Story and photo by Bill Vance
1965 Buick Wildcat. Click image to enlarge
Buick was long known as a somewhat conservative car, the type favoured by people like doctors and bank mangers. It used overhead valve straight-eight engines exclusively from 1931 to 1952 (its overhead valve V8 came in 1953), and carried an image of muted prestige – more than an Oldsmobile, but not quite the ostentation of a Cadillac.
Occasionally however, there was a stepping out of character, and into the performance arena. Examples were the 1936 Century, named for its 161 km/h (100 mph) top speed, and the audacious, turbocharged 1982 Grand National.
Another was the Wildcat, an unexpectedly feral name that Buick had used on Buick concept cars in 1953, ’54 and ’55. Built from 1962 to 1970, the Wildcat was appropriately called an “Executive Hot Rod” by Car Life magazine (4/64). “Just the thing for tired blood,” they enthused.
The 1962 Wildcat started life as a sub-series of the Buick Invicta. Buick engineers created it by fitting an Invicta hardtop coupe with their most powerful Electra 6.6 litre (401 cu in.) 325 horsepower engine.
To set it apart from lesser Buicks, and emphasize its “sports luxury” character, the Wildcat got a vinyl roof covering and stainless steel rocker panel trim. Inside were bucket seats, vinyl trim, and a console which housed the gear lever for the standard equipment automatic transmission. It even had a tachometer, but being console-mounted, it was difficult to see, and therefore not of much use.
In spite of weighing a hefty 1,978 kg (4,360 lb), the big V8-powered Wildcat offered strong performance. Car Life (7/62) reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 8.9 seconds, zero to 161 (100) in 27.5 seconds, and a top speed of 182 km/h (113 mph). They also reported fuel consumption of 12 to 15 mpg.
With the Invicta nameplate disappearing, Buick decided to expand the Wildcat into its own series for 1963, and make it the Invicta’s replacement. Power assisted 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 the side trim running from headlamp to door encompassed the gradually receding “ventiports,” commonly known as portholes, that had been a Buick hallmark since 1949.
The Wildcat went into 1964 without major changes, although to expand its appeal it added a regular four-door sedan to the line-up. It also got an optional 7.0 litre (425 cu in.) V8 that could be had with 340 horsepower, or 360 with two four-barrel carburetors.
This is the car that inspired Car Life’s Executive Hot Rod nickname. Their test of a 1964 360 horsepower Wildcat with the now optional four-speed all-synchromesh, manual transmission, and a stump-pulling 3.91:1 rear axle, yielded quick zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.7 seconds. Top speed was 185 km/h (115 mph).
For 1965 the Wildcat got the rounder styling of GM’s large cars, and moved up in size from its former 3,124 mm (123 in.) wheelbase to the Electra’s 3,200 (126). The new styling proved successful for the Wildcat, giving it a best-ever 99,000 sales.
The Wildcat continued pursuing its performance image for 1966 with the addition of a Gran Sport option on its coupe and convertible. It featured the 340 horsepower engine, with a limited slip differential, and came with stiffer suspension and optional quicker steering.
Some engine de-proliferation came for 1967 with the switch to Buick’s new V8, a replacement for the original engine that dated back to 1953. That original V8 used vertically positioned valves in one side of the combustion chambers. This gave the narrower engine configuration required by the stylists, but limited valve and inlet port diameters.
The new V8 removed these breathing limitations, and had a more efficient domed combustion chamber. It came in two displacements: 6.6 litres (400 cu in.) with 340 horsepower; and 7.0 litre (430 cu in.) with 360 horsepower. The ’67 Wildcat got the 360 horsepower engine.
The Wildcat got few changes for 1968, and then for 1969 it moved back onto the shorter 3,129 mm (123.2 in.) LeSabre wheelbase. It also got a moderate re-styling and a new grille. Nineteen-seventy would be the Wildcat’s last year. It received a small wheelbase stretch to 3,150 mm (124 in.) and another styling retouch. Under the hood, the 7.0 litre received a 3.175 mm (1/8-in.) bore increase, bringing displacement to 7.4 litres (455 cu in.), and horsepower to 370.
By this time model offerings were back to a coupe, hardtop sedan, and convertible, the smallest number since 1963. When sales dipped to just 23,600, from almost 70,000 in 1969, General Motors discontinued the Wildcat.
The Buick Wildcat was a big, luxurious, high performance car with some un-Buick like sporty aspirations. It exemplified the 1960s American car, the last decade in which the industry would be able build its cars pretty much the way it wanted — without significant government intervention, or having to worry about fuel economy.