(first posted 4/3/2017) Buick’s ‘Banker’s Hot Rod’ of the 1970s was the Centurion. It replaced the Wildcat, which in turn had succeeded the Invicta and Super. Despite the name changes, the Centurion was much like its forebears in that it followed a simple formula: take a regular full-size Buick, give it a bigger engine, and price it for less than the flagship Electra.
By the 1970s, the full-size market was embracing cars like the Ford LTD and Chevrolet Caprice, which offered luxurious accoutrements and commensurately upscale styling. The concept of a sporty full-size car had become almost outré—Buick, of all brands, was the last man standing. Perhaps so as not to cripple the Centurion’s chances of success, Buick had made the car as anonymous as possible and avoided making it look overtly sporty. Even Buick’s trademark Ventiports were gone, meaning the Centurion was visually less decorated than the LeSabre from whence it came. Interior trim was slightly nicer but not dramatically so, and there was no bucket-and-console set-up like in past sporty full-size cars.
The Centurion, therefore, seemed a full-size Buick for those with discerning tastes. A buyer who simply had to have the largest V8 available, who preferred a firmer suspension and more agile handling. Somebody who watched Car & Track on CBS. That buyer would have seen Bud Lindeman’s review, where he called the Centurion the best Buick he’d ever tested and the best buy in the entire Buick fleet. The late Mr. Lindeman also extolled the virtues of the Centurion’s surprisingly agile handling, drawing a sharp contrast to the wallowing, overtly plush dynamics of other Buicks.
For those in the know, the Buick was a good buy. For everybody else, the Centurion was an unknown quantity. The print media campaign for the Centurion didn’t serve to explain what the Centurion was other than the fact it came with a wide range of Buick features like AccuDrive. Visually, the car looked 95% like a LeSabre but for a funny little badge on the back. “Hey, Merv, what the heck is a Centurion?” “I don’t know, Maude, that looks like a LeSabre to me!”
Opting for a Centurion over a lesser LeSabre would have cost a shopper around $300-600. For that extra cash, the buyer received Buick’s 455 cubic-inch V8 with a 4-barrel carbureter instead of the LeSabre’s standard 350. The big-block packed an extra 80 or so horses than the 350, with a recorded 315 hp (gross) or 225 hp after the ’72 change to net horsepower ratings, and it reached 60 mph in around 9.5 seconds. Blame the 4500-pound curb weight for that number which, to modern eyes, seems quite slow considering the sheer size of the engine and the accordingly awful gas mileage.
A column-mounted three-speed manual was initially the standard transmission but was quickly discontinued, with Buick making the three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic standard fitment. Optional was a high-output version of the 455 with dual exhausts, good for an extra 20 or so horsepower. All Centurions came with a firmer suspension tune than the regular LeSabre.
Total volume for 1971 consisted of 15,345 hardtop sedans, 11,892 hardtop coupes and a measly 2,161 convertibles (no post sedan was offered). Much as the sporty full-size coupe had almost entirely disappeared from the market, so too had the full-size convertible—Chrysler and Ford had discontinued theirs in 1970 and 1972, respectively, leaving only GM in the segment by 1973. Sales had been dwindling since the late 1960s and the threat of proposed rollover standards would eventually lead to the style’s demise.
Surprisingly, sales increased each year the Centurion remained on sale, from 29,398 in 1971, to 36,435 in 1972 and then 44,976 in 1973. That wasn’t bad for a model with no name recognition and relatively niche appeal, although many of those sales may just have been from buyers looking for a LeSabre with a more powerful engine. But those buyers would dry up very quickly after the oil crisis of 1973 as fuel economy became a serious concern.
Model year 1973 brought bigger 5-MPH front bumpers and a new standard engine, the Buick 350, but it would be the Centurion’s last. All was not lost, however. A Buick buyer in 1974 could option a LeSabre Luxus with the Ride and Performance package, consisting of the 455 4-bbl V8 as well as special mouldings and a custom steering wheel. No mention was made in Buick brochures of any suspension enhancements in this package, however.
Even reviews of the early 1970s discussed Buick’s rather crusty image, a complaint that has endured even into the 21st century. It’s therefore rather fascinating to see just how hard Buick worked to combat these preconceptions. Beyond the Centurion, there were athletic offerings like the GS and Century GS and boldly-styled cars like the boat-tail Riviera.
While the oil crisis sealed the fate of Buick’s big-block engines and cars like the Centurion, Buick was back at the task of wooing enthusiasts by the end of the decade with the Century Turbo Coupe and LeSabre Sport Coupe. The brand may still be fighting a stodgy image today but they have never been without at least a moderately sporty offering for long, even during the 1990s and 2000s. And in the 1970s, they had the Centurion when cars like the Ford XL, Plymouth Sport Fury and Pontiac 2+2 were long gone.