COAL: 1988 Buick LeSabre T-Type – A Young Man Buys An Old Man’s Car


(First posted 6/9/2013) After writing off my VW GTI and cycling through three different rental cars in as many weeks, the insurance check finally arrived and it was once again time for my favorite activity, car shopping!

Over the next two weekends, my friend and I must have driven several hundred miles and looked around at many dozens of dealerships and car lots throughout the San Francisco Bay area.  I had nothing specific in mind, only that I did not want a new car, and that I had a larger budget than I did the last time.

Eventually we found ourselves at Stanford Cadillac, in Menlo Park, not exactly where I would have imagined finding my next car.  But there it was, a 1988 Buick LeSabre T-Type, in Ruby Red Metallic–and with only about 32,000 miles on the odometer, it still looked, felt, and smelled brand-new.


I’m not quite sure what drew me to it. Perhaps subconsciously, I wanted a larger car after having wrecked a smaller one, but then again, sporting a fairly aggressive front end, body-color rear spoiler, and large, five-spoke wheels didn’t hurt.  I’ve always really liked this generation of H-body in Buick form, especially in the grille treatment,  the large headlights, and that huge, reverse-opening clamshell hood.


Despite that fantastic exterior (which I find extremely attractive to this day), things inside were a little less exciting.  The dash was pretty square, and looked kind of “old-ish” to me. The leather-covered, three-spoke steering wheel neverthless was quite large, and always made me feel a little like Sterling Marlin sawing away behind the wheel around Daytona.  However, the interior room in both front and rear was amazing–and it was so quiet, my own little sensory-deprivation chamber on wheels.


As I mentioned, it had extremely low mileage and had been owned by one local owner who had traded it in on a Cadillac.  The salesman was very polite and courteous, and soon we were engaged in a very polite discussion about price. It took about a half-hour for us to agree on $8,800; I wrote them a check, and they gave me the keys.

Now, I’ve bought a lot of cars, but this purchase still stands out as one of the absolute best dealer experiences I’ve ever had when buying a car, which simply does not have to be as confrontational and annoying as it usually is.  In the meantime, my friend, being of a certain age, had been busying himself by looking at every Cadillac in the showroom.  I think I was the only person on the lot not “of a certain age”, and on that day I probably skewed that dealership’s  average buyer age down significantly. After they’d cleaned up the car, my buddy took the picture at the top of the page.


Of course, as soon as I got it I immediately embarked on a trip south to San Luis Obispo to show it to my girlfriend, who had no clue about what it was even after I described it. When she saw it, she gave me kind of a “WTF” look, then gingerly sat down inside, and we went for a ride.  She admitted that it was nice, and never made fun of me for driving a brand that, truth be told, would not be the first choice of most other 23-year-olds back then.  A keeper!


Like all T-Types, mine was powered by the legendary Buick 3800, in this case the revised 1988 version. It wasn’t supercharged, but man, it had lots of pep!  It also had very eager throttle response, a great sound, and was astonishingly light on fuel. Later that year my little brother moved in with me temporarily, and he absolutely loved borrowing the car for his long freeway commute to work on days I was able to catch a ride with a coworker.  It was light-years removed from his mid-80s Ford LTD that required a run to 80 mph before it would shift into the highest gear and then stay there even as you slowed down.  That car still comes up in conversation sometimes.


As I was doing research for this post, I was surprised to see that in 1988 there were only 6,426 of these produced.  You almost never see them in California; I suppose they were more popular in the Midwest, but that number still seems low.  My research also shows that not one of them had a power trunk release, yet I distinctly recall a little yellow button in the glove box that popped the trunk.


In addition to having an excellent power train, the car boasted a fairly buttoned-down suspension.  It would get a little floaty on long, sweeping turns with longer bumps, but it always held tight and got around the bends–very different from a standard-issue large coupe.  Also, the brakes worked great, always very reassuring and with good bite.

Reliability was excellent; the only issue it ever had was in an underground parking garage in San Francisco – When I pulled the extremely tight parking brake release, the handle detached from the thin steel string , leaving me no way to release the parking brake.  After thinking about it, I decided (very stupidly in hindsight) to just try driving it (with the parking brake fully on) back to my workplace, a few miles across San Francisco, and letting the mechanic across the street look at it.  It worked, but certainly couldn’t have done the car any good.  The mechanic used Channel-locks to pull the release cable  and ordered a new handle to replace the one that was cracked where it met the cable.

My memory is a little fuzzy on exactly how long I had this car, but it must have been no longer than a year-and-a-half.  I decided I wanted something different, and so I put it up for sale.  Selling it took quite a while–I wasn’t willing to give it away, and nobody really knew what the T-type was all about, so they figured its value was the same as a regular LeSabre.  Remember, this was pre-internet, when ads didn’t show a dozen pictures. Rare cars were harder to sell locally.


Finally, a couple of months and many tire-kickers later, a little old lady (literally; she was well into her 70s) called and wanted to see it.  It turned out she’d also owned a black one that she’d recently lost in a garage fire at her home in San Francisco.  She happily paid my full asking price, and told me her next stop was the window-tinting place to put a deep tint on her “gangster car”, as she called it.  It was a great transaction with not at all the type of person I thought would have any interest in the car. During her test drive, we talked cars for quite a while, and continued as we  finalized the transaction. It’s funny–a car can take you to the most wonderful places, and often you don’t even have to be driving it to get there…