Jimmy Shiels was 18 years old and a few weeks out of high school in 1984 when he went to his first car auction in search of a 1969 Camaro Z28. At least that was the plan. Then he spotted a ’66 Buick Skylark convertible rolling by.
“Oh my God, what is that?” he recalls thinking at the time.
Shiels ended up going home with that Skylark, a well-optioned example in a yellow shade that Buick called Cream, with white interior, white top, bucket seats, and console, along with factory air conditioning and power windows, top, and seats. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “I think I paid $2,200 for it.” [That’s about $5,250 today.]
That was the first car in what was to become a laser-focused collection, consisting almost entirely of 1966 Skylark GS coupes and convertibles. Somewhere around 25 now reside at Shiels’ four-acre Massachusetts compound, from well-preserved one-owner examples, to ground up restorations, to drivers and parts cars. And more are on the way.
“It’s a disease,” Shiels says.
After bringing that first convertible home, Shiels started reading up on Skylarks and grew more interested in the high-performance Gran Sport version. With its standard 401-cubic-inch, 325-horsepower engine, and heavy-duty springs, shocks, and stabilizer bar (plus various distinctive trim bits), the GS was something of a gentleman’s Pontiac GTO or Chevrolet Chevelle SS. Shiels’ evolving interest eventually meant it was time to let that first Skylark go after only a couple of years. But it hasn’t gone far. The current owner lives nearby, and brings it by for Buick gatherings at Shiels’ place.
By September 1985, Shiels bought his first Skylark GS, a beige post sedan with a column shifted automatic. “I’ve had that car ever since,” he says. “That was the beginning of the sickness.” As Shiels’ knowledge and confidence grew, so did his ambition. “I wanted a brand new ’66 Skylark GS,” he says. “I wanted it to be perfect.”
In the early 1990s, he found the car that would serve as a starting point for his “new” GS, and eventually become one of the jewels of his collection. An Astral Blue GS convertible with blue bucket seats and a white top, it was in decent shape when Shiels bought it. But a seven-year nuts-and-bolts restoration followed, and Shiels used as many new old stock (NOS) parts as he could find. The result was a stunning example, likely the best 1966 GS in existence. “Every single bolt and screw passed through my hands,“ Shiels says. He still has that one, too.
Shiels and a friend then trailered the newly completed car to a show in Ohio, where his buddy persuaded him to drive it from the motel to the show. Reluctantly, Jim agreed.
“I was terrified,” he says with a grin. “Those were the longest three miles of my life.”
As Shiels’ collection grew, so did the need for storage. He is a building contractor by trade, so constructing a 10,000 square foot barn on his property was no big deal—or less of a big deal than for most. Dwarfing the relatively modest house that Shiels has lived in since 1998, the heated and insulated barn is as fastidiously detailed as his cars. It serves as a showroom, garage, and restoration shop, with room for parts, memorabilia, and records upstairs. Like many collectors, Shiels thought the barn’s size would be more than adequate. But now that 21 of his best cars are packed nose to tail and door handle to door handle, it is virtually impossible to make it to the back of the barn.
“I want to rack it next, for more room,” he says.
Shiels has also begun to thin out his collection, selling off some cars and seeking out only low-mileage, original-owner examples. One car that he’s keeping is a 1966 two-tone post coupe in cream with a white top, special-order red interior, and four-speed manual transmission, which shows just 26,000 miles. Everything is original, right down to the tires.
As the story goes, the original owner was a bit of an eccentric, with some 100 cars stashed in various garages near his home. He had a relative at the assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, who was able to get the car built to its unusual specification. Along with the oddball color combination, the car came with a tilt steering wheel and a 2.73 rear end—which was not normally available with a four-speed manual transmission.
“It’ll do 13 mph at idle in first gear,” Jim says.
The car saw regular use for a few years, with some long-distance trips accounting for most of its miles, making the most of that tall gearing. And then, for reasons known only to the previous owner, he parked it. The windshield inspection sticker dates from 1970.
Years later, Shiels got wind of the car sitting in a Pennsylvania garage and began a long, slow, pursuit. After periodically contacting the owner for five years without much progress, he moved on to other things. Eighteen years later, he woke in the middle of the night inspired to write one more letter. As it happens, the timing coincided with a letter from the owner saying he was finally ready to sell. A deal was made, but by that time, just getting the car out of the garage turned into a project that involved climbing through poison ivy, cutting down trees, and sawing the lock off the door. The GS inside hadn’t been touched in years.
“The gas was like molasses,” Shiels says.
Fortunately, the owner had prepped the car for long-term storage, and surprisingly little was required to start it up. All it took was fresh gas, some penetrating oil, and hand-turning the engine over, followed by new plugs and a battery.
Another decades-long pursuit netted an immaculate four-speed equipped Shadow Turquoise GS convertible. Shiels first saw that one at a show in Connecticut in 1987, where he approached the couple who had bought it new. He offered them a then-generous $10,000 on the spot. The woman in the passenger seat just smiled with a shake of her head. But Shiels was undeterred, and he stayed in touch with the owners for years, in addition to occasionally attending the one show the couple brought the GS to every year.
Finally, Shiels learned the car was coming his way when a friend overheard another collector offer $40,000 for it. “Oh, no,” the owner told the would-be buyer. “This car is going to Jimmy Shiels.”
By that time, the owners were in their 70s, and Shiels had been pursuing their car for 27 years. They asked to see Shiels’ barn. “They stayed for five minutes, then they turned around and left,” he says. “All they wanted to make sure the car was going to a good home.”
In addition to his prized cars, Shiels’ collection includes some well-used drivers. One two-door post GS coupe—blue with matching blue interior—came from Washington State. Shiels drove it all the way home just last year, racking up 4,200 incident-free miles. Even with about 80,000 on the odometer, the car looks ready for its next show or cross-country trip.
Way in back of the barn sits one of the few cars that isn’t a GS, but it was bought new by a young father who wanted one. With the aim of balancing family needs with a yen for performance, he ordered a Special Deluxe wagon with a 340-cu-in V-8 engine, tinted glass, heavy duty suspension, and GS-style wheels. And even then, he didn’t drive it that much. The carefully preserved car has covered just 18,000 miles.
Like many collectors, Shiels sees himself as something of a steward, preserving history for future generations.
“We are just caretakers,” he says, while admitting that the cars are appreciating in value and a well-cared for car or two can double as a retirement fund that can be enjoyed in the meantime. “A better car is a better investment.”
To that end, seven of the Gran Sports in Shiels’ collection came from their original owners, and there are two more he’s still chasing—a red hardtop in New Jersey and a dark green, four-speed convertible in Ohio, one of just 16 so equipped from the factory. Both are still in the hands of the owners who bought them new, and both are tucked away in storage.
Even as Shiels’ focus has shifted to well-preserved original cars, he is in the midst of one more restoration, another GS convertible in the rare color combination of Verde Green with a saddle top and interior. And there’s a two-door hardtop on the lift in his barn, destined to become more of a resto-mod with a supercharged, 900-hp LS engine and modern suspension and brakes, while retaining the look of a stock GS. After that, Shiels says he’s done. He wants to focus on driving, enjoying, and sharing his cars with other enthusiasts he’s met along the way.