It’s hard being last. People tend to celebrate firsts, but not so often lasts. The final generation of Buick Park Avenue was ably profiled by Brendan Saur a few years ago, featuring a first-year 1997 example. His take on the car was understandably somewhat negative. As a Buick lover and irrational fan of these cars, I have a more positive spin to put on them by celebrating a last-of-the-breed 2005 model.
It was the last of its generation and the last Park Avenue but the question I will try to answer is this: was this the last Real Buick?
By that, what I really mean is this the division’s last car that really looks like a Buick, so I will be focusing mainly on styling. To answer the question, we have to ask another question: what makes a Buick look like a Buick? The division has been used as a styling flagship by GM and been a design leader in the industry, with many, many beautiful cars over the years. Answering this question will give us a good excuse to take a tour through Buick’s styling history, and hopefully tie it all into the final Park Avenue.
This will be part Curbside Classic and part COAL, since this car belongs to my wife’s uncle and I’m pretty familiar with it. Settle in for a deep dive into this roomy car’s soft, soft seats.
To my eyes, the first Buick that really looks like a Buick is the 1942 model. That’s not to cast any aspersions on earlier models, which are beautiful cars, it’s just that they don’t have any of the styling cues that have come to be trademarks for Buicks. The 42 model was the first year for the vertical grille pattern that would be used through 1957 and at various points thereafter. For the first time, some 1942 Buicks featured front fenders that swept back all the way to the rear fenders. Car companies had evocative names for every feature back then, so they called these “Airfoil” fenders which, along with a complete absence of running boards, were a unique style in the industry that year and a foreshadowing of future Buick styling themes. The front fenders do kind of look like the profile of an airplane wing, don’t they?
These themes were incorporated into the all-new postwar design, seen in this 1951 Roadmaster. It features “Sweepspear” chrome trim, which would be a long-running Buick styling cue, with and without chrome. 1949 saw the introduction of the front fender “Ventiports”, which were initially functional but soon became strictly cosmetic. These were used on most models through the 60’s and on full-size models though the 70’s.
The Buick’s model names, including Roadmaster, went back to 1936. For 1959, the division decided to replace all their old model names with future-tastic-ramic new ones, including Electra for their luxury flagship models. Surprisingly, two of these new names would outlast the old ones by a good margin.
The 1959 sweepspear evolved into a body-length line descending to the rear of the car. It still resembled the profile of an airplane wing, with the fins adding to the aviation theme. 1958 and 59 Buicks did without the virtual ventilation of Ventiports.
A big part of the original Riviera’s universally-admired styling is the smooth, graceful flow of the fender tops from front to rear, with a gentle rise over the rear wheels and back down again. The very top of the fenders have a razor-edge line running from the front of the car to the rear, including where there is a 3/4 inch horizontal shelf under the side windows which allows the line to continue uninterrupted. Remember that feature, we’ll come back to it later in the story.
Bill Mitchell and the designers wanted a European flavor for the car. Flowing fenders that curve up over the wheels were seen on many Old World cars such as Ferrari, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce, but not on any previous American car that I can think of besides the 56-62 Corvette.
Though the styling was pretty well locked in before the Riviera was given to Buick (it was called LaSalle II in development), the styling fit very well with the division’s established designs. The 42-48 “airfoil” fenders, the 50-53 body side styling which incorporated that look and the 49-58 Sweepspear trim which echoed it all shared the general theme of front fenders flowing rearward, then curving up and over the rear wheels. I see the Riviera’s flowing fender style as a natural evolution of Buick design. It became a new Buick styling cue, used on other models in the 60’s and early 70’s and copied by other divisions and makers. This flow was again used to great effect in the popular 79-85 Riviera.
From 1961-66, Buick dropped the sweepspear style from their full size cars, but did adopt what would become another Buick styling hallmark: horizontal taillights, often wide and often connected with full-width trim, especially on the Electra (64 excepted). Electras would sport some degree of a tailfin look through 1984 (61 and 62 excepted).
On the interior front, the early 1960’s saw another longstanding Big Buick style established: the full-width dashboard. Of course, most cars through the mid 50’s had a full-width style dash but many, including Buick, started moving away from it in the late 50’s. Buick re-embraced the style starting in 61. Except for the period from 68-74, Buick would stick with the style on their big cars all the way through to our subject car.
I’ve always liked the full-width dashboard because it accentuates the interior roominess in large cars.
The Sweepspear showed up in a big way on the 1971 Riviera. The rear end justifiably gets all the attention with these cars, but the sides of the car are equally as bold. The bodyside shaping is very reminiscent of the 40’s and early 50’s models. This doesn’t really further my story, but I can’t resist an opportunity to throw in a gratuitous photo of the boattail Riv, which is one of my favorites. Feel free to disagree!
1975 saw the first Park Avenue, as an Electra option package. It would soon be upgraded to a submodel and remain a popular one through 1990. The 71-76 models sported a stem-to-stern Sweepspear look, somewhat like the 59-60.
The sweepspear made its final appearance on the 77 Century/Regal sedans.
The 77-84 Electra gave up any sweepspear look or flowing flanks, but it does still have wide horizontal taillights and the Park Avenue still held onto its Ventiports. The rigid angularity of GM’s styling starting in the late 70’s precluded any of Buicks’ trademark curves and graceful lines, with the happy exception of the previously mentioned 79 Riviera.
The stand-up style grille with slightly angled-back headlights would be a design Buick would use on many models in the 70’s and 80’s. Though not totally unique, it did become a cue strongly associated with Buick in that period.
The second downsizing of GM’s big cars left even less opportunity for Buick to differentiate itself. It seems like GM could have taken this car and, with slight grille and taillight modifications, plausibly labeled it an Oldsmobile or Pontiac or even Chevy. Come to think of it, they basically did do that!
That being said, I have always found this generation Electra to be pleasant, clean-looking cars, just a bit diminutive and generic to make a great Park Avenue.
All this brings us to Buick’s 1990’s reboot of their flagship sedan. While the pleasant previous generation Electra suffered from a lack of visual distinctiveness, with little to say it was a Buick besides its taillights and Tri Shield badges, for 1991 it practically shouts, “I’m a Buick and I’m damn proud of it!” Most of the design elements discussed above were incorporated into the new car. The grille was more clearly vertically patterned as well as bringing back a mild version of the 70’s/80’s stand up grille. Taillights and trim stretch across the tail, naturally. Rear overhang was increased. Most important was the return of curviness.
This curviness is easy to overlook, as cars got generally curvier increasingly in the 90’s. This continues to today, with many cars having all kinds of curves, flow and character lines, some attractive and some just pointlessly busy. Back in 1991, The Park Avenue managed to be both conservative and a leader in the industry in the return to expressive sedan design. Let’s call it Aggressively Conservative. The Airfoil to Sweepspear to flowing-fender evolution continues with this car. It is low-key, but you can see the early Riviera in the fender line (as well as the contemporary Riviera, of course).
Most Electras had been Park Avenues for years, so Buick made it official and finally dropped the Electra name.
Now, onto our subject car. I believe Buick’s 1997 Park Avenue redo was a styling masterstroke and is arguably the best styling job by Buick since the 1979 Riviera. It certainly was one of GM’s best looking designs to come out of the 90’s. The previous generation Park Avenue had been a strong seller, albeit in gradually declining numbers along with most other Buick and GM models, so Buick kept the styling themes intact while modernizing the look as much as possible without losing it.
The front has just a suggestion of the stand up grille, with the vertical ribbing more pronounced. It’s all very rounded, as was the style in the mid 90’s. One might think they could have given it a substantial facelift somewhere during the car’s run..
Park Avenue moved to the G-platform used by the Olds Aurora and the 95-99 Riviera, but manages to look nothing like them. It gained three inches of wheelbase over the old model, which greatly helped the outward proportions and rear seat room. The wheelbase was once again longer than the LeSabre’s, as the good Lord intended. Generous rear overhang hearkens to the stretched-out rear wheel drive Electras.
It looks kind of like the lower portion of the door is all cladding, but there is actually just a three inch vinyl door guard strip with sheet metal below it.
The defining styling trait remained the continuous gentle flow of the fender line, with a slight kick up over the rear wheels and returning back down. A couple of things really set the Park Avenue 2.0 apart.
One is the line at the top of the fenders created by a sharp crease running from stem to stern, giving a very clearly defined beltline. Having a well defined beltline was a characteristic of most cars from the 50’s and 60’s, but hadn’t been seen as much over the previous 20 years (platform mate LeSabre shares no sheet metal and does not have this crease). It’s hard to see in the pictures, but this line runs under the side windows as well because the bodywork sticks out from the windows creating about a half inch ledge. The flowing fender line topped by a razor-edge line running the length of the car (with the window ledge) is the same feature we noted on the 63-65 Riviera. This is surely not an accident, especially since the 95-99 Riviera shares this feature in slightly milder form (a car I’m surprisingly not a fan of).
Secondly, this beltline is also even more clear than on the previous generation because the beltline has no dropdown under the greenhouse. This dropdown became very common in the front wheel drive era (but not exclusive to FWD cars) and can be seen particularly in the 85-90 model. The cowl and the rear deck are higher than the bottom of the side windows. The dropdown is much milder on the 91-96 model, but it is still there.
Having the beltline and losing any remnant of the greenhouse drop down (my term) gives the car a more fundamentally old-school look, allowing it to lose some of the more superficially retro items like the large stand up grille, faux front window vent panes, most chrome trim and the large chrome door handles. I think this is a huge improvement in this generation.
The sharply creased beltline is also a welcome relief from the 90’s soft corners, roundness and outright bulbousness that seemed to overtake many cars of the time.
No, these aren’t those stick-on fender vents you can buy at Pep Boys. Ventiports weren’t on the car when it was introduced, but they returned in 2003 on the supercharged Ultra model, then on all cars for the 2005 final year.
My least-favorite feature on the car is the oversized wraparound headlights. Automakers were just beginning to feel out the freedom created by composite headlights, with headlights stretching up, down, around and every which way. With all that space, you’d think they could have incorporated the turn signal and amber side marker light into it! There are at least cornering lights (extra light that turns on when the turn signal is used).
Wide taillights and full width trim maintain a styling cue seen continuously up to this point on Buick’s top sedan since the mid 60’s. You can see in this rear angle how the beltline crease comes back to the rear of the car, actually higher than the deck lid. This creates some unique visual interest at the back of the car. Perhaps unintentionally, it is also slightly suggestive to my eyes of the tailfin look that the Electra maintained until it switched to FWD. I know I may be reading too much into it, so I won’t even mention how the angle of the trunk seams recall the 1959 Delta Wing fins. Oops.
Bench seat interior was standard for the last time on a Buick. As mentioned in the intro, this car belongs to my wife’s uncle, Boyd. In 2002, he bought a brand new LeSabre, figuring that the differences from the Park Avenue were superficial and it would be a better value. Unfortunately, he found that he just couldn’t get comfortable in the seats.
The Park Avenue’s front seats are significantly deeper and more substantial. Boyd found them very comfortable and after only a year of ownership, traded his LeSabre in on a lightly used 2002 Park Avenue. Upgrading to a Park Avenue also got you a very roomy and comfortable rear seat. I’m 6’2” and have plenty of leg room.
Boyd drove that Park Avenue for 9 happy years until he had a high speed encounter with a deer. It was a lose-lose situation for both the deer and the Park Avenue, but at least the people survived. Finding himself in need of a car, and in the mood for a change in his life, Boyd bought a new 2013 Honda Accord (his 43rd car and first foreign make).
Within a few months, he realized he wasn’t in the mood for that much change. There wasn’t anything really specifically wrong with the Honda, it just wasn’t his style. He looked at a few alternatives including a Cadillac DTS , but concluded he wasn’t a Caddy sort of guy. Conspicuously missing from his list were the Buick Lucerne or Lacrosse, but more on that later. What he really wanted was a Park Avenue, so he spent a few months looking for the right low mile, creampuff Park Avenue, the youngest of which were seven years old by this time.
He finally found this 2005 car. It’s loaded with everything including a head up display, but is not an Ultra. In keeping with long Buick tradition, it has a full width dash. In fact, it shares its general layout with the 1966 dash seen above. Squint your eyes and you can see it past the 90’s style plastic, rounded corners and curviness.
Another concession to the 90’s-modern style of the time is the complete lack of any brightwork. That did seem modern at the time, but in hindsight at least a little bit of chrome would be welcome. While having a somewhat similar dash to the 2000-2005 LeSabre, that car is different from the woodgrain up and does not have as much full-width styling.
Boyd has been very happy with the car. It now has over 150k miles, much of that highway miles as they drive from Minnesota to Arizona every March and periodically to family in South Dakota and around Minnesota. So far, knock on plastic wood, he has had no major mechanical failures.
Much of that track record is due to both the best and worst thing about the Park Avenue: the 3800 V6. Most of you probably are familiar with the engine, which Buick developed in the early 60’s. By the 90’s, it was a stone cold reliable powerplant that will usually outlast the rest of the car. As a bonus in the era of shared corporate engines, it is a genuine Buick engine.
The problem is that it’s not a particularly powerful engine, especially for a flagship car that has inherited the mantle once held by glamorous vintage Buicks with big, smooth, powerful V8’s. Such a pedestrian powerplant seems kind of underwhelming in such a car as this.
It is practical, though, and for its intended audience of guys like Uncle Boyd, it’s perfect. Gas mileage is excellent for such a large car. Boyd routinely hits 30mpg on highway trips. He loves it, but will admit it is no powerhouse. One time we caravaned with them from Minnesota to Branson, Missouri, the route containing some very long, steep hills in southwest Missouri. My LT1 V8 Caprice wagon had no problems maintaining its speed on the inclines, while the Park Avenue would fall back quite a bit on the steeper grades.
Buick did address the power shortage somewhat by offering a supercharged Ultra version since 1992, giving a 35hp bump to the 3800. Boyd pointedly didn’t want an Ultra because he preferred to have the most reliable and fuel-sipping engine possible.
Hopefully I’ve made my case that the Park Avenue looks like, and in fact is, a Real Buick. But was it the last one? Let’s take a brief look at its Buick flagship successors.
The 2006 Lucerne took the baton from both the Park Avenue and LeSabre, ending the era of multiple full size models for Buick. The Lucerne continued on the Park Avenue’s G platform and while a perfectly capable car, it seems to me that it was sent to surgery to have every last milligram of charisma removed. If you took the waterfall grill, ventiports and badges off it, it would have nothing to identify it as a Buick, or anything else for that matter. A totally generic car. Not a particularly good-looking or ugly car, it just dwelt in the automotive background. The dash was sort of full-width, but also charisma-free. A bench seat was optionally available for traditionalists. It also had a V8 available, so that was pretty cool.
Buick’s sales in China surpassed U.S. sales during this model’s run, setting the stage for Buick’s next top sedan.
The second generation 2010 LaCrosse was engineered and styled in China, though U.S. versions were still built domestically. The Chinese did make it look a bit more like a Buick with a mild Sweepspear. However, the cab forward proportions, tiny hood, strangely placed Ventiports and super-high beltline make it the Urkel of Buicks. Not even cute like the young Urkel. Just awkward, like the teenage Urkel. With substantially smaller dimensions, a standard 4 cylinder engine and no cool V8 option like the Lucerne, I don’t believe this is a worthy Buick flagship.
The third generation 2017 LaCrosse comes across as a much better looking car to my eyes. It’s only an inch longer, but looks like more. Somehow it even carries itself with a little swagger. Does it make a compelling choice among similarly-priced competitors? U.S. sales don’t suggest it does. It’s a moot point, though, since it recently fell victim to the ever-shrinking American market for sedans. But it’s still on sale in China! The smaller but related Regal will soon be Buick’s sole automobile in the U.S.
Could the Enclave have inherited the title of Real Buick? I think maybe so, but I’ll let the commenters have their say on that if they want to.
I believe this is the last Real Buick in a long line of great cars. I’m not arguing that Buick should still be selling the same car. The problem with the Park Avenue is that Buick let it wither on the vine. Nine model years with virtually no change, during which time the market changed significantly. The Park Avenue’s exclusivity also suffered somewhat because all of their automobiles adopted much of the same design cues. The number of car buyers that wanted a sedan that looks (and rides) like a traditional Buick shrank while Buick didn’t develop much of a follow up plan.
Is it possible in the 21st century to build a front wheel drive car that premium buyers really desire? Plenty of other upscale brands have managed to offer cars that people want to pay good money for, such as Chrysler, Lexus, BMW and a certain iconoclast-led upstart American company, though most of the examples I’m thinking of are rear wheel drive. Buick did a great job with the Enclave. Why can’t they do it with a sedan?
Boyd’s Buick is 15 years old (based on build date) and going strong. A little rust is cropping up on the bottom of the doors, though he tries to keep the salt washed off in the winter. He has no plans to replace it, but you never know what fate or the deer population has in store. Let’s give this fine example of the last Real Buick the celebration it deserves.