Car Show Classic: 1961 Buick Electra – How Would You Like Your Four Door Hardtop, Sir? With Four Windows Or With Six?

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As we continue our slo-mo four door hardtop jag, it is time to move from some of the early versions to this body style’s heyday.  By 1961 the four door hardtop was here to stay.  And at Buick, it was available to every Buick buyer – unless that Buick buyer cheaped out and bought a compact Special, but that is another topic for another day.  But for the Buick buyer looking at the high end Electra, he got the choice of two, count ’em, TWO four door hardtops.

General Motors was indeed at the peak of its size and influence in 1961.  Aside from all the work GM was doing to bring out four new compacts in 1960-61,  its full sized line was all-new as well.  Has any auto maker offered two separate and distinct four door hardtops in a given model line since the General Motors C body of 1961-64?

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Everyone of a certain age remembers the “six window” four door hardtops on Buick Electra, Olds 98 and on Cadillac for 1961, a style that would stick around for all three of those Divisions through 1964.  I know that those are the ones that pop into my brain’s illustrator when these cars come to mind.

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Frankly, I had forgotten about the version exemplified by this car, an update of the “flying wing” roof so well known from the 1959-60 GM cars.  The flying wing had been the four door hardtop body that had been shared by all five Divisions for that two-year styling cycle.  For eons, General Motors had been set up so that its five car Divisions shared three unique body structures.  The A body had traditionally been used by Chevrolet and Pontiac.  The B body was for standard Oldsmobile and Buick, and the C body was for Cadillac, and the top-end Olds Ninety-Eight and Buick Roadmaster models.  This hierarchy was abandoned during the crash program to offer a new 1959 line.  The lack of time from concept to showroom necessitated all five Divisions to use the same basic body structure.  Cadillac did get a six window version of its hardtop sedan, which was shared with the Sixty Special and even with the Buick Electra 225.

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But 1961 would see at least a partial return to normalcy, with a new B body (that had Chevrolet and Pontiac sharing structures with the regular Olds and Buick).  The new C body occupied its traditional spot in the lineup, serving only the top Olds and Buick models along with Cadillac.  And for the first time ever, all three of them would have two separate and distinct four door hardtop bodies.

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And yes, I am ignoring Cadillac’s Fleetwood Sixty Special which featured a third version that was not shared with any other model.

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I have always found the 1961 Buick to be a fascinating car, and not just because of its roof styling.  Paul Niedermeyer has gone into some depth discussing the way this car marked the transition between the Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell eras of General Motors styling.  The ’61 gives us the final shadows of Earl’s confident flamboyance before Mitchell’s curvaceous elegance took us into the 1970s.  Unlike, say, the 1967 Camaro, which gives us a pleasing shape to look at but without many eye-catching details, this car is almost nothing but eye-catching details.  The pointed front fenders, the deep cove in the rear and the uniquely-shaped vent windows give this car a lot of things to look at.  Although a big improvement from the 1958 Buick, this is no ’61 Continental.  Let’s call this clean and restrained styling done the Harley Earl way.  With glass.  Lots and lots of glass.

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It is not as though the roof concept for this car was an unusual one for its time.  In a futile search for developmental drawings or models of the ’61 Buick, I came across a couple of proposals from the competition from right around this same period.  The Ford Quicksilver (top, which was predictive of the 1960 Ford) and a color drawing by Chrysler’s John Samsen for a possible 1961 DeSoto show that designers of the late 1950s were intrigued by a relatively upright C pillar that was thin with a slight taper, coupled with a deeply curved rear window.  This sort of roof (even without GM’s flying wing feature) would  prove to be a fad with a very short shelf life.

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The jet-age roofline of the 1961 Electra 4 door hardtop would disappear after this single year.  Was there a reason that buyers chose the six window version (which Buick called the Riviera Sedan in 1961) by a nearly two-to-one margin over this one, which was simply called the “four door hardtop”?  This model was featured on the cover of the ’61 Buick brochure, but then got virtually no publicity from then on.

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Clockwise from top left: LeSabre 4 door sedan, Electra 4 door sedan, Electra 4 door hardtop, Electra 225 Riviera sedan.

 

And the completely different LeSabre 4 door hardtop.

And the completely different LeSabre 4 door hardtop.

 

I find it odd that the flying wing four door hardtop roof (found only on the Electra) looks so much like the sedan roof of the cheaper LeSabre – even though the LeSabre’s four door hardtop was different altogether.  But strangely, the Electra sedan mimicked the roofline of the more expensive Electra 225 Riviera hardtop.  Then as now, if you are going to spend the money for a high end car, you might as well be sure that your friends and relatives notice.  An Electra that looked like a LeSabre (or a Corvair, for that matter) and a LeSabre that looked like an Electra made for one of the more nonsensical body style alignments in the General’s history.  But I suppose that this is the kind of thing that happens during that period where the arc of the outgoing styling chief intersects with the arc of his incoming successor.  Transition can be a messy thing.

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Or perhaps Buick’s sales people and the buying public all knew that modern styles favored the elegant blind-quarter roof treatment of the 1961 Continental and Thunderbird.  Whatever might be said of this car’s roof styling (and my own opinion is that it is not executed as well as the 1959-60 version), we must admit that styling trends were leaving it behind, in one of the few times before the 1980s that General Motors was the dictatee rather than the dictator of a new styling trend.

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The five years from 1958 to 1963 showed an uncharacteristic amount of flux in Buick’s model names.    1959 was the year that Buick dropped well known names that went back to the 1930s in favor of LeSabre, Invicta and Electra.  And in case the Electra was not enough for you, there was the Electra 225, which carried an additional five inches in length (all aft of the passenger compartment).  By 1961, that distinction was gone, and the only difference between an Electra and an Electra 225 was a more luxurious interior and some additional brightwork outside, most notably on the lower rear quarters.  And, of course, a completely different style for the four door hardtop.

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By 1962 the regular Electra was history, leaving the Electra 225 as the sole C body Buick.  Also, the top Buick would remain a car with two distinct four door hardtops.  However, the four window style that replaced this ’61’s flying wing would be completely new.  Bill Mitchell’s clean and modern roofline, the kind of roof that every modern luxury car should have, effectively wiped the last trace of the 1950s out of the biggest Buick.  The buying public must have liked the new look, because the new four window version sold slightly ahead of the six window style for 1962, before taking a roughly two-to-one sales lead in 1963-64.

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Beyond this car’s unique body, there were other interesting things going on at Buick in 1961, not least of which was the absence of the torque tube drive, which had been integral to Buick drivetrains since the days when Walter Chrysler was running the place.  For those curious, he left in 1919.  Also gone was the traditional frame, replaced by the X Frame that had been a mainstay at Chevrolet and Cadillac since the late 1950s.  Interestingly, Buick was the only one of the BOP Divisions to use the X frame in 1961-64, choosing to adopt it just as Pontiac went back to a more traditional design with full side rails.

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Buick also continued its interesting practice of naming its “nailhead” V8 engines for their rated torque output rather than their displacement.  Both Electra and Electra 225 boasted Buick’s top powerplant – the “Wildcat 445”.  This engine was a 401 cubic inch (6.6 L) four barrel carbureted V8 that converted (lots of) premium fuel into 325 horsepower and – you guessed it – 445 foot pounds of torque.  And of course, it would not be a Buick without some version of the famous Dynaflow transmission.  Called just “Turbine Drive”, this was the final version of the Dynaflow concept, which went back to the late 1940s as Buick’s first fully automatic transmission.  “Turbine Drive” must have seemed quite ordinary after being a “Twin Turbine” in 1959 and replaced by the Super Turbine 400 in 1964.  I suppose this was fitting for a car that kept one foot firmly in the 1950s while the other was stepping into the ’60s.

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This particular car has been displayed several time at a local show I have visited.  There has been something about it that has caused me to take pictures of it more than once.  I could tell that this Desert Fawn (what kind of fawn lives in the desert?) and Arctic White example was beautifully original, which makes it my favorite flavor of old car.  This Electra’s wonderful condition alone makes it worthy of attention.  What I did not know at the time was that this was one of 8,978 Electra flying wing four door hardtops built that year.  In fact, when remembering these pictures in the back of my mind, I had recalled this car as one of the vastly more common Electra 225s.  I was all ready to write about these being the only four door hardtop done in a six window style instead of the ubiquitous four window style, until a fresh look at the pictures required me to completely change the focus of the piece.

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What remains is that from 1961 through 1964, the person in the market for one of the big C body cars from General Motors got the choice of two separate and distinct four door hardtops.  But within that short era, the 1961 model stands alone for its attempt to bring the glassy exuberance of 1959’s styling language into the era known for John F. Kennedy and the Lincoln Continental.  The attempt clearly failed, and that this style was replaced so quickly probably tells us more about the car’s parentage than anything else.  Even on his way out the door, Harley Earl could still make things interesting.

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Further Reading:

1961 Buick LeSabre Two Door Hardtop (Paul Niedermeyer)

1961 Buick LeSabre Four Door Sedan (Richard Bennett)

1956 Buick Century Riviera Sedan (Paul Niedermeyer)

1956 Oldsmobile Super 88 Holiday Sedan (J P Cavanaugh)

1956 Ford Fairlane Victoria Sedan (J P Cavanaugh)

General Motors X Frames (Paul Niedermeyer)