Automotive History: Shockingly Low Volume Production Cars – The Buick Edition

(first posted 6/22/2017)     Welcome to the Buick Edition of our journey into shockingly low volume production cars produced between 1946 and 1995.  As always, car models whose production is less than 1,000 (as reported by the automaker) are eligible for this list.

Buick is a staple of GM, and has long enjoyed terrific sales of its big cars.  Conversely, some of its smaller cars have not enjoyed the same degree of popularity, many examples of which can be found here.  As always this list is extensive but not necessarily comprehensive as it’s always possible one or two was inadvertently overlooked.

1950 shown

1947 to 1953 Roadmaster wagon 

Production:  529 (1947); 350 (1948); 653 (1949); 420 (1950); 679 (1951); 359 (1952); 670 (1953)

So far in this series, the variations among sources has been one of the more pronounced for these Roadmaster wagons.  Regardless of source, production was consistently below the magic threshold of 1,000 units being produced for a model year.

These wagons were some of the last available in the mainstream American car market to still have wooden body panels.  The wood was a distinct factor in price in 1947 as the Roadmaster wagon carried a base price of $3,249 – a figure that was $1,017 more than a Roadmaster four-door sedan.  By 1953, the Roadmaster wagon was the least expensive Roadmaster and is reported as having had a base price of $180 less than the Buick Super wagon – which is somewhat suspect.

As has been seen repeatedly throughout this series, wooden bodied cars never had much popularity at the time they were new.

1951 Roadmaster Riviera hardtop coupe 

Production:  809

This two-door hardtop body was introduced in 1949 and was popular from the outset, available in both the Super and Roadmaster series.

Oddly, Buick reported two different model numbers for the 1951 Roadmaster Riviera hardtops.  The distinction was whether or not the car had hydraulically controlled seats and windows.  In the Roadmaster series, there were 12,900 produced with hydraulic seats and windows; the remaining 809, seen here, were not so equipped.  Making this distinction due to hydraulically controlled seats and windows was seen throughout the Buick line for a number of years.

This has definitely been one of the subtler differences seen in how models are reported.

1952 Special

Production: 137 (sedan) and 600 (convertible)

For 1952, Buick had the base and Deluxe four-door sedan in the bottom tier Special series.  Yes, it was a bit complicated.  With 63,000 buyers popping the extra $46 for the Special Deluxe four-door sedan, the base sedan seems a bit redundant.

Buick was the third largest producer of convertibles in the United States for 1952, despite what sales of the Special convertible would seem to indicate.  Not unlike the base Special, it seems if people were going to spring for a Buick convertible, they went with the midrange Super as the sales difference was over ten-fold with 6,900 Super convertibles finding a happy home.

1954 Skylark

Production:  836

The 1953 Skylark, a very customized Buick and the brainchild of Harley Earl, had been a $5,000 car intended for the rich and powerful.  The 1954 Skylark was much less customized, was over $500 less expensive, and sold less than half as many.

Being a smidgeon more Century than Roadmaster, the Skylark model was dropped at the end of the year.

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1955 Century two-door sedan 

Production:  270

This is a model that was never in any catalog, but Buick happily agreed to build 270 of them, all sold to the California Highway Patrol.

For much of the 1950s, California’s Highway Patrol used nothing but two-door sedans.  While the Buick Super came in a two-door sedan, its smaller displacement engine was not what the Patrol wanted.  So in an effort to easily sell an additional 270 cars, Buick put the two-door sedan body on the frame commonly used between the Super and Century, and installed the larger engine from the Century along with fenders having four ventiports, which denoted the Century line.

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Perhaps one or two didn’t sell to the Highway Patrol as Broderick Crawford used at least one in his series Highway Patrol.

Super shown

1956 Century four-door sedan; 1957 and 1958 Century two-door sedan

Production:  1 (1956); 2 each for 1957 and 1958

If it weren’t for the 1955 Century just covered, there would have been temptation to eliminate these from the list.  However, as Buick demonstrated a willingness to build special cars, these get the nod.

Details on these are nonexistent.  All that can be found in the Encyclopedia of American Cars (copyright 1996) is the price for each of these is labeled as “exp”.  Does this mean experimental, export, or something different?  Buick provided a specific model number for each of these.

1958 Limited convertible

Production:  839

The Limited was a new trim for 1958, slotted above the Roadmaster.  Part of the reason for the low sales is evident by the love-it-or-hate-it decor of the car, with the convertible simply not being a tremendous seller.

Most 1958 Buick convertibles were in the Special and Century series.

1961 Special Standard eight-passenger wagon

Production:  798

The Special was not a poor seller as there were a few more Specials sold than there were the mid-range full-size Invicta and top-dog Electra.

As has periodically been the case, this is a matter of how Buick broke out their models.  There was a six-passenger wagon in both base Standard and the upper Deluxe series for 1961, selling 6,000 and 12,000 copies, respectively.  This was the only eight passenger wagon and it happened to come in the lower trim only; this is likely a matter of it being a bit more of a specialty item.

1966 Special Deluxe wagon

Production:  824

As per Buick reporting, there were four series of Special for 1966; the V6 base Special, the V8 base Special, the V6 Special Deluxe, and the V8 Special Deluxe.

The Special Deluxe wagon seen here is the V6 powered version.  To prove yet again that cylinders sell, the Special Deluxe V8 wagon sold 7,592 copies.

Skylark GS coupe shown

1966 Skylark convertible

Production:  608

This is the V6 powered Skylark convertible; if built with a V8 under the hood, the difference in production was exactly ten-fold.

1967 Skylark V6 coupe

Production:  894

As we’ve been seeing, it all boils down to the engine as the V8 version was much more popular.

Incidentally, the Buick Special wagon sold less than our magical threshold of 1,000 at 908 units.  Once again, this is the V6 model.

1971 and 1972 GS convertible

Production:  902 and 852, respectively

The waning popularity of convertibles, likely combined with rising insurance premiums, is the logical culprit for these.

Based on the Skylark, the GS for 1971 came with either a 350 cubic inch (5.7 liter) or 455 cubic inch (7.4 liter) V8 whereas the Skylarks had either a 350 or a straight-six.  Convertible sales for the Skylark Custom, seen above showing the variety of body styles available in 1972, were just under 4,000 as compared to nearly 30,000 two-door hardtops.

Convertibles were dying in the market place and 1972 was the last time one could get a midsize Buick convertible.

1976 LeSabre V6

Production:  2,300 to 4,300 depending upon body style

It’s hard to talk rare Buicks without this one coming up, but the 1976 LeSabre with the 3.8 liter V6 does not qualify for the 1,000 unit rule.  In all, about 10,000 were produced.  Regardless, one of these hapless, mechanically overwhelmed creatures would make a delightful CC find.

1979 Skylark hatchback

Production:  608

Similar to the Pontiac Phoenix and Oldsmobile Omega, the hatchback X-body was part of an abbreviated model year and had been around since 1973.

For contrast, it’s shown with the most popular Skylark that year, the four-door sedan.

1984 Skylark T-Type

Production:  923

These were available in 1983 and 1984 only.  The initial year saw over 2,500 being built, but that dropped to 923 the next year.  The GM X-bodies were experiencing severe sales erosion and 1985 was the last year for the X-body Skylark.

With the T-Type being a performance oriented version of a car many found to be toxic, and both Olds and Pontiac had variations of this same theme, it doesn’t take long to figure out this wasn’t going to be a home run for GM.

1986 shown

1987 Skyhawk Limited wagon

Production:  498

At $9,841, this was the second most expensive J-body sold by GM in 1987.  The most expensive was the incomparable Cadillac Cimarron.

Add to this a person could only get a four-cylinder in their Buick J-body.  There was the 165 horsepower turbo-four available for the Skyhawk (and presumably for the wagons).  However, if one was seeking more reliable and less touchy power, such as that found in a V6, that meant a Chevrolet Cavalier wagon was the answer.  And, at $9,300 for a top of the line Cavalier RS wagon with a 2.8 liter V6, there was quite the value proposition to overcome simply for a Buick nameplate.

1987 Regal GNX

Production:  547

The English language does not contain enough adjectives to fully describe the awesomeness that is the 1987 Regal GNX.

Knowing the rear-drive Regal was going away at the end of the 1987 model year, Buick wanted to have one last hoorah.  The turbocharged 3.8 liter V6 was enhanced to 300 horsepower with torque at 420 ft-lbs at 2,400 rpm.  To continue keeping things interesting, Buick intentionally limited output to around 500 units; they finally ceased at 547.

The GNX was simply an enhancement of the Regal Grand National that had been around for a few years and embarrassing Corvettes every step of the way.  At the time, Road & Track magazine clocked a GNX running to 60 mph in under 6 seconds with a quarter-mile speed of 105 mph.  Not too shabby for a car that began life as a downsized A-body in 1978.

The GNX is arguably the ultimate Buick of all time.

1988 Electra shown

1990 Electra T-Type

Production:  478

When Buick downsized the Electra for 1985, they also introduced the Electra T-Type.

Featuring a somewhat firmer suspension and noticeably less chrome, the T-Type was a more distinguished looking Electra.  Sales were modest, peaking at 5,800 for 1986, but soon dwindled to 478 by 1990.  It’s somewhat of a shame, as this was likely a much more balanced and better driving Electra than the standard issue ones.

1991 Skylark LE four-door sedan, Skylark GS coupe

Production:  928 and 693, respectively

Maybe this section could be entitled “A Tale of Two Skylarks”, but this picture likely explains things better.  The car on top, the LE and touted as “the ultimate in Skylark sophistication and comfort” is the one that sold 928 copies.  The lower car, the base four-door sedan that shares the same body shell, sold 58 times as many.  So much for being the ultimate unless barf-tastic vinyl roofs are your groove thing.

Yes, GM had an aged audience with these cars, but they weren’t a stupid bunch; $3,100 for little more than wire hubcaps and that nasty vinyl roof was a hard sell.

Which this is totally unlike the Skylark coupes as neither of these sold well.  The GS coupe on top saw 693 copies but the white one didn’t set the world on fire, selling only 1,700 copies.  Apart from the wheels, the red one isn’t an unattractive car.

1991 LeSabre coupe

Production:  695 base, 486 Limited

This is strictly a matter of doors.  The LeSabre sedan in both Custom and Limited trim (Custom seen above) sold a combined 90,000 units.  The two series of two-door sold around 1,100 combined.  The two-door LeSabres, quite like the other large two-doors in the GM stable, had seen dwindling sales for a number of years.  1991 was the swan song for them.

1992 and 1993 Century Custom coupe

Production:  627 and 566, respectively

Once again, it’s a door thing.  Two-door cars were declining in popularity and the Century felt those market forces.  The two-door Century was euthanized after 1993.

The wagon is included to emphasize the point; wagons weren’t exactly popular during this period, either, but the Century wagon always handily outsold the coupe

1993 Skylark Limited coupe

Production:  894

This is pretty much a repeat of 1991; doors weren’t selling and of the three Skylark coupes available, none sold over 5,700 copies regardless of trim or price.

1994 Skylark Gran Sport

Production:  857 sedan; 626 coupe

While likely a good car, when the base price has a $5,000 premium over a base Skylark, with that base price equaling or exceeding that of a Regal, there are problems.  Combined with clunky styling, the paltry production should not be a huge surprise.

Stay tuned there’s more to come in this series.  However, let’s look back at what we have covered so far:

From GM:

Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile

From Ford:

Ford, Mercury

From Chrysler:

Plymouth, Dodge