Curbside Classic: 1989 Buick Electra Limited: Limited’s the Right Word

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Recently, I’ve been getting into the habit of visiting commuter rail parking lots in search of Curbside Classics. They’re a great place to take lots of pictures without being bothered by the long stares and questions I often get from others when I’m photographing a car. This is the very station where I catch the train into Boston, so I’m quite familiar with the car clientele there. I’d swung in intending to photograph another CC when I spotted this Buick Electra, one I’d never seen previously.

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The final-generation Electra has already been extensively covered here. Found by Tom Klockau, that one was a first-model-year 1985. The one you see here is a 1989 model, as verified by the 10th digit (K) of its VIN number. Its weathered condition is totally understandable for a 24-year old car–even one whose odometer, surprisingly, showed only 33,584 miles.

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Although no drastic changes occurred over the four years separating the two Electras, I still find it interesting to compare the minor visual differences between them. Of course, I should also note that the ’85 is a top-of-the-line Electra Park Avenue, while this ’89 is the slightly less plush Electra Limited. Contrary to normal assumptions, the Limited was actually the least expensive 1989 Electra one could purchase, and the original buyer of this one was one of only 5,814 people who opted for the cheapest Electra model.

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Externally, Park Avenues were differentiated from regular Electras by their wide chrome lower-body moldings and electroluminescent opera lights. The 1989-1990 Park Avenue Ultra was made even more exclusive with two-tone paint schemes and aluminum wheels.

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Base Electra Limiteds still came with plenty of exterior chrome, wire wheels and a stand-up hood ornament, all designed to appeal to the hearts of even the truest of Broughamantics. This one even has the available padded vinyl roof, making it a true Brougham. As noted, in 1987, Electras received composite headlights in place of the outdated quad sealed-beam units. I’ve always liked the clear-lensed turn signals, which bring a little Euro to the “Great American Road”.

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On the inside, Electras pampered their six occupants with soft, pillowy velour seats, just as one would expect.  Park Avenues offered a fancier seat design, as well as available leather. Probably the biggest visual difference between the ’85 and ’89 involves the simulated wood trim used throughout the cabin. The 1985-86 Electras used a lighter, poplar-looking plasti-wood, while later models used the darker–and frankly, more Chevy-looking–wood trim seen here. In 1989, the front seat belt mounts were moved to the doors and rear outboard shoulder belts were added.

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Possessing the right formula, these Electras sold quite well. Although sales of over 140,000 first-year units naturally gave way to smaller numbers year after year, the Electra still managed to sell over 80,000 units annually until the final 1990 model year, when less than 50,000 found homes.

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Sales performance was on par with its largely identical platform mate, the Olds Ninety-Eight, as well as a completely unrelated C-body, the Chrysler New Yorker. While the Cadillac DeVille historically sold in high numbers, I was rather surprised to learn that even the much maligned ’85-’88 FWD DeVilles sold in much higher numbers than the cheaper Electra.

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While still classically attractive, the Electra was looking tired by 1990. Aero was in and boxy was out. Buick’s replacement for it would borrow much of its design from the stunning 1989 Essence concept car, and its second- biggest change would be a different name. After 31 years, Buick decided to ditch the Electra nameplate in favor of “Park Avenue”. As already evidenced, Park Avenue wasn’t a totally new name to Buick, having been around as an Electra trim package, and later a trim level, since as far back as 1975.

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And, to be fair, by 1987 nearly all Electras sold were Park Avenues. In contrast to sales of 5,814 Electra Limiteds in 1989, there were 71,786 sales of Park Avenues and 4,815 T-Types. In any case, I personally prefer the Electra name, and I think it would have suited the more electrifying 1991 Park Avenue just fine. I also think it would make a better Buick flagship name today. I know Buick is trying to draw younger buyers, but “Lacrosse”? Really? Unless the majority of Buick buyers these days are Lax Bros and I’m unaware of it. But I digress.

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Apparently Buick buyers didn’t mind the name change, as sales of the 1991 Park Avenue shot up a full 220% over the 1990 Electra. It truly was an example of how important styling is when it comes to a car’s success. Sales of the closely related (yet far less tasteful) ‘91 Ninety-Eight actually declined versus the six-years-old design 1990 model.

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It’s also no secret that by the late eighties, Buick had become the retirees’ special. Unlike Oldsmobile, Buick played up to this fact in its advertising and with products increasingly aimed at that consumer group. Nothing about sportiness, speed or being fun-to-drive… no, no, no, Comfort, quality, and value were the buzzwords that drew in the buyers.

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While Buick might be kicking itself for cars like the Electra today, they were the kind of cars that kept cash rolling in, probably saving Buick from the fate that befell Oldsmobile. Give the people what they want, and they will come.