Our minds are often drawn to extremes. When thinking of 1970s cars, we tend to think of either tinny econoboxes or bulbous broughams. This car was neither – and it was Buick’s best seller in 1978. Few cars have shared the Regal’s good fortune of finding itself at the confluence of several helpful trends. Downsized for 1978 (when downsizing was still welcome), offered only as a two-door (when the personal luxury coupe market was hitting its peak), and priced competitively (crucial in an era of economic insecurity), Regal possessed what was needed to succeed. And succeed it did – with nearly a quarter million examples having been sold in its introductory year alone. It was neither big or small, flashy or bland, cheap or expensive. Sometimes, moderation sells.
Buick’s Regal first debuted for 1973 as part of the intermediate Century line, with somewhat undefined marching orders. At first it was called the Century Regal, then became its own model… initially it was only offered as a coupe, then a year later Buick added a sedan version. But Regal delivered where it mattered – just by being a slightly more upscale variety of Century. In the mid-1970s, a fashionable coupe was exactly what the car market hankered for. Details about whether it was badged a Century or not hardly mattered; the Regal coupe sold 91,000 units in its first year, increasing to 174,000 by 1977.
Regal’s success wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. During the 1970s, North American roads teemed with new Monte Carlos, Thunderbirds, Cutlass Supremes, Cordobas, and other personal luxury coupes that populated this hottest of market segments. Today, awash in our current automotive trend of crossovers, it’s hard to fathom that large two-door cars with exaggerated styling and loose-pillow upholstery were once the industry’s biggest fad, but in fact they were. Given how the 1973-77 Regal raked in customers, it’s little wonder that Buick concocted a similar formula when General Motors redesigned its A-body cars for 1978.
Because the 1977 full-size B-bodies, such as the LeSabre above, successfully broke the ice with consumers regarding downsized cars, GM was sanguine about its next round of downsizing: The A-cars. Though not as groundbreaking as the pioneering B-body, this still represented a significant risk for GM, since the A-car family included high-volume intermediates from four divisions, including a quartet of popular coupes: Regal, Olds Cutlass Supreme, Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
GM’s confidence was well placed, because by using similar weight- and space-saving techniques as used with the B-bodies’ diet, the new A-cars managed to provide similar interior space as their predecessors despite smaller exterior dimensions. Shaving off 550 lbs. and roughly a foot of length, the ’78 Regal still carried 4 people in comfort (5 or 6 in a pinch) and provided a generously-sized trunk. Unlike earlier A-bodies, which featured shorter wheelbases for the coupe models, these new A-special coupes rode on the same 108.1” wheelbase as the sedans and wagons. Interestingly, with this latest round of downsizing, GM’s intermediates such as Regal were about the same size as its now-dated compacts (such as Skylark), which were to be replaced the following year.
In addition to a smaller size, the A-body cars were designed to drive more responsively, with less wallow than their larger predecessors. As befitting a Buick, Regal still bestowed its passengers a smooth, quiet ride… just a bit more controllable than its ancestors’, and the standard suspension could be upgraded to the more stiffly-sprung FE2 package for just $38.
Importantly, Regal provided this downsized package with a modern appearance and at a reasonable price. Buick must have employed some creative ad copy writers in 1978 – a “down-to-earth dream car” may be overstating its virtues, as was calling Regal’s combination of qualities “romance and realism.” But the point is well taken. Consumers wanted a safe bet and were tiring of gaudiness. This Regal delivered everything that people wanted… not to excess, but rather in moderation. On second thought, maybe that is a down-to-earth dream.
Regal’s design presented a clean break from the ornate gingerbread that had come to dominate Detroit’s larger cars. This was a squarish, unfussy design, epitomized by our featured car due to its lack of optional decoration such as a vinyl roof or two-tone paint. But even examples with some extra glamour projected a sensibility that was rare just a few years earlier. The two rectangular headlamps (only recently okayed by US regulators) formed the car’s most prominent feature, and these were flanked by a mildly-slanted grille seemingly inspired by Buick’s 1977-78 Riviera.
Regal’s rear end was simplicity itself, with a minimum of ornamentation and a design focused on the long, rectangular tail lights. This particular car is missing its small Buick badge and the even smaller trunk lock surround that featured the tiny text of “Regal” – though the presence of these badges hardly cluttered up the trunklid.
Just about the only extraneous glamour on this car can be found on the hood ornament. Buick was evidently reluctant to part with heraldic-inspired imagery, variations of which the division had used for decades.
1978 Regals were offered in three trim levels, starting with the base model like our featured car, which carried a starting price of $4,852 – or 11% higher than the base 2-door Century. From there, buyers could spend $381 more for a Limited, which offered a split bench seat and some additional trim pieces, or splurge for the top-of-the-line turbocharged Sport Coupe, starting at $5,853.
Base and Limited Regals came standard with an anemic 3.2-liter V-6 that cranked out only 90 hp, and could be loved by only the most miserly of fuel-crisis-era buyers. For just $40 extra, Buick offered a 105-hp 3.8-liter V-6, which provided the 3,000-lb. Regal with more acceptable performance for its day (a 5.0-liter V-8 was also available, as a $190 option). Our featured car came equipped with the 3.8, as well as an automatic transmission (manuals were standard in ’78, but rarely ordered). So equipped, a Regal could reach 60 mph in about 14 seconds.
Buick likely realized that the bulk of Regal’s market lie between the model’s price extremes. The above ad was one of a series highlighting the value offered by moderately-equipped Regals, with a 3.8 V-6, automatic transmission, power steering and other popular options – all for a price that undercut Ford’s Thunderbird and Chrysler’s Cordoba, which lacked Regal’s sensible size and clean, contemporary styling.
When I first noticed this car, I was amazed by its apparently original condition, down to the standard “Deluxe wheel covers.” Elaborate C-pillar pinstriping was the only detail that seemed unoriginal. Then I looked inside. In marked contrast to the bone-stock exterior, this Regal’s interior had been, well… modified. Most of the car’s upholstered or plastic surfaces were covered by what looked like shag carpeting, velour and quilted padding – some evidence of this can be seen by enlarging the above picture, but I didn’t photograph the inside.
To discuss Regal’s interior, we can look at images of similar cars. Most noticeable is the instrument panel and dash, which were clearly designed by enthusiasts of quadrilaterals. Square and rectangles abound, as if Buick intentionally offered a counterpoint to corporate rival Grand Prix’s 13 round dashboard apertures. Three square bezels directly in front of the driver contained a speedometer, fuel gauge and clock (unless a buyer didn’t order the $22 clock, in which case the driver stared at a blank space with sixty little lines, indicating a clock should go there, but with no numerals or clock hands). A separate, squarish center module held the radio and HVAC controls.
Aside from the driveshaft tunnel intrusion, Regal’s rear seat was satisfactorily comfortable. The high roofline provided good headroom, although the small side windows didn’t lend themselves to back seat sightseeing.
Like many cars of its era, Regal could be equipped anywhere on the continuum from stripped down to lavish. This brochure image shows a fully-equipped Limited interior, and its custom cloth upholstery. With coupes like these Regals a hot item in the late 1970s, GM wanted its A-specials to appeal to a wide spectrum of buyers. Interiors could be spartan, with a vinyl single-bench seat and no power controls, or they could seem as plush as a Cadillac. Prices varied too… fully-equipped Regals could approach $10,000 – double the car’s base price.
Without seeing our featured car’s interior, it’s hard to figure out just how well- or sparsely-equipped it is, but the exterior holds some insights. Befitting an era when carbuyers could choose from dozens of individual options, this car reveals some interesting choices. For example, the original owner eschewed the $33 protective body side moldings but spent $52 for sport mirrors. Such were the choices folks could make in 1978; in fact, the Regal option list was mindboggling. Customers could pick from three different steering wheels, three types of floor mats, seven different radios, four types of antennas, and so on. You could have a Buick your way…
…which was the slogan of Western Motor (“One Way / Your Way”), as seen on the period front booster plate. Incidentally, Western Buick’s showroom is just three blocks from where this Regal was photographed, and the dealership still uses the slogan, even though carbuying has changed greatly from the days of being able to customize your own car.
A great deal of Buick’s hopes were placed on the Regal’s shoulders. Sales of the outgoing 2-dr. Regal peaked in its final year, at over 174,000 units, or one-fifth of Buick’s total output. Though certainly impressive, even that high-water mark was eclipsed by sales of the downsized ’78 model. Over 236,000 of these cars found homes during their first year of production alone, and Regal’s share of Buick output increased to 30 percent. Interestingly, the 1978 Regal outsold the Century on which it was based by about three-to-one.
Carbuyers in the late 1970s loved this car, and its popularity was widespread. Like other personal coupes of its day, Regal found popularity among a wide range of age groups — these cars were often used as family haulers, retirement cars, bachelormobiles, and others.
Regal sales remained at over 200,000 through 1984, though between 1982 and ’84 the Regal lineup included four-doors and wagons (wagons for ’82 and ’83 only) as well as the coupe. In a move aimed at confusing future generations, GM changed these cars’ body designation from A to G for 1982 when the front-drive Century et al. inherited the A-body moniker. Afterwards, Regal and its cohort were known as the G-specials, rather than the A-specials.
The coupe soldiered on through 1987, though in later years its marketplace appeal became more limited as the number of customers who wanted large, two-door coupes dwindled.
By the late 1980s, coupe sales were in rapid decline, a trend well illustrated by looking at Regal’s proportion of total Buick production. When our featured car debuted for 1978, two-door Regals accounted for 30 percent new Buicks, but during the last three model years of the A/G-specials, Regal’s share of Buick production hovered between just 10 and 12 percent, and most other two-doors in Buick’s lineup were likewise entering their twilight years as well.
Buick’s personal luxury coupe wasn’t quite dead after 1987, since the next generation’s Regal two-door was briefly a strong seller in 1988, but that was the species’ last gasp. Though the Regal coupe survived through 1996, the model’s seven final years yielded fewer cars than were produced for 1978 alone.
The late 1970s offered up a great variety of cars – some extravagant, some flimsy, some enormous and some minuscule. But in many cases, the sweet spot lay in between. For Buick, that sweet spot was occupied by a cleanly-designed, value-priced, average-performing mid-size two-door car. Moderation in its extreme can sometimes be mighty popular.
Photographed in Garden City, Kansas in June 2019.
1986 Buick Regal Limited: Rhapsody In Black Jason Shafer