Many Americans remember Walter Payton as a football player – as they should, since the Hall of Fame running back proved himself one of the game’s best during his 15 seasons with the Chicago Bears. But Payton also had a side gig – during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he served a pitchman for Buicks. Payton’s image appeared in Buick ads throughout Chicago, and he made annual appearances at Chicago’s Auto Show, where PR shots like this one were distributed.
This shot is one of the best – not only featuring Payton during his prime, but also showing one of Buick’s more unusual car models, a Century Olympia.
Walter Payton is fondly remembered for scenes like this one. Drafted by the Bears in 1975, the Mississippi native brought his college rushing and scoring abilities north with him. Within two years, Payton made the Pro Bowl, and within three years he became the NFL’s leading scorer. Throughout the 1980s, Payton remained one of the league’s most notable players, leading the Bears to a Super Bowl victory in 1985, and retiring in 1987 as football’s career rushing leader. After retirement, Payton remained in his adopted city until his untimely death from cancer in 1999.
Payton’s “other” career is less well known. Pro athletes have long stumped for consumer goods, and many served as periodic spokesmen for local car dealership associations. So when Walter Payton first appeared at the 1977 Chicago Auto Show, signing autographs and greeting fans at the Buick exhibit, it didn’t seem unusual (that year, five other Bears were performing similar functions at the GMC exhibit). Few could have imagined that he’d serve as Chicago’s premier Buick spokesman for twelve years.
Ads such as the one above became common around Chicago. Every year, Payton would spend several days greeting fans at the Auto Show, and would perform occasional Buick-related functions throughout the year. For this, he was remunerated financially, and was given the complimentary use of a new Buick each year. Payton hardly needed the money – his initial contract of $150,000 per year was at the time among the highest in Bears franchise history. But product endorsements bring appealing supplementary income for athletes (Payton also promoted KangaROOS shoes), and in addition to that, many pro athletes viewed the auto show circuit as an excellent way to build rapport with fans.
The phenomenon of athletes appearing at auto show exhibits reached its peak during the 1980s. At Chicago’s show, for instance, basketball great Michael Jordan and Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg appeared for several years at the Chevrolet display, Bears linebacker Mike Singletary signed on with AMC/Jeep, and halfback Neal Anderson with Honda. Even coach Mike Ditka appeared at the Auto Show for a few years. There were many others as well, though the trend of sports figures hosting meet-and-greets at auto shows began diminishing in the 1990s.
Whatever his motivations, Payton remained as loyal to Buick as he was to the Bears. The running back appeared at the Chicago Auto Show’s Buick exhibit each year between 1977 and 1989, usually for several hours a day for at least a week. He would often have autograph-signing sessions, would talk to groups of fans, answer questions, and shake hands. The Internet is replete with stories of fans who met Payton at the Auto Show, and remained fans of his for life. Many years, Buick exhibits gave away 8”x10” prints of Payton standing by one of the year’s significant Buick models. Payton’s pre-printed autograph appeared on the PR shots, while the opposite side contained a list of Metro Chicago Buick Dealers.
Our featured PR shot was distributed at the 1984 Auto Show, when Buick’s promoted model was the Century Olympia. That car itself is worth a closer examination.
The 1980s and 1990s were likely the peak years for Americans’ enthusiasm over the Olympics, as many ordinarily sports-averse people would suddenly become obsessed with events such as track and field, skiing, swimming or figure skating – sports that typically held little mass appeal. Interest swelled still further during those years when the Olympics were held in the United States, such as 1984 when Los Angeles hosted the games.
Many corporations sought to cash in on this interest, paying the US Olympic Committee for the honor of being an “official sponsor.” As such, Converse became the official athletic shoe of the 1984 US Olympic Team, Levi Strauss the official uniform supplier and ABC the official TV network. Sometimes the connection between the company and actual athletics was a stretch: McDonald’s was the official fast service restaurant, M&Ms the official snack food, Transamerica the official insurer… and Buick was the US Olympic Team’s official car. Buick executives refused to divulge how much they spent to be the official car, though the Division’s assistant general manager called the investment “substantial.”
This official car status meant that Buicks accompanied the cross-country Olympic torch relay (which was routed to go by Buick’s Flint, Michigan headquarters), and hundreds of Buicks were sent to Los Angeles to provide rides for athletes and dignitaries. It also meant that Buick was authorized to use the Olympic logo on its products. Hence, the Century Olympia was born.
The Olympia was a Century Limited sedan, available only in white with a tan interior (as close to Olympic Gold as Buick’s color palette allowed), and featuring numerous Olympic-themed embellishments. These included USA Olympics “commemorative plaques” on the fenders and rear decklid, a special hood ornament, unique gold-accented alloy wheels, and still more Olympic Rings embroidered onto the front seat headrests. The entire package retailed for $406 on top of the Century Limited’s $9,738 base price.
Civic-minded consumers would be relieved, though, that Buick donated $100 to the US Olympic Team for each Olympia sold. It’s unclear just how many Olympias were produced, but given that they were sold nationwide, and were not exceedingly uncommon to see when new, it’s likely that at least 1,000 – possibly many more – saw the light of day.
Buying an Olympic-themed car might seem odd from a modern viewpoint, but in an era when American patriotism ran high, when the Olympics were a source of pride, and when over 200,000 Centurys found homes each year, it becomes easier to see how a Century that championed the US Olympic Team would hold some appeal.
The Century Olympia embodied the optimistic spirit of cheering for the home team. And in Chicago, Walter Payton, a champion whom untold thousands cheered for on Sunday afternoons, was an ideal pitchman for this car.