Even as a six or seven year-old kid at the time, I knew that GM’s 1959 cars were a nadir. Where could this direction possibly go, and still be semi-functional? GM jumped the shark, and they knew it, probably even before the first one ever hit the streets. The nasty recession of 1958 threw a bucket of ice water on this direction started by Chrysler in 1957, and the winged wonders were the butt of jokes and scorn from day one.
So GM did what it didn’t like to do: start over with a totally new body after only two years. And the results were truly lovely, most of all in relative terms. And it wasn’t just the loss of wings and jet pods and afterburners; the ’61s were palpably trimmer. And taller. And the seating was more upright and decidedly more comfortable. In relative terms.
We arrived in the US just as the ’61s were coming out, and to say I obsessed on them is an understatement. And one of my favorites is this Buick Electra 225 Riviera hardtop sedan, by far the cleanest of the new C-Bodies. This was a car that GM could be proud of, even in Europe. Pininfarina couldn’t have done better, if even equaling it. GM turned an embarrassment into a gem.
Buick’s 1961 ad theme was “The Clean Look of Action”. And it gets right to the point: “You get more room for hats, and heads, for shoulders and legs. Floors are flatter. Cushioning is thicker. Seat height is better.” More room on the inside, and smaller on the outside; what a novel concept.
And just how much trimmer were these ’61s compared to the ’59s? Length went from 225.4″ to 219.2, making a liar out of the “225” moniker. Width went from 80.7″ to 77.9″, or almost three inches. And height increased from 55.5″ to 57.1″. And it weighed 250 lbs less than its predecessor.
Here’s the front end, which shows quite a bit of restraint from its wild predecessors too. A 325 hp 401 “nailhead” V8 was standard under its hood, teamed with the smooth Turbine Drive automatic.
Jim Cavanaugh did a quite in-depth post on these Electras, focusing on their three different roof styles. There were two distinct series of Electras: the Electra 225 came only in the Riviera hardtop as the one at the top, as a convertible. The lesser Electras offered this six-window four door sedan, which obviously was the same roof as the hardtop, but with framed windows.
The non-225 Electra’s four-door hardtop was quite different, an updated version of the ’59-’60 “flying wing”. A bit odd to have two different hardtops, but such was life at GM when you owned about 50% of the total market.
The ’61 Olds 98 was a bit fussier on its sides, and its grille seemed to be lacking in a clear vision. And the skegs on the tail hearkened back to the ’59-’60 era a bit too much.
And of course the third C-Body stablemate was Cadillac. And as much as I can find certain charms in it, and it’s certainly an improvement over the ’59, it’s still too stuck in that mentality. There were plans to shear the ’61 of its fins, but in the end, Bill Mitchell chickened out, as by then Cadillac had been wearing fins for so long it was now too deeply associated with them, and any change too radical might hurt.
Fortunately that was not the case with the Electra, and as a consequence, it has its wheels firmly in the 1960s, unlike the Cadillac, which struggled with the weight of its finny legacy for quite some time to come.
Show Car Classic: 1961 Buick Electra Hardtop – Four Windows or Six? Jim Cavanaugh
The styling of ALL the various General Motors divisions were much improved for 1961; Buick the most of all.
Somehow Buick had a certain sense of quietly upscale class that the more vulgar Cadillac and the wayyyyy too conservative Oldsmobile models lacked.
The Buick hardtop is beautiful. Love the shape of the wheel arches.
Cars like this made a wonderful progress in style in only 15 years (just after WW2!). No wonder cars would age so quickly in the intervening years.
Driving around in a 15 year old car now is not that remarkable – they’re almost the same.
Once again I am pleased to note that Paul and I agree on a car.
I like the 61 Olds more than most people do, but I will admit that the 6 window roof on the 98 goes particularly poorly with the shape down below the belt.
I don’t find the 61 Buick conventionally beautiful, but I do find it utterly fascinating. That beige car up top reminds me of some pictures I have in my stash of a base level LeSabre 2 door sedan in that same color. I need to write that one up.
Please do, JPC!
Always enjoy your entries here.
You forgot to mention that amazing Buick speedometer! You viewed it via a mirror that you could tilt via a wheel on the left side!
That’s like an early Head Up Display except it’s not any higher than a regular display.
I’m a bit biased here because I got my license in mom’s ’62 Dynamic 88. But the 61-62 GM offerings were all an improvement over the 59-60 models.
Buick especially had painted themselves into a styling dead end and there was no way to recover except by starting with a clean sheet. And they acquitted themselves very well.
pretty clever..the 1960 Corvair pointed the way for a new windshield shape that spread to the full size offerings in 1961, a graceful way to back away from the overdone wraparounds on the previous 2 years.
I still have a huge soft spot for 61 and 62 Olds, especially that 62 front end which some may object to, but if someone dropped a nice Buick from those years In my lap, I wouldn’t complain.
My dad bought a used 1961 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 when his family outgrew the Pontiac Tempest. We needed a larger car, but he couldn’t afford a new car that year. Consequently, for a while, the 61 Oldsmobile was our daily vehicle. It had a lot of miles on it when we got it, and we kept it until the engine wore out. However I do remember many things about it that makes the 1961 a desirable vehicles for me.
It was a great size. Ours wasn’t a fancy top of the line Oldsmobile, however the car still had that way-cool color-changing speedometer. The speedometer began as a blue ribbon, then would change into green, yellow, orange and red as you increased your speed. The speedometer was red when you reached 75 mph, I think.
The entire interior was well trimmed with many shiny stainless steel touches. It was a high quality material. I “helped” my dad, along with my brothers, when he washed the car, and that meant being small, I remember rubbing the skegs on the back fenders and like washing the round red tail lamps. I thought it was a very good car.
My Uncle Bob had a 61 88, I don’t think I ever knew if it was a Dynamic or a Super. I believe they bought it new to ferry four young kids around. Uncle Bob worked at a GM plant at the time, so surely got a discount.
It was a white 2 door “bubbletop” hardtop with red interior, and I remember thinking what a cool car it was. By 1967 the transmission was giving them problems. A new car was not in the budget and the Olds was replaced with a used 64 Galaxie 500 4 door hardtop.
So I will join you in the love-fest for the 61 Oldsmobile!
Good God, but is that car ever gorgeous.
“Seat height is better” – Interesting that they admit or propose that it’s “better”, not just higher or more upright etc.
’60’s GM is like ’80’s/’90’s Toyota with their multiple minor variations in body styles.
As others have noted, this is a very attractive car, the brown color in the ad works really well on the shape as well, to me better than the other colors of the various examples shown here.
I have to step down a body shell for my favorite among the 1961 GM full size cars, the Pontiacs. But really, they were all a refreshing change from the dumpy 1958s and the over-the-top 1959-60s. But it took only five years or so for GM to start going back to their old big ways again.
The ’61 B/C bodies are underrated beauties, and that Buick is a handsome car but my favorite is still the Chevy.
I have to give Pontiac props for this generation as it wore on, the ’64 Pontiac full size was their handsomest of the whole generation while the other divisions’ ’64s all looked like the boxes their ’61s came in.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks the 1950s fins are overcooked. It’s such a tacky styling trend, worse to me than the big mouth grills of today. Interesting how quickly the styling turned around, though. If the 59 was the nadir, the 1960s were a zenith before another terrible plunge into the sloppy cheap messes of 1970s and early 80s.
The ’61 Electra is really a nice looking car, certainly much better than the Olds or Caddy of the same year. I also like the ’61 Chevrolet Impala-especially the 2 dr with the bubbletop roof. Looking back the period of about 1961-63 produced some really beautiful automobiles.
I seem to remember brief scenes in the film “Advise and Consent” that display one of these Electras. I haven’t seen the film in 30 years, but I do recall being impressed by the style of this car in a way that I had not when they were new. What a beautiful car.
I’m of the same vintage as Paul —
I recall very few of the “Flying Wing” hardtops among the C-bodies when they were current. But the few that I did see, absorbed my attention.
I was never crazy about the 6-window 4-doors. Personal taste, I suppose.
They reminded my too much of the stodgy 6-window ’49 Star Chief, our earliest car.
Best of all — ’62 through ’64, when these C-bodies began a more squared-off window treatment for the 4-dr. hardtops. ……. like the ’63 98 below, the monster in which this skinny 16-year old took my driver’s test.
For some reason the second photo of the brown car in front of the stairs, reminds me of the end of the first Godfather movie, when so many rival gangsters met their ends. . .
GM hit a home run with the ’61 Buick, Chevy, and Pontiac. I don’t mind the Oldsmobile either, probably because there was one in our garage (along with the Chevy) back in the day.
My aunt lived with us at the time (before she was married) and her ’59 Chevy Bel Air was stolen and totaled during a vacation trip in Wildwood, NJ. This was in Sept. 1960. She wanted to move up to Oldsmobile, but the 1960 model was too big to fit in our 18-foot long garage. So she waited a bit for the ’61s to come out, and the slightly reduced size was sufficient! (The one illustrated below looks just like hers.)
My mother decided to replace her 1955 Chevy the following summer, so she purchased a ’61 Bel Air. The salesman had told her the ’62s would not be significantly changed, so why not go ahead. Our ’61 looked like the one I found on Google images, except it was turquoise, had blackwall tires, and did not have the bumper guards.
For 1961, the Bel Air still had a generous amount of chrome trim, and I prefer the side molding of the Bel Air (with its parallel upper and lower lines to the wider, non-parallel equivalent on the Impala). Interesting of course that the flat roof of the ’59-60 4-door hardtops migrated to the sedans at Chevy.
Photo meant to also be included in the above: 1961 Chevy Bel Air 2-door sedan
My father owned a 58 Buick Estate Wagon. Gray w/white top- red interior. Beautiful car in its own way. He traded it in for a 62 Invicta wagon- beige w/White top. $4,800. Many Electra sedans followed- 65, 67, 69, 71…I got him to order a light brown 92 Park Avenue with blackwallsd- before they became standard on the 96s.
The one I remember is my uncle’s black ’61 Impala 4-door sedan. Wide white walls with full wheel covers & I think, a black and white interior.. I was 7 years old then.
Uncle Steve never knew it, but a later car was the inspiration for my first car – that would be his dark brown ’69 Caprice cpe. I bought a ’70 Caprice cpe. in ’73..
RIP Uncle Steve.😥
I always liked that the front fender profile of the ’61 Buick Special “compact” and that of the full size Buicks was just about a mirror image.
Extremes; freshly restored ’61 Sprite and my ’64 Imperial convertible, just bought, pre detail, and my ’61 red Electra convert
For those who know and appreciate these Buicks, they still turn up for sale in good condition at a reasonable price: witness this ’61 Electra sedan currently on Ohio Craigslist for $7,800.
I agree that the ’59s were extravagant, but I find those models an improvement over 1958 which are rather lookalike. That being said, I do think that the 1959 Buick Electra sedan specatcular, even with the bat wings. I love the hood bulge, the canted headlights giving an agressive, “angry” appearance, and said tailfin wings. Somehow, it retained a modicum of simplicity. The stereotypical ‘pink ’59 Cadillac convertible makes me cringe, however. In “Funeral in Berlin”, a subtle tan color though outrageous ’59 is the transport for intelligence man Harry Palmer’s German contact in West Berlin. Its a comment on the character and American styling of that period.
I generally agree with the author regarding the ’61s. Bill Mitchell was a brilliant design chief. I always found the ’61s cleanly styled, yet interesting and distinctive. The front-end styling of the ’61 Buicks somehow made them look smaller. I actually do like the ’61 Cadillac, and it along with the ’65 are my favorite Cadillac designs. The 1962 Buicks lost the distinctiveness, unfortunately, and to my eyes, are easily confused fronm the front with the Ford Custom / Galaxie of ’61 / ’62, and from the rear with a 440 / Dodge Polara circa 1963 / 1964.
But that is quite the complement from the author on his praise of this design. My favorite GM cars were the full-sized cars made between 1961 and 1965. Somehow, interest is overlooked on these models with preference given to the outlandish 1950s cars or the later muscle cars. To me, these are automotive art. An interesting and thoughtful commentary indeed.