Just two weekends ago, I had taken the Amtrak from Chicago to Ann Arbor, Michigan for an overnight stay. My dad had been a professor at U of M, but at the campus in Flint (where we lived), so I hadn’t spent any significant amount of time on the main campus in Ann Arbor aside from participation in a two-week program in the summer of ’87.
It remains to be seen whether “Governor Blanchard’s Future Problem Solvers” on-site seminar made any lasting, significant contribution to my ability to untangle messes, but if anything, it did provide a useful window into what college life would resemble if I was fortunate enough to attend (which I was). The purpose of this visit was much more somber, as I was there for a celebration of the life of the mother of one of my closest and best friends since childhood (she and I have known each other since the summer of 1980), who has recently passed away.
On the morning of the mid-day gathering of my friend’s family and loved ones, I was up early and had felt compelled to take a ride-share car into the area in and around campus just to walk around in the crisp, autumn air and take some pictures while everything was still washed in the warm glow of the Sunday morning light. For whatever reason, the students were already having a “fall break” (I don’t remember that even being a thing, twenty years ago), and there was no football that day, so the streets and sidewalks were mostly empty except for an occasional jogger or two. Quiet and calm were exactly what I needed that morning as I prepared to console my friend and her family. Walking around U of M, my late father’s employer and the sole source of our family’s income, felt soothing and was a powerful reminder of Dad and the ways he provided for us and positively impacted the lives of his students.
It also brought back a lot of memories of my own college experiences and made me realize just how much time had passed since then. I didn’t fear too much about appearing like some creepy, old dude (Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” comes to mind) simply because there was no one around, it was pretty cold outside, and the buildings on campus are breathtakingly beautiful and worthy of viewing on their own merits. (If U of M isn’t currently offering an architectural walking tour, they should consider it.) Not every building is a beauty winner, but several of them along maybe a three-block stretch of South University Avenue, including the William L. Clements Library and the Lawyers’ Club were stunners and displayed real artistry and craftsmanship.
It was against this backdrop when another, man-made object with beautiful, old architecture came into view behind the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house: our featured 1977 Buick LeSabre coupe. Darn it, Joe, I said to myself, as I wondered if I should risk having to explain to an unsympathetic, hungover frat guy what I was doing early on a (very cold) Sunday morning, taking pictures of his prized Buick. I manned-up, realizing I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and got a couple of frames before I continued on my way.
Buick… LeSabre… As I walked, keeping a pretty steady pace on foot, I kept repeating these words as if part of a chant. When I think back to my college years in Florida, this LeSabre would undoubtedly have been an object of near-universal derision, no matter what condition it was in. This big, beautiful, black bruiser would be the exact opposite of what would be found in my dormitory’s parking lot twenty-plus years ago: There were Hondas, Acuras, Escorts and other domestic small cars – pretty much anything that would neatly fit into one economy-sized parking space. (Granted, this LeSabre appears to be parked with room to spare on either side, but I suspect that these painted, yellow lines had a more generous width between them than those I was accustomed to while in school.)
Years later, though, this LeSabre is a certified classic (and not just an old car), and it’s parked on a college campus less than an hour west of the Motor City. There’s no doubt that Michigan pride in our homegrown products has trickled down to later generations that came along decades after the heyday and marketplace dominance of the Detroit Three automakers.
I’m guessing as to the model year (judging by the taillamps, it could also be a ’78), but I went with model year ’77 only because this LeSabre features the header panel of a ’77 Electra, which I think looks nice here. So what, if it’s wearing a slightly different face than it was born with? Isn’t that part of what college is about: trying on different hats in becoming a more fully-realized version of oneself? I know I did just that, and I have little holes in both earlobes and left nostril to show for it, as well as old pictures as receipts.
The conundrum with a car this size, and with this really nice example in particular, is that while it’s probably large enough for the owner to fit four people in the back seat (in a pinch) and another one in front (note that there are individual seats up there), would the owner really want to be the designated driver that night for everybody and risk some booze-related mishap occurring on the beautiful, beige cloth interior of this car? Thank goodness for the ease of Uber and Lyft, though I probably wouldn’t have been able to regularly afford that luxury back then as a student, myself.
These Buick road wheels are among my favorite designs of all-time, and they perfectly complement the lines of this car. They’re angular, but with just enough curvature to look harmonious with this LeSabre’s graceful overall appearance. Under the hood, standard power for ’77 came from a non-turbo 231-cubic inch (3.8L) V6 with just 105 horsepower, though I doubt many of these cars left the factory with one, given the coupe’s 3,500-pound starting weight. Ditto, for the turbocharged version of the same engine, which had an extra 45 horses. The top mill was Oldsmobile’s 403-cubic inch V8 with 185 horsepower. Sedans handily outsold the coupes that year, with 124,000 of the former produced against 67,000 of the latter, with coupes accounting for just over one-third of total production that year.
Aside from one other bonafide Curbside Classic spotted that morning (which, hopefully, will be profiled at a later date), I saw nothing else like this LeSabre during my brief jaunt to and from Michigan. On a college campus chock-full of vehicles like the Ford Escape, Kia Soul, Honda Element, and the like, this thankfully-preserved LeSabre truly looked distinctive and like a million bucks. It’s true that while the “B.M.O.C.” acronym as applied to this car could stand for the obvious “Big Man On Campus”, I’d like to substitute “Buicks Make Outstanding Cruisers” (note the faux-license plate up front). This LeSabre is holding it down for lovers of the era when “large” and “sporty” were not seen as being mutually exclusive.
Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Sunday, October 13, 2019.