John Lennon famously said that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. It’s a truism we can all relate to, especially when it comes to car projects and the career demands, family obligations, and plain-old procrastination that conspire to thwart them.
Joe Guzek’s grand plan for restoring his one-off, special-order 1970 Buick GS 455 Stage 1 was literally decades in the making. Why so long? Life intervened. The once-formidable A-body, which was the stoplight scourge of Lansing, Michigan, languished for years in restoration purgatory. Just as time was beginning to loosen up for him and the project, a life-changing medical condition saw the Buick’s rebirth once again thwarted.
Fortunately, a loyal and dedicated group of friends and family stepped in, not only with a commitment to Guzek’s day-to-day support but also with pushing through the rare Buick’s restoration. We’ll get to that support a little later, but first the backstory on Guzek and his one-of-a-kind GS, which has a special-order exterior color—a Cadillac color called Cinnamon Firemist—and came with a special-order 3.91-geared rear axle.
Guzek ordered it that way back in the fall of 1969, and it took some arm twisting to get it done. As an engineer at auto supplier and wheel manufacturer Motor Wheel Corporation, he had connections within General Motors, and they helped push through the special order. He had been driving a 1968 Z/28 that wore an early set of the distinctive Motor Wheel Spyder wheels, but found the car all but impossible to drive in the snow and ice of Michigan winters.
“It was a fun car to drive for about half of the year,” says Guzek. “But in the winter, with its 3.73 axle, it was just about useless.”
Through his work at Motor Wheel and his connections at GM, he’d spent some time in an early Buick GS Stage 1 development car and also drove a prototype Stage 2 development car that was built out of a 1969 GS 400.
“It had 12:1 compression, a hotter cam, and a Holley carb,” says Guzek of the prototype. “What impressed me the most, like the Stage 1 car, was how smooth and tractable the engine was. And all the torque. Those Buick engines made loads of torque, and it felt great.”
Sold on the Stage 1, he started the ordering process with the help of GM engineer friend Denny Manner. Manner tried to convince him to go with an automatic, but Guzek was adamant about a four-speed.
He encountered the first hurdle after insisting on a special-order 3.91 rearend, which wasn’t available. The only cog set offered with a Stage 1/four-speed combo was a 3.64 ratio. But Guzek’s connections paid off, and a 3.91 axle was ordered.
Now, before many of you start writing in to protest, throw shade, or skeptically ask which axle was installed at the factory (i.e., a specially fitted “corporate” axle or perhaps the Canadian-market Chevy 12-bolt), the short answer is we don’t know. Guzek blew it up not long after taking delivery, and his local dealer couldn’t service the oddball axle. The original went to the scrapyard decades ago, and Guzek doesn’t recall what axle was actually installed, only that it had the 3.91 gears he wanted. The replacement was the standard Stage 1 setup with 3.64 gears; it has been replaced in the restoration with a 3.91 gear in a custom setup from DTS.
The special-order paint was perhaps even more of a challenge for the factory because GM really, really didn’t want to spray the car that color. A similar hue dubbed Fireglow Orange had been offered by Buick in 1969, which is when Guzek took a liking to it. But the burnt orange metallic color proved very difficult to spray with an acceptable appearance quality, and it was quickly dropped from the order books. Undeterred, Guzek pushed ahead with his order. Because a similar color was offered by Cadillac for 1970, the special paint order was finally accepted.
“Back then you could pretty much order any color you wanted as long as you were willing to pay extra for it,” says Guzek. “But because that color was so difficult, there was a big pushback against it for my car. They ultimately did it, but they didn’t want to do it.”
Turns out the factory was right in abandoning the color, as Guzek admits the finish wasn’t good.
“It was splotchy and uneven,” he says. “It was easy to understand why they discontinued it and why the factory was so reluctant to spray my car that color.”
With the car built in Flint, Guzek arranged for a factory delivery of the GS and had a nearby friend pick it up and put a few shakedown miles on the car. Soon after, on the advice of his engineer contact Manner, Guzek spoke to Buick engine performance pioneer Jim Bell (later of Kenne-Bell fame) and ordered a camshaft package and a set of Mickey Thompson headers.
There was one more thing: a set of custom-made, 15×8.5 Motor Wheel Spyders. That made them a half-inch wider than the widest off-the-shelf version, as Guzek wanted the widest possible contact patch on the street.
“The car was very strong and ran in the 12s through closed exhaust and on street tires,” he says. “I’d pump up the air pressure to about 35 pounds or so. They were just right when they left two solid black stripes on the street. If there wasn’t any or much black in the middle of them, there wasn’t enough air in the tires.”
Guzek drove the car daily for about five years. In the winter of 1975, while the Buick was parked, his storage building flooded. The special-order Buick was swamped up to the center of the steering wheel, triggering a nearly 45-year quest to return it to its original condition. The first few years were spent collecting parts. Guzek rounded up just about every N.O.S. panel, knob, and trim piece he could find.
He also met restorer Bob Reeve, who would take on the car’s restoration and work on it as time and Guzek’s budget allowed. It’s a relationship that has spanned about 30 years, as Reeve and Guzek’s network and friends and relatives pushed to get the resto over the finish line in time for the 2019 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals. Its debut there would represent the first time the car had been seen in public since the flood sidelined it 45 years ago.
Ironically, despite more than four decades of perpetual restoration, making the deadline proved a challenge. Parts had to be chased, and the eye for assembly detail required for a first-class restoration couldn’t be rushed no matter how many years had passed since the project commenced.
And let’s not forget about the special paint. The color had long since disappeared from the paint chip books, so Reeve mixed and mixed again until the correct color was matched against a sample on an original panel that hadn’t been exposed to sunlight. It took 14 tries until he nailed it.
Guzek is quick to point to the assistance of his wife, Mary, and longtime friend Paul Aurand for spearheading the project as he dealt with his medical issues. Bob Reeve deserves more than only the credit for the bulk of the restoration work, too. He toted the car from shop to shop for the better part of 30 years, as the long-term project stretched over decades.
“This wouldn’t have been accomplished without them,” Guzek says. “This car represents a lot of great memories from a time when I wanted to show taillights to anyone who challenged. I always knew it would get restored. I just couldn’t have imagined it would take this long.”
It’s also noteworthy that a number of people supporting him with the restoration are part of the crew behind the Michigan State University Project W-31, which was featured in “Independent Study: Project W-31” (Nov. 2018; bit.ly/2PwamZU). Guzek helped the team back in the early 1970s, and they helped him with the Buick.
The important thing is this rare Stage 1, with its special-order features, is back on the street, thanks to a tremendous group effort. But that’s life, when you’re making other plans.
At a Glance
1970 GS 455 Stage 1
Owned by: Joe Guzek
Restored by: Bob Reeve/Carshine Restorations
Engine: 455ci/360hp Buick Stage 1 V-8
Transmission: Muncie M20 4-speed manual
Rearend: Custom by DTS with 3.91 gears and posi
Exterior color: Cinnamon Firemist (Cadillac special order)
Interior: Brown vinyl bucket seats
Wheels: 15×8.5 Motor Wheel Corporation Spyder
Tires: G60-15 Goodyear Polyglas
Special parts: Custom rear axle, roll bar
It probably comes as no surprise that Joe Guzek kept his one-of-a-kind Buick’s important documents, several of which are seen here. The $4,579 window sticker price for the GS shows the $199.05 price for the Stage 1 package, along with $153.77 for the “S.C.O.” (Special Car Order) that included the custom paintjob. Despite the $4,579 list price for the car, the dealer sales sheet from April 1970 shows an out-the-door price of $4,100—not a bad bit of haggling for a one-off muscle car! The factory production order body sheet shows “Cinammon” at the bottom in reference to the car’s special-order paint.