Car Show Classics: 1960 Buicks – If This Is A Slump, What Is A Streak?

Oh, how fickle are the fortunes of man.  In 1956, Buick’s model year production of 572,024 cars was good enough for third place in the industry; however, the 1957 and 1958 models ended a decades-long winning streak for those iconoclasts from Flint.  A year after the bold and surprising 1959 models, the attractive 1960 Buick was mired near GM’s divisional basement after posting a dismal ninth place in sales; but even if 1960 was a rebuilding year, the cars themselves never showed it.

The 1960 models were transitional for all of General Motors, but it was also the last year for two Buick quirks: the torque tube and accelerator pedal starting.  It’s as if Buick decided to ditch any remnant of its former self in time for a fresh decade, although the Dynaflow transmission would hang on through 1963 and the Nailhead engine through 1966.  For 1959, Buick had changed the names of its entire model lineup, perhaps in an attempt to turn things around after the aforementioned 1957/’58 selling seasons.  Therefore, the bottom-of-the-line LeSabre entered model year number two with revised sheetmetal that was a little less crisp than the ’59, but perhaps less polarizing.

The fins in the rear (and in the front) were rounded off and the traditional portholes returned, resulting in a more conservative appearance, but only by comparison.  This particular 1960 Buick is uncommon even by 1960 Buick standards; fewer than 10,000 LeSabre wagons sold in 1960.  Most likely, this is the reason that by 1965, the only Buick wagons available were based on the intermediate A-Body.

Even though 1960 might have been a disappointing year for Buick sales, Buick almost always built a good car.  Even the base LeSabre was well-appointed and attractive, as entry-level Buicks invariably were.  Some speculate that the Buick Special, the LeSabre’s forebear, marked the beginning of the end of the Sloan Ladder.  The Special undercut its nearest competitors on price, but it still looked and felt like a Buick, making it one of the keys to Buick’s earlier success.

By the time this basic LeSabre two-door sedan was built, however, almost every automaker was producing “price-leaders,” not to mention luxurious nameplates such as Impala and Bonneville, and so the ladder fell apart.  The introduction of the BOP compacts in 1961 would only continue to irrevocably muddle the situation.

Since the future of Buick no longer rested so much on its uniqueness (massive grille, sweepspear, torque tube, Dynaflow, straight-8, etc.) or superior value for the dollar when compared with other makes, it had to enter the 1960s focused on the basics: styling, quality, and taste.  The 1960 models were a definite step in that direction, even if the driveline was temporarily rooted in the 1950s.

Aside from the Dynaflow and torque tube, the 1960 Buicks’ powertrain consisted of Nailheads of two displacements: 364 and 401 cubic inches.  The Nailhead was another product of Buick’s halcyon days of the early 1950s.  It’s general valve layout is unlike almost any 90-degree V8 in the world; it’s not better, it’s just different.  Many of Buick’s innovations fall into that category.  Paul Neidermeyer probably said it best when he mentioned that Buick, as General Motors’ oldest and once most important brand, was provincial; in other words, they had a longer leash than the other divisions, and they used that autonomy to do things “their way.”  It’s just another reason why Buick is my one of my favorite brands.

Regardless of its powertrain, Buick’s encroachment into the lower-price classes with the Special (and LeSabre starting in 1959) could have become another Packard-like tale of failing to read the market had Buick not also focused on its more traditional buyers (and had a corporate monolith to fall back on).

Up at the top of the scale was still the glamorous Electra 225, including this convertible.  With one foot still rooted in Buick tradition, the Electra wore four portholes per fender compared to the LeSabre’s three.  Buick had been doing that to differentiate their models since the dawn of the porthole in 1949; their most recent attempt at porthole haughtiness was the Buick Lucerne; see this Car & Driver road test from 2006 for details.

Like Big Buicks of old, the Electra and Electra 225 were longer than the LeSabre or mid-line Invicta, and a few strategically placed pieces of extra trim down low made them look even longer, lower, and more expensive than they were.

As always, the extra money bought a glitzier interior, and this Electra even has power windows and bucket seats, which were a 108 dollar option in 1960.

Buick even planned a performance and durability campaign that was never fully exploited by their marketing department.  They ran 10,000 miles in 5,000 minutes in a 1960 Invicta, and regardless of your opinion on the Nailhead’s basic design, it’s hard to gainsay its durability.  The refueling process alone makes the video worth watching.

As we all know, Buick is still around, although the buyer of a 1960 Buick may not recognize it.  Buick maintained an arguable degree of corporate autonomy all the way through 1987 or so, when the last of the Grand Nationals rolled off the line.  They never again were truly in the pennant race as they were in the early 1950s, as the 1960s were the decade of Pontiac and the 1970s of Oldsmobile, but they did back away from the precipice of 1957 and 1958 to build some really great cars (not that those models don’t have their fans).  These beautiful 1960s were just one step in that direction.

For further reading:

A Celebration Of GM’s ’59 Models – Bats and Deltas, But No 88s by Aaron65