10 Forgotten Classic Buick Models That Probably Deserved Better
Old Buick Models That Should Have Been Given More Credit
Updated November 10, 2018
GM’s upscale division – second only to Cadillac – has given us some rather conservative cars over the years. Yet, they still managed to surprise us every once in a while by jumping out of their comfort zone and delivering extraordinary powerful models that rivaled some of the fastest cars of their time. The oldest active American automaker division thus proved it can build pretty much anything provided with opportunity to do so. Many a classic Buick models prove so.
While some old Buick models like the Century, Skylark and Regal served the brand for decades and became eponymous with it, others have often failed to leave a lasting impression. What’s more, some have managed to leave a bitter taste in Buick aficionado’s mouths. Yes, Apollo, we’re looking at you. And, finally, there are those forgotten Buicks that very few of us will likely remember. These often appeared abruptly and left the stage in corresponding fashion, failing to draw attention to themselves. That’s exactly what we’re looking for in here. Obscured and forgotten Buick models that probably deserved a little bit more than they got in the end.
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Centurion was Buick’s replacement for rather successful and invigorating Wildcat which was derived from otherworldly mid-fifties fiberglass concept car. Like the Wildcat, Centurion too had its roots in mid-fifties concept car. This time, it was the 1956 Centurion concept which foresaw the future by offering the very first rearview camera in a car.
But Buick Centurion didn’t remain for long. It was discontinued in favor of LeSabre with whom it competed as slightly more upscale offering. While everyone will agree LeSabre was one of the most important Buicks in history, Centurion definitely deserved more. Its sales figures should serve as a proof. Centurion’s 1971 sales exceeded those of previous year Wildcat by almost 25%. Then they rose by another 20% for 1972, and finally soared in 1973, almost doubling the first two years’ tally. And it was still not enough.
Main problem – besides cannibalizing LeSabre’s sales – was that it actually looked like one. It was practically the same car with different front fascia and interior. And, minus the tri-shield badge. Instead, Centurion had a badge depicting a Roman centurion from a profile. Now you know where Centurion’s got its name. Unlike the sporty Wildcat, Centurion was marketed simply as a more premium full-sizer. Still, only 455 cu in V8 powered the car for the first two years. It delivered 315 ponies in 1971 (330 hp with dual exhausts) and 250 ponies in 1972. Result of gross to net horsepower rating switch. Finally, new regulations took their toll in 1973 too, when 175-horsepower 350 cu in V8 became a standard engine. 455 big-block was still available as an option, though.
All Centurions, apart from convertible, were hardtops. Both 2-door and 4-door versions were available. For a mid-luxury price of a Centurion, buyers received standard power steering and power front disc brakes, standard cloth and vinyl or optional all-vinyl upholstery, and standard 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic auto trans. Very rare Stage 1 option in early 1971 was the only way to get the stick in a Centurion. Did this plushy full-size Buick deserve better? You be the judge. I believe it had.
1979-1980 Century Turbo Coupe
As was a custom among the U.S. automakers back then, Buick downsized its intermediate lineup in 1978. They also downsized the engines, hence big-block disappeared completely. But unlike the Regal, which immediately got a turbocharged V6 version of the 231 cu in V6 mill, Century needed to wait another year. 3.8L turbocharged V6 finally arrived in 1979, but didn’t last for long. Century Turbo Coupe wasn’t nearly as popular as corresponding turbo Regal, and less than 3,000 units were produced during the following two years.
Yet, Century Coupe’s turbocharger had managed to compensate on what Buick’s mid-size car lacked in displacement. It boosted the total output to 175 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. Quite a bump over conventional model’s 105 ponies and 160 ft-lbs. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but consider this: same year Chevrolet Corvette with a V8 only had 20 hp and 10 ft-lbs more. That wasn’t all. Buick Century Turbo Coupe also came with standard dual exhausts, power brakes, stylish turbine wheels and other aggressive styling cues like the hawk fender decals or a decklid spoiler.
Although Century Turbo Coupe ended up being a flop for Buick – sales wise – actual truth is somewhat different. Buick needed the car regardless of its sales figures total. You’ll remember that Buick spearheaded the second wave of American muscle cars with GNX a few years later. Guess where did GNX get inspiration for its turbocharged V6 engine. You guessed it. Right here in the late seventies, where Century Turbo Coupe sported a similar powertrain.
1977 Skyhawk Nighthawk and 1979-1980 Skyhawk Roadhawk
First generation Skyhawk was nothing other than badge-engineered Chevrolet Monza – itself based on rather infamous Chevy Vega. But, while Chevrolet sold around 700,000 Monza’s, and Pontiac sold around 400,000 Sunbirds, Oldsmobile and Buick only managed to sell around 125,000 Starfires and Skyhawks each, respectively. So, in order to boost sales of their subcompacts, both division resorted to special edition models. Oldsmobile Starfire hence received Firenza package, while Buick Skyhawk got two special editions.
First one appeared in 1977 and disappeared after only 1,383 units were produced. Skyhawk Nighthawk, sadly, didn’t offer that much in terms of performance. In fact, it was pretty much the same as the regular Skyhawk in that respect. It was fitted with 110-horsepower 3.8L V6 and standard Saginaw 4-speed stick or optional 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 350 auto trans. There was also the optional 5-speed Borg-Warner manual. What Nighthawk did offer, though, was some flashy pizzazz reflected in unique pinstriping, logos and gold-painted wheels. But above all else, it offered reflective side tape striping. The kind which would radiate a golden glow when illuminated by another car’s headlights.
Like the Nighthawk, Roadhawk too didn’t offer much improvement in terms of performance. For two model years, it offered the same 3.8L V6 engine, albeit with 115 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque this time. Result of new cylinder heads and a new camshaft treatment. Still, for 1979 only, $675 Roadhawk package was the only ticket to performance handling package which consisted of Goodyear BR70-13 radial tires, stiffer suspension, quicker steering ratio and larger sway bars. Moreover, Skyhawk Roadhawk came with special silver interior done by a third party supplier – Robin Products Company Inc. from Farmington Hills, Michigan.
But even unique interior treatment and revised exterior with rear spoiler, front air dam and fiberglass quarter panel extensions wasn’t enough for Buick’s H-body subcompact. Only 2,037 were ordered before Buick axed the car in late December 1979. Pity how they failed to offer a turbocharged version of the Skyhawk. Especially since they already possessed the technology as illustrated in previous example.
1970 Estate Wagon
Buick’s full-size wagons disappeared completely after 1964 and wouldn’t appear again before 1970. For one year only, Buick Estate Wagon was offered on Wildcats and LeSabres, sharing their B-body frame, 124-inch wheelbase and 220-inch total length. They would move on to the larger C-body Electra line the following year where they’d receive 127-inch wheelbase and maximum overall length of 232 inches for 1975 and 1976.
Yet, despite being B-body cars, 1970 Estate Wagons all came with engine usually reserved for C-bodies. Largest ever Buick engine, the 455 cu in V8 raised a hefty 375 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque. Much needed power for a car weighing as much as 4,762 pounds. Moreover, 1970 was probably the the last good year for wagons in terms of power to weight ratio. Especially considering how wagons grew in size the following years, yet became depraved of power thanks to new regulations and OPEC oil embargo. Add to that the fact that 1970 Buick Estate Wagon came packed with plethora of features, either as standard or optional. Disk brakes, power steering, seats and windows, woodgrain exterior trim, and all vinyl interior were all part of the package. Even front fender VentiPorts were there.
Despite being offered for one year only, 1970 Buick Estate Wagon had managed to find 28,306 buyers. A healthy figure considering Electra-based wagons sold less in 1971 before gaining momentum in 1972. Still, considering the malaise era’s imminent onset, Estate Wagon likely should have remained slightly smaller in size.
Somerset first appeared as a model of its own in 1985. During 1980 and 1981 model years, however, Buick used the moniker as special edition package under the Regal badge. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Somerset actually started out as Somerset Regal in 1985. Buick quickly saw the error of their way and subsequently renamed the compact front-wheel drive car to plain and simple Somerset. Sometimes GM gives me headaches with their ridiculous naming strategy.
Anyway, Buick Somerset was much different than larger rear-wheel drive Buick Regal. Apart from size, platform and drivetrain layout, they also differed in the number of available cylinders in their respective engines. Somerset was powered by the good old 92-horsepower Iron Duke four mated to mandatory 5-speed manual transmission sourced from Isuzu. There was an optional 3.0L V6 engine which developed 125 horsepower but required 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 125 auto trans to be ordered as well. Buick V6 hit the spot, although Iron Duke was more efficient. Thing is, most people deemed it way too underpowered and noisy as well.
One of Somerset’s pivotal features was its all-digital dash. That and awkward radio pod which couldn’t be replaced with an aftermarket upgrade. Despite its shortcomings (and there were more), Somerset was a fine car. Maybe not really in line with what Buick customers were accustomed to, but that’s exactly what was so good about it. It showcased Buick’s desire to experiment and reinvent their image. Something they would had to do three decades later in order to survive.
1986 Century Gran Sport
Century stands out as one of the most memorable classic Buick nameplates in history but not all Buick Century’s were equally impressive. However, whenever Buick combined this nameplate with Gran Sport – another recognizable Buick moniker used on high performance cars – you knew you had something great. Sadly, they’ve only done it twice. First time between 1973 and 1975, and later during Century’s fifth generation run.
Latter model was introduced for 1986 and quickly disappeared after only 1,029 of them were made. Maybe that was the exact reason why Buick had stopped offering the package. They then proceeded by discontinuing all of their sporty models, but that happened later on. Anyway, Century Gran Sport offered a respectable performance, albeit without the turbocharged engine. Plain naturally aspirated 3.8L V6 mated to a 4-speed auto did get a fuel injection, though. It was good enough for 150 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. But that was far from everything. Black paint and blacked out grille coupled with larger 15-inch wheels and Goodyear Eagle GT tires elevated Century GS in status. Coupe also received heavy-duty suspension and a tuned exhaust system for more menacing note.
Yet, as already stated, Buick quickly discontinued the offering. Buick’s sporty car buyers were already few and far between, and performance car without the turbo was probably too anemic for them. Maybe Century Gran Sport deserved to be offered with a turbocharger, but Buick probably feared it would cannibalize Regal’s sales. What’s certain is that Century GS had definitely deserved better than one year only outing.
Reatta is another short-lived Buick that could have achieved so much more. But we also have to be realistic here. In the era of Cadillac Alante, Pontiac Fiero, Ford EXP and numerous imported 2-seaters, Reatta never really stood a chance. Especially considering Buick wasn’t known for offering such setups in their cars.
2-seater was initially offered as a coupe, but convertible also joined the lineup in 1990. Reatta boasted an unusual manufacturing process where series of stations were comprised of specialized teams of workers. Each team was responsible for a single process and Reatta’s moved from one team to another. Despite being offered with 3.8L naturally aspirated V6 engine, Reatta still packed a healthy amount of heat. Most models were rated at 165 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque, while last year models saw an increase of 5 hp and 10 ft-lbs. Disk brakes on all four corners, fully independent suspension and highly advanced, at the time, touch screen dash interface were all standard. Even CD player joined the list as 1990 option.
However, Reatta didn’t meet the unreasonably high sales figures estimated by Buick. Tri-shield badge bean counters expected they’ll push up to 20,000 units a year. Instead, they needed four years to pass the intended mark. Buick sold north of 21,000 Reatta’s in total, including less than 2,500 convertibles. Not nearly enough to justify the nameplate, hence Reatta got the axe.
1979 LeSabre Palm Beach
Buick rarely dabbled with special edition packages, and it’s a pity. Especially considering how beautiful LeSabre Palm Beach is. Part of the downsized fifth generation LeSabre lineup, Palm Beach coexisted with turbocharged Sport Coupe models. Yet, Palm Beach appearance package only came with naturally aspirated models.
That might just be the main reason Buick only offered it for one year. Then again, it’s such special edition cars’ nature to disappear the same way they had appeared – abruptly. In any case, LeSabre Palm Beach could have been had either with standard Buick 231 cu in V6, or optional Pontiac 301 cu in V8 or Buick 350 cu in V8. There was also the infamous Oldsmobile 350 cu in diesel V8, but only in California of all places. LeSabre Palm Beach’s pride, however, were its two-tone White and Yellow Beige (pastel yellow) paintjob and corresponding “Palm Beach cloth” and woodgrain-riddled interior. Even standard wheels were painted pastel yellow.
Although LeSabre Palm Beach failed to offer anything more than previously stated, it still represents one of the most memorable special edition options from the late seventies. Especially considering it came from Buick. Whether it deserved more time in the market or not is barely important here. The fact that Buick probably should have offered more similar offerings is what counts.
1984-1987 Skyhawk T-Type and Sport Hatch
Maybe first generation Monza-derived Buick Skyhawk didn’t offer a turbocharged engine, but tri-shield badge took precautions not to make the same mistake again. Second generation J-body Chevy Cavalier-inspired Skyhawk corrected that mistake. It did have to wait two years before receiving a turbo, but better late than never. Especially since 1.8L in-line four delivered 150 horsepower in that setup. Quite a bump compared to naturally aspirated counterpart’s modest 90 ponies.
Skyhawk T-Type continued on without any major changes into 1985, while 1986 brought a facelift and a hatchback version of the car. Hatchback could have been ordered with optional louvered window at the back, while frontal fascia benefited from new stylish pop-up headlights. What’s more, in 1987, Brazilian-built 1.8L four got replaced by 2.0L in-line four from the same country. Coupled with Garrett T-25 turbocharger and multi-point fuel injection (minus the intercooler), it produced a whopping 165 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. I say whopping because Skyhawk only weighted less than 2,500 pounds. However, Skyhawk T-Type was already gone by then. New turbocharged engine was only available with also new Sport Hatch.
Although turbocharged Skyhawks suffered from well documented J-body car problems, these obscured and forgotten Buicks deserved much more considering their pivotal role in the hot hatch development. Shelby Omni GLHS, for instance, only packed 10 ponies more, yet everyone remembers it. Skyhawk T-Type and Sport Hatch clearly deserve the same.
1978-1981 Century Sport Wagon
Although Buick discontinued larger wagons in 1964 and only reintroduced them for 1970 model year, smaller mid-size Sport Wagons were still available. However, the same way they axed the full-size wagon, Buick also discontinued the smaller option after 1972. Sport Wagon would, however reappear once more between 1978 and 1981, before completely disappearing from the map. Last of the Sport Wagons, unlike its predecessors, was offered on the Buick Century.
As expected, engine lineup was rather colorful and anemic at the same time. Riding on a 108-inch wheelbase, Century Sport Wagon sported a Buick’s V6, a number of V8 options, and the Oldsmobile diesel mill. 3.8L V6 generated 105 hp, 115 hp and 110 hp respectively for 1978, 1979 and the last two years.1978 model year also offered optional 5.0L and 5.7L V8s with anything between 135 hp and 170 hp. for 1979, the lineup was joined by 4.9L Pontiac V8 making 140 ponies in 2-barrel and 150 horses in 4-barrel form. 5.0L V8’s output was increased by 5 hp, while 5.7L engine lost the same amount. Largest 5.7L V8 left the stage for 1980, while smaller 4.3L V8 entered the fray. It made 120 horsepower. Finally, 1981 yet again saw the introduction of 5.7L V8 mill. Only, this time, it was a diesel. Olds diesel only produced 105 horses, but compensated with 200 lb-ft of torque.
Buick Century Sport Wagon is one of the rarest sights on the road today. W01 option code used to order them wasn’t ticked too many times. What’s more, precious few of them remain alive today. Whether these classic Buick wagons deserved better; you be the judge.
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