Even in the heyday of musclecars, the vast bulk of any factory's production was powered by small V-8s and even smaller six-bangers. The lens of history shows us that these cars were generally used for nothing more than ordinary transportation, then discarded once their usefulness was exhausted. While the high-horsepower musclecar versions of our favorite marques have always maintained a high profile, we see a growing trend of the lowly versions-previously relegated to junkyards and back lots-being resurrected. And they aren't coming back as grandma cars either.
Tim Lee's '65 Buick Skylark is such a car, brought back from the dead not in some fog-shrouded castle on a Bavarian mountaintop, but from his shop: Don Lee Auto Service in Cucamonga, California. A Frankenstein reference is quite appropriate, as there are pieces and parts mixed from cars built decades apart. Yet as a proud Buick enthusiast, Lee understood what Mary Shelley could not: mixing Buick sheetmetal with any other brand of powertrain would spell almost certain disaster, like transplanting an A-negative heart in a B-positive patient.
The punchline, of course, is that Lee's originally V-8-powered '65 Skylark is possessed by a Buick turbo LC2 V-6 powerplant-the very same 245hp intercooled unit that embarrassed Corvettes, Camaros, Firebirds, and Mustangs when it debuted in the 1986 Grand National and T-Type Regal. At the time, the sequentially fuel-injected LC2 was a technological marvel, a status which it not so surprisingly retains to this day-thanks to the ongoing efforts of a small but dedicated group of Buick fanatics.
Lee counts himself among them. "I've had a lot of Grand Nationals and T-types over the years," says Lee, "but I decided to build the Skylark because I didn't want anything I had to smog." Yep, this is La La land, and that means heavy government oversight if you're a hot rodder. That's why when Lee's brother, Chris, spotted the '65 Skylark collecting bird droppings under a tree, he gladly shelled out $400 for it.
"It was going to be a parts car for my brother," says Lee, "he was going to chop it up, but it was in too good a shape, so I bought it off him." With the turbo V-6 idea still brewing in his head, Lee drove the tired Skylark to Wayne Tate of Signature Auto Body in Cucamonga, California. Tate, who had just opened his shop and hadn't yet been deluged with high-paying insurance work, gave Lee the deal of the century, a $1,500 paint job that matched the original Verde green.
Lee loved Buicks, but hated the puny 300 V-8. There was never any question in his mind that he'd replace it-the question was, with what? That question was answered shortly, as his burgeoning Turbo Buick clientele created an overflow of turbo V-6 paraphernalia. Thus, Tim paired the A-body with a stock '87 Buick turbo V-6 engine and 2004R trans he had been saving for a '66 Nova project. The diminutive powerplant fell right in. Lee told PHR: "The original car had a 300-inch V-8-which is a Buick V-6 with two extra cylinders. The motor mounts were in the same place, so it dropped right in. The trans crossmember even worked; I just moved it back 2 inches. It took me about 10 minutes to modify."
At this point in the Skylark's life, Lee's main goal was merely puffing life into it. No fancy electronics, no upgrade turbos, nothing along the lines of "speed" equipment. The goal was to get it driving, and to do that, some old-fashioned chopsaw engineering was needed. As an added requirement, Lee imposed a budget as near "zero" as he could, and that meant getting creative. When a zero-dollar 8.5-inch Grand National rear came into the picture, Lee snatched it for the Skylark. Stout from the factory and only needing an Eaton posi, Lee bolted the 3.42-geared unit right in. "It's about 2 inches narrower than the original rear, but it works fine," says Lee. The stock '65 A-body springs, NAPA shocks, and lower control arms were reused, and the upper control arms were reused after being lengthened about 2 inches with 1x2-inch rectangular tubing. For exhaust, Lee added a Kenne Bell Grand National system. "It bolted right up, but I did have to move the tailpipes a little bit." A custom-length driveshaft from Inland Empire made the drivetrain complete. And for rolling stock? Lee went traditional, with ARE Torque Thrusts and BFG radials-15x4 with 165-15s in front, and 15x8 with 275/60-15s in the rear.
Updating the fuel system for EFI was the next task. Lee replaced the old fuel tank with a reproduction Chevelle tank, but first he sumped it with a kit from Competition Engineering. The Skylark was now drinking from an Aeromotive 1000 pump-good enough to handle everything Tim would have in mind for it. With the late-model powertrain ensconced and the electronics transplanted, it was time for a dry run at the track. Not surprisingly, the otherwise bone-stock '87 GN powertrain pushed the 3,200-lb Skylark to a 13.20/100 at the Pomona Street Legal Drags. Over the following year, Lee upgraded the stock GN engine and trans in much the same fashion as any late-model Turbo Buick owner might, laying on bigger turbos, larger injectors, fatter intercoolers and trickier computer chips. Among other things, Lee upgraded the stock 2004R trans to a fully built Art Carr 2004R with a 10-inch non-lock-up, 3,500-stall converter. Ultimately, Lee got the street-legal Skylark down to a best ET of 11.20/119. And then he hit the lottery.
"One day, a customer came in with a really nice Grand National," says Lee. "The only problem was that the engine was blown. It had a lot of nice stuff on it, but the guy wasn't interested in fixing it. So I bought it for $6,000." Thinking on his feet, Lee pulled the motor out of his running Skylark, stuffed it into the broken National, and flipped it for $11,000. The blown GN motor, which already had a killer set of ported Champion GN1 heads, a ported intake, T&D rockers, and some nice COMP pushrods, was rebuilt by Lee with .040-over 8:1 JE pistons, a hydraulic COMP roller cam (206/206, .490-lift @ .050), and a Kenne Bell doghouse with a 90mm throttle body. Flush with five grand from the flip, Lee loaded up with a Limit Engineering TE63 turbo and a big Kenne Bell front-mount intercooler.
Buick guys know this would ordinarily spell disaster for a stock fuel system, so Lee went with big 72-lb low-impedance injectors. The stock ECM can only drive high-impedance injectors, so Lee sent the factory '87 ECM to Red Armstrong for an upgraded injector driver circuit. For Buick guys keeping track, Lee also added a 3-inch Terry Houston downpipe, an Innovative manual wastegate, an MSD Digital 6+ ignition, a Kenne Bell fuel pressure regulator, a MAF translator (with an LS1 meter), and a custom chip burned by Neal Steward. With a load of C16 and 27 lbs of boost dialed in, Lee's Skylark cranked the chassis dyno with 560 rwhp at 5,500 rpm.
On the boulevard and at the track, things were getting quick in a hurry. The V-6 'lark was running 10.80s on 28x9-inch Mickey Thompson slicks-darned fast for a race car, let alone a street-legal one. But Lee's trips to the track resembled bi-polar episodes, with the high from running a killer ET one minute followed by the low of getting tossed for safety violations the next.
What Lee needed was safety gear, and he got it in the form of a six-point chromemoly rollbar, an RCI five-point harness and a driveshaft loop. So far, Tim Lee has run a best of 10.60/127. Not too bad for a six banger, huh? But the real knock-out punch is that, all told, Lee has only $10,000 in his Skylark. Between flipping cars, parting cars, horse trading, and just plain luck, Lee has managed to score an affordable and fast musclecar. But that's just the beginning. Tim Lee has also managed to capture the pure American spirit of hot rodding, and that's something you can't buy through a mail-order catalog.