By 1997 my Escort was an 11-year-old car that had lived it’s entire life in road-salt country – Upstate New York – and it showed. My father had valiantly tried to stave off the rot, going so far as to use fiberglass to patch the rust holes in the rear shock towers. My father felt like it just wasn’t safe enough for me to drive the 2 + hours from my hometown to SUNY Oswego, where I was attending school for my undergraduate degree.
A friend of the family was parting with their 1988 Buick Century wagon around that same time and my parents bought it for me as my second car. I loved wagons, even back then, so I didn’t feel like it was a mommy-mobile. The only specific thing I remember about the drivetrain is the 3.1 V6, which felt like a rocket ship compared to the four in my Escort. A quick search on the internet proves my memory faulty. The ’88 Century either came with a 125-horse 2.8 V6 or the 150-horse 3.8 V6. As my Century was what appeared to be a base model with no side trim, manual windows, and locks, I’m going to go with the 2.8. Even with the smaller motor, it was plenty quick for a 20-year-old kid. For reasons lost to me now, I named it Sabrina.
My wagon was a six-passenger so it didn’t have the right-rear vent window that the versions with the rear-ward facing 3rd row did, but it did have one thing my Escort did not: air conditioning. From this point on I would never have a daily-driver car without AC, it is the one creature comfort that I absolutely require. It had an AM-FM Stereo tape-deck and a map light that flipped out of the dashboard, but no rear-wiper. The speedometer was a horizontal strip type and working cruise control. The interior of the car was navy blue and the split bench seat was fairly comfortable. From experience, I know that a futon mattress fits perfectly in the rear with the seats folding. For camping, you know.
Sabrina came with hubcaps that were disc-style silver bits with small Buick logos in the middle, and I hated them. I only have a few photos of this car, and in each of them, you’ll notice it is sans caps. This is on purpose, as I much preferred the black steelie wheels. My father would chastise me, warning that winter road salt and water would make the lug nuts difficult to remove on the roadside, but I didn’t care and wanted my car to look cool.
The Buick lasted me through 1997 and most of 1998, requiring minimal work. I took several road trips in this car, including a Spring Break trip to Florida to scout out graduate schools and another road trip to Washington DC with friends for a weekend in 1998. Somewhere during that time, the thermostatic radiator fan broke and my father’s solution was to wire in a switch to manually control the fan. I had to keep my eye on the temperature gauge and flick the switch if it swung too far towards H, but the weather in Upstate New York just isn’t that hot most of the year for it to be a problem.
I had been accepted to study abroad for a semester in the fall of 1998, and so after a fun summer of work at the county park and late night rambles, I packed my bags and headed off to The Old World. My Buick, however, would not rest. My mom had been driving a 1992 Dynasty (purchased in 1994 to replace the tired ’81 Caprice Classic Coupe) and the Ultramatic transmission broke for the second and final time. My poor mother had to drive my car for the fall and winter of 1998 to work and back while my father drove my Escort. While in the UK I had access to email, and I warned my father that when I came back to the US I was going to need a car and he had better get used to the idea that he needed to stop fooling around buying used cars for my mother. She deserved a new car that would start reliably and not need shade-tree work every six months.
Thus started a long slog to reason with my parents, and the first time I would put my vast knowledge of cars to practical use. After grilling my father extensively and knowing his preferences, we ruled out anything foreign (for being too…foreign) and anything Chrysler (after the Dynasty and a ’78 Omni that was the worst car my father ever bought, Mopar was a hard NO for him). Ford products at the time were too squishy-oval for them (think second-gen Taurus, Contour and even the Crown Vic). That left us with General Motors products, which wasn’t surprising. While we had always had a series of Ford trucks, my parents always seemed to skew towards GM cars dating back to the ’70’s.
Thankfully, GM had a wide variety of cars to chose from at the time. Cadillac was out as too expensive, Oldsmobile and Chevy didn’t have anything that appealed to my mom, Pontiac was too boy-racer with all the body cladding, and Saturn was too small. That left Buick. A white, four-door 1999 Buick Century, to be exact. I came back from the UK and my parents went off to Twin Tier Buick to buy their first new car and I reclaimed my place in Sabrina for my last semester of undergrad.
I had been accepted at Florida State University for my Master’s Degree in History, and after buying my mother a new car (complete with new-car reliability) my dad realized that I also needed a newer and more reliable car. A friend of my father’s had a dealers license, so we headed off to Dansville NY to the auction to find my next car. This was the same auction that we had picked up the Dynasty four years earlier and hopefully, this time around we would have better luck.
And what of Sabrina? A rusty 9-year old car had almost no value even by Upstate New York standards, so off it went to be a “pit-car” at one of the gravel pits my father hauled out of with his dump trucks. It lasted a few months there until one of the young guys got a little crazy in a large deep puddle of water. I don’t know the total mileage that I put on the Buick in the 2+ years I had it, but I would guess it was no more than 20,000.
“… my father’s solution was to wire in a switch to manually control the fan…”.
Now that’s my kind of solution, simple, functional, and imbued with a need for a moderate dose of driver involvement.
The funny thing about dog dish (and baby moon) hubcaps on steel wheels is that what once was scorned is now cool. Back in the day no one wanted “poverty caps” on their cars; everyone wanted full wheel covers, which were made of metal. Is it nostalgia? Or perhaps it’s eye relief from the constantly changing complexity, and hard to clean design, of today’s alloy wheels.
I think a lot of people still like station wagons. That might explain somewhat the popularity of the Subaru Outback. The current Buick TourX is also interesting and its 73.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity and its reported performance is impressive, provided one has not sworn off GM products due to past problems and you have no issue with a direct injection 2.0 turbo four cylinder engine (which seems to be the standard configuration of many cars today).
An undergraduate semester studying abroad sounds quite interesting.
One more thing, I too feel that mothers wives, and daughters deserve very reliable vehicles that (in your words) “… would start reliably and not need shade-tree work every six months…”. Well stated.
My dad was the same way. Mom always got the new car and he drove her old one until it was time to rinse and repeat. Today it seems odd to put the needs of someone else in front of your own but dad never complained.
This was my parents family car back in the late 80s early 90s. No ac brown interior… For a family of 6 it was a cramped hot hellhole. When my dad replaced it with the Taurus wagon it was like a Mercedes compared to the old buick.
Even as a kid I saw the hubris in GM design compared to the Taurus. Ford was putting out modern logical designs while GM interior designs was stuck in the 70s (chevy olds buick caddillac) or putting out weird illogical designs (pontiac). This to me was why they went under and I could see that at the age of 10.
“The speedometer was a horizontal strip type…” Like this? My grandparents’ Cutlass Ciera (also an ’88) had it too.
The Buick had the 85mph bar like the Ciera, but the opening for the odometer was in its own opening below the speedometer which was the same width as the speedometer bar. One could get the speedo needle to reappear in the odometer bar….
My dad too had the Century wagon…It felt so smooth at whatever speed that was when the needle was crossing over the odometer…
The Buick probably had noticeably more torque than the Escort.
I would say so, although I think the automatic made it an entirely different driving experience as well.
Yes, these made great cheap old cars. In my slightly less salty climate, these held up against rust about as well as anything did at the time. And the mechanicals were generally solid as well. I still see the occasional Century or Cutlass wagon out on the road, some of them in amazingly good shape.
When they were new I could not have been less interested in them, but they have gained my respect as they have aged. And a Century would have been a great pick for your mother as a new car.
A friend of mine drove his families ’88 T-Type Century sedan (I always liked that color scheme) and I always thought the strip-speedo and weirdly mounted map-light were just odd, but after driving it for a while I started to come around and like the dashboard layout. But then again, I had grown up in GM products so it didn’t seem all that strange to me.
I have a 1990 Ciera wagon in my garage which hasn’t moved since 2016, but which could pass for a rust-free double of your Century. It even has blue interior. It was last used on an emergency basis to help me car shop when I bought my ’16 Elantra, but I’m sure it would start if a new battery was put in. 3.3 v6 and 4 speed auto. I’d agree with most of the assessments here of the A body, both this article and several others: it was a 1982 vehicle still being built much later. That said, I’ve never gotten rid of it because it’s reliable, it’s too bad it’s not water resistant anymore so it could live outside. It’s sort of tiered storage as it is. I had it up on ramps in 2012, and there’s no rust. Mine was built in the Quebec plant, and was sold new at Gallo in Worcester, MA. It has over 200k miles, many of them at the abusive hands of each of my brothers, both of whom used it as a daily driver at times between about 2000 and 2009 or so. If you charge the air, it will cool for a couple of weeks, but loses gas fast. The cruise no longer works, but the rear defroster does and all the lights do, even flashing properly. It’s a tough cockroach of a car with the resale value of a large pizza.
The main thing I remembered about these was that they rusted like crazy in our Wisconsin climate. I had 2 teachers with these in 1992. One a 1984 wagon with the more vertical front end brown with woodgrain. The other one was a ‘87 or ‘88 with the slanted front end but in a darker brown. Both of them were covered in rust and bubbly around the wheel arches and bottoms of the doors. The interiors seemed fairly nice as we would load up in them for field trips and seated 7 with the bench front seat and rear facing 3rd row.
We had a dark-blue ’90 Celebrity wagon and a silver ’93 Ciera wagon in drivers ed (along with a gaggle of Cavaliers). I always wanted to drive the dark-blue Celebrity during the parking-lot practice.
An older vintage, 1979 if memory serves, Century wagon, with woodgrain contact paper side trim, was my first wagon, and my last daily driver from the factories of the Big Three. As the least expensive decent vehicle I could find in the early 1990’s while I was in graduate school, it served as an able carrier of the more expensive bicycles that were my preferred transportation machines at the time.
Though decidedly unstylish, it wasn’t too rusty despite a life in New England, and generally ran well, though it had a finicky carburetor and choke that made cold mornings a challenge. I didn’t do much work on my cars outside of basic maintenance back then, and several trips to a local mechanic failed to get this under control. I suspect that some emissions-related components, notoriously problematic in vehicles from those days, were to blame.
It did what I needed it to do for a few years until the confluence of oxidation, transmission slippage, and poor fuel economy convinced me to replace it with a VW Golf several years newer. The VW, though smaller, had good cargo capacity, a manual transmission, was more fun to drive, and went much farther on a gallon of gas, and I never regretted getting rid of the Buick.
I’ll be interested to hear what you did with a master’s in history.
I liked to say that I was “professionally unemployed”. I worked in the history museum field for 15 years on and off before completely changing careers at the age of 39…
I’ve studied many abroad, and still can’t figure ’em out. 🙂 Can’t wait to see what’s on deck next.
The good old A-body! I have a lot of respect for these cars as 2 Ciera examples got me through rough times and were reliable and super cheap to run. They also served our dealership very well during the 1990’s and first half of the 00’s. We sold a boat load of them and for the most part were the cheapest cars to buy and they rarely came back with issues after we ran them through service. Regardless if they were Tech IV’s, 2.8, 3.3, 3.8 or 3100 engines they seemed to give many miles of life. My long time friend still drives them and currently has 2 Celebrity wagons and a clean Cutlass Cruiser. All have well past 150K miles and run perfect.
My mother’s ’99 Century with the 3100 had the dreaded leaking intake manifold gasket…but I don’t think that plagued the first generation front-wheel drive A-bodies.