By on September 12, 2016

1976 Buick Skyhawk in California Junkyard, LH front view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The 1975-1980 Buick Skyhawk was a sporty-looking two-door based on the Chevrolet Vega platform, and Skyhawks (and their Chevrolet Monza, Oldsmobile Starfire, and Pontiac Sunbird siblings) were once all over America’s roads. They weren’t build particularly well, and they hemorrhaged resale value in a hurry; by the end of the 1980s, nearly every single one of them was gone.

Here’s a very rough example I spotted in a San Francisco Bay Area self-service yard last month.

1976 Buick Skyhawk in California Junkyard, engine - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

You could get a Monza with any one of a half-dozen engines, including I4s, V6s, and V8s, but there was only one engine available for the 1975-80 Skyhawk: the 231-cubic-inch version of the venerable Buick V6 engine. 1976 was the last model year for the “odd-fire” 231, which used a shortened V8 crankshaft design and provided a not-so-luxurious level of vibration. These cars could be made very quick with the swap of a healthy V8, but few Skyhawk owners performed that modification.

1976 Buick Skyhawk in California Junkyard, seat fabric - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

I had a high-school friend with a ’76 Skyhawk, and he was extremely proud of his then-seven-year-old car. He installed a pretty good sound system (for 1983) and cranked Bauhaus and The Clash on it. The car wasn’t very quick, but it handled a lot better than the jacked-up Plymouth Satellites and Oldsmobile Cutlasses that our peers drove. The welds holding the driver’s door striker plate failed and no subsequent re-welds could be made to hold, the engine never could be made to idle correctly, and then he wiped out the front suspension on a guard rail in the Oakland Hills.

1976 Buick Skyhawk in California Junkyard, fascia - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This one shows evidence of attempts at bodywork and paint upgrades, but its final owner must have given up on the project.

1976 Buick Skyhawk in California Junkyard, radio - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Even an AM radio was once a costly optional item in cars like this.

Inside you’re free. Inside you’re free after all. You hear freedom’s spirit, like a wild bird’s call.

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51 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1976 Buick Skyhawk...”


  • avatar
    la834

    I recall that though all sorts of engines made it under the hood of the Chevy Monza, the Buick 231 V6 wasn’t one of them, but rather was unique to the Skyhawk and Olds Starfire. According to Wikipedia, it was available on the Monza but only in California and high-altitude areas. Beyond that, it’s odd how virtually no attempt was made to make the Buick look different than the Chevy, not even a different grille insert or taillamp lens.

    The singer of that Buick jingle sounds really familiar but I can’t quite place it. Who is that?

    • 0 avatar
      Boff

      Sounds quite a bit like Jim Croce, but I can’t imagine it’s actually him, since he died in ’73.

    • 0 avatar
      jrhmobile

      Actually, I had an ’80 Monza with an even-fire Buick V6. In central Texas, which is as flat as the Kansas plains. It was adequate. That’s about all I can say about it.

    • 0 avatar

      The 1976-80 Pontiac Sunbird also had the 3.8 V-6, both rough- and smooth-fire, as an option.

    • 0 avatar
      thattruthguy

      When Chevy, Buick, and Olds had the same rubber hose on the H body, they were distinguished with different paint around the grille.

      The 196 Buick V6 was common in Monzas. Maybe it wasn’t worth the bother to certify it for California.

      The 231 was the only optional engine when the Sunfire was introduced. For a while, the Sunfire was the only H body notchback with the V6.

    • 0 avatar
      Ostrich67

      Not true! My first car was an ’80 Monza with the 3.8 Buick V6 and 4-speed manual. It was a flimsy piece of crap, with its hard plastic door panels literally turning to dust around me, but that V6 was unkillable, and with the 4-speed it actually scooted along nicely. I bought it from an old military retiree when I was stationed at Ft. Meade, MD.

      I wished that I had the Buick version; I think it had a nicer interior. Also the earlier ones with the quad headlights and wrap around taillights were much better looking.

  • avatar

    That uneven fire engine cursed an Olds Cutlass Supreme my mom had back then. We called it the Supremely Gutless. I was appalled that it was sold…recall that my used cars growing up were the V8-s, and even the beat examples HS kids would drive still had some pull…a 2bbl Torino a friend had, and a 4 bbl LTD, notably. I had a 400 Firebird. Friends had GTO and 442-pretty beat up by that time, but still… We knew what a proper engine should feel like. Actually we were spoiled, as even a small six was in line, so it was super smooth.

    The 231 made NO power, vibrated like a 4 with slack engine mounts, and to this day, I am amazed that GM signed off on it….can’t come up with an even crank ? Really ?

    It only took 30 years for me to get another GM product, so I guess the secret project by Honda engineers to sabotage GM worked. Our next car was an BMW 325is-it was like from another Planet entirely…and the inline six…..mmmmm

    Oh, and the AM radio was stock, the FM was expensive. There were a few “FM converters” back in the day, and I wired a few into my and friend’s cars, a real FM stereo being too expensive back then for we mere Fast Food working HS kids….

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      I remember the goofy distributor caps those odd-fire engines needed.

    • 0 avatar
      JustPassinThru

      Signed off on it? They not only signed off on it; they sold those engines to OMC and Kaiser-Jeep; and then sold the whole line to Jeep for use in CJs and Jeepsters.

      And when AMC took control and chose to use their boat-anchor Rambler sixes in CJs…preferring to mod the entire vehicle with a frame and wheelbase stretch, to modding the V-6…the former Buick engine line sat unused. Until GM came begging to buy it back.

      I have never owned an odd-fire Buick V-6. That said, I’m guessing that in its smaller original displacement, with a solid mount in a substantial vehicle, it would probably be reasonably acceptable. But not in a reskinned Vega with tinfoil chassis stampings.

      The reality is, GM didn’t die of a few bad business moves; they died of a thousand self-inflicted cuts, over forty years.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Oh, Brief and Shining Moments!

    Cars like this display the Big 3’s equivalent to everyone asleep at Pearl Harbor with the aircraft massed together in nice, neat rows and the AA ammo stored in lockers because it was “apt to get dusty”.

  • avatar

    As a CHEVY it was a great car in its day, if only for better brakes.

    My ’75 Monza had the 262 V8 and a 4-speed. The motor mounts bolted from the bottom of the sub-frame to allow for jacking up the V8 to change driver’s side spark plugs.

    Buick never should have had this, nor the compact Skylark. Not enough differentiation from the other GM marques.

    • 0 avatar

      By 1975, the watering down of divisions was well under way.

      You’re right that Buick and Olds should not have had these cars, but they did sell. Of course, those kind of sales numbers led to the Cadillac Cimarron.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      For ’76, the Vega got the upgraded brakes from the Monza – discs with vented rotors up front (earlier cars had solid rotors), and larger drums out back. Fitting semimetallic pads made for consistent, fade-free stops, and pedal effort was still good, even without power brakes.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    As far as I am concerned, ALL renditions of these things were unabashed pieces of junk. Cheaply made attempts at trying to downsize and imitate the Japanese imports. Terrible quality through and through, I miss them not.

    The rear hatch hinge welds broke quite often.

    The imports at the time certainly weren’t perfect either. They were equally horrible body-wise as to rusting and the interiors were cheesy, but the drivetrains seemed better, in spite of Honda’s vacuum hose nightmare.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      These were just mildly-updated Chevy Vegas, so it’s not surprising given the Vega’s reputation for incredibly thin and weak sheetmetal.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        The sheet metal wasn’t thin (they were designed in the late ’60s), but the rustproofing was definitely lacking. The bodies were run through an ELPO dip, but trapped air meant that some parts of the body, like inside the tops of the front fenders, didn’t get any coverage at all.

        My mom’s ’78 Malibu – now that had some thin sheet metal, like the front fenders.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Skyline has killed a few cars, and way too many bikers. Back when I *knew* I could F with the percentages I spent a lot of my extra lives on that road.

  • avatar
    burnbomber

    What a clean engine. Either cleaned or newly installed.

    I spent many days car pooling in the back seat of a Chevy Monza, in the 80’s. It was OK, just. The best car pool ride those days was in the back seat of a Pontiac Bonneville

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    For a very long time, I thought these models were a rebadge of something Japanese. They just looked so odd!

    I saw a striped Starfire version a couple of years ago at a McDonald’s. You know they weren’t popular, because my dad (who’s 55) was not able to identify it. And that never happens with him and old American cars. I didn’t know what it was at the time either.

  • avatar
    kinsha

    For 1975 only, Monzas sold in California and high altitude areas met the stricter emissions requirement by substituting a version of the 5.7 liter (350 cid) V8 engine with a two-barrel carburetor tuned to just 125 hp (93 kW). ( this is from wiki )
    OMG – 125 hp from a 5.7 so I take it any 350 would shoehorn in these?

  • avatar
    ltcmgm78

    Worked at McDonald’s in high school. Co-worker had a Monza Coupe, but it was the formal version with a notchback roof. He gave me a ride home one night. I rolled up the passenger-side window and when I closed the door, the window shattered. Policeman stopped to survey the situation because he though we’d hit something. Nope. The window protruded high enough so when you gave the door a slam it broke the window. Great car, huh?

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    When I was 16 and working my first computer job at an insurance company, an older co-worker offered to sell me his 1976/77ish Pontiac Sunbird.

    I told him I would give it a test drive down the street and back. I got inside, started the car, and gave the engine a few gentle revs to make sure the engine didn’t stumble or anything like that. I went a block or two, came back, and told him I wasn’t interested. The car felt so gutless, even compared to the ’84 Nissan truck I borrowed from my mom.

    Apparently during the drive, something in the engine let go, pierced the oil pan, and dumped all the oil on the ground. And no, I didn’t redline the engine or push it that hard at all – I was a stupid 16yo but not thaaaat stupid.

  • avatar
    la834

    Anyone know why the ’76 Skyhawk and the other H-body cars got a completely new dashboard after the one-year-only 1975 design?

  • avatar
    TR4

    I wonder why the 80mph speedometer? The legal requirement was for 85mph (maximum?) back then.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    My mother had a Sunbird, the earliest car I can remember her driving. Another one that didn’t make it out of the 80’s. But then neither did the brand new Escort she replaced it with. What a miserable time for cars.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I’ve always wanted to see a nice one of these. But the nicest one I’ve seen was a notchback, not the hatch.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    These things (all GM variations) were everywhere when I was a kid in Pittsburgh. Considering they were 15-20 year old cars at the time, many weren’t too far above this ones condition.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Looks like a project car became a donor car because a Samsung refrigerator.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    My first car (or at least the first one I got plated) was a virtually identical ’75 Skyhawk, which I picked up for $300 in 1986, just after the start of my junior year in high school. I taught myself manual transmission driving the car home. I kept it for a few months, even taking a crack at a custom paint job with a friend of mine. Eventually I traded it for ’73 Impala, which lasted me a few months before I went out and picked up my first Camaro, a ’75 that I bought from a friend from school. Good times.

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    Was there something inheritly wrong with the frames or bodies with these? In the early 80’s two friends had them. One couldn’t open the driver’s door, the other would have the passenger side door pop open at random times. On both you had to wiggle the hood to line it up with the latch.
    I know fit and finish were notoriously bad at the time, but I can’t believe they left the factory that way.

  • avatar
    dhathewa

    Since the V-8’s and V-6’s available for these things had such mediocre performance, perhaps the 151 CID 4 was the smart choice.

    In fact, we had an ’80 Monza with 4-speed and that motor. It wasn’t the worst car I’ve owned.

    On the highway, it would get low- to mid-30’s for fuel economy and it had enough power to merge without drama. If the automatic transmission was some variation of the 2-speed PowerGlide (I think that’s what they did to the Vega), then perhaps this engine would have been inadequate and the fuel economy worse. With good tires, the handling was OK.

    It was not very reliable. The clutch cable only lasted 10 to 20K miles. We replaced it several times before developing camshaft/lifter trouble and junking the car. To keep the clutch cable repairs to a minimum, I did most routine shifting without the clutch (this might have been easier with a tach, which our stripper did not have). Crappy electrical cabling (GM cost-cutting or maybe just bad luck) also gave us a lot of grief.

    One of the more entertaining problems (among others) was trouble with the reverse lockout. I could coax it into reverse (I forget exactly how) but my wife never mastered the trick. She found it more convenient to leave the driveway by driving through the back yard and back around to the street in front of our house than to fight the car into reverse and back out.

    Looking back, it was a fairly crummy car but it’s hard to point to some other compact-ish vehicle of the day and say that it would have been a decisively better or more economical car. Pinto? No. Chevette? God, no. Trabant? Maybe.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    I understand were in a dark time for cars in the late 70’s, but why exactly did they also have to make them so ugly?

    The rear, side window is where the design completely falls apart. The roofline and proportions just look so off.

  • avatar
    raph

    I loved these cars. Pretty good hot rodding material!

  • avatar
    Louis XVI

    My first car was a 1980 Monza with an Iron Duke, purchased in 1987. It was fucking awful, but I really loved that car.

  • avatar
    sfvarholy

    Judging by the new rear drums and a lot of new stuff on the engine – including what appears to be a new/recent refurb carb, the last owner spent some money on this car.

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