As I have mentioned in my previous COALs, my extended family is crazy about classic cars. Most of my Dad’s brothers owned at least one, if not several. After several trips to Hershey and countless car shows, this became an increasingly obvious hole (to me, anyway) in our family motor pool. Once I got my driver’s license, I really wanted a different driving experience than was otherwise available with contemporary cars (realizing that the mid-’80s was pretty much the nadir of engine power).
So around my junior or senior year of high school (1985), I started lobbying my parents to get an older car. I figured my Dad would be fairly receptive, given the healthy dose of friendly competition between him and his brothers. But a surprising ally came in the form of my mother, who seemed to encourage this purchase as well (or at least not discourage it). Yes, I am talking about the same Mom who wanted the appliance car featured in my last COAL. Maybe she realized that it would be a good family bonding activity between Dad, my brother Andy, and me (which it was).
While the budget Mom gave us to work with (about $2,000) doesn’t seem like much, back in the mid 80’s many of the cars we now consider to be classics were just used cars. Armed only with newspaper classified ads in this pre-internet era, Andy and I began our search. I don’t think we knew exactly what we looking for, given that we were all over the place in our searches. I recall looking at everything from Corvairs to Corvettes, from 50’s lead sleds to 70’s luxo barges.
However, we soon started dial in our focus. After test driving a few convertibles and greatly enjoying the experience, a ragtop quickly moved to the top of our requirements list. Another realization was that we wanted to spend more time driving and showing than wrenching, so no basket cases. To get the kind of reliability we wanted pretty much meant a mid- to late-60’s GM car. Actually, this is still good advice for anyone getting started in the hobby: 60’s GM cars are generally of good quality, easy to repair, and most importantly, abundant, which makes them cheap to acquire and get parts for.
With our renewed focus, we soon located a 1971 Buick LeSabre convertible in Bamboo Cream with a Sandalwood vinyl interior. I was hoping to find a GM intermediate and not a full-size, but being in higher demand decent examples of intermediates were out of our price range. The LeSabre we found was just about flawless, and being 15 years old was at the bottom of its depreciation curve and therefore nicely fit our budget.
The actual transaction went down almost like a drug deal: My mom met the owner in the parking lot of a Bob Evans, literally with a briefcase full of cash. The dead presidents were exchanged for the title and car. All that was missing was Crockett and Tubbs, and some nose candy in the trunk.
The first thing my brother and I did when we got the car was to go on a road trip to Indiana to get some fireworks (which are illegal in Ohio). Pretty trusting of us for a 15-year-old car with literally no mechanical going over (not even checking the tire pressure). Luckily, the Buick rewarded our faith with an incident-free trip. And then we drove it and drove it some more. I would guess that we were putting 5000+ miles per year on it for a while, which is pretty heavy usage for a non-daily driver classic car.
Our LeSabre was not very well equipped, unusual for a Buick. The only option it did have was air conditioning: Otherwise, it was crank windows, manual locks, and a single non-powered, non-split front bench seat. While 1971 Buicks were available with engines up to a 4-bbl 455 big block, ours made do with the 350 2-bbl V8, the smallest engine Buick sold in their full-sized line that year. However, its free-breathing 230 hp and 350 ft-lb. of torque compared favorably to the emissions strangled cars of the ’80s, and the power was more than adequate for our cruising duties.
We loved this car. Andy and I (and sometimes my Dad) would fight over who got to drive it, although Dad always got first dibs. Living in a small town frequently meant that there wasn’t much to do on the weekends. No problem here: My friends and I would pile into the Buick, drop the top, and just drive around town, sometimes for hours on end.
As we had hoped, the Buick provided many years of trouble-free motoring (GM really did make good cars at one time). Dad also did a good job of keeping the car maintained. Shortly after we got it, he replaced the top. The paint, despite our best buffing efforts, was a little dull, so he had it repainted in the original color. Other than replacing a rotted radiator, it was mostly wear items we had to deal with (tires, belts, shocks) over the years.
My brother Andy did hit a deer driving to work after I had left for college. The hood was damaged, but the grille was undamaged – a testament to the heavy die-cast grilles used back then. I managed to locate a replacement hood in a junkyard (again, a much more difficult job back in the day before the internet), but we were never able to find a replacement trim piece for the hood leading edges, which always bugged me for the remainder of the time that we owned it. If you look closely at the newer pictures, you can see where the piece is missing.
Other niggles were small: The boot was finicky to attach. It has plastic tabs that you were supposed to slip under the trim pieces around the rear body opening. In practice, these plastic tabs broke off, or dug into the paint and caused it to chip off. As a result, we only used the boot on special occasions. We even attempted to find a fiberglass parade boot on our many trips to Hershey, but were never successful. Nowadays, of course, one is just a Google search away.
Without any form of wind blocker other than the windshield, the interior was a very windy, noisy place to be with the top down, especially in the back seat which had virtually no wind protection. On the freeway, it was impossible to have a conversation with the person in the passenger seat, much less anyone unfortunate enough to be seated in the “Power Seat” (as we lovingly referred to the back seat).
The Buick became like a fifth family member, attending all our major family functions. Mom even treated it to special “collector vehicle” license plates, since not yet being 25 years old it was not eligible for antique auto license plates.
When Andy got married in 1992, the thought of renting a limo never even crossed our minds. The bride and groom would of course ride in the Buick, with me as their chauffeur. He would return the favor to me when I got married in 2000.
As the years went on, Andy and I started our own families and had less time to devote to the Buick. Dad mostly let it sit in his later years, due to failing health. By the early 2000s, Mom said it was time to let the Buick go. She offered it to both me and Andy before selling it. With two little kids, I did not really have the time to take it on, nor did I have a place to keep it, nor the financial wherewithal to repair the growing list of mechanical issues it had begun to accumulate. Plus, after 15+ years of ownership, I was ready for a change. If I ever did get a classic car, it would be something different. Andy also passed on the Buick for the same reasons, so Mom ended up selling it to one of my uncles, who resold it shortly thereafter.
This was the COAL I both most looked forward to writing and most dreaded, because of all the emotions involved. It was hard letting the car go, but I’ve still got the memories and, more importantly for you, the photos. But most importantly, it shaped my present self in many ways I could not have anticipated: It left me with an appetite for both convertibles and classic cars, a legacy that persists to this day, as we will examine in future COALs.