CC Capsule: 1981 Buick LeSabre Coupe–Overdressed for the Occasion


I am here to decry the formalization of American automobile styling that began sometime in the 1970s and had pervaded the lines of all US manufacturers by the early 1980s. Even the lowliest Chevrolet roofline came to stand bolt-upright and was often shrouded in padded vinyl. It’s not that it was a bad look: it’s just that this look all but did away with the sportier, less-formal look that so many American cars wore so well. This 1981 LeSabre is a good example of the formal look.

GM brought the squared-off coupe roofline to the entire B-body lineup in 1980. I think the big Buick wore it better than its sisters, especially the Olds.


Buick had the problem of protecting its C-body Electra as the most formal of Buicks. Electras wore fine-toothed, bolt-upright sparkly chrome grilles. Since too much formalization of the LeSabre wouldn’t do, its grille was kept a little downmarket.


The LeSabre’s tail lights remained pretty plebeian, too.


Buick’s tarting up of its bread-and-butter big car was confined entirely to the roof, with a padded vinyl landau top, a vertical backlight, and nearly rectangular side windows. This one styling trick neatly transformed the car’s look.


Which is a shame, because the 1977-79 angular C-pillar was so much more attractive and versatile. It looked good in any guise, whether dressed casually, formally or sportily.

Yes, sportily: These LeSabres could be powerful and good-handling cars befitting a sporty look. A college buddy of mine had a ’78 LeSabre coupe with the big, short-lived Olds 403 engine. Our long-haired, heavy-metal phase was well underway in 1987 when he got us tickets to a triple headbanging bill up in Chicago. (Armored Saint, Grim Reaper, and power-metal pioneers Helloween, in case you’re curious.) The show was supposed to be at the Aragon Theater, but when we got there we learned that the show had been moved to a bar in some other part of town. I thought we were sunk, but my friend was undaunted. Following some sketchy directions, he threaded his leviathan automobile, at extralegal speeds, through narrow streets in seedy parts of town. The car felt solid and planted at all times. We made it to the show just in time; it rocked.

But let’s be real. A serious metalmobile in those days would have been something like a ’71 Satellite Sebring coupe with glasspacks–or, for the wealthier headbanger, maybe a new 5.0 Mustang. We were really risking our street cred driving a Buick, and we got away with it because of that less formal roofline. If we had rolled up in a square, padded-roof Buick, no matter how fast it went or how well it handled, we would have been called dorks. And that just wouldn’t do for a couple of 20-year-old men working hard on advanced hearing damage.

I’m sure the mature Americans who snapped up these new formal-roofed Buicks felt like they were motoring in high style. But at some point, the youth of America either inherited these cars or bought them as cheap used transportation. They wanted youthful-looking cars. American car manufacturers let them down big time.