Originally published in AutoWeek November 26, 2001
Warning: BMWs and Mercedes drivers on the autobahn, you’re about to experience “Detroit iron” in a way you never known it before. Nicola Bulgari, third-generation scion of the Italian jewelry company that bears his family name, will soon do it to you in a Buick.
In collections in Rome and Allentown, Pennsylvania, Bulgari owns about 100 mostly American cars of different vintages, including a 1934 LaSalle and 1941 convertible, a 1936 Packard coupe and sedan and 1939 convertible, a 1950 Oldsmobile convertible and a 1969 Z/28 Camaro. Buicks have always been his favorites, dating back to his childhood when they were the cars of choice for diplomats, military attachés and even the Vatican. His oldest Buick is a 1928 seven-passenger limousine, the newest is the last retail-sale 1999 Riviera Silver Arrow. He is particularly enamored, however, with a 1970 Skylark GS-455 Stage 1 convertible he bought from the original owner more than 50 years ago.
“One day we decided to make it into something special,” explains Bulgari, as if it weren’t already. Entrusting the Buick to Keith Flickinger’s Precision Auto in Allentown, who has restored a number of cars for Bulgari, the Italian jeweler had the engine blueprinted and subtly modified. A Stage II intake was matched to stock heads with the ports cleaned and flowed. The 1970 carburetor replaced with a ‘73, which actually has higher airflow. Oil starvation problems at the rear of the crankshaft plagued the 445 during extended high rpm use, explains Flickenger, new lines were tapped to keep the crank lubricated. A dry sump system and oil cooler were also added to enhance durability. Because top speed earns bragging rights in Europe, the four-speed was replaced with a six-speed Richmond transmission. This helps, but had the Buick of running out of revs about 135 MDH. So the original 3.62 final drive ratio was replaced by a 3.08 Positractrion rear differential. With 27 percent overdrive, a top speed of more than 150 mph should be possible. The original speedometer was refaced and recalibrated 160 mph, just be sure.
Rack-and-pinion steering, Koni shocks, four-wheel Wilwood racing disc brakes, a rollbar and four-point front seatbelts with a Buick logo neatly inserted in the latch were added. With an eye to European operations, amber lenses for rear turn signals were grafted into the GS taillights. That eliminated one brake light per side, so an LED high-mounted brake light was incorporated into the rollbar, positioned to be visible through the backlight when the top is raised. Goodyear Eagle RS-A 225/70 tires are rated for speed but, mounted on stock-style steel wheels, give little clue to the Buick’s greater than usual potency. Nor does a cars operation. The clutch, transmission and even engine (a duplicate has been prepared) are compliant and docile for urban, but launch the car with authority when asked. Which is exactly how Bulgari wants when he takes the Buick home to Italy.
“They’ll think it’s coming from another world,” Bulgari says, the glee evident in his voice as he imagines Benz and Bimmer drivers on the autobahn. You’re absolutely right, Nicola. It’s calledthe New World, where they build some fearsome Buicks.