Curbside Classic: 1976 Buick Regal Sedan – The End-Stage Beater


What is there to say about GM’s Colonnade cars of the mid 1970’s that we have not already said here at CC?  Sometimes, however, one presents itself and just begs to be photographed and shared.  Sometimes because they are beautiful, well-kept originals that have been lovingly maintained by longtime owners.  Or, sometimes because they are the complete opposite.  Like this one, for example.

I was in high school when these cars were new.  At the time I thoroughly detested them.  Because they were so ubiquitous and so boring.  And because I was a teenager, if we must give a full answer.  My mother bought a Pontiac version in 1974 and I got to know that car extremely well.  I treated it just as you might expect when you combine a teenage driver with an attitude of contempt for the car.  Let’s just say that had the Luxury LeMans spent a lot more time in my young hands it might have looked like this one by about 1980.

The early 1980’s became an era of expensive gasoline.  In that environment these cars morphed from symbols of suburban conformity and social acceptability to “good beater”.  Good beater was better than “cheap beater”, which consisted of much rustier ’70s Fords and pretty much anything built by Chrysler before 1979.  Good beaters remained in mostly decent condition (except for rear bumpers with rust holes behind the peeling chrome) and provided moderately cheap transportation for someone a couple of steps up from the bottom rung of Life’s Ladder and who needed a reliable car.

By the late ’80s these got down into cheap beater territory, kicked out of their “good beater” status by the 1977-79 B body cars that were more spacious and efficient.  And from that point, of course, most of them were slowly used up and thrown away.

Sometimes, however, you see the straggler.  This is a straggler.  It was probably maintained in Grandma Esther’s garage until she had her stroke in 2001 and was then forced to join the vehicular rat race wherein pretty much every new car eventually lands in a junk yard.  I call that final state before meeting Sanford & Son an “end stage beater”.

The end stage beater is its own thing.  It is the kind of car that most people would hesitate to even sit down in for fear of catching something from the gross seats.  The end stage beater has usually been leaking water for years and has some bad mildew issues in the trunk and in the carpets.  The floors are soft from rust, and there has not been a functioning air conditioner or two matching tires in at least ten years.  Most of the dash lights are burned out, but it doesn’t matter because none of the instruments work.

But the car does one thing: It starts (almost) every day and rolls to its destination so that its owner can get to a minimum wage job which gets him/her one day closer to making the rent or buying some hamburger and potatoes.  As long as the car starts, moves, turns and (kind of) stops it is fit for duty as an end-stage beater.

Only the best cars make it to end stage beater status.  Try as you might, you will probably never see a Ford Contour or a second generation Intrepid in this combination of age and condition.  Cars like those suffered from so many life-threatening diseases – they are like the guy who keels over from a massive coronary at age 49 – well before all of the other side effects of aging and bad life-choices have a chance to show themselves.  The end stage beater is like the 79-year old guy with emphysema, diabetes and mobility-robbing arthritis who still drags his butt out to the kitchen every morning to make himself some breakfast.  To be clear, I admire people like that.  And I admire cars like this.

Some end stage beaters have begun life as cars that were not so impressive, like the Plymouth Volare.  This Buick, however, would have been the object of some pride when it was first brought home in 1976.  The neighbors would not have cared so much about the durable Buick V8 or the Turbo Hydra Matic transmission that brought its maker back into the lead lap in transmission design.  This Buick would have impressed simply by being a Buick.  It was reasonably well designed, reasonably well built and an attractive overall package.

The stacked rectangular headlights are an acquired taste for those of us today, but in 1976 these said “I’m a new and modern car.”  It was a fairly successful update of a three-year-old car that still had a couple of years left to go in its duty cycle.

I would argue that out of all of the Colonnade models, Buick was the most consistently good-looking for the entire five year run.  (Gee, was it only five years?  It seemed like about twelve at the time.)  Other Divisions may have offered a looker in a certain year or certain body style, but the Buicks did so more consistently.

I still see those good looks peeking through the hard use.  Although perhaps a little  less on the inside where the patented General Motors Multi-Hue Plastics turned to wildly different colors after starting out in the same shade.  Oh well, the interiors were always these cars’ weakest area.  And we should be amazed that any of the super squishy weatherstripping remains on this old geezer.  I remember that stuff when it was new, never having seen weatherstripping so soft and effective.  Oh well.

I had not realized at first how rare this car is.  The Regal sedan is one of only 17,118 built.  The only model of the whole Buick A body line (305k units in all) that appeared in lower numbers was the Century Custom station wagon, and even then the difference was only about 600 cars.  The sedan output of the entire Century/Regal line was only around 54k units.  Compare this with the 124,498 Regal coupes for the year.  Or over 500k for the Cutlass line.

Although Buick was reaching for the sport/performance market in 1976, the original buyer of this car picked one from smack in the middle of Buick’s traditional slice of the market – understated luxury.

And I am not holding the chalky paint against this car (and certainly not against the current owner).  There was something about GM’s paint formulations in these years that made these lacquer finishes chalk like nobody’s business.  It took a lot of polishing to keep the chalk-monster at bay, something that this poor car has not seen in a long time.

And this was not just an issue with the red paints (Boston Red?) either, although they were among the worst.  Most of the darker colors suffered from this shortcoming.  There was not a lot that Chrysler did better than GM in 1976, but paint durability was certainly among them.

I shot these pictures after a big snow last winter.  I had driven by the car almost daily for several months, always vaguely intending to shoot some pictures.  But it was on this Day-After-The-Snowstorm that this old sled showed what it was really made of by making the hard slog into work just as normal.  That day I drove out at lunchtime just to take these pictures as my little way of saluting this old dog.

It was a perfect day for pictures, showing off a passenger door that would not latch in the cold (possibly giving away that the driver’s door went the opposite direction and would not open at all because of the quick and dirty plastic replacement for the broken window.)  This Regal looked a little less than regal, but I didn’t care.  That was the day I began giving the car an admiring glance and a little mental “thumb’s up” each time I passed it.

In the years before its bankruptcy and reorganization, GM all too often built cars with the attitude that they deserved  special recognition just for being there.  This car, at this time and location, actually did deserve special recognition just for being there.  Every one of us who has owned a Cheap Beater (or lower in the hierarchy) knows that for every fault that is open for others to see there are at least three faults that are known only to the owner.  This car is surely no different.  Did it need brake or power steering or transmission fluid added twice a week?  Did the fuel tank leak above 2/3 full?  Maybe the heater had been bypassed due to the leaky heater core. Or perhaps none of the blend doors worked because of a massive vacuum leak.

I am sad to report that by mid spring of last year the Regal stopped coming around.  We all know what happened.  When the people we personally know succumb to their final illness there is at least a death notice or obituary to let us know what happened.  There is no such opportunity when an end-stage beater finally suffers from that one last failure that makes the owner say “That’s it, there is no fixing this.”  The car just disappears from sight.  So let this missive serve as my offer of condolences to the anonymous former owner of this stouthearted car that went just about as far as a car can go with the hand it was dealt.  We should all be as dedicated as this old Regal.