Airport Classic: 1981 Buick Regal Indy 500 Pace Car – The Real McCoy

The Buick brand is one that I hold close to my heart, as I grew up in the city in which this make had once called its world headquarters home for almost a century.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Flint, Michigan, at one point, probably had the highest concentration of Buicks on the road than any other place on Earth.  Town pride in Buick was very palpable when I was growing up, even as evidenced by a gigantic Tri-Shield sign and billboard that greeted northbound travelers on U.S. Route 23 with an enthusiastic “Welcome To The Buick City!”  This GM brand wasn’t even the only one we represented, as we also built Chevrolets and GMCs, in addition to other factories that built components used by various divisions (AC Spark Plug, Dupont, etc.).

I had toured the Buick factory, colloquially known as “Buick City” for its last couple of decades, many times up through my teenage years, the last such instance being the summer of 1991, when the J.D. Power & Associates-awarded LeSabres were being built.  We kids were given a whole bunch of Buick swag upon completion of the tour, including an orange “Buick City” fanny pack which I would never use, but wish I still had.  Even today, the local vintage and thrift stores in the area will have more than a few Buick mementos for sale from a time when GM’s near-luxury make was still pumping out upscale, respected Rivieras and Park Avenues at a reasonable clip.

I usually make it back to Flint about four times annually, including right around this time of year, at the invitation of a close high school friend and a group of us “Flintstones” who went to school together.  She and her husband really know how to make folks feel welcome, and usually one of them is right there to pick me up from the Amtrak station within five to ten minutes of my train’s arrival back near my old neighborhood in Flint.  It has traditionally been a toss-up between a bunch of us going out and meeting up at one of Flint’s still-fun night spots, or having folks over to their house.  I’m always good with either, as going out would allow me to relive some fun times at old Flint institutions that are still in business, but with a house gathering, I feel there are better odds of actually having conversations with people and getting to know someone better.  It’s also a good thing for me that their couch is super-comfortable.

Last year’s get-together was a great time, and I’m pretty sure I went to the couch smiling that night, once the other guests had left.  I had set the alarm on my phone in preparation for my early, 7:30 AM return train home to Chicago, had my carry-on bag packed, and even had my jeans, t-shirt, and meal-replacement breakfast bar sitting on my suitcase.  This was to facilitate an easy exit so all the host would have to do would be to fire up the old Silverado, and we gentlemen could be on our way to the station.  This all went according to plan… mostly.  My alarm went off, and it was its usual, lovely tone, sounding as it does like a Brazilian rainforest.  So… very… soothing.  Ahhhh.

The next thing I knew, there was light coming in through the living room curtains.  Oh, snap.  Glancing at my phone, I realized that my train back to Chicago had left more than an hour ago, and there were no more trains heading back that day, as it was a holiday (Presidents Day).  What had happened?  The only thing I could think of is that I must have turned off the alarm with the full intent of getting up, closed my still-tired eyes for “just a few minutes”, which then led to unconsciousness and likely the sawing of the proverbial logs.  At my request, my host and hostess then drove me to the airport, so I could rent a car to get back to Chicago, as I had to work the next day.

Sour at myself for my temporary lapse in good judgement at letting myself fall back to sleep instead of leaping into action as planned (a plan that had been successfully carried out multiple times before), I smiled and waved goodbye to my friends and entered Bishop International Airport, thinking about the price difference between a forty dollar return train ticket to Chicago and what would likely be another hundred fifty dollars for the now necessary car rental or plane ticket.  It was under these circumstances that my jaw dropped upon coming across this 1981 Buick Regal Pace Car parked on the floor, sectioned off, near the departures area of the airport.  Was this to be considered redemption of some sort?

Nineteen Eighty-One was the year the popular Regal A- (later G-) Body coupe was restyled, following its successful downsizing for model year ’78.  The 240,000 or so Regals (which were still all coupes that year) sold for ’81 represented close to a 12% increase over the prior year’s 215,000 figure, even if 1980 had been a recession year.  A gain is a gain.   The ’81 restyle was, in my opinion, a very successful one, with its rakish, sloping shovel-nosed frontal styling and attractively squared-up rear deck.  It may not be as dramatic and as immediately striking to me as a concurrent Dodge Mirada coupe (which turned out to be unsuccessful in the marketplace), but it’s still a handsome machine and a great basis, aesthetically, for an Indy Pace car.

Two different sources had indicated that either 100 or 150 ’81 Regal Pace Car replicas had been built (the jury’s still out), but reading further, I realized that what I had seen and photographed at Bishop Airport was not one of the replicas that were available to the public, but rather one of the original two pace cars (one paces the race, and a backup is also required to be built).  American Sunroof Company (ASC) was responsible for the official pace cars, with their modifications to a t-roof-equipped Regal including removal of the rear section of the roof, and installation of a folding, cloth top, a roll bar, and a special, custom, leather interior featuring Recaros and a maple, orange and red color scheme.  Buick installed a heavily modified, naturally aspirated 4.1L V6 rated at 281 horsepower in these two cars.

The replicas, by contrast, were handled by Cars & Concepts.  Unlike the official pace cars, they lacked the partial convertible roof section, roll bar and custom interior, but otherwise featured the same exterior graphics.  Also, in place of the modified 4.1L V6 was a naturally-aspirated 3.8L V6 with just the normally-rated 110-hp.  I still say they all look pretty cool, and much like an appropriately modernized version of the ’76 Buick Century V6 Indy Pace Car.

As I (begrudgingly) drove my rental car the four-and-a-half hours or so back to Chicago, I did a lot of reflecting on both Buick’s past, present and possibilities for the future.  There’s so much to emotionally unpack, with regard to my hometown of Flint and its relationship to Buick, for many of us from that area.  Much like as in a dysfunctional relationship between two individuals, it’s hard to deny the mutual love that once seemed so unbreakable, yet a collective feeling of abandonment following Buick’s wholesale departure from the Flint area has left many of us questioning whether or not our love had ultimately been justified.

The recent announcement of the imminent discontinuation of Buick’s remaining passenger cars following their current model cycles has only brought many of these feelings back to the surface, even if none of those new cars are built in Flint.  Still, the sight of this hot Buick pace car from my elementary school years brought joy to what would have, otherwise, been a day filled with both memories of a fun evening with friends and the regret of my temporary lapse in good judgement.

Flint, Michigan.
Monday, February 18, 2019.