Stage Fright Unique Cars Cover
Featured in the Australian Unique Cars Magazine, (August 2002 Issue) was Melbourne’s Con Liapis and his spectacular collection of Buick Stage 1′s. Con commands a fleet of two 1969 and three 1970 GS Stage 1s. which would have to be one of the biggest Buick Stage 1 collections outside of the US”.
Con supplied the brand new Quadrajet the sits on my Electra and during a phonecall one day he mentioned this article. After seeing that Big Block Buick dominating the front cover and the excellent article inside featuring Con’s incredible collection of Stage 1 Buicks I sent an email off to Unique Cars Magazine and asked permission to reproduce it on here at BuickStreet
As it turns out, the Art Director owns a 1968 Riviera GS himself so he was keen to help and supplied the text and some photos. Con also gave his permission, so as a result I’m proud to be able to present it here for your enjoyment.
Story: Chris Finchin
Images: Ellen Dewar
For a short period in the late ‘60s the big-block GS Stage 1 helped Buick shrug off its old man image and challenge for the title of best musclecar in the land.
Imagine sitting at the lights in a brand-new HSV GTO Coupe when a seemingly mild-mannered Toyota Camry pulls alongside. Lights turn green, pedals hit the metal, and the innocuous-looking Camry roars off into the distance, leaving your hot-shoe Holden for dead.
That’s the feeling of dismay many owners of highly credentialled factory hot rods must have felt when, at the peak of American musclecar mania in 1969, Buick unleashed its contender for the crown. That’s right, not even Buick, the General-Motors’ division better known for refinement and class, could ignore the musclecar craze that swept America in the ‘60s.
Just about every car maker at the time followed the 1964 Pontiac GTO formula for cheap, high-performance excitement by squeezing a big-block engine into a compact coupe body. So Buick, with its stodgy image, needed something special to capture a slice of this lucrative, youth-oriented market. The result was the GS Stage 1, a big-block, rip-roaring version of the Skylark coupe with enough tyre-shredding acceleration to eliminate all but the most serious rival musclecars.
When Musclecar Review magazine listed its 50 fastest musclecars in 1984, it ranked the 1970 GS-455 Stage 1 third behind the awesome Shelby Cobra and big-block Corvette.
Yet at a time when musclecars had to look fast as well as go fast, the Stage 1 provided its knockout punch without scaring the neighbours. It was the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing with conservative styling and blistering straight-line speed.
Instead of the twitchy handling, stripped-out interiors and wild graphics found on many of its rivals, Buick’s beast provided impeccable road manners, air-conditioned comfort and understated styling Granddad could be proud of.
Years later the GS Stage 1 remains something of a musclecar sleeper, even in America, although it does command serious dollars in collectors’ circles, generating a loyal following with around 5000 members of the Buick GS Club of America.
In Australia, the Stage 1′s low profile and miniscule numbers means it goes virtually unrecognised unless you’re a Buick fanatic like Con Liapis, who has undoubtedly the biggest collecton of Stage 1s outside of the US.
Five of Buick’s finest sit in his Melbourne garage; two 1969 and three 1970 GS Stage 1s, all hardtops and converted to right-hand drive.
He bought his first, a 1970 Stage 1, more than 20 years ago, restoring it to showroom quality. The others followed, he says, after he became “so obsessed with that car and that model”.
“You have to drive it and then you know,” explains Liapis, who refers to the growing GS Club movement, of which he’s a part, as a “religion”. “They’ve got so much torque, which comes in very low in the rev range. The motor was really designed to carry those big Rivieras that weighed two and a half tonnes. Then, when you put them in the smaller intermediate body, you had a real tyre-frying machine.
“You just have to put it in drive, keep the car straight, and take off, and you get 200 feet of rubber. “Yet, unlike some of those Hemis, which were pretty wild cars, with the Buick you can just jump in and drive.”
The GS Stage 1 had its origins with the Skylark Gran Sport, introduced in 1965 as a musclecar version of Buick’s medium-sized coupe. The Gran Sport option offered plenty of performance, with a 325hp (242kW) 400cu in big-block V8 under the bonnet, but it wasn’t until 1969, with the musclecar era reaching its peak, that Buick decided to get serious.
By 1969, the standard GS-400 was a weapon in its own right, with a 340hp, (253kW) 400cu in V8 with a Rochester four-barrel carburettor. But Buick’s introduction of an optional performance package raised the bar even higher. For an extra US$200, the Stage 1 package included go-fast goodies like a hotter camshaft, higher compression ratio, bigger dual exhausts, streamlined manifolds, and fast-flow fuel pump. Two bonnet-mounted scoops pushed cool air directly into the big carb via a twin-snorkel air filter. With other modifications, like extra cooling, stiffer valve springs and high-pressure lubrication, the GS Stage 1 landed right amongst the big boys.
Officially, the Stage 1 option increased power only marginally to 345hp (257kW) at 4800rpm, but track times suggested a much higher output. In 1970, the Stage 1 became even better, with a bigger 455cu in big block pushing performance out to an advertised 360hp (268kW). Once again, the true power figure would have been closer to 400hp (298kW).
For increased driveability, the GS Stage 1 could be ordered with a range of options, including sports suspension, front power disc brakes, 15 x 7-inch chrome wheels with Goodyear Polyglas tyres, in-dash tacho, and race-style steering wheel.
Gear changes were the domain of either a four-speed manual, or three-speed Turbo Hydramatic auto, which was specially calibrated for optimal shifting. The Posi-Traction rear end kept wheelspin in check, while 3.64:1 gearing (3.42:1 with aircon), aided acceleration but limited top speed to around 170km/h.
With a tub-thumping 680Nm of torque on stream at just 2800rpm, the 455cu in V8 made light work of launching two tonnes of Detroit metal from standstill.
From smooth idle or when cruising at 60km/h, it didn’t matter — hit the throttle and the torquey V8 responded with an exhilarating, supercharged-style rush; all while the driver sat back in big, comfy seats in a roomy cabin, enjoying the air-con and stereo.
On the dragstrip, the arena in which most musclecars must put up or shutup, the Stage 1 had few peers. The 1970 Stage 1 was the quickest four-seater road car ever tested by Motor Trend (Jan, 1970), and quarter-mile times of mid-13 seconds were regularly achieved. Zero-to-100km/h was dispatched in around five seconds — all on stock road tyres.
True to its motto of ‘Fast with Class’, there were no loud styling statements to differentiate the Stage 1 from the standard GS on the street. For 1969, idenfification was limited to a small badge on the bonnet, and the 1970 model wasn’t much better, with the badge hidden away on the front guard. Better clues to its performance potential could be found under the bonnet, with shiny chrome valve covers, bright red engine paint and black air cleaner with Stage 1 decal.
Even the corporate advertising was low-key, the half-hearted campaign revolving around The Doors ‘Light my Fire’ and designed to appease Buick’s traditionally conservative buyers rather than entice the teenagers.
Just before new safety and emission control rules spelt the end of the musclecar era, Buick unveiled a Stage 1 version that matched dynamic looks to the big-block performance.
Available only in white or bright yellow with bold side stripes, flashy rear spoiler, and bonnet-mounted tacho, the 1970 GSX Stage 1 left no doubt about its performance pedigree. And with only 479 produced, it’s arguably the most collectable of all Buick musclecars.
The GS Stage 1 option continued until 1974, but with the enforced drop in engine compression and subsequent slump in horsepower it never again reached the previous heights.
Despite producing one of the toughest musclecars of all time, Buick never quite convinced the public of its merits, and only relatively few cars were ever sold with the Stage 1 package — around 3000 in 1970; 232 as convertibles, and even fewer in 1969.
Today, mint examples of the 1970 Stage 1 fetch up to US$80,000 in the US market. According to GS Club president, Richard Lasseter, the rise in popularity of this under-rated musclecar is due to its “appeal as a plush, big-inch, high-compression weekend warrior that maintains a classy, low profile image while at the same time giving the competition fits”.
So next time you’re driving around in Melbourne’s west and a big old Buick with tiny Stage 1 badge pulls alongside, give the driver a knowing smile. Then watch happily as it swiftly disappears into the distance. Being blasted by a Buick will never again be an humiliating experience.
Breakout: Black Beast
The Buick performance story doesn’t end with the big-block beasts of 1969 and ‘70.
In 1982 Buick went down a completely different, but equally devastating performance path with the V6 turbocharged Grand National.
Named after NASCAR’s top racing division , the Grand National was based on the mid-sized, rear-wheel drive Regal and presented a sinister sight on the road with all-black paint, bonnet bulge and custom wheels.
Under the bonnet was a fuel-injected, turbocharged and intercooled 3.8-litre engine, which pumped out an impressive 235hp (175kW) at 4000rpm and 440Nm of torque. Magazine road testers put 0-100km/h sprinting in the supercar sub-five seconds category, making it one of the most potent American performance cars of the ‘80s.
The ultimate Grand National, the 1987 GNX, went a step further, with a bigger turbo and intercooler and other factory-approved aftermarket mods for around 280hp (208kW) and super-quick, mid-13 secs quarter-mile times.
With proven performance similar to the Stage 1, it’s not surprising the Grand National has developed a similar cult following in the US. In fact, many believe the turbocharged supercar to be an even better musclecar catch than its legendary big-block brother.
Whoever said Buicks were boring?
Story: Chris FinchinImages: Ellen Dewar