In 2009, when I was having my 1971 Chevrolet Camaro RS rehabilitated by V8 maestro Ben Lim at his old workshop in Cainta, Rizal, I chanced upon a blue 1968 Buick Skylark Custom that was parked beside my Camaro. Ben saw me gazing at the intermediate American two-door hardtop and told me that he acquired it from a Filipina doctor who bought the Skylark brand new from the Warren Buick dealership in Illinois, Chicago in 1968.
When the lady doctor came home to the Philippines to retire several years later, the Buick came home with her. The Skylark became the lady doctor’s second car and was driven sparingly around the city especially when gas became expensive. The big blue Buick was parked in a covered garage at the lady doctor’s home in Greenhills and was lovingly maintained by its dedicated owner. When it was taken to Ben’s workshop for oil change and tune-up, that’s when he convinced the lady doctor to sell the car to him.
Bench Seat and Column Shift
I took a closer look at the Skylark and saw that the body panels were still straight and sharp. The paint appeared to be the original color albeit some panels were re-sprayed sometime in the past. There were some small scratches and little dings but there were no major dents and the chrome trim were all complete. Inside, the blue vinyl bench seats donned a set of era-correct, faded blue Corduroy aftermarket seat covers while the blue interior was surprisingly complete except for a small crack on top of the dashboard padding. It even had a working AM radio, complete with the two chrome knobs and five pre-selector buttons that spelled out B-U-I-C-K.
I began to miss my old 1974 Chevrolet Nova with its bench seat and column shift automatic. More so when I saw the Skylark’s roomy interior, which was equipped with factory air-conditioning – a luxury option among intermediate American cars in the late 1960s. Noting that an engine tune-up, a little mechanical work, some interior and exterior detailing, a lot of elbow grease and some tender loving care (TLC) can bring this blue Skylark hardtop back to showroom-fresh condition, I began to want the car.
Not everyone was crazy about the new body style developed for the 1968 Buick Skylark and its muscle car performance variant, the Gran Sport (GS). General Motors designed a shorter 112-inch wheelbase for the 1968 intermediate model or A-Body platform that the Buick Skylark and GS shared with the Chevrolet Malibu and Chevelle, Pontiac Lemans and GTO, Oldsmobile Cutlass and 442 models. While the Buick sported a wider 59-inch front track and a new, generally sporty look for 1968, buyers at the time found the deep-sculptured body sweep line a little out of place. The traditional Buick “sweep spear” curve that arched across the side of the body to rear wheel opening looked a bit too formal for the sporty new hardtop.
However, the Skylark had a clean and pleasing front end and the grille was reminiscent of its bigger and more expensive stablemate, the Buick Riviera. A longer hood, shorter deck and concealed windshield wipers were additional sporty features while the concave rear end, with new taillights contained in a large rear bumper beneath pointy back fenders, somehow conflicted with the Skylark’s sporting pretensions. Despite polarized views about its design, a lot of buyers took a liking to the new look and the Skylark set a sales record for Buick in 1968.
GS 350 Tribute or Survivor Skylark Custom?
Ben’s blue Skylark sported the base 350 cubic-inch (5.7-liter) Buick V8 motor with 2-barrel carburetor that was rated at 230 horsepower. It was mated to a 2-speed “Super Turbine” automatic transmission, which is Buick’s version of the Chevrolet Power Glide automatic. That Ben’s Buick came with bench seats, column shift and factory air-conditioning are the options that attracted me more. Looking at the blue Skylark, I played with the idea of buying the car from Ben and restoring it to its original condition since it is a one-owner car. I started gathering information and literature to learn more about the 1968 Buick Skylark Custom.
While gathering information, I realized that turning Ben’s blue Buick into a 1968 Skylark GS 350 tribute will not be too difficult. I reasoned that I can change some parts and remove some trim to transform it into an exact replica of the GS 350 but I will ensure that these changes should be strictly bolt-on modifications so I can refit the original parts when I want to bring the car back to original later on. I started searching for a 4-barrel carburetor and matching intake manifold for the Buick 350 V8 engine plus the special cowl-induction hood to turn it into a perfect copy of the 280-hp GS 350 V8. I also thought about changing the 2-speed automatic transmission to a Turbo 400 3-speed automatic and locally sourcing headers and a 2.5-inch dual exhaust system to complete the transformation of the Skylark into a muscle car.
Putting Plan To Action
At first, Ben wasn’t too keen on selling the blue Buick because he claimed that he was planning to use it as a Sunday car for him and his wife. But his plans changed when flood waters caused by Typhoon Ondoy inundated all the cars in his workshop, including the Skylark. When Ben was finally ready to sell, we agreed on a price for the car but with the expressed provision that he will clean it up, fix the damage caused by the floods, and turn it back into a running car. I insisted that I was going to pay in full only if I can safely and reliably drive the Skylark home.
One of the things I noticed while I was inspecting the Skylark was the rear side marker lights. The round lights had the Buick “tri-shield” logo marked on the lens which was a keen detail that I like about American cars from the 1950s up to the 1970s. However, the red lens of the Skylark’s side markers were full of cracks and scratches, which were probably caused by heat and deterioration of the last 50 years. So, I searched for a pair of lenses and found a set for sale with a reasonable price on eBay. Those lenses were the first restoration parts I bought for the Buick, which wasn’t technically mine yet.
Period-correct Aftermarket Parts
While Ben was busy working on the Skylark, I searched for a source that can provide four 15-inch Buick Rally wheels, trim rings, and a set of redline radial tires to replace the 14-inch steel rims with hubcaps and the aging white-wall tires that it had on. If the Buick Rally wheels prove to be expensive, my alternative is to get a set of 15-inch Cragar classic 5-spoke chrome wheels, which are readily available. To improve the Skylark’s braking performance, I planned to convert the front drum brakes to disc brakes and then realized that a new master cylinder and hydrovac unit will be most likely be needed.
I read that the cracked dashboard can be repaired by Just Dashes in the USA but I have to send it there via courier and that will cost me a fortune. I later learned from Lorenzo “Babes” Rojas, the proprietor of Leder Interia, that his company can restore dashboards like new, which could save me some money. So, with perceived savings, I scouted to find a three-spoke rosewood steering wheel and Buick mounting hub to put the finishing touches on the transformation of the blue Skylark from a lady doctor’s sedate 2-door hardtop into an authentic American muscle car with period-correct accessories.
Taking Delivery… Almost
Sometime in April 2011, Ben finished with the rehabilitation of the Skylark and invited me to test drive it around his neighborhood. He listed down the things he did to bring the car as close as he could to its original condition before it was inundated in the Typhoon Ondoy floods. I was excited to finally get to drive the Skylark although I wasn’t expecting much since it still had the 2-barrel carburetor but Ben reported that he was able to change the Super Turbine 2-speed automatic with a refurbished 3-speed Turbo Hydramatic. Upon entering the Skylark, the interior smelled like recently cleaned vinyl and there was no trace or odor that the car was once submerged in flood waters. Ben did a great job of cleaning the car and he advised me that I need to have the factory air-conditioning cleaned and recharged by a car aircon specialist shop to make it blow cold air again.
I was so excited to finally get to drive the blue Skylark after wanting it for the better part of two years. Driving it was like scratching an itch you’ve waited years to scratch. My mind was racing with the things I want to do to the car, which I was planning to keep along with my Camaro. After all, it’s not often that you find a one-owner car in almost original condition. I was determined to own the car and restore it but Ben threw a monkey wrench to my spinning day dream and shocked me to reality. “I forgot to tell you”, he confessed. “The LTO documents of all my cars were washed away by the flood waters. So, I don’t have any papers to go with the Buick.” Uh-oh. That broke the deal because my condition was that I will pay his asking price in full when I can drive the car home. But without any documentation, the Buick cannot be legally driven on our roads. “Don’t worry”, Ben assured me. “I’ll work on the papers of your Buick if you can just wait.” That was eight years ago and Ben hasn’t worked on the LTO papers yet. Meanwhile, the 1968 Buick Skylark Custom is quietly languishing forlorn in his workshop storage. Some automotive dreams really do take longer to become a reality.