COAL – 1988 Buick Century – My First Wagon

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.

Your author, posing in green on the left.

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.

For our family, this was Mopar’s 2nd (and last) Deadliest Sin. No more Chryslers would grace our driveway.

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.

Packing up my dorm room at SUNY Oswego for the last time.

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.

It also came with a luggage rack on top, which I was excited to use on one of my road trips.

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.