Curbside Classic: 1986 Buick LeSabre Custom – Heavenly Hash

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It’s no secret that the 1977 GM B-body is a CC favorite, and that we’ve had a lot of fun trashing most results of the second round of GM downsizing.  There are nevertheless some devoted fans of the full-size front-wheel drive H and C bodies here, myself included.  This blue 1986 LeSabre Custom has seen better days, but it’s an example of the H-platform in its earliest form, and as they’re getting thin on the ground, now is a good opportunity to share why I find these cars so respectable.
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To start with, they embody all of the best American car stereotypes my father taught me: excellent isolation from noise and harshness; industrial strength climate control; and jet-smooth acceleration from a silky automatic and ample torque.  They were a better expression of these virtues, if I may say so, than the B-bodies which preceded them, even if their use of small-car architecture would suggest otherwise.  In fact, they’re one of the most notable uses of newer technology to replicate a traditional experience that I can think of.  The Volvo 850 also comes to mind, as it also built its forebears’ virtues into a modern package, but that car behaved differently enough that its a less instructive example.

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And what distinguishes the H-bodies from their downsized GM brethren is that they didn’t feel like a compromise.  Admittedly, few would use these to tow heavy trailers, and for police, taxi and station wagon duty, the B-body remained king, but in daily use as passenger cars, they were quiet and unflustered like a good domestic sedan.  It’s no wonder they sold well to private customers.

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Without as much weight as their predecessors or a separate frame, tuning these cars for a Dream Whip ride required somewhat of an uncompromising approach.  This may not have been appropriate for a Toronado, but in cars like the Electra or LeSabre, there was little arguing with the results.  Even though fuel-prices were getting lower by 1986, not everyone wanted a big, full-frame rear-drive sedan.  The near-immediate mainstream success of the Ford Taurus was enough proof of that, but for those who wanted the sort of tranquil experience they’d find in a Crown Vic in a more sensible package, the H bodies delivered in a way the midsize Ford and large K-based Chryslers never could.  These were cars in which you could easily write a letter or apply makeup while in motion.

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As the C and the H bodies shared so much engineering with the E-body (Riviera/Toronado/Eldorado) and K-body (Seville), some comparison is in order.  For those more expensive nameplates which theoretically competed against German sports sedans, the shrunken American traditionalist theme obviously wasn’t the best approach.  But no one was going to compare the LeSabre against the likes of the Mercedes E-Class (as with the Seville), so even though the Olds and Buick sedans were somewhat one-dimensional; the task of shrinking them onto a large-front drive platform was certainly easier and there was less need to make them jacks of all trades.

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There’s been a lot of carping about GM styling from this era and this car follows most of the unloved themes seen in the E, K and N bodies.  If that isn’t your cup of tea, I won’t be able to change your mind.  It seems apparent enough that the goal was to bring the outgoing B-bodies into the late ’80s and by that measure, the stylists did good work, successfully cloaking the old shape in contemporary details.  The hidden A-pillar and clamshell hood were especially modern looking, and the belt-line, pleasingly low.  It fairly screams “passengers and cargo,” but cleverly avoids looking tall.

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The upright roofline and large rear wheel openings which characterize period GM styling are evident here; I suppose it doesn’t give the most modern or dynamic impression, but producing any car with the sort of proportions seen on the likes of the Taurus wasn’t part of the plan when management was more worried about scaring existing audiences away.  Again, shrinking the B-body and giving it modern touches was the goal, and it’s most apparent here, where the narrow pillars and very slender door frames bring the previous car’s shape in line with contemporary expectations.  I think it’s well done, but it’s obviously not meant to be sporty.  If there’s anything evident to find fault with from this angle, it’s not the styling, it’s the fit and finish.  Note the gigantic gap between the trailing edge of the side molding on the rear door and the section in front of the wheel arch.  Also apparent is the failure of the trim at the bottom of the vinyl top to meet the border of window frame.  Sloppy.

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That lax approach to fit and finish never went away and can be seen throughout the car’s later versions, but at least reliability was brought to a very high level by the end of the ’80s.  A lot of people eventually came to swear by the H-body LeSabre, but when it was introduced, the outlook was not good.  Early versions of GM’s excellent 440 T4 automatics weren’t the most long-lived, but they improved with the revised, renamed 4T60.  And when it comes to large front-drive sedans, automatic transmissions generally aren’t the most bulletproof (the three-speed Torqueflite and most Aisin-Warner units are exceptions).

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It’s therefore surprising to see one of these very early models, although it’s resisted rust reasonably well.  Interior trim and body hardware was often not securely fastened, and it was not unheard of for parts to break off in one’s hand.  The trunk lock and left-rear taillight assembly are in the process of divorcing themselves from this car, but as it’s happened over the course of twenty-eight years, this may be due to any number of factors.

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This battered, base-level Custom may not be clean, but I don’t think it’s been driven any extraordinary distance, because I’d expect more tears in the upholstery if that were the case.  A good friend recently managed to find a pristine 1995 LeSabre with something like 40,000 miles on the clock and it took only a few months of regular before the upholstery began tearing.  The dashboard in that car would visibly shake over bumps which couldn’t be felt by passengers, so the junky quality of the H bodies’ trim never fully improved.  Note the missing knob from the gear selector in the featured car; that was a GM speciality in those days.  As one of the parts a driver touches most frequently, that undoubtedly gave some owners a very bad feeling, but as the cars improved over the years, the worst expectations associated with such omens didn’t always materialize.

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It’s a good thing GM managed to get to the point that the LeSabre could be called reliable, because in other respects, they were a high point during some very dark years.  Despite moving to the famously rigid G-body in their final generations, the full-size sedans which appeared on the H-body were much more plush and more popular.  It just goes to show that GM understood that plenty of people needed a velour-lined isolation chamber.  If only that understanding weren’t applied to other market segments, resulting in so many deadly sins, these cars might be more widely respected today.

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Related reading:

1987 Olds Delta 88 Royale: “H” is for Harmony & 1985 Buick Electra Park Avenue: Best-Dressed C-Body Of The Year