28,400 Mile Subcompact: 1984 Buick Skyhawk Custom

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One of the reasons that General Motors declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 10, 2009, is that they took customer loyalty for granted.  The company spent decades building up the brand identity of its divisions and then diluted that by rebadging cars that had no business being sold at upscale dealerships.  This 1984 Buick Skylark Custom for sale on Facebook Marketplace in Redford, Michigan is a good example of this behavior.  Take away the Buick nose, badges, and upscale interior, this Skyhawk is nothing more than a gussied-up Chevrolet Cavalier.  Was that the wrong path to take for the Buick brand?  Is this museum-quality Skylark with just 28,400 miles on it worth the $10,000 price tag as a historical lesson in what not to do if you run a car company?  Thanks to Dennis H. for the eighties find!

The history of GM’s front wheel drive J-car is an interesting look into the thinking of one of the world’s largest companies.  The rising cost of oil, government Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates, and the relentless loss of GM’s market share were all factors pushing the company towards making decisions that went against tradition in the eighties.  Bear in mind that the General Motors of the sixties was under threat of being broken up by the U.S. government over anti-trust legislation because they owned so much of the market and behaved as such.  Somehow all of that was lost in the seventies and management started to make questionable decisions.

One of the ways the company adapted to changing conditions was to aggressively standardize bodies, engines, and parts across the board to save money.  The front wheel drive J-car platform was a typical example of this strategy.  Built as a compact car, the body was shared with every division under the names Cavalier, Firenza, J2000/Sunbird, and, most infamously, the Cimarron.  While each variant boasted a few differences in the interior and different noses and taillights, the silhouette was the same across all brands.  So was the build quality.

The size of these vehicles and the output of their engines were quite different than the cars that preceded them and from their stablemates on the showroom floor.  They did get better gas mileage and using a common platform did bring in more profit per car than separate versions of the same vehicle at each brand.  The problem was that customers expected a Buick to be what they thought a Buick should be: a solid, well-built, luxurious car that carries with it that certain gravitas.  What they got was a Cavalier with a thicker cloth interior, a bunch of Buick badges, and a bigger payment.  Over at Cadillac, fans of the fabled marque lost their minds over the Cimarron.  Not in a good way either.

The car in the ad is a 1984 Buick Skyhawk Custom version of the J-body.  While the fact that it has traveled just 28,400 miles is remarkable, the most amazing aspect of this sale is that it survived at all.  When was the last time you saw one of these?  Powered by a 2.0-liter Chevrolet produced inline four-cylinder engine punching out 86 horsepower and backed by a three-speed automatic transmission, these cars were considered underpowered even for the time.  While they were OK for driving around town, the performance of these cars with a full family of four inside traveling the interstates was marginal at best.  In hindsight, increased strain on the underpowered drivetrains of the J-bodies appears to have been detrimental to their longevity.

Still, it is good that an example has survived in such good shape.  This Buick is said to be “practically a brand-new car” by the seller.  It is also, conversely, said to not be a show car and has a few flaws.  The two most notable are the paint bubble on the hood and a tear in the paint on the front bumper.  Inside, the interior appears to be in excellent condition with minimal fading.  It is equipped with air conditioning, but the car also left the factory with manual locks and crank windows.  When you work under the assumption that a Buick is marketed as an upscale automobile, one wonders why these items weren’t standard equipment.

The seller must be an aficionado of low-mileage vehicles.  In the last sentence of the ad, we are told that they are open to trades but nothing over 60,000 miles will be considered.  The $10,000 asking price is negotiable.  Noting that they are flexible seems fair, as this is a hard vehicle to price.  There just aren’t that many of them left and the condition and mileage make the car an outlier.  It is good to see that there is such a nice example of this rare car.  These were historically significant automobiles even if they won’t ever be recognized as milestones.  Hopefully, someone purchases this car and displays it frequently.  A lot of people owned J-bodies and they still hold memories made while these cars were a part of their life.

Did you ever own a J-body?  Do you think GM harmed the reputation of its upper divisions by offering them in market segments they were ill-suited for?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Spearfish SpearfishMember

    Excellent write up Mr. Bennett. Your take on the sad state of GM products by the dawn of the eighties is spot on, but it was more than poor decisions that landed that once great industrial empire in the muck. Increasing regulatory pressures on emissions and safety, the insurance lobby, strong union demands up and down the supply chain, and then the massive shock of the oil embargo juxtaposed with unprepared stateside car builders uninterested in sinking the huge but necessary resources into building competitive small cars. I remember the mood at the time seemed to be that all of it would pass and everyone would want lead sleds again (well, it kinda did happen later with the big SUV craze.) The problem for the Big Three was the nifty products and clever marketing of the VW, Toyota, Datsun, Honda gang was winning over the youngins…for good. The result was a mad scramble. Every division marque wanted their own “upscale-ish” compact to fight the Accord/Camry/etc. threats that followed the Corolla/Civic/etc. wave. But it was no doubt hard to keep their eye on those low profit bouncing balls while simultaneously keeping the legacy cash-cow lead-sled crowd happy and keeping the shareholders satisfied. So we ended up with stuff like this psuedo-Buick. I saw it all happen and wore the armchair quarterback hat for five decades, second guessing their dopey decisions to no end…but now in hindsight, it had to have been a tough row to hoe, and they paid dearly.

    Like 26
    • HoA HoAMember

      I agree, however, most of the folks here already know all that. The people that should be listening to you, aren’t here or care, for that matter. What is amazing, look what a change from the red 225 in what, 11 years? Most of us saw it coming, and abandoned the US car market for more favorable cars. Most went Asian, I went the British MGB route, it was as close to what I grew up with. I always wondered what our automotive scene would have been like had it not been for the imports. Guess we’ll never know.

      Like 12
      • Big C

        I always bought American. Never really had problems. Some of my friends, back in the 80’s, went Asian. For a couple years. They all went back to the Big Three. Something about supporting the country that provided you opportunity and freedom.

        Like 13
      • luckless pedestrian

        As one who came of age, learned to drive and got their first car in the early mid ‘70s, I can say that there was nothing coming out of Detroit at that time I was even remotely interested in. The malaise era had settled in, and what was coming out of the big three couldn’t hold a candle to what was coming out of Europe or Asia in terms of build quality, fit/finish, value or drivability. It was the missteps and hubris of Detroit that turned people like me away… and cars like this “J-car” are perfect examples… and they never really got me back. My money went elsewhere and continues to, to this day. I have bought a few US trucks over the years but they were confined to transfer station, big-box store and boat towing duty, but never daily drivers… as they rode and drove like… well… trucks. If Detroit had stayed the course they were on in the ‘60s… making interesting and well screwed together vehicles, things may have been different. But they didn’t, and this has all been well documented elsewhere.

        Like 10
      • Spearfish SpearfishMember

        I agree plenty of folks don’t “care”, but I beg to differ just a bit HoA, judging by so many comments on this site every day, there are a lot of folks on here that may not “know” but might care to know. The authors seem to be aware of this when they relay historical info in their articles.
        Really wasn’t my intention anyway. There’s always complexities to history and endless opinions to go along with it. I just wanted to expand a tiny bit on the article and offer a public mea culpa to my conscience for being such an opinionated arse over the years.

        Like 3
  2. Nelson C

    Fine example of an eighties mid price compact. Appears to be well cared for and in good condition. The features are right. No, not everyone needs, then or now, to have power windows. When they go bad it’s one more thing to mess with. As for the engine the 2.0 litre was an improvement over the original 1.8 (?) in the Cavalier. Designed for modest performance in the age of Drive 55. If you’re the road commando or competing in every stoplight Gran Prix this not meant to be your car. My parents ’84 Cavalier went about 250k with regular maintenance. I even like it color.

    Like 15
  3. MathieuB

    I had 2 of them, a 1984 J2000 Pontiac, carb engine and plastic interior. Engine blew after a year.
    A 1987 Pontiac Sunbird SE that I put 160k miles on it, fully equipped but with a lot of repair over the time… Had a stupid accident with, totalled from the insurance.
    It does the job but it was a no thrill car and at least cheap to maintain.

    Like 7
    • Michael Montgomery

      I own one of these. 1987 all original, 25,000miles. Garage kept. Gray with flawless blue interior. Cleveland Ohio. It’s probably the only one running and not rusty and in great condition on this side of the Mississippi. A prize for anyone who cares. Willing to sell to someone who will care for it. Maybe.

      Like 1
  4. William HartzMember

    That was my first new car. Mine was the same color too. Mine was identical other than being a two door, with a sun roof. I paid $8,688 out the door. I traded a 1977 Ford Granada. In 1988, I had rust forming along the trunk lid. The “stealership” where I purchased it, repaired the rust after I threatened legal action. (It was undercoated “hello rusty jones, goodbye rusty car”, as a dealer add-on, that I negotiated off the purchase price)

    Later that same year, the head gasket failed at 91,000 miles. I sold it. It still looked showroom new. I never see them anywhere, anymore! These cars are like unicorns!

    Like 8
  5. Matt

    All i will say is there is an ever-growing market for pre-OBDII cars and trucks out there. The simpler the better. We have gone well passed the tipping point of over-complicating vehicles in the name of a half mpg here or a .002% less emissions gain there. Dont believe me? Join an F150 group or a new Chevy Colorado group and follow the issues these guys are having and the trouble it takes in narrowing dwn the issue

    Like 7
  6. stembridge

    My first car was a well-used base ’71 Vega notchback into which I swapped a Buick 3.8l while at college. My second was a used ’82 Cavalier Type 10 hatchback with the 1.8l transverse four and manual transmission.

    It was a huge step up in comfort from the Vega, and other than the air pump locking up one afternoon (I simply bypassed it with a shorter belt), was a very reliable and durable vehicle. With a few suspension mods, it handled quite well, despite aggressive torque-steer. I got my last speeding ticket in it doing close to 100 (in 1985, and thankfully the officer only wrote it up as a 70/35, which kept me out of jail – I learned my lesson and drove more sedately afterwards).

    When my new wife and I bought our first (new) Honda Civic, it was a revelation, however. Though a base 1990 three-door hatch, it made the Cavalier seem as crude by comparison as it had with the Vega.

    Did GM shoot itself in the foot with the J-body? Yes would be my answer (spoken as a retired industrial designer who turned down a job offer with GM right out of college and retired as product identity manager for a Fortune 50 company). Good brand management only allows a certain amount of brand elasticity, and the J-body really should only have been offered under the Chevrolet and Pontiac brands (and *maybe* Oldsmobile…).

    Like 6
    • Jesse Stout

      Great write-up, Jeff Bennett! 🙂

      Like 4
  7. JustPassinThru

    The J-Car.

    The recycled X-Flop. Done better; but with more badge-engineering.

    The author said it well: “The company spent decades building up the brand identity of its divisions and then diluted that by rebadging cars that had no business being sold at upscale dealership.” This example is not a Buick – it’s a J-Car Division model, with labels, like dealer stickers, showing it was sent to former Buick Dealers.

    Like so many cars that come to light here, this car is less interesting for what it is, than the time, and failed decision-points, it represents. A marker on the downward health chart for GM.

    But for the colossal seemingly-deliberate dive and crash of GM, this would be of no interest. Repeatedly, GM execs had the opportunity to explore how it was the Asian companies were making inroads; and they dismissed them, the chances and the companies, with contempt. They NUMMI opportunity, went south, fast. GM made no money on the same cars Toyota had as their American backbone. With continued contempt, they created – temporarily – Geo, as the holder for cheap captive imports. Which was what they thought of Japanese product.

    They got their captive of the time, Suzuki, to provide the Cultis and set up a plant in Canada. Suzuki is…not of Toyota or even Subaru stature. They do well with motorcycles; their cars seem more suited to low budgets in developing markets.

    STILL they learned nothing. I remember trying to buy a new Metro in 1995 – a friend had one; I liked it. I went to three Chevrolet dealers, who kept on bleating, how “For the same money” I could have a new four-door Cavalier, complete with Luxury Decor Group and automatic transmission.

    I never did get that new Metro. Or a new Cavalier. I got a bad taste in my mouth for Chevrolet and GM which has never cleared.

    This example is a nice, preserved artifact. I’d consider it for $3k-$4k. Not a cent more.

    I don’t think it’ll even attract much attention at C&C meetups.

    Like 8
    • Greenhorn

      I vaguely remember when GM disassembled an Acura Legend. (I’m pretty sure that’s what it was) I think it was a first gen, so maybe ’87 or’88. Some of you may remember better. But what did GM learn by doing that? I would guess NOTHING. I don’t think they really wanted to learn anything.

      Like 7
  8. luckless pedestrian

    Oh my… somebody saved one…

    Like 12
  9. CCFisher

    GM leadership was making boneheaded decisions long before the 1970s. When imports first started to make waves in the US, GM’s response was to drown them out by putting dealerships everywhere. Their dealer network ballooned overnight. This did nothing to stop the imports and created an unfortunate situation where a Chevrolet dealership’s strongest competition wasn’t the Ford dealer across the street, it was the Chevrolet dealer a couple miles down the road.

    This oversized dealer body played a substantial role in the degradation of the corporate hierarchy so carefully executed by Alfred Sloan. Loyal Olds and Buick customers who were searching for something smaller and cheaper than a mid-sized car had to be turned away or coerced into buying something larger than they originally wanted. Dealerships don’t like to tell people, “I’m sorry, we don’t have anything like that,” so they applied pressure to GM management. By 1973, we had the Nova clones, Olds Omega and Buick Apollo. Two years later came the Monza clones, Olds Starfire and Buick Skyhawk.

    On one hand, I get it. If Oldsmobile is all you sell and people are increasingly asking for something smaller, you demand something smaller from GM because your business is suffering.

    On the other hand, I wonder what things would look like today if GM management had refused to give clones to its premium divisions and found other ways to bolster dealership profits (such as increasing dealer profit margins or decreasing the number of dealers)?

    Like 5
  10. David Richards

    Remember everyone, GM has been making cars for 100 years, much longer than Japan. GM has had a lot of employees in that time and a lot of retirees! They have had a lot of legacy costs, pensions, healthcare, wages, etc. They took care of their people. Lots of costs over the decades. I have had several GM cars and they were all good. My first new one was a 1973 Chevy Nova with a 350 V8, Automatic etc. Great car. Drove it 150,000 miles in 7 years and had zero problems. Then got a 1977 Camaro, great car again. Part of the problem today is the cost of some of these new vehicles, especially trucks. $100,000 doesnt seem to be much of a problem now but not everybody can afford that. I heard of a 1984 Cadillac going a million miles. Don’t throw GM under the bus for making a couple cars that maybe could have been better. They made a lot of great ones and gave a LOT of people good jobs. Be american, buy american.

    Like 15
    • Rick

      Every GM vehicle I owned was a big disappointment. I haven’t owned anything from GM in 49 years. Yet, I learned that the lousiest cars offer the greatest opportunities to hone the automotive diagnosis and repair skills.

      Like 6
    • Matt

      Some of the most trouble free cars we had in the 80s and 90s were GM models. Then again, Dad was always great about maintenance.I know they made some skunks but what manufacturer of ANY origin hasnt? I always wonder about maintenance when people say a certain make was “junk”. I dated a girl years ago who had a 95 Lumina 4 dr. 180K miles on it. She said it was a piece of cr@p! I asked how so? “Oh my dads mechanic says the engine is on its last leg!” I asked how often she changed the oil in the 2 yrs she’d had it. Her response was something like “thats just more $ im not gonna put into this car”

      Like 9
  11. scscars

    I had a ’87 Olds Firenza with the 2.0 liter fuel injected engine. It made a whopping 102 horsepower. Once, while I was in Southern Illinois, I got stopped by a State Trooper for speeding. He said I was doing 83 in a 65 MPH zone. I replied, “Officer, really? I didn’t know this car could go that fast.” He ticketed me anyway.

    Like 6
  12. Dave Brown

    This is just another version of blah. It was a GM babe engineered creation. No one was fooled. The price of this is way too much. $3500 would be max. For $10,000, there are much better cars to be had. Good luck!

    Like 7
  13. Connecticut mark

    Mom bought a new 2 door blue with orange accents J2000, was at dealer so many times, engine never fixed right , lemon law turned in for ugly brown Buick small wagon with no air or windows that rolled down I think, , parents fault for this, traded in in 2 months for Pontiac estate wagon with every option, but the catalytic converter got clogged after one year, fixed that, pretty nice car.

    Like 2
  14. charlieMember

    Bought a used ’83 Cimarron for $2000 in ’88, 87,000 miles on it, no rust, and, although basically a Cavalier, it had a better suspension, leather, power everything, and it got passed around the family, finally dying of many ailments, after 200,000 miles, two steering racks, and a rebuild of the head. Meanwhile it was a great car for commuting into the city, 55 miles each way, and parking once there. Wife did it for two years, 3 days a week. Out of the dealership at 2x the price of a Cavalier it was a rip-off of the first order. Used, at $2000 it was great. The last ones, with the V6 were really good, GM gets it right, and discontinues, such is life.

    Like 8
  15. Jonathan Q Higgins

    I will start with something complimentary, it has fuel injection(sorta). TBI, but better than a carb. I believe this is the Brazilian built 1.8 and not the 2.0. The 2.0 would’ve been better. Mine was a four door like this one, which I think was not a common option. The 1.8 had a measly 84 hp iirc. I at least had a 5 speed instead of auto. Worst car I’ve ever owned. Head gasket went. And a bunch of other less critical but nonetheless annoying problems.

    Like 1
    • Rick

      This is the 2.0L OHV in this car. That painted black valve cover is one sign.

      The 1.8L Brazilian was an OHC design and had a finned aluminum valve cover.

      Like 3
  16. Kenneth

    I completely disagree with the author as with the exception of the Cimarron which was twice the price of a Cavalier. J cars were not that far out of line with other GM divisions. This Buick would have sold new for around $7,500 while the Chevy would have went for around $6,000.

    Yes the divisions were losing their autonomy, but that was sign of the economic times and the rising costs of developing independent models that the consumer was seeing less value in paying for.

    Like 3
  17. Mark

    I had a 1992 chevy cavalier from 2004-2008.Got it with 110,000 miles and sold it with about 180,000 miles. Got it from the original 2.2 liter engine and three speed auto trans. Paid $500 and sold it for $650. Other that tires brakes battery, engine mounts and radiator it was a good car. All manual controls inside The only down fall was that it should of had a 4 speed trans. I know there was a optional manual trans.

    Like 3
  18. Michael Tischler

    2 part comment. My son’s first car Pontiac Sunbird with Brazilian engine,bad head gasket. Traded it for a Ford Contour.

    1983 my first year at the prison one of guards bragging he bought a Caddy, after the shift we went to to look at his Cimmaron

    Like 3
  19. Daniel

    There are exactly zero people on this planet who will pay $10,000 for this car.

    Like 5
  20. Daniel W KuchenbergMember

    How much is this $2000.00 car?

    Like 1
  21. JC

    LOL, 10k??? I remember buying one of these for my sister back in the early 2000’s for $1500 and it only had 35k miles on it, owned by the proverbial old lady that only drove it to church on Sundays. It was a comfortable little commuter car and got her from point a to point b with no issues until she was able to get herself something better. 10k is preposterous.

    Like 1
  22. RoadDog

    If the seller thinks they’re gonna get $10k for this one, they’re fooling only themself.

    Like 2
  23. Dcor

    If you went MG then obviously reliability wasn’t a factor

    Like 3
  24. K. R. V.

    I remember back in 1978, I owned a new Scout II TERRA 4×4 truck, I had a small fender bender with an old man that ran a stop sign. I was given a new 78? Chevy Citation Coupe in X trim, with a V6 I never looked to see the size, as it had plenty of getupango, while getting great mileage compared to the V8 in my Scout. My buddies and I beat the tar out of that little Chevy for one week! ! That always came back for more.

    Like 1
    • Lothar... of the Hill People

      Citations came out in 1980, so you were you may be fairly close w/ your 1978 guess. The X11 models had a 2.8 Liter, 6-cylinder engine.
      I’m sure it did get better MPG than the Scout but the Scout was a cool vehicle too.

      Like 2
  25. Thomas Poe

    Interesting to see the US take on the J-car. Holden, Australia’s GM division, was part of the J-car project because it was compelled to do so by Detroit. Holden workers had to learn new skills quickly in order to cast and finish the many large plastic parts in the car. Unfortunately the quality of the plastics in the first model (designated as the “JB” Camira) was woeful and the 1.6 was under-powered with rings that allowed too much oil by into the head, causing blue smoke. The JB Camira quickly earned a reputation as being a crap car. Then along came the JD series which was a bit better but not by much. Holden were given strict budgets by Detroit and they just could not cope with some of the design necessities. The final series, the JE Camira, was fitted with the 2L EFI engine and the body works and plastics were being made properly and well. Problem was that the car’s preceeding reputation damaged the JE’s sales potential and that was a crying shame because the JE was a perky little pocket rocket. It had a great power to weight ratio at the time which meant it could see off many an old straight six to be found in the older Holdens and Ford Falcons. I owned one and loved it. Fast, handled brilliantly and it had very comfortable seats. It was an effortless cruiser on the freeways. The only problems I had with mine were a bad engine mount (caused by the slopped parking lot at work) and the ECU burned out at 50 k miles, necessitating a new module.

    Like 1
  26. David Zornig

    I was the fleet manager at Fanning Cadillac-Buick at this time.
    906,626 total Buick sales nationwide in `84, up 99K+ from `83.
    I ordered dozens if not hundreds of these.
    Skyhawks and Centurys flew out of our dealership daily.
    We were dealer trading full size wagons to get them.

    Like 7
  27. theGasHole

    The hatchback T-Type version was the one to get. This one….not so much.

    Like 1

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