were installed at the factory.Jim handles his own restoration work and will soon revive this ultrarare A9 Q-Jet–powered drop-top. Originally sold by Twin City Buick in Brewer, Maine, it was special-ordered with a 3.90 axle ratio.These California-sourced hardtops are equipped with automatics, but the red car has the midyear A9 engine with a single Q-Jet. The 1964-1966 dual-quad 425 offered in the Riviera and Wildcat GS never found its way onto the Skylark option list but is a popular and easy swap. Gran Sport Skylark identification is as simple as spotting the exclusive 446 code in the first three digits of the VIN.Nailhead rebuild parts are fairly common, but good engine and transmission cores are drying up, Jim says. “Street rod and rat rod builders are rediscovering the engine for its unique looks.” The red paint on these Carter AFB–equipped 325hp 401s marks them as 1966 models. Before 1966, the 401 was painted green. Chrome air cleaners and valve covers were strictly over-the-counter Buick dress-up parts. The Q-jet–spec A9 intake manifold is cast iron and very rare.Though reproduction Chevelle, 4-4-2, and GTO floor and trunk pans are useful in Skylark restorations, so far GS bumpers, hoods, grilles, and trim are being overlooked by the aftermarket. As the popularity of the Gran Sport grows, perhaps more items will become available. Until then, Jim hoards as much metal as possible.“These parts cars are far too rusty for restoration but are worth their weight in gold as a source for correct fasteners and assembly techniques,” Jim says. Buick only built 13,816 446-code GS400s for 1966, but another 216,374 A-Body Specials, Skylarks, and Sport Wagons were built and shared many parts.Regular trips to Hershey, Carlisle, and the Buick Nationals since the mid 1980s helped Jim amass a huge collection of spare and N.O.S. parts. “I always pay up for stuff I think I might need down the road. I figure, if I’m there and I have the cash, I’d better grab it. Before you know it you’ve got a ton. I’ve got enough to do 10 cars.”Jim has a healthy attitude about the muscle car scene: “I may be fixated on 1966 Skylark Gran Sports, but I keep an open mind. There are many Fords, Mopars, Chevys, and Pontiacs I’d also love to own. But this is my lot in life, so far.” Back To Article Download Full Size Facebook Twitter Google Plus Email Share Buick Hoard: One Man’s Obsession With the1966 Buick Skylark GS/20
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