Vintage Review: 1971 Buick Electra 225, Mercury Marquis & Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight – Motor Trend Evaluates The Upper Middle Heavyweights

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Redram’s wonderful Kodachrome images of his grandfather’s 1972 Mercury Marquis got me thinking about the enormous popularity the “upper middle” brands enjoyed in the early 1970s. Given their premium market positions, often the flagship cars in these lines enjoyed remarkably strong sales and were undoubtedly very profitable for their makers. While many buff books would have recoiled in horror at the notion of testing such supersized American sedans, Motor Trend still dutifully covered a broad cross section of cars. While MT’s editors approached each segment, at least nominally, from the perspective of driving enthusiasts, in general they focused on how well the cars would meet the needs of target customers. Thus, this 1971 comparison test offered some interesting feedback on the cream-of-the-crop cars from Buick, Mercury and Oldsmobile.

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It’s rather funny to see the emphasis Motor Trend placed on describing these cars as being for the Noveau Riche. While they were pricey for the times, and were undoubtedly bought by affluent folks, including those with “new money,” in many ways they were actually quintessential “old money” cars. At least in my hometown of New Orleans, the flashy “new money” crowd tended to gravitate toward Cadillac and Lincoln (and increasingly Mercedes), while the wealthy “quiet” types frequently drove a Buick, Chrysler, Mercury or Oldsmobile—often the flagship model and almost always new or recent vintage. These brands were seen as being notably “nicer” than Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths, but weren’t seen as being “too much.” That mattered a lot at the time, when subtlety was still seen as a virtue and aggressively flaunting wealth was considered déclassé.

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Without a doubt, these were huge cars, designed to impart comfort and solidity. Each car offered new-for-1971 styling, which mimicked the looks of their more expensive sisters at Lincoln and Cadillac. In fact, Stan Parker who had been the lead designer for Cadillac, had just moved over to Olds as the ‘71s were being finished up and is credited with some of the last-minute bulk-disguising visual tricks deployed on the Ninety-Eight.

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Each of these machines was about as far from a fine handling European touring car as you could get, but according to Motor Trend’s editors, they performed surprisingly well given their size and weight. Spoiler alert: the Olds was praised for offering the best handling—it was also the only one equipped with the extra cost heavy-duty wheels and suspension.

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The three cars represented a pretty good value as well—while far from cheap, they easily undercut Cadillac and Lincoln prices while offering much of the same ambiance. The prices fell into what we would call the Near Luxury category today; the tested Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight LS was $6,434.05 ($37,637.76 adjusted), Mercury Marquis Brougham was $6,042.70 ($35,348.45 adjusted) and the Buick Electra 225 Custom Limited was $6,110.25 ($35,743.60 adjusted). One note about these prices: I think Motor Trend left off the costs for a number of items of optional equipment, most particularly on the Buick. For example, the Electra tested has a vinyl top, but that option is not listed in the price. So take the numbers with a grain of salt…

Motor Trend liked these cars, and so did buyers. For the full 1971 model year, Buick sold 126,036 Electra 225s (23% of total Buick sales), Mercury moved 114,636 Marquis (29% of total Mercury sales), and Oldsmobile shipped 125,056 Ninety-Eights (just 15% of total Oldsmobile sales—clearly the Cutlass phenomenon was getting underway). Not a bad showing for high-end cars targeting selective buyers.

My parents were shoppers in this segment in 1971, and they actually considered each of these models. First off, gratitude is due to both my Mom and Pop for putting up with all my car questions through the years—I was constantly peppering them for automotive anecdotes as a child, and just this past weekend I asked my 81-year-old mother (once again) about their 1971 car buying experience. So here’s the low-down on their shopping expedition in March of that year.

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Since my Pop’s car at the time was a 1968 Cougar XR-7, which he loved, they decided to “put Mercury on their list” to quote a much later advertising campaign. According to my mother, they liked the Marquis sedan they test drove (Mom said it seemed very “fancy”), and could have been tempted, but as another jingle would say, they’d really rather have a Buick.

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Buicks ran deep in my family, so it was a natural they would gravitate to that brand. In fact, the car being traded in was a 1967 Electra, base trim, which had served yeoman duty as a family hauler for three kids. Though a genuine 3-seat station wagon would have been useful for our brood, my mother flat out refused to drive a one—similar I guess to the minivan revulsion that would afflict later generations.

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When they headed to the Buick dealer, they were basically set on getting another Electra. Specifically, however, they wanted a base trim version, since the mission was big family car, not luxury liner.   So, they were rare shoppers, wanting the roominess of the biggest wheelbase body with trim more befitting a car a few notches down the ladder.

That specificity posed a problem for the Buick dealer, as their inventory was filled with loaded Customs and Limiteds. The more basic Electras, what few there were, apparently all had cloth seats, which were a non-starter for my parents with their Family Truckster intentions. According to my Mom, there was a loaded “cream-colored” Electra 225 Custom with vinyl seats that they liked, but the salesmen wasn’t willing to deal. My Pop expected some sort of reasonable negotiation, and upon reaching an impasse, my parents decided to leave so the dealer could “think about their offer.” I am sure the dealer thought they’d be back the next day. Big mistake!

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On the way home, they decided to stop by Mossy Oldsmobile to have a look at the Ninety-Eight, primarily for comparison purposes. Well, there they met Walter, an Olds salesman extraordinaire, and he promptly showed them a well-equipped base Ninety-Eight sedan with vinyl seats. They took it for a drive and couldn’t resist—it met their needs nicely and Walter was ready to move it off the lot. The deal was done that day—Walter was a pro, and would sell several more Oldsmobiles to my parents before he retired.

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Our Ninety-Eight looked much like the one pictured above—except ours was the darker Monarch Blue (this one is Nordic Blue), with a black vinyl top and the Broil-Your-Butt™ black vinyl interior (what were they thinking getting that trim in South Louisiana??). Somehow the car got a nickname early on, and was always known as Big Blue. Whether whale or IBM, I don’t know, but either way the car served us well. It was the daily kid hauler/grocery getter/errand runner of the family, and also took us on many road trips across the South, as well as family vacations to New England and the Southwest U.S. It was a great American family sedan, and once it had done its tour of duty with us, Walter took it in trade over at Mossy Olds and my parents took home a 1975 Ninety-Eight LS.

For those of you who’d enjoy being extra-hardcore with obscure data points on the 1971 biggies from Buick, Mercury and Olds, please keep reading. I’ve scanned in some pages from another item in my collection: The 1971 New Car Pricing Guide, printed in January of that year. It lists all the options and prices, both dealer cost and retail. My Pop was a banker and pretty savvy about costs—he probably reviewed something like this as they went shopping.

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Based on my early childhood memories (though I was just 4 ½ when we got it, I spent A LOT of time in this Ninety-Eight in my car-geek formative years), I’ll make an educated guess as to how Big Blue was equipped and the resulting sticker price. Here goes:

  • Base Ninety-Eight Hardtop Sedan: $4,853
  • Windows, soft-ray tinted: $49.50
  • Windows, power side: $126.38
  • Auxiliary front floor mats: $8.43
  • Auxiliary rear floor mats: $7.37
  • Protective side mouldings: $33.70
  • Vinyl rooftop covering: $139.02
  • Air conditioner: $437.08
  • Automatic cruise control: $68.46
  • Tilt away steering wheel: $45.29
  • White stripe tires bias ply glass-belted tires: $36.86
  • Radio, AM with stereo tape: $221.17
  • Heavy duty cooling: $21.06 (Southern dealers likely would have ordered this)
    • Total: $6,047.32 ($35,375.48 adjusted)

Plus there was the $180 freight cost to ship the car to New Orleans, LA.  My mother can’t remember what they ultimately paid (she said it seemed like a lot at the time), I’d guess that our Ninety-Eight went out the door in the low- to mid-$5,000 range.

So, my parents picked the Oldsmobile, but as Motor Trend noted, all these cars were excellent choices for their intended missions. Which one would you have brought home?