(first posted 9/30/2015) Last Sunday, we looked at some rare and forgotten models from Kenosha, Wisconsin. With their perennial underdog status, American Motors was bound to have a treasure trove of unique cars in their history. Let’s move northeast this week and take a look at the cars from Flint, Michigan. Buick has always been a fairly high-volume brand from one of the world’s largest corporations. During the 1970s and 1980s, their success was built on the backs of cars like the conservative Century and level-headed LeSabre. Surely there’s nothing quirky or rare from those decades, right? Wrong. Presented for your entertainment are 10 short-lived Buicks – 5 today, 5 more on Sunday – you may have forgotten about or never even knew existed.
LeSabre Palm Beach
Production years: 1979
Total production: 4001
The downsized Buicks of 1977 were attractive cars, featuring crisp lines, a rather imposing front-end design and a somewhat rakish roofline, at least compared to the heavily-revised 1980 models that would follow. Still, these were cars that looked best perhaps in an elegant burgundy or a rich brown. But how about two-tone white and “Yellow Beige”?
“Yellow Beige” was certainly a polite way of saying “Pastel Yellow”, and the Palm Beach LeSabre was the only Buick application of a color that would have seemed far more at home on a ’57 Buick than on this limited edition based on the LeSabre Limited coupe (a Limited Edition Limited, as it were). They could not be equipped with a vinyl roof, although you had a choice between optional wire or rally wheels. The side of the grille bars and large sections of the bumpers were painted in the polarizing pastel. You’ll note that from the brochure photos featured that the standard wheels were custom wheel covers also painted in Yellow Beige, and yet the featured car has regular ol’ wire wheels. Really, Buick? Was the yellow on yellow on yellow a bit much?
The interior was just as interesting as the exterior, featuring “Palm Beach cloth” – an odd, brown material with striations through it – on “Yellow Beige” seats, with a 55/45 bench up front. An interesting pale woodgrain appliqué featured prominently throughout the interior. Under the hood, though, the LeSabre was like any other ’79 LeSabre Limited with a choice of three different engines: the Buick 231 CID V6 or, optionally, a choice of Pontiac 301 or Buick 350 (the Buick V8’s penultimate year). The Oldsmobile 350 was used in California.
There you have it: all the basic goodness of a ’79 LeSabre, with a paint job you would have to be blind in both eyes to miss!
Production years: 1977
Total production: 1383
Buick certainly knew how to create an interesting limited edition. The Skyhawk Nighthawk had a much more subtle exterior than the Palm Beach LeSabre, and looked like an ordinary black version of the handsome Chevy Monza-based Buick Skyhawk. There was something that made this little Buick special, though. Let’s shine a light on it.
No, seriously, let’s shine a light on it. That was what made the Nighthawk special: when lit by a camera flash or – as the name would suggest – car headlights at night, the reflective striping would shine gold. Neat trick. Otherwise, the Nighthawk package was only distinguishable by some subtle logos and pinstriping, as well as gold wheels. Underneath, it was the same as other Skyhawks: a 110 hp 3.8 Buick V6 and a choice of Saginaw four-speed or Borg-Warner five-speed manual transmissions or a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 350 automatic. Other H-Bodies offered four-cylinder and V8 engines as well as different body styles. Ah, but did they offer gold reflective tape striping?
Production years: 1979-80
Total production: 2037
The little Skyhawk seemed an odd fit in Buick showrooms, but evidently either dealers or GM HQ wanted more fuel-efficient offerings in said dealerships and captive imports were apparently not enough. What Buick found, though, was its Skyhawk was not selling as well as the Chevy Monza and Pontiac Sunbird. Over six model years, the Monza sold over 700,000 units. Over five model years, the Sunbird sold over 400,000. The Skyhawk and the Olds Starfire mustered just 125,000 each between 1975-80. The solution? Special editions! Oldsmobile had an available V8 and the gaudy Firenza package. Buick had the Nighthawk and then, as the Skyhawk entered its twilight years, the Roadhawk. Unlike the aforementioned Nighthawk, though, the Roadhawk was revised just as much mechanically as it was aesthetically.
Don’t get too excited, though. Buick may have embraced turbocharging around this time, rolling out turbocharged Regals, LeSabres and Centuries, but the moribund Skyhawk received no such boost (no pun intended). The only engine available was the 2-bbl 3.8 Buick V6, which had just received new cylinder heads and a new camshaft profile. Power was up to 115 hp and 190 pound-feet of torque. It was no fire-breather, and the breath it did have was exhausted the higher up you went in the rev range, but it had some decent low-end torque. Selecting the Roadhawk package was actually the only way to get the Performance Handling Package in 1979. This included larger front and rear sway bars, Goodyear BR70-13 radial tires, stiffer shocks and a quicker steering ratio.
Base sticker price for the ’79 Skyhawk was $4778, and the Roadhawk package added $675. Buick contracted Robin Products Company Inc in Farmington Hills, Michigan to outfit the silver-only Roadhawk’s exterior. Exterior addenda included various vinyl decals, new front air dam, rear spoiler and fiberglass quarter panel extensions, while the interior received oyster-colored seats with black and gray striping and embroidered hawk logos on the front buckets.
Car & Driver tested the Roadhawk and while they were no fans of the H-Body (criticizing it for poor quality control, handling and suspension travel), they found the Roadhawk fairly fun-to-drive if unrefined. The package was certainly rare and distinctive, but just imagine if the engine had been the recipient of a little more juicing.
Grand National (82)
Production years: 1982
Total production: 215
When someone says the name, “Buick Grand National”, there is a mental image summoned of a black, turbocharged coupe. But Buick’s performance flagship wasn’t always black and it wasn’t always turbocharged.
The first Grand National, launched in 1982, was a rare special edition built to celebrate Buick’s NASCAR successes. Originally, Cars and Concepts were contracted to produce their Grand National package for just 100 Regal coupes. That number got bumped up to 215, and while a few of them were equipped with the 3.8 turbocharged, carburetted V6, most of them featured Buick’s 4.1 naturally-aspirated V6. This was a larger version of the venerable 3.8, first introduced in 1980 and marketed as an alternative to V8s (it was discontinued after 1984). The 4.1 was good for 125 hp, while the 3.8 turbo produced 175 hp. The exact number of Grand National Sport Coupes, as the turbo model was called, is unknown but they can be distinguished externally by their hood bulge.
Regardless of engine, the ’82 Grand National came fully-loaded. As well it should have, considering the option package priced $3,278! It used the firmer F-41 suspension tune and wore raised white letter Goodyear tires. A t-top roof was standard along with air-conditioning, power windows, leather-wrapped steering wheel and cruise control. All ‘82s were two-tone charcoal and light silver firemist with red pinstriping, a rear spoiler and blacked-out grille; inside was a two-tone slate gray and black interior, equipped with a center console as well as some Grand National logos on the dash and on the Lear-Seigler bucket seats.
The Grand National name took a break for 1983. For 1984, the name came back and the rest is history.
LeSabre Grand National
Production years: 1986
Total production: 117
Not all Grand Nationals were black and turbocharged, as the aforementioned ’82 model proves. In fact, not all Grand Nationals were even rear-wheel-drive! Only 117 units were produced of the LeSabre Grand National, built to qualify the new ’86 LeSabre for NASCAR. You’ll note this GN looks like any regular, handsome LeSabre coupe except for one key difference: that goofy rear-side window. In fact, that was the main reason the ’86 LeSabre Grand National was built as the modified side window gave the body a streamlining advantage over a regular LeSabre side window on the track.
Unlike other special edition Buicks, the LeSabre GN’s modifications were performed alongside regular Buicks at the Buick City plant in Flint. The option package, available predominately in Georgia and Florida, cost $1,237. One red model was produced, and white models were planned before the GN was abruptly cancelled; all production models featured a gray cloth interior with a bench seat. The only powertrain was a 3.8 fuel-injected V6 with 150 hp, mated to a three-speed automatic transmission; all GNs had the firmer FE1 suspension tune. Allegedly, a turbocharged LeSabre GN was planned but finding a suitable transmission proved hard and the project was scrapped. As far as special editions go, the LeSabre GN may have tremendous rarity on its side, but everything unique it offered – odd windows aside – was available on the dashing ’87-89 LeSabre T-Type.
Those are just 5 obscure Buicks. Tune in on Sunday to find out what else makes the Top 10!