COAL: 1978 Buick LeSabre Custom…The One I Should Have Kept

Mine was the same, except I had rallye wheels

With the Jetta gone from memory, I spent the summer riding around on my Yamaha XJ750RL, which was an excellent sport-tour bike. However, I was still in the car business, so we were always looking around for cars to convert into taxis. This was never very hard at this time (circa 1988) since I was in Victoria, British Columbia, home of the Newlywed and Nearly Dead. Victoria is at the end of Vancouver Island, so cars tend to get very little driving. The climate is very mild and the number of salt on road days was almost none per year. Thus, there was a really big supply of great sleds around, most notably B body GM stuff.

People who have seen my posts may think I beat on poor GM too much, but I really only beat them where they deserve it (see my earlier love song to the B-Body here). The B body was, in my opinion, emblematic of what GM really did best: big, front engine, V-8, rear wheel drive cars with three speed automatics. They were, for the most part, very durable cars, especially in the upmarket iterations like Oldsmobile and Buick. People are very funny when it comes to gasoline prices. At this time, gas in Victoria ran at something like $0.45 a litre and people were ditching their sleds all over the place for more economical stuff, like those fine vehicles such as the Tempo and Celebrity. The old sleds were heads and above better cars, drove well, had nice power and loads of room. If you had one and it was paid for, you’d be a fool to sell it.

When a car is paid for and runs well, there is absolutely no economic argument for paying for a new car to “save on gas.” Unless you are driving something outrageously heavy on fuel, you’ll never get back what you put into a new car. Anyway, it was absurd to trade off a nice B body that got 15 mpg for a Celebrity at 22 mpg, especially when gas was $0.45 a litre. You’d never make it back, your Celebrity would blow up and GM would lose a customer. It is a much repeated story but good for anyone looking for good cabs on the cheap. A clean Impala from about 1978 could be had for $1000 in 1985 and run three years as a cab, easy. They were so cheap it wasn’t worth doing much to them so when an engine went, we simply sold the car for scrap.

On morning at Mom and Dad’s place, while drinking copious amounts of coffee and contributing to the blue haze of cigarette smoke, I spied an ad for a 1978 Buick LeSabre Custom. The ad said one owner, no accidents and 72,000 km. The price was $4500 which was top dollar; however my experience in buying used cars is go for the best one you can find and pay top dollar if it is worth it. I called the number and made an appointment to see the car.

I arrived in a nice neighbourhood to meet a very nice man in his early 80s. He was sharp, witty and very well dressed. Unfortunately he had been diagnosed with advanced glaucoma and could no longer drive. He then showed me the car: it was flawless, and I mean absolutely perfect. It had every factory option except sunroof, which he correctly said were prone to leaks in GM cars. It even had rallye wheels. The interior was white vinyl, with 60/40 seats. It had the big GM AM/FM cassette that never broke no matter how old they were. The engine was a Buick 350 and the transmission was a Turbo 350. It even had the original window sticker, showing a 3.08 axle and heavy duty suspension. The owner was proud of his factory order, and justifiably so.

All the specs, mine was 350/3.08 rear end

Well, this gentleman may have been elderly but he was not about to let me slash the price. I got him down to $4200 and that was as far as he would go. This was not cheap for a ten year old car but I reasoned that it was worth it because of the condition. The deal was done and I took the car to the shop and put it up in the air. The car was perfect, not even a bad ball joint. The brakes were all new and the body impeccable; it shone like the stars, it was so well waxed by its first owner. Even better was how it drove; it was like new.

This is a Turbo, but mine had the red dash

This was the era of torque; smooth, velveteen torque, just a rush of pull right off the line. No electronics to get in the way, no shuddering lock-up torque converter, just a big V-8 and tons ‘o torque. The power train was really excellent; the Buick motor didn’t have the top end of a nice, Canadian spec Chevy 350 but the around town torque was way better. It was really the end of an era; these cars had no electronics and by this time GM had the emission control thing quite under control. The 350 was whisper quiet and pulled like a train off of idle. In the city I doubt it would ever go over 1000 rpm. Around town they were good for about 15 miles per Imperial gallon and driven reasonably they could do 23 on the highway. Even today this is not all that bad for a car of this size. I had planned to turn it into a taxi but I decided to keep it and drive it for a while.

Really wasn’t a Buick after they stopped making this motor

The first thing we did was convert it to LPG. We did it ourselves, and we did loads of them. The stock tank was replaced by three cylinders in tandem, with a usable capacity of 110 L. We re-curved the distributor and cut out the catcon and the car ran even better, and used LPG that cost $0.235 a litre. Now I had a big car that cost peanuts to run. Actually, it cost nothing to run because we had our own LPG filling station, to which I would sneak up at night and fill ‘er up!

The car then went on a road trip to eastern Canada, where we used a guide book to find the LPG stations on the way. Top end was typical B body; it really wasn’t comfortable above 120 km/h but it would hold that on cruise control up the steepest grades in British Columbia, such was the prodigious torque of that Buick V-8. I remember going through Alberta at like 35’C (95 degrees Fahrenheit for you non-metric folks) with the air ice cold, listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall on what was the best car stereo I had experienced up to that time (it would still be considered quite good today). We drove all the way to the family ancestral village of Venosta, Quebec on that trip, almost 5,000 km each way, and that Buick never missed a beat.

The further east we went, the more people raved about it. Clean, ten year old cars, didn’t exist in the Manitoba of 1988. The really great part was the huge trunk easily swallowed all of our camping gear. On that trip, more than 10,000 km, the car averaged 11 litres per 100 km, not bad considering it was LPG, I was driving at 120 km/h (or a little more) and had the a/c blasting the whole time. No overdrive, either.

In my opinion, LPG is better than gasoline

When we got back to Victoria, fall had fallen so I needed a car for winter so I kept the Buick. Everybody who rode in it just raved about the experience. The dash, for example, was just so well finished and the big clock in front of the passenger was just so cool. The Buick was supremely comfortable and handled surprisingly well for such a large car. The HD suspension was really good and the car was so sure footed and pleasant to drive. Since it was such a beautiful car, I had to start talking myself out of it. Even today it would be an excellent driver, especially on LPG, which locally costs less than half of gasoline even now. With absolutely zippola for electronics, chokes, fast idles or even a catcon, these things were about as reliable as bricks and would last as long as Methuselah. A million km was easy on such a car on LPG and never once did I see a bottom end failure on a B body on LPG.

Lots of two doors left, not many four doors.

You see, this is my perennial problem; I can’t stand automotive success. The Buick would have lasted me ten years easily, since in Victoria you really don’t drive a lot, maybe 10,000 km a year. The Buick was the Ultimate Sled in many ways and actually cost less on fuel than my Jetta. Spring came and, well, it was motorcycle time again, so I went looking and found a nice rider for summer, as I had sold the XJ750RL at the end of the previous season to avoid tires and service on it. Lo and behold, I found a mint Seca 650 with, get this, only 6,000 km on it. Of course I had to have it; a taxi needed to be retired and the Buick went off to the paint shop. I didn’t bat an eye at the time, correctly reasoning that there were plenty of sleds around for the next winter.

Although it doesn’t look like much, a great bike

I was partly correct on that one, except I never found a sled as a good as the Buick ever again. The 1977-1979 B bodies were by far the best examples they ever made, but by 1988 there weren’t that many around. Many went to demo derbies, popular at the time, and mostly we found 1980 and on models. By 1993 or so the writing was definitely on the wall for B bodies, we simply couldn’t find really good ones anymore. They were good cars in the Oldsmobile version but the Buick V-8 was gone, taking all the reason away for having a LeSabre. Thus, the Buick was the one what got away. I still kick myself for giving it up, but that is the folly of youth. I hope I learned something from that one, but I really have not, since I still to this day talk myself out of excellent cars.