Under The Hood

The 1953 Buick Skylark hardtop prototype revisited

Captured Lark

The prototype 1953 Buick Skylark hardtop

If you liked the one-off GM hardtop based on a sporty ’50s convertible design featured on last week’s blog, here’s another: The unique 1953 Buick Skylark Riviera hardtop.

A ca.-1990 rear view of the 1953 Buick Skylark hardtop after James Ashworth restored it.

A ca.-1990 rear view of the 1953 Buick Skylark hardtop after James Ashworth restored it.

Buick began developing the idea for the special Skylark convertible in 1952. Unlike production Buick converts of the day, the 1952 Skylark show car featured radiused rear wheel openings, lowered door tops that included a “Darrin dip” at the beltline and wire wheels. The Skylark also filled the trademark Buick portholes and had especially thin side trim that swept, dipped and swept again for almost the entire length of the car. At the 1953 model year, coincidentally Buick’s 50th anniversary, the special Skylark convertible became a dream-car-come-true and was offered as a limited-production model with the same special body modifications as the 1952 show car. Alongside the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Fiesta — other top-line 1953 GM convertibles modified to a racier appearance — the Skylark was part of a triumvirate of GM dream car realities; cars that went from show car stand to showroom.

Unlike the almost-unknown 1955 Cadillac Eldorado hardtop featured on last week’s blog, there’s a small group of ’50s GM groupies who have heard of the one-of-a-kind 1953 Skylark hardtop, which has been in the hobby since at least 1980 — at least from what I can surmise using documents uncovered in the Old Cars Weekly archive. Those documents were supplied to OCW in 1990 by James Ashworth, who owned the unique Skylark hardtop at that time.

A ca.-1990 front view of the 1953 Buick Skylark hardtop after James Ashworth restored it.

A ca.-1990 front view of the 1953 Buick Skylark hardtop after James Ashworth restored it.

Here’s the low down: A July 21, 1980, letter to Ashworth from John W. Burnside, Buick Motor Division Manager of Customer Service, verified Buick Engineering indeed had built 1953 Skylark hardtop with body number 6120 in Flint, Mich., “by converting a 1953 76R (Roadmaster hardtop) by installing the 1953 76X Skylark Convertible doors, quarters and related parts and included the 1954 interior trim design. The car was built to test the concept of possibly marketing a 1953 Skylark Hardtop design.”

The car was further identified in Burnside’s letter to Ashworth as Style 534737X, and the serial number was given.

Later that year, Oakland Tribune Automotive Editor Bob Johnson wrote in his Oct. 2, 1980, column that Ashworth had been seeking this unique Skylark hardtop for 20 years and finally found it in 1980. It “had been gathering dust in a San Jose garage since 1968,” Johnson wrote. This meshes with a magazine clip from a 1974 publication that states the Skylark hardtop vanished after it was advertised in 1967.

Johnson’s column notes that the San Jose owner had bought the Skylark “for a mere $700 off the back row of a used car lot in Oklahoma while serving in the Army. A couple of years later, the car was driven to San Jose where it has languished ever since. It is not clear how the car ever got out of Buick division’s control as experimental models rarely, if ever, find their way into the hands of the public.”

While Johnson couldn’t explain the early years of the Buick Skylark hardtop (the book “The Buick: A Complete History” states it was originally driven by Buick General Manager Ivan Wiles’s wife), one of his readers was able to fill in the car’s earliest days on the road. M.D. “Doc” Reilly wrote to Johnson with a very interesting tale, printed in its entirety here:

“I really enjoyed your article dated 10-2-80 regarding the 1953 Buick Skylark. I have sent the article to Tom Pond — Buick’s Public Relations Director.
“This really brings back memories. In late 1953, I was a Service Representative in El Paso, Texas, and had been temporarily assigned to assist with the 1953 Buick new car announcement show in New Orleans. Mr. Wiles (Buick General Manager Ivan Wiles) wanted to show the Skylark Hd. Top to the Buick dealers in New Orleans, but did not want anyone, especially the media people, to see it before the Buick dealers saw it. We were very secretive about our new models being seen before announcement day back then.
“It was arranged to have this Skylark shipped by moving van to New Orleans and one of my friends and fellow service reps and me were assigned the duty of picking the car up at the port of New Orleans and very secretly driving it to the Jung Hotel at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. No problem — even in New Orleans, the streets are pretty well deserted at 2:00 a.m.
“We ran into two small problems, however. First we got lost, and then ran out of gas. We were in a bind. Finding a service station open at 2:00 a.m., then finding our way to the Jung while maintaining the secrecy Mr. Wiles had mandated. Our future was on the line. We were in trouble! Fortunately, a New Orleans patrol car came by, we flagged him down and a true gentleman by the name of officer Clovis Bordelon listened to our story, admired the Skylark, drove to an all night service station, brought us some gasoline, gave us a police escort to the Jung Hotel only a little bit late and saved our careers. The secret had been kept, and 2 young factory representatives were able to remain in Buick’s employ to this day. Every time I see a picture or anything in writing about the original Skylark, I silently thank Officer Clovis Bordelon, a true southern gentleman, and a dedicated public servant.
“Although we didn’t build many of them, it was a super car, just a few years ahead of its time.”

Along with this 1980 letter to the Oakland Tribune columnist, M.D. Reilly enclosed a business card stating he was the current Buick Motor Division zone manager operating out of Fremont, Calif.

The 1953 Buick Skylark as found in 1980 by Jim Ashworth in San Jose, Calif.

The 1953 Buick Skylark as found in 1980 by Jim Ashworth in San Jose, Calif.

The 1953 Buick Skylark as found in 1980 by Jim Ashworth in San Jose, Calif.

The 1953 Buick Skylark as found in 1980 by Jim Ashworth in San Jose, Calif.

The 1953 Buick Skylark as found in 1980 by Jim Ashworth in San Jose, Calif.

The 1953 Buick Skylark as found in 1980 by Jim Ashworth in San Jose, Calif.

James Ashworth's wife and Hal Bancroft, who restored the car for Ashworth, try to determine which of the three blue colors found on the Skylark's body is the original. From that, they matched the interior leather color. Ashworth said the Skylark was painted three times in three different blues. Clearly, he restored in a lighter blue color rather than the darker blue color in which it was found.

James Ashworth’s wife and Hal Bancroft, who restored the car for Ashworth, try to determine which of the three blue colors found on the Skylark’s body is the original. From that, Ashworth’s wife matched the interior leather color using the swatch in her hand. Ashworth said the Skylark was painted three times by the factory in three different blues. Clearly, he restored it to a light blue color, which is darker than the blue hue the car was found wearing.

Although the Skylark hardtop was found in California, it had spent time in Michigan and then Oklahoma before arriving in the golden state. In its travels, it acquired some corrosion, which had to be repaired.

Although the Skylark hardtop was found in California, it had spent time in Michigan and then Oklahoma before arriving in the golden state. In its travels, it acquired some corrosion that had to be repaired.

Sometime after 1990, Ashworth sold the restored blue Skylark hardtop. The last we heard, it was offered for sale by the famous Bob McDorman collection at the 2009 Mecum Auctions Kissimmee sale. There, it sold for $92,000. Two years later, in 2011, it crossed the Barrett-Jackson auction block in Scottsdale and sold for $115,000. Both prices are at or below the values of likewise restored 1953 Skylark convertibles, of which 1,690 were built. We haven’t seen the hardtop since.

Perhaps it will show up again in a dusty San Jose garage after a rabid fan hunts it down for another 20 years.

By Angelo Van Bogart/copyright Old Cars Weekly

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