So, armed with my first job, I was now tasked with buying my own wheels. My parents had been very generous with tuition and transportation up to this point. I was 25 and it was time to pay my own bills, and I was fine with that. But, my new job was “eat what you kill”, meaning I got to keep a percentage of my gross. As a newbie and low man on the totem pole, though, there wasn’t much gross or net.
So, I examined my meager savings, and budgeted accordingly. I was about to be engaged as well, so I needed money for a ring too. I was barely paying my rent, so I wanted to keep a cushion on hand. I really didn’t like the idea of a loan or additional monthly burden.
I decided I had $5,500.00, max, to commit to wheels. That didn’t leave me a lot of good options. It was about the same as $8,700.00 now. That ruled out recent Hondas, Toyotas and the like. I knew that I could probably get more bang for my buck with a used American car. Today, I’d probably be looking at used Dodge Avengers (and maybe used Centurys)!
I didn’t have any brand affinity; no one in my family had ever owned a Ford anything, so I ruled that out. Nothing wrong with a Ford at all, they just didn’t register with me and I didn’t know one from another. My grandmother had driven Bonnevilles for years. She was on a 1990 after the 1984 I used to wax so often. So, maybe a Poncho?
My grandfather on the other side of the family had driven nothing but Buicks since his WWII discharge. He traded every three years or so, and did so (still nothing but Buicks) up to his passing in 2008. His 1976 Electra really seared itself into my memory as a young boy; so big, so floaty, so luxurious. We had a 1976 Volare prior to the 1979 240D. Geez, that Electra was another automotive dimension from those two entirely!
By this time, he was on a 1993 or so LeSabre, the “rounded off” looking one from the second front wheel drive generation. My girlfriend from grad school (soon to be my fiance, and now my wife of 21 years) lived in a nearby big city. One weekend, I went to their Cadillac/Olds dealer. It was billed as one of the largest in the USA at the time. I sure couldn’t afford their new cars, but knowing my grandfather’s buying habits, I surmised they might have more quality used cars than they knew what to do with.
I drove a loaded late 80’s front wheel drive Park Avenue. It was at my price point, in good cosmetic condition too, but had close to 100,000 miles. And it looked a little too “old” for a 25 year old guy.
I wandered the lot and sure enough, a good looking 1991 Buick Century towards the back caught my eye, silver with blue cloth. Wire wheels, but no vinyl roof. Only 40,000 miles! Brand new whitewall Michelins too (do they even make those anymore?) Call me crazy, but in 1995 this was a tasteful, good looking car. It looked “adult”, but not “retirement home”. It was a Custom, which meant it had a low sheen navy blue cloth with a plain design as opposed to the shiny, loose pillow velour of a Limited.
But, oddly for a Custom, it was loaded: power windows, power locks, cassette with equalizer, tilt wheel, power seats, cruise, wire wheel covers, and the optional four speed automatic with a 3.3 liter V6, a destroked version of the anvil-like 3.8 Buick V6.
Only problem was, it was priced well above my wallet; $8,995.00 I vividly recall. But, the salesman made a few ill-advised remarks that caught my attention. He said they had sold it a couple of times, but the loan fell through each time. He also said with the high brow new car clientele they stayed busy with, they just didn’t have a lot of used Century shoppers. Thus, it was sitting in the back of the lot. One and two year old 98’s and Fleetwoods lined the street.
At the time, my state used windshield inspection stickers with the date of inspection marked. Dealers had to inspect new and used cars before they were put on the lot, so I could tell from the sticker, the car had been sitting there for many months.
I made my low ball offer. I told him I could go to the bank and bring them $5500 cash, all in, not a penny more, right now. He rolled his eyes and went to talk to the sales manager in the typical glass booth in the middle of the showroom.
$8,995.00 for that car somewhere else would have been a quick sale. A used car lot away from the franchise dealers, or even better, a buy here/pay here lot. The shoppers at this lot at that time were, I would imagine, a lot of elderly people who paid cash for a new DeVille. The right buyer just wasn’t passing through the hallowed gates of one of the largest Cadillac/Olds dealers on the East Coast. It’s still there, too, as a Cadillac/GMC/Buick dealer, somewhat ironically.
He came back after a bit, and said “Go to your bank, it’s yours. I’ll get it washed while you’re gone”. Really, it’s mine? Was I sure I even wanted it? I mean, I liked it, but what would my family think? Would they think I had gone off the rails? The paperwork was done, and I drove out a Buick man.
I soon realized that I would, indeed, rather have a Buick. There’s plenty of reasons the Century and Olds Ciera took the middle class, senior citizen, rental fleet and government motor pool world by storm up until their 1996 demise. They were cheap, quiet, generally reliable, roomy enough, had freezer-grade A/C, got decent fuel mileage, a huge trunk all things considered, and with the V6 had pretty good scoot as well. You could chirp the tires with ease, with the typical overly responsive GM gas pedal. The factory stereo was the best I had experienced in a car up to that point. The silence, comfort and power accessories as compared to the 320i and Prelude was, frankly, welcome. It’s apples to oranges to compare those three cars, I know, but I was ready for a change.
My girlfriend was fine with it……she had a Cavalier at the time, and her first car was a new 1986 Escort. So she had low expectations, I guess you could say.
My parents were probably aghast but were polite about it. My 80ish grandmother was over the moon in love with it; wanted to go for a ride that minute; told me it was “classy” and “so tasteful”! She probably would have said that if I pulled up on a tractor, she was that kind of nice and supportive person. But to a newly minted working man, trying to stay within budget, getting engaged soon, and wanting to look “grown up” to my employer and clients, it seemed right. It wasn’t the car I wanted, but it was the car I needed.
We got married in 1996 and I continued to commute for a time from her “big city” home base back to my job. At work, the Century racked up miles quickly. More effort=more travel=more gross for the firm=more net for me. Soon, I was covering a five county area for one of our bigger clients. I didn’t hit all five counties every week, but sometimes I did.
With our other car being the Cavalier, the Buick was usually the ride of choice. We were visiting family, going to friend’s weddings, going to the beach, and generally staying on the road every weekend. By 1998, the Century had racked up 30,000 miles a year or 130,000 miles total. All it had needed was a set of tires and a muffler. I changed the oil every 3,000 miles (didn’t everyone back then?) but I wasn’t picky about what went in…..I usually got the cheapest service at Walmart or Jiffy Lube. It had escaped the factory with a much better than average paint job, it still shone like new.
My dad piped up about this time with a lead on a used car for us. He had retired, but his former employer still called him to help dispose of company cars no one wanted. There was one coming off a four year lease that the executive didn’t want to keep. The buyout would be pretty cheap; they usually structured it that way so the employee could buy it cheap at lease-end.
We decided to keep the Buick; that seemed like the logical choice. It had high miles, but looked good and ran great. Our first child was on the way, so the two door Cavalier didn’t seem like it would work for us when she arrived. The Cavalier went back to my in-laws who had bought it for my wife in college. They traded it for a new Ford truck. And we were off to the bank to get our first car loan, and first car together!
What was your first “adult” car purchase? A car you didn’t necessarily want, but knew you needed?