By Brian Earnest
John Simonson was never one of those guys who needed a lot of old cars to be happy. One collector car at a time was enough — hopefully with each one being a little nicer and maybe a little more valuable than the previous one.
“I’d have one, give it a few years, then sell it, trying to work my way up and maybe have a more high-dollar car some day,” says Simonson, a resident of Marshfield, Wis.
That long-range goal of eventually graduating up to a big ticket machine might have stalled a bit recently, however. After Simonson got his hands on his beautifully restored 1969 Buick GS400, he’s not sure he’ll ever need or want anything else. The car is gorgeous, runs like a champ, is in near-perfect condition and — perhaps best of all for Simonson — it’s a Buick, which is near and dear to his heart.
At work and at play, Simonson is a die-hard Buick fan. He works as a service manager at Gross Buick in Marshfield, and he’s owned plenty of examples of his favorite brand over the years.
“My dad drove Studebakers, then later he went to Buicks, and when he did that, I gravitated to Buicks, too,” Simonson said. “He got me started in the collector car game. I’m 50 years old, and I got my first collector car when I was 23.
“My motto in life has always kind of been, ‘dare to be different.’ You see so many Chevelles and Camaros and GTOs. You don’t see as many Buicks, and that’s one of the reasons I like them… I like to drive ’em and promote the old car hobby and Buick in general. People have kind of gotten to know me around here as Mr. Buick.”
Simonson details cars on the side to earn his “play money” for his cars, and in 2012 he figured he had done enough detailing to start looking for a Gran Sport. He found one — a 1969 GS400 hardtop, red with a black vinyl top — for sale in Iowa. The car had been meticulously restored and had coincidentally been owned at one point by one of Simonson’s friends in Washington state. “My wife and I went and visited and wound up coming home from Iowa with it,” Simonson laughs.
“It was sitting in a storage shed — the guy had two adjoining storage sheds and actually had a hoist in one of them. I think he had six different cars in those sheds. They were all Buicks. He had suffered a heart attack and he was going to sell all six of his Buicks. They were all just in immaculate condition.
“I decided to buy this red Gran Sport and I’m glad I did. It’s just immaculate and really fun driving. It had a rotisserie restoration, restored to factory spec’s, right down to the grease pencil marks under the hood and on the firewall … It’s got the 3.42 posi rear end, numbers-matching, 400 engine.”
In short, there was everything to like about the Buick, and almost nothing to criticize. Simonson knew he wasn’t going to do any better for the money. “I have a big binder full of receipts that shows everything that has been done to it — all the restoration that went into the car,” he noted. “The receipts total well over $30,000 to restore this car, and I paid about half that, so it was a pretty good deal for a pretty good car!”
The car started out in Montana and passed through five owners, rolling up more than 150,000 miles, before it wound up with Simonson. In addition to its stint in Washington, the car went to Maryland, where it was re-done by Buick restorer David Roth.
“The car was originally Burgundy Mist, but he painted it Signal Red,” Simonson noted.
“He did a full restoration on it. It had a painted top on it originally and he put a vinyl top on it, which is nice. It had the engine overhauled, transmission overhauled. Then it got sold to a fella in New York and he had it just two months and couldn’t afford payments, so he sold it to the guy in Iowa … The odometer says 55,198, but I know it has gone around.”
Simonson’s car was one of 6,356 GS400 hardtops built for the 1969 model year, which was the fifth year for the widely admired Gran Sport nameplate. The GS family tree began in 1965 when Buick answered the mid-’64 introduction of the GTO with the new midyear ’65 Skylark GS. “There is mounting evidence that our engineers have turned into a bunch of performance enthusiasts,” said one ad. “First they stuff the Wildcat full of engine. Then the Riviera Gran Sport. And now this, the Skylark GS, which is almost like having your own, personal-type nuclear deterrent.”
With a 400/325 V-8, a four-barrel carburetor and a 10.25:1 compression ratio, the Skylark GS tested by Motor Trend in May 1965 cranked out .81 hp per cubic inch and fed it through a two-speed Super Turbine 300 automatic transmission with a floor-mounted shifter. (A floor-mounted three-speed stick shift was standard.) The magazine reported that its 3,720-lb. test car reached the 60-mph mark in a mere 7.8 seconds. It did the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds at 86 mph and had a top speed of 116 mph.
Buick engineers said that the Skylark GS was completely different than the regular Specials because all three body styles — coupe, hardtop and convertible — used a beefed-up convertible-type frame that resisted torque flexing. It was fitted with heavy-duty shocks and springs and a stiffer anti-roll bar up front. Buick ads claimed that the Skylark GS was like “a howitzer with windshield wipers.”
For 1966, a GS package was also made available to the Wildcat and Riviera, and in 1967 Buick introduced the “little brother” GS340 that offered buyers a chance to get a slightly milder version of the GS for a few dollars less.
By 1969, Buick’s muscle machine was hitting its prime, in both looks and performance. A mild restyling found 400 numerals on the hood scoop and rear quarters. A Deluxe steering wheel was standard, along with foam padded seats, ashtray light, glovebox light and upper interior light. Interiors were all-vinyl with a bench front seat standard and buckets available optionally. There was a unique GS 400 grille and a cold air induction package. A hot, dealer-installed option was the Stage 1 package including a 400-cid V-8 with 11.0:1 compression that was rated for 345 hp at 4800 rpm and 440 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm. Experts said the actual output of this engine was closer to 400 hp.
For the second year in a row, Car Life found the GS 400 to be the quickest muscle car it tested with a reported 0-to-60 -mph time of 6.1 seconds. When Motor Trend tested the 3,706-lb. convertible with the standard 340-hp engine, it ran from 0-to-60 mph in 7.7 seconds and did the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds at 89 mph.
Those who argue that the Gran Sports are too often shortchanged in muscle car debates have plenty of ammunition on their side. It’s not that the cars don’t get plenty of admiration and respect, they just seem destined to be a bit overshadowed. “They definitely are overlooked,” Simonson said. “It should get more attention than it does. Buick was always synonymous with an old person’s car or luxury car, but they were a performance company as well. A lot of people don’t realize that. These cars, and the ’70 Stage 1 and ’71 Stage 1 … by no means does Buick get the accolades that it should … They always used to tout it as the poor man’s muscle car and that’s one of the reasons I like it. It’s something not everybody has.”
Simonson’s car is equipped with power steering and brakes, but not many boxes were checked on the options list. It carries an AM radio, bench seat and automatic on the column. The vinyl top has been added, which Simonson figures makes it look even less muscular.
“A lot of people don’t consider it a muscle car if a car has a bench seat and vinyl top … but I’d be willing to put my 400 up against anything,” he says with a chuckle. “I would like to do something a little different, maybe a set of aftermarket rims. I have some white-letter tires and I was thinking something like Crager Torque Thrusts would be fun just to change the appearance a little. But I’m a guy who likes stock vehicles. I don’t like to mess with them too much.
“It’s pretty nice the way it is. It’s like they used to advertise: ‘Going fast with class in a Buick Gran Sport.’”
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