By on April 21, 2007

They were both gorgeous, in that all-American wholesome, sexy, energetic way. Voluptuous, but athletic. Heartland traditional, but ready for a good time. Exhilarating and accelerative. And they were both mine to do with as I pleased. So why was I, a healthy young man, having a problem?

I met Julie at a dance club in Iowa City. She was a student from Burlington, where she’d been a high-school cheerleader. She was everything I dreamed of in a girl when I was in the ninth grade: blonde, bouncy, sexy. She looked like she’d stepped right out of Playboy’s “The Co-eds of 1967” pictorial. Julie drove her Dad’s hand-me-down Buick Wildcat 2-door hardtop.

The ‘67 Wildcat occupied a similar special place in my ninth-grade fantasy life. Its entry into my fantasy life was also prompted by a magazine: spy shots of 1967 Buicks at GM’s testing grounds. The Wildcat, with its endless fastback, fender skirts and super-fluidic lines left me… aroused. GM styling-guru Bill Mitchell had somehow made a big Buick sexy.

Julie was happy to have me to drive the Wildcat (I was car-less at the time). The high-compression 360hp big-block V8 was still in its prime. It could really hustle the twin living-room size vinyl sofas down the road.

The Buick’s accelerative surges could be sustained until they exceeded even my youthful comfort level for the balding white-wall rubber it rode on. But the utterly numb steering, feeble drum brakes and soft suspension meant that driving the big ‘Cat in anything other than a straight line was frustrating and highly unsatisfying. It was a lot like trying to have an intelligent conversation with Julie.

Therein lay the source of my problems– with both of them.

I was in my artistic-intellectual-wannabe phase. Somehow, I had become a professional actor in an experimental theater company at the University. We performed our “avant-garde” pieces in NY and other cities to the artsy-fartsy elite. And even though our theater was more physical than verbal, Julie’s cheerleading background was no help in making my work comprehensible to her.

Outside of our youthful libidos and straight-line thrills in the Buick, Julie and I had nothing in common. When I broke up with her after a month, she said “I could have married you”. By invoking that taboo word, she instantly removed any trace of doubt or regret.

And so it also went with me and GM’s land-yachts in the early seventies. The cracks had started years earlier, but I was still a sucker for a sexy bod– like the exquisite 1970 Camaro. Although I mostly knew better, I couldn’t totally resist the siren lure of GM’s new-car introductions.

My artist friend Paul and I hit the dealerships and stood in awe (shock?) at the results of Bill Mitchell’s highly-fertile imagination. But now there was cynicism mixed with artistic appreciation of his powers. It had become increasingly difficult to see twenty-foot long coupes as viable transportation devices.

Mitchell’s XXXL-sized 1971 – 72 Buick Riviera epitomized the end of this era (as well as his own– he wasn’t cut out for the OPEC-forced downsizing to come). It was a flamboyant mélange of borrowed elements: the fastback lifted from the Sting Ray, the Classics-era boat-tail and the blatant exploitation of an earlier GM classic, the 1953 Buick Skylark. It all worked brilliantly, as long as you didn’t take it too seriously– a refined George Barris custom from the sixties. But now it was the seventies.

We didn’t just look. We took stacks of brochures home and out came scissors and glue— the photo-shop tools of the pre-digital age. We re-arranged, exaggerated and morphed Mitchell’s dreams into automotive nightmares. Or was it vice-versa?

Bill kept feeding us new raw material. The 1973 (full-size) intermediates were utterly amazing. We had a LOT of fun with redesigning the Pontiac Grand Am Colonnade Coupe. Our version of the giant Olds Custom Cruiser wagon looked like a cross between the space shuttle and a double-decker bus.

We were like kindergarten kids cutting out paper snowflakes, tongues sticking out. Or maybe we were just divining what GM would have built by 1980 if there hadn’t been an energy crisis.

Paul topped all of our paper-snipping with the real thing. I gave him a ride to his hometown Cincinnati, where he showed me the end result of a creative high-school shop project: A 1959 Chevrolet sedan that had been lifted and put on its frame backwards. Imagine looking in your rear-view mirror and seeing that set of bat-wings gaining on you.

The Twilight-Zone Chevy created havoc, traffic jams, and near-accidents on its ass-backwards joy-rides– until the police put a stop to it. I paid tribute to the rusting hulk in a weedy back yard. It was a truly fitting memorial to the death of an era.

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14 Comments on “Auto-Biography 13: Wildcat!...”


  • avatar
    Gottleib

    Ahh the late 60's and early 70's were exciting times for the automobile and their stylists. I even knew a Julie that was a cheerleader. When I finished college and joined the Air Force I bought my first sports car a Datsun (now Nissan) 240Z. Although I wanted a Porsche 911 they were double the price. As I recall the 240Z drove like a small two seater sedan, it really didn't handle all that well and was quite nose heavy. The Japanese were still building cars in a copy cat fashion, I think the 240Z was supposed to be like a Jaguar XK-E but it wasn't. My parents had a Wildcat with a 400 cu in V-8. That was probably the most powerful car I have ever driven because after 1974 fuel economy and smaller cars were in my future until the 80's. Remember the downsizing of the 70's. Not until the 90's did bigger not only become better but fuel costs had stabilized. You know the rest of the story and while the current situation is similar to the mid seventies the big difference now is the congestion with so many more drivers and cars on the road. I am glad I lived through the 60's and 70's though, and thanks for the memories and your very well written account of those times.

  • avatar
    UnclePete

    Another great story Paul! I remember seeing them unloading one of the first ’71 Buick Rivieras at a local dealership in NY, and being in awe that someone greenlighted such an audacious looking car.

    The biggest engined car I drove in that period was a friend’s ’69 Olds 98 with the 455 ci engine. That thing was a beast. We drove it back and forth to college (a 400 mile jaunt across NY state) and it returned an amazing 20 mpg on the highway. When you think of how big and hulking one of those was, I think that mileage was astounding! (It probably had something to with the tiny primaries and hockey-puck sized secondaries in the 4bbl carburator!)

    I didn’t drive another car with an engine approaching anything like the Olds until I bought my GTO (nee Holden Monaro) a year ago. It does bring back memories of the ’70s when I drive that car!

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Paul- You must be about my age……a difficult time, at best. However, your evocative style warms my heart with memories of warm days, young girls and the smell of them both. Thank you.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    the only good looking wildcat I know is buick Wildcat (1986)concept.For childhood is a miraculous place in your memories , as long as you return there only in memories.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    They didn’t look as swoopy as the Wildcat or the boat-tail Rivieras, but the real hot ticket Buicks back in the early Seventies were the GSX hardtop, most especially the GSX Stage 1, complete with 455 cid V8 in the Skylark body and ram-air hood scoop and alloy wheels. These are cars rarely seen on the collector car auction circuit. When introduced, the auctioneer has to do a bit of historical introduction; since not enough people remember them, or even knew of them back then.

    The mid-Eighties had the Buick (Regal) GNX, complete with turbocharged 3.8 liter V8 (said engine was run in several Indy cars in the Eighties, including Patrick Bedard’s ill-fated ride). These cars sold for $29,290.00 in 1987 – not cheap – and now bring $37,300 (according to the NADA Classic, Collectible and Special Interest Car Appraisal Guide & Directory) in average condition. They were the last real muscle car Buick made.

    If Buick could turn out something such as those cars, it might make it a bit further down the road, as well as expand their customer base to people below the age of 60.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Paul, this is absolutely wonderful work. My only childhood memory of cars from this era was the 1974 Impala with the vinyl interior that my grandparents left for my brother. That car combined the personality of Archie Bunker with the looks of Edith Bunker. It was one cranky ugly bastard that spent it’s last several years spewing out liquids and parts both on and off road.

    Again, great work. Thanks for writing memories that I only wish I could dream about.

  • avatar
    Rastus

    I’ve always loved the Wildcat.

    You hear that: RASTUS LOVES (LOVED) A GM CAR….

    …ONCE UPON A TIME, THAT IS!! :)

    I mean, the name alone is worth a smile or two :)

    Sh*t, GM would…as they say…”screw up a free lunch”.

    And my almighty, they most certainly have.

    What is a “Buick” nowadays?

    Ans: Nothing more than a 10-year old Toyota Cressida…that’s what!

    Free lunches don’t come around every day. Leave it to GM to screw the pooch.

    I’m sorry GM…there is no “California Dreamin\'” when it comes to a Buick nowaday. Please ..PLEASE do us all a favor and just KILL IT?

    I mean, honestly…4 sales per month per standalone Buick dealer?

    As Joan Rivers use to say: PLEAAAAASE!!!!

  • avatar
    Rastus

    …and if my timeline serves me correct, the Cressida has been out of production for more than 10 years…so forgive me, what I meant to say was:

    “A 15 year old Toyota Cressida”.

    Buick can’t EVEN hang with the new Avalon…not by the reach of stank breath.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Great stuff Paul, keep it coming!

  • avatar
    beater

    Brothers, let us not sully the good name Wildcat by speaking of its creator in its present decrepit state, or of the Toyota. It is akin to speaking ill of the dead.

    Allow me to sing praises of the Wildcat.

    I was seduced by a 1967 model, just like the one at the head of this article, only mine was a 4-door. A car that I didn’t even know I wanted.

    Mine had the 430 CI big block with a Turbo Hydramatic 400, the first year for both. 19 feet long, gold interior, full bench seat. Whitewalls. And a cranky old Rochester Quadrajet.

    A friend of mine spotted it out on the street near where he worked. When he gave me the description, I thought, no way… why the hell would I want a barge like that? (I was driving a TR7 at the time). A 4-door Buick? “The car of the enemy”, as an old friend called such beasts when we were both degenerate teens. A total Dad-Mobile. But, it only had 66K on the odometer and it was only $200.

    I found it sitting half parked in a ditch, covered in pine needles and bird poop. It had been painted front to back with Krylon in a hideous shade of purple. The carb was acting up and it wouldn’t start anymore, hence the price. I took it apart on the spot, tinkered with it and within an hour, I had a runner.

    Sold.

    The drive home was a revelation. This thing was alive… more than any other car I’ve owned, it exhibited a distinct personality right off the bat. A big, flexy, floppy beast, it elegantly wafted over bumps… it was like riding atop a giant manta ray. The numb power steering was more than made up for by its sheer presence on the road… I could just hear the engineers down in Flint saying “Road feel? Why the hell would you want to feel the road?” And that engine… gobs and gobs of endless torque that flowed like honey, all day long. For its time, this car offered no apologies… power, comfort, style and acres of room… you gotta problem with that?

    Once I had it sorted out with a dual exhaust, new tires and some tinkering, it seduced me like few other cars have. It treated me beautifully and always got me there and back again. This was all in the early-to-mid 90’s and a car this big really caught the eye. As they say, chicks dug it. People really liked seeing it out pounding the streets.

    The “six-body” trunk. The crank-out wing windows. The owner’s manual featuring instructions on how to remove blood, wine and liquor stains from the upholstery. I’m sorry, but how can you not love a car like that?

    I sold it with 130K on the odometer so I could buy a ’68 Riviera. I still regret that move. The Riv, while a real looker, just wasn’t the same at all.

    Alas, poor Power Pig. I knew you well.

    (sob)

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I loved the old Buicks , from the art deco 30s to the early 70s. The epitome of Detroit iron. Sad to see Buick and GM in its death throes. I knew it was coming, when they ended production of the Olds.

  • avatar

    In my opinion, American style peaked in ’64, and went gradually downhill until the late ’60s, then precipitiously downhill after taht.

    I loved the mid-60s Wildcats (for a nice shot of a ’64 Wildcat with its owner (who looks like a beach boy) go to my website, motorlegends.com, click on “people & cars.”) When I look at one of those, I can hear Leslie Gore’s “California Nights,” and imagine myself at the beach in La Jolla back in the ’60s, when California had yet to become badly overpopulated. The Wildcat may have been the epitome of that time and place. No, it certainly didn’t handle anywhere near as well as a Peugeot 404, or even an old Beetle, or my Accord, but what a beautiful, beautiful car, a symbol of a magical, if unsustainable era.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Great article. You reminded me fondly of my old ’72 Coupe DeVille project car I had about 12 years ago. What a beast…accelerated and stopped just like a train. But I really loved that car. Thanks for the flash back.

  • avatar
    Mrb00st

    Terry Parkhurst:

    I still think that the Grand National and Grand National GNX by McLaren are some of the most sinister, badass cars ever made and certainly the coolest thing to ever come out of GM.

    There is an ’87 GNX McLaren on Ebay now with 9.5 miles (no typo) on it. Never titled. Less than ten miles on it.

    Current bid is at $90,000 and reserve isn’t met. buy-it-now is $109,000 and i think the car will get it.

    Those cars are like darth vader on wheels.

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