The 1965-1966 Buicks were created when the company was in the midst of a renaissance. It was running a solid fifth in the industry sales race on the strength of steadily building volume, trends that would continue through the rest of the decade. Its product line had cars to cater to a variety of customers whose wants might include economy, passenger room, racy performance, or stylish luxury.
Of course, the notion of “renaissance” suggests a revival, a restoration of what was. Just a decade before, in the heady year of 1955, there was Buick — decidedly medium-priced Buick — all the way up to third in sales behind perennial mass-market leaders Chevrolet and Ford.
Nearly three-quarters of a million Buicks were produced for the 1955 model year, the crest of a wave that had been rising for several years. But it wouldn’t last, not under the weight of questionable styling and dubious quality.
Then, too, an economic recession that began picking up steam in late 1957 kept many potential car buyers on the sidelines. Buick produced just 241,908 of its 1958 models, its slowest year since 1948, when it was still making warmed-over prewar cars.
Sales figures in each of the next two years were a bit better, but they weren’t improving at the same rate as those of some other makes. In 1960, when it built 254,000 cars for the model year, Buick slumped to ninth, its worst industry ranking since 1905.
General Motors wasn’t content to let its cornerstone division flounder. New managerial blood arrived in the spring of 1959 when Edward Rollert, who had an extensive manufacturing background, was named to head Buick. By 1962, production was up to 400,000 cars and Buick was fifth in sales. Two years later, output totaled more than 500,000.
Buick was accomplishing this growth with an expanding array of vehicles. As per industry trend, the product line began to diversify in the early 1960s. In 1961, the small-car craze of the day was addressed at Buick by the Special, one of General Motors’ “senior compacts” that grew up into the new intermediate class for 1964.
Then, too, there was the striking Riviera that arrived in 1963 to enter the “personal car” field first staked out by the Ford Thunderbird.
But despite the rise of these and other new market brackets, the various divisions of the Big Three automakers still relied on their full-size “standard” cars to generate most of their sales. Buick was no exception.
More than half of its production in each model year from 1961 to 1964 was made up of the standard cars. This pattern was destined to continue into 1965-1966, when a beautifully restyled family of full-sizers was launched to offer Buick customers the choice of value, performance, or luxury they required. To learn about the first of these cars, the LeSabre, continue on to the next page.
1965-1966 Buick LeSabre
The “small car” in the lineup was the 1955-1966 Buick LeSabre. It was three inches shorter than the Wildcat and 7.3 inches shorter than the Electra 225. (Still, it was almost a foot longer than most of the mid-size Specials and Skylarks.) The name had been in the lineup since 1959, when Buick replaced all the series titles that had served it since the 1930s.
The 1965 version wore completely new styling that gave a wider appearance and included softer lines. General Motors styling chief William Mitchell pushed through the new theme for the LeSabre and other GM cars with which it shared bodies.
Essential features of the general design (which some have said were the best of the Mitchell era) were a “kick-up” beltline and rounded contours deftly punctuated by sharp bodyside creases that kept the look from going too soft. On two-door hardtops, roofs arced gently toward flat rear decks.
Each full-sized Buick series had its own grille design in 1965. The LeSabre’s extruded aluminum grille consisted of horizontal slats backing a bright “cross.” LeSabres carried three simulated “portholes,” a longtime Buick styling trademark, on each front fender.
Three LeSabre models were available: two- and four-door hardtops, and a four-door sedan. The LeSabre Custom version had those three styles, plus a convertible. Buick advertised the 1965 LeSabre as its lowest-priced full-size car, but like its larger brothers, it was still a Buick in luxury and ride.
Seats in base models featured a combination of Bartine cloth and leather-grained vinyl. Custom four-doors used a plusher Bimini cloth-and-vinyl upholstery.
The standard powertrain for the LeSabre was a 210-bhp, 300-cid V-8 engine and three-speed synchromesh transmission. This engine used a single two-barrel carburetor and had a 9.0:1 compression ratio. A higher-compression four-barrel “Wildcat 335” version of this engine — with 250 bhp and 335 pound-feet of torque — was optionally available. So was Buick’s Super Turbine variable-pitch torque converterautomatic transmission.
Underneath each full-size Buick was a new perimeter frame that replaced the X-type design of the 1961-1964 models. A ball-joint independent suspension with a link-type stabilizer bar served up front. At the rear was a four-link setup. Coil springs were used at all four corners.
LeSabre’s standard wheels were 15×5.50 steel discs, with oversize tires optional. Like the Wildcat and Electra 225, LeSabre had a 25-gallon fuel tank. A cross-flow radiator and longer-life exhaust systems were new features on all big Buicks.
Other standard equipment in 1965 included self-adjusting brakes with finned drums, an instrument-panel safety pad, armrests front and rear, and dual horns. Extra-cost items included, among other things, power assists for steering, brakes, windows, and seats; air conditioning; a choice of three radios; and a no-slip rear axle. Buick referred to each of its 1966 offerings as “the tuned car.” That year’s LeSabre featured only minor styling changes. The grille now consisted of a fine mesh over which ran a pair of thin horizontal bars. In back, larger taillights cut into the decklid and bumper for a “barbell” look. The big news for LeSabre in 1966 was more power. The 300-cube V-8 was replaced by a 340-cid engine that produced 220 bhp in standard tune or, for an extra $26, 260 bhp with a four-barrel carb. Numerically lower final-drive ratios were instituted as well.
LeSabre model offerings remained unchanged. New standard-equipment features included back-up lights and an outside rearview mirror.
The middle size of this Buick lineup was the Wildcat. Continue on to the next page to learn more about the 1965-1966 Buick Wildcat.
1965-1966 Buick Wildcat
Beginning in the 1930s with the Century, Buick had become known for producing spirited cars that blended its biggest engine with its lightest bodies. That job fell to the 1965-1966 Buick Wildcat.
The Wildcat made its debut during 1962 as a sportier bucket-seat version of the Invicta two-door hardtop. The Wildcat became a three-car series of its own the following season. Production topped 84,000 cars in 1964, the year a four-door sedan joined the line, and the Wildcat certainly looked like one of the division’s better ideas of the decade.
For 1965, the Wildcat became even more of a crossbreed between the lower-cost LeSabre and the high and mighty Electra 225. Formerly built to LeSabre dimensions, the Wildcat now moved up to the Electra’s 126-inch wheelbase.
But it did retain an elongated version of LeSabre styling. Specific appearance details started with a deep-set die-cast grille divided into two horizontal sections, and Buick’s tri-shield logo in a chromed ring at the center. Big ventlike strakes on the front fenders were the Wildcat’s interpretation of the famous “VentiPorts.”
The line again contained four models — four-door hardtop, four-door sedan, two-door hardtop, and convertible — but the Wildcat family still managed to grow. There were now base, DeLuxe, and Custom versions, the DeLuxe and Custom defined by increasingly nicer upholstery and interior fittings. Only the DeLuxe subseries included all four body types; the base range had no convertible and the Custom lacked a sedan.
Performance remained the Wildcat’s calling card. Power choices began with the “Wildcat 445” V-8, so named because of its torque output. This 401-cid evolution of Buick’s Fifties-vintage “nailhead” V-8 made 325 bhp at 4,400 rpm. It featured a four-barrel carb and 10.25:1 compression.
Beyond that, there were two mightier engines, a 340-bhp “Wildcat 465” and a 360-horse “Super Wildcat.” These were both 425-cid V-8s that spun out 465 pound-feet of torque. However, the Super Wildcat, which had been developed for the Riviera, featured two four-barrel carburetors, a chrome-plated air cleaner, cast-aluminum rocker-arm covers, and dual exhausts.
The three-speed column-lever stickshift was standard, with a four-on-the-floor manual and Super Turbine automatic as options. (Both optional engines had to be ordered with either the four-speed or automatic.) The Super Turbine transmission used in Wildcats incorporated two planetary gear sets instead of the one found in automatics destined for LeSabres.
For an extra outlay of cash, a Wildcat could be made into even more of a muscle car with items like heavy-duty springs and shocks, the limited-slip differential, a tachometer, Buick’s distinctive chromed five-rib sports wheels, and — in convertibles and hardtop coupes — bucket seats and a floor console. There was a choice of four axle ratios for manual-shift cars; five for those with the automatic.
In 1966, Wildcat styling adopted the same taillight revisions seen on the LeSabre. The grille continued the cut-back motif of the previous year, but the central shields-in-a-ring device was replaced by a vertical center bar. In addition, there was now a stand-up hood ornament. The faux vents on the front fenders were restyled as well.
The standard Wildcat engine in 1966 was the 325-bhp 401 V-8, with the 340-horse 425 optional. The dual-quad powerplant was no longer available for Buick’s big Wildcat. Neither was the four-speed manual transmission.
With the demise of the DeLuxe subseries, the base Wildcat added a convertible. There was an interesting, if obscure, performance package, though. For $255, the purchaser of a Wildcat two-door hardtop or convertible could add the Gran Sport High Performance Group.
It included an upgrade to a 340-bhp engine spiffed up with a chromed air cleaner, aluminum valve covers, and dual exhausts. Other package components were heavy-duty suspension parts, a 3.42:1 “posi” axle, and a choice of whitewall or redline 8.45×15 tires. Gran Sport badges were found inside and outside the cars.
When legendary Mechanix Illustrated writer Tom McCahill marked the 20th anniversary of his frank car tests in the February 1966 issue, he put a Wildcat Gran Sport hardtop through its paces.
“Uncle Tom” ran it 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, cracked 125 mph for top speed, and pronounced it “without a doubt the most comfortable and best Buick I have ever driven. Even the suspension, which is pretty sloppy on some other models, is beefed up on the Gran Sport series, making the car highly maneuverable and a lot safer.”
Still, from the 26,054 Wildcat hardtop and convertible coupes built in 1966, only 21 Gran Sports are believed to have been produced.
The next model in this Buick lineup was the Electra 225. To learn about the 1965-1966 Buick Electra 225, see the next page.
1965-1966 Buick Electra 225
The 1965-1966 Buick Electra 225 was the ultimate in Buick models. Introduced to the Buick lineup in 1959 as the successor to the Roadmaster, its numerical suffix referred to the overall length in inches of the body.
While not quite 225 inches long in 1965 (though darned close), the “deuce and a quarter” was still definitely Buick’s top of the line in size, luxury, and cost. The Buick catalog put it this way: “When you’ve arrived, there’s no harm in letting other people know it … [Electra 225] is a true luxury car, inside and out. It’s big, it’s sleek, and it rides like a dream.”
Apart from greater length, rooflines and rear-quarter panels really made Electras stand out from other standard Buicks. The razor-edged roofs seen on 1962-1964 Electras were softened a bit, and rear roof pillars wrapped around slightly at the back to impart a hint of limousine-style privacy.
The look was still much more formal than that of LeSabre and Wildcat closed cars. The bodyside kick-up was the start of a long, straight line that terminated in bladelike extensions at the rear of the car. For emphasis, a thin band of brightwork topped the quarter panels.
Dave Holls was head of Buick design as the 1965s were coming together. Glenn Winterscheidt was in charge of the exterior studio. “I got into the Buick studio at the tail end of 1964, and I was doing porthole designs for the Wildcat,” Winterscheidt remembered.
He has fond memories of the design process for these Buicks, especially the Electra.
“At that time, we tried to make it look as long and wide as you possibly could,” he remembered. “We pulled the sheetmetal out to the corners. Dave Holls called it the ‘W-plan front end.’ [From above, the angles of the hood and fender ends form a “W”.] We didn’t have to make many compromises at that time. There was a maximum width before you had to put side markers on it, like a truck, and we pulled it out to that point. But the 1965 Electra profile in the rear was real crisp, and I liked that.
“I’m amazed when I see today how huge these cars were,” he continued. “In Southern California, where I live, there’s a foreign-car dealer across the street, and some of those cars are five feet shorter than the Electra.”
Bright ribbed moldings ran from the front-wheel openings to the back bumper along the lower section of the sides. Rear fender skirts also helped emphasize the Electra’s length. The die-cast grille looked much like that of the LeSabre, but a check pattern replaced the lesser car’s horizontal bars. Taillights ran completely across the rear beneath the decklid. Electra 225s were further distinguished from other Buicks by their four VentiPorts and unique wheel-cover style.
Electra 225s were offered as a base four-door hardtop, four-door sedan, and two-door hardtop. As in the other lines, a Custom subseries was also offered; it included the three closed models and added a convertible. For several years prior to 1965, the four-door sedan had been a six-window design. The new body was a four-window style with frameless door glass and a narrow B-pillar that gave it a near-hardtop appearance.
As on the LeSabre and Wildcat, the instrument panel was dominated by two large dials that flanked the steering column. The speedometer was in the dial on the left; indicator lights for oil-pressure, ammeter, and coolant functions were housed in the dial at the right. To the latter, Electras added a standard-equipment analog clock. Above them, a wood-grain appliqué ran the width of the dash in place of the brightwork applied to this area on LeSabres and Wildcats.
Upholstery in Customs was what Buick termed “a vinyl so soft you’ll find it hard to distinguish from real leather.” Base cars used Beaucrest cloth with leather-grained vinyl trim.
Standard conveniences included power-assisted brakes and steering. Convertibles added power windows and two-way power front seats.
For 1966, Electra 225 offered the same seven models. General styling remained similar to that of 1965, but details were altered. While LeSabres and Wildcats gained .1 inch from end to end, the Electra actually shed .7 inch, falling to 223.4 inches overall.
Its grille was now a virtual copy of the LeSabre grille but for a red “Electra 225” badge on the driver’s side. There was a new standard wheel-cover design. Inside, the dash took on more horizontal flavor with a strip-type speedometer. Climate controls were shifted to the lower right of the speedometer.
Among the extra-cost options were cornering lights, an AM/FM stereo radio, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, and a reclining front-passenger seat in cars ordered with bucket seats. All front seats were available with headrests. Vinyl roof coverings (in black or white) were also available.
Electra 225 engine choices in 1965 and 1966 matched those in Wildcats — even the dual-quad mill could be ordered in 1965. Only the Super Turbine automatic transmission was offered in Electras, though.
Buick production surged to 600,000 cars for model year 1965. It had to in order for the division to hang on to fifth place in the industry because 1965 was another record year. The family of full-size Buicks accounted for 55 percent of that total.
Almost 100,000 Wildcats were made in what would be the best year the series would ever see. The sales boom also served as an upbeat cap to Rollert’s management tenure. In June, he moved up to a corporate vice presidency. His successor in Flint was Bob Kessler, who had been general manufacturing manager.
Divisional output fell off by 41,278 units in 1966, enough to cost Buick a couple of spots in the sales standings. Approximately 31,000 of those losses were in the full-size field — nearly all from a decline in Wildcat orders.
Still, the LeSabre, Wildcat, and Electra 225 combined for more than half of the year’s Buicks. The loss proved a temporary setback. Demand (and market share) started turning up the next year, and, by 1969, Kessler and company were overseeing the production of 668,000 cars.
Like the Buicks of today, the styling of the 1965-1966 LeSabre, Wildcat, and Electra 225 was conservative, but it was definitely Buick. There was no mistaking what was coming at you down the road, or what you were trying to catch up to on the highway. To get a closer look at the 1965-1966 Buick, see the next page for specifications.