(first posted 10/4/2015) The above advertisement provides a clue as to two of the vehicles in the second part of our Top 10 list of obscure limited-run Buicks. While the early Regal turbos are nowhere near as collectible as the later Grand Nationals, they don’t quite qualify as obscure. The turbo Riviera pictured? Well, they were never as popular as the regular V8, but Buick did offer the S-Type (later, T-Type) Riviera throughout the entire run of the 1979-85 Riviera, one of the most popular generations of Buick’s personal luxury coupe. So, let’s take a look at the much less popular 1979-80 Century Turbo Coupe and 1978-80 LeSabre Sport Coupe, as well as three other obscure models from Flint, Michigan.
LeSabre Sport Coupe
Production years: 1978-80
Total production: 12,998
Before the supercharged family moved into the neighborhood, the turbocharged family had made Buick City their home. GM had dabbled in turbocharging in the 1960s with the Chevrolet Corvair and Oldsmobile Jetfire, but must have put the schematics in a storage closet and forgot about them until 1978. Buick used the rediscovered technology on something else quite old – its 231 cubic-inch (3.8 liter) V6, recently brought back from retirement – and placed the new 3.8 turbo V6 in the downsized-for-’78 Regal. The Regal wasn’t the only recipient of the technology, as the LeSabre Sport Coupe featured prominently in Buick’s advertising campaign side-by-side with the Regal, touting the availability of a technology that previously was only available in Saabs and Porsches.
As with many engine innovations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, turbocharging was presented as either a sensible option or a comfortable compromise. A recurring point in Buick’s turbo advertising was the ability for the engine to motor along with the efficiency of a V6 but give you a helpful kick of V8-like power when demanded. Of course, the performance potential of Buick’s turbo V6 was soon realized and it would go on, after numerous improvements like fuel injection and better electronic engine controls, to power the legendary Grand National and GNX.
In 1978, though, the turbo 3.8 was still carburetted: there was both a two-barrel and a four-barrel version. On paper, the engine lived up to the hype: with 170 hp and 265 ft-lbs in the 4-bbl version of 1979, it had torque equivalent to Ford’s 351 V8, and more power than both the Ford engine and Chevy’s 305 (the 2-bbl version had just 150 hp and 245 ft-lbs, but disappeared after one year; the 4-bbl initially had 165 hp and 285 ft-lbs before a head re-design in ’79).
Road & Track compared the Sport Coupe with a LeSabre equipped with the optional 350 V8 and found that, although the 350 felt stronger in the low-end, the 3.8 quickly eliminated the difference and actually posted a one second faster 0-60 time (10 vs. 11 seconds). As an added bonus, their turbo tester averaged 16.5 mpg while the 350 was good for only 13.5 mpg.
Still, some critics found the turbo V6 a little strained in the 3500 lb LeSabre. The 265 ft-lbs of torque was an impressive figure but that was at 2400 rpm, 400-800 rpm higher than rival V8s. And although Buick tried to appeal to the pragmatism of buyers by highlighting the usefulness of the technology, it restricted the use of the engine in the LeSabre to the Sport Coupe. The sporty LeSabre featured blackout trim, bucket seats and console, fast-ratio power steering, ‘rallye’ suspension with thicker stabilizer bars, and GR 70 x 15 radial tires with chrome rally wheels. It handled quite adeptly for a full-size and had no direct rivals from Chrysler or Ford, as sporty full-size cars had become almost extinct after 1970.
The Sport Coupe wasn’t particularly popular; 8,000 units were sold in ’78, but that slumped to 3,582 in the coupe’s sophomore year. Buick continued to offer the package in 1980 when the LeSabre was heavily revised with new sheetmetal and a more formal roofline. This would prove to be the model’s last year, and there would be no more turbocharged B-Bodies from 1981 onwards. Could the turbo have proved more popular if it was offered throughout the LeSabre lineup, or were turbo buyers and LeSabre buyers two discrete groups? Just a few years later, Chrysler would roll out turbocharged engines in a range of sedans, wagons, hatches, convertibles and minivans, advertising the efficiency and flexibility of the technology. Buick went in the other direction, harnessing the technology for purely performance-oriented applications. Buick’s efforts were regarded by enthusiasts as being legendary, but which company sold more turbocharged cars?
Century Turbo Coupe
Production years: 1979-80
Total production: fewer than 3,000 units
Buick introduced its turbocharged 3.8 V6 in the ’78 Regal and aforementioned ’78 LeSabre, but waited a year to introduce it to the Regal’s A-Body platform-mate, the Century. For 1979, the turbocharged 3.8 became available in all Century Special, Custom and Limited models except the wagon, at the cost of $470. Those seeking the ultimate turbo Century could opt for the Turbo Coupe.
1979 Century Sport Coupe
Below the Turbo Coupe sat the Sport Coupe, which featured hawk decals, blackout trim, Rallye suspension and a rear spoiler. If it was sport in appearance, it wasn’t necessarily sport in performance: the standard engine was the short-lived 3.2, a cut-down version of Buick’s 3.8, mated to a three-speed manual. Standard seating was also thoroughly un-sporting, with a front bench (buckets were optional). You could, however, opt for the Pontiac 301 with a 2 or 4-barrel carburettor, or the Chevy 305.
Opting for the Turbo Coupe added the turbo 3.8, power brakes, dual exhaust, turbine wheels, a hood bulge and a standard automatic, although bucket seats were still an option. The boosted V6 also offered quite commendable power for a 1979 car: 175 hp and 275 ft-lbs. A shame, then, that the package seemed a tad unfinished with its generic interior and standard slushbox.
The availability of sporty Centuries did absolutely nothing for the line’s popularity, as sales nose-dived with the “Aeroback” revision. While Regal sales had been mostly unaffected by its downsizing, the Century’s European-inspired styling failed to strike a chord with buyers who were left scratching their heads. To add insult to injury, the Century was Euro-inspired in another way as, like the Lancia Beta Berlina and other European fastbacks, that hatchback styling failed to contain an actual hatchback. After two short years, the four-door Century Aeroback was axed in favor of a more starchy, conservatively-styled sedan that would double Century sales for 1980. The two-door, including the Turbo Coupe trim, stuck around for 1980 before disappearing; production volume for the 1980 two-door was a measly 1,074 units. How many of those were Turbo Coupes is anyone’s guess.
On the note of unverifiable rarities, the Turbo Coupe model may have been rare, but it is possible that turbocharged versions of the regular Century and Century Limited were even rarer as they were offered for just one year. Suffice it to say, the late 1970s may have seen a lot of sensible LeSabres and Regals leave Buick dealerships but there were plenty of oddities gathering dust at the back of the lot.
Century Gran Sport (86)
Production years: 1986
Total production: 1029
The LeSabre Grand National wasn’t the only one-year wonder limited edition in Buick showrooms for 1986. Dusting off an old nameplate last used in 1974, the Century Gran Sport sought to provide a little excitement to the conservative Century range. However, like the LeSabre GN, it did so without turbocharging. That’s not to say the Century Gran Sport was a subpar offering. On the contrary: the Gran Sport came with a compelling mix of both performance and visual upgrades.
Like the ’86 Century T-Type sedan, the Gran Sport’s only powertrain was the fuel-injected 3.8 V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. However, the Gran Sport had larger 15-inch wheels, fatter Goodyear Eagle GT tires and a stiffer suspension tune with heavy-duty shocks, springs and stabilizer bars, as well as a tuned exhaust system to provide a throatier note.
Cosmetically, the Gran Sport was distinguished by its decklid spoiler and its menacing mix of black paint and blackout trim. Inside, there were black-and-gray bucket seats with a center console.
No, there was no turbocharger but the Gran Sport looked mean (well, as mean as a FWD Century could look) and offered quite decent performance for the time. Unusually, Buick dropped it after only a year, even though they had not yet announced the upcoming new direction of the brand which would lead to the extinction of almost all their sporty models. Was the Gran Sport’s slow sales performance an omen that helped steer Buick towards its repositioning as the makers of “Premium American Motorcars”?
Production years: 1970
Total production: 28,306
Mystifyingly, Buick chose to exit the full-size wagon market in 1963. The powers that be decided the intermediate Sport Wagon – riding a 121-inch wheelbase instead of the regular Special Deluxe’s 116-inch span – was a sufficient presence in the wagon market. Perhaps there was some logic in this and some facts and figures to back this up that we are not privy to. Why, then, did GM go to the expense of tooling up a full-size Estate wagon for one year only?
The full-size B- and C-Body Buicks were scheduled to be replaced in 1971, and there was to be a new wagon body shared between the divisions with an intriguing power “clamshell” tailgate. Did Buick feel it needed to re-establish a presence in the segment before launching its bold new 1971 model?
One of the plushest station wagons available for 1970, the Estate shared its front-end with the Electra but its distinctive side feature lines more closely resembled those of the B-Body LeSabre on which it was based. Underneath those sharp creases was woodgrain trim. The wheelbase was 124 inches long, as on the LeSabre.
As befitting Buick’s rung on the Sloanian ladder, the Estate was available only with the 4-barrel carburetted 455 cubic-inch V8. However, you could choose between a three-speed column-shifted manual or a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 400 auto. The big 455 was good for 370 horsepower (gross) and 510 pound-feet of torque, although it had to haul around 5,000 pounds of big Buick.
The ’70 Estate may have been a last-minute launch, but with 28,306 units produced, it outsold the Mercury Colony Park and Chrysler Town & Country. Buick apparently hadn’t gotten too rusty with the whole full-size wagon thing.
Century Sport Wagon
Production years: 1978-80
Total production: ?
Once in a while, the domestic automakers would launch a sporty, special edition wagon. For example, there were the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare Sport Wagons of 1979 and the Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport wagons of the 1980s. Even more obscure than those is the Buick Century Sport Wagon. It’s so obscure, that were it not for its cameo role in H.B. Halicki’s 1982 film The Junkman, there might not be a single photograph of it on the internet.
The Sport Wagon option package, priced at roughly $500 each year it was offered, featured sport wheels, “designer accent paint”, fender hawk decals and, somewhat rare for a late 1970s domestic car, body-color bumpers. The Sport Wagon wasn’t just “sport” in appearance, either, as it featured a firmer “rallye” suspension tune. Initially, engine offerings were the Buick 231 V6 or Chevy 305 and 350 V8s. For 1980, the 305 was supplanted by the Chevy 265 and the Pontiac 301. Or did the 301 arrive in 1979? Figuring out GM’s engine lineup in the late ‘70s is a nightmare. Don’t even ask what was available in California.
Production numbers aren’t available for the Century Sport Wagon but given the niche appeal of the product, they can’t be high. As for survival rates, that’s anybody’s guess. If anybody reading this is the proud owner of a Century Sport Wagon, do share in the comments. It appears to be the only Buick on this list that doesn’t have owner photographs available on the internet.
That’s it, 10 obscure models from Flint that prove not every Buick was a plush and cushy sedan. Although that type of car has almost always been a strength for Buick, GM has realized at times that there is a fine line between being a purveyor of plush, comfortable and refined sedans and being a manufacturer of cars desirable only to elderly folk. After all, you can sell a young man’s car to an old man but not the other way around. Many of the sporty cars in this top 10 were flops, but take a look at the Buick lineup today: plush, comfortable and refined sedans (and now crossovers) abound, but there’s also the sporty Regal GS and a boosted Verano that undoubtedly sell in much smaller volumes. There’s nothing wrong with plush and comfy cruisers, but GM learned the hard way that when they only offer thoroughly un-sporting cars, Buick’s average buyer age shoots up and its image takes a hit. A Regal GS now, a Wildcat then: it keeps things interesting and it keeps Buick alive. To paraphrase an old slogan, “Wouldn’t you really rather have Buick alive?”