Curbside Classic: 1985 Buick Electra Park Avenue – Best-Dressed C-Body Of The Year

(first posted 1/21/2013)   In 1985, Buick still had an enviable position in the GM hierarchy. Though plenty of older folks gravitated to the make, Buick was not yet known as a senior special. Cars like the N-body Somerset and G-Body Regal coupe–particularly the Grand National–meant there were still plenty of younger buyers interested in a Buick. Though the LeSabre and Electra were quite traditional–and big–in 1984, that started to change with the 1985 C-Body Electra and Park Avenue and their very modern makeover.

But not everyone was quite ready to join the future. The 1977-vintage full-size Buicks, refreshed for 1980, were quite plush, roomy, and stately cars. The term, “big as a Buick” was and is a common term, and there was no denying the 1984 models were Buicks. They just had that look.

In fact, the push-back on the 1985 C-bodies was more or less due to the styling, or rather, the idea of paying similar or more money for a smaller, less-prestigious looking (for the time) car. Indeed, the ’85s, were only slightly smaller in terms of interior space than the outgoing ’84 land yachts. But well-to-do middle aged professionals who had been buying Buicks for years had been raised on the idea of bigger is better, and some were resistant to the change.

Still, the 1985 Electra was a revelation in American cars. Much like the contemporary Volvo 740 and Audi 5000, the styling was trim and clean, with great space utilization. And the forward-hinged hood was very unusual for a domestic car. This was a Buick?

Well, yes. Despite the modern style and space efficiency, there was still plenty of chrome and interior features to remind you that you were in one of Flint’s finest. Interiors were done up in high-quality cloth in Electras and velour or optional leather in Park Avenues. There was no shortage of faux-wood trim or power assists inside, either.

Despite all the newness, and heavy comparison with German luxury cars in period ads, there was still an Electra coupe, a throwback of sorts, as the Sport Sedan Era was well on its way to permanently displacing the Great Brougham Epoch.

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Even Buick was getting in on this new direction, with the Electra T-Type. True, there were T-Type Regals before, but this was the first time the big Buick got the treatment. Much of the chrome trim was replaced with black or gray moldings, and the faux wood trim found inside other Electras was replaced with brushed gray trim.

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This time it wasn’t strictly an appearance package, as in many “appearance muscle cars” seen in the late ’70s. T-Type Electras gained a firmer suspension, quicker steering ratio, and standard alloy wheels with Eagle GT performance tires. A leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and 135-hp 3.8L V6 were also included. The 3.8 was shared with the Park Avenue, while base Electras got the 110-hp 181 CID V6. 4,644 T-Type sedans and coupes were built for inaugural ’85, and while the sedan would last through 1990, the coupe was gone after one year. All in all, it was an attractive model–a mix of traditional GM biggie and BMW. The Great American Driving Machine?

Models came in base Electra, Park Avenue, and T-Type models. The Park Avenue was still the top of the line, with wide chrome rocker moldings, opera lamps set into the B-pillar and pillowed velour interior trim. And despite the hemming and hawing from some quarters, 1985 Electras sold just fine, thank you very much.

1986 Electra coupe

The top-trim Park Avenue sedans wildly outsold the coupes, with 131,011 sedans and 5,852 coupes sold. Finding any Electra coupe would be a real find today, as they were only built from 1985-87 and never sold like the 1977-84 Electra 2-doors.

As befitting of a Buick, the Park Avenues were not cheap, but not quite as dear as a comparable shrunken Cadillac de Ville or Fleetwood. Park Avenue sedans started at $16,240, with the comparable coupe selling for $160 less. The third member of the new FWD GM full-sizers was the Olds Ninety Eight Regency, which went for a bit less than the Electra, but was a lot Broughamier. While the Electra was sleek and modern despite its chrome, the Olds (CC here) was geared more to the traditional buyer, with fussier grillework and trim. To this day, the Buick version is my favorite.

And the Caddy? Well, its styling didn’t translate near as well as its two corporate siblings, and it was further burdened with the “Hand Tighten” HT4100 V8. Smart shoppers who just had to be the first on the block with a new C-body chose the Regency or Park Avenue instead, with their proven powerplants. But all of these cars had initial electrical and mechanical troubles regardless of brand. The problems were especially prominent on the ’85s, and were largely solved by the 1987 model year.

For such a modern car, the quad rectangular headlights looked a little out of place on such a smooth design. It did not last long; only the 1985-86 models got them. Starting in 1987, the Electra and its Olds Ninety-Eight and Cadillac de Ville/Fleetwood siblings would receive the flush composite headlights, with fixed glass and replaceable bulbs accessed from under the hood.

The interiors of these cars were as traditional as the exteriors were modern. Ample faux wood trim, velour (or optional leather), and ample power assists were all prominent features. Quite cushy, and incredible space for both driver and passengers. My aunt had (and still has) a 1986 Park Avenue sedan, ice blue metallic with navy velour and navy vinyl roof. I drove it on several occasions and the comfort and space were most impressive. Quite different from the Volvo 940 I had at the time, but I grew to love the car, with its cushy front bench seat, fold-down armrest and smooth 3.8L V6–which was standard equipment on all Electras starting in 1986.

There was just as much room in the back seat, owed in part to the squared off roofline and near-vertical C-pillar. And it sported one feature of GM cars of old: rear seat ashtrays. In fact, save for the remaining B-body and D-body GMs in production at the same time, I believe these were the last GM sedans to feature the rear-seat ashtrays.

Even in the ’80s, GM didn’t skimp on trim bits. Ample jewelry, chrome and otherwise, was in evidence on the beltline, door handles, opera lamps and window trim. Plasti-chrome was still a few years off, at least on the pricier GM models. And I love those heavy chrome push-button door handles! I can tell you that they are solid little ingots.

Some cheapness was evident in Aunt Candy’s Park Avenue, though. The driver’s window loved to jump out of its track. My Uncle Don was a master mechanic and he could fix it himself easily, but it was still a pain to pull off the door panel to fix it. One time it happened when I was driving it and was freaked out that I’d screwed up the car. When I got back, Candy told me to not worry, it happened all the time. The culprit? Cheap press-on plastic flanges held the window in place, and would happily drop the window at the slightest provocation. Thanks GM!

Although bedecked with plenty of simu-wood trim, the dash had a very clean, functional design. This one appears to have the automatic climate control, with touch-screen buttons. My aunt’s ’86 had the less fancy “slider” controls but otherwise looked just like this one, albeit in navy blue.

The other thing I love about these cars is the glass area. Much like the contemporary Volvo 740 and 760, the bottom of the window extended well below your shoulder, for excellent visibility. Much nicer than today’s cars, with castle loophole window size and a big honking console stealing space up front.

This generation lasted all the way to 1990 in sedan form, and still looked good when it departed. They seem to have largely disappeared from the roads around here, though I still see plenty of 1989-93 Cadillac versions. I spotted this one, like many other CC’s I’ve found, while driving in a part of town I usually do not frequent. I really liked the steel roof and green color, and had to pull over to check it out.

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 As you can see, it was for sale, and although it had a bit of minor rust, it looked really solid. I loved it all the more when I spotted the rare green interior. Other than a couple of broken grille bars and missing center caps on the wheel covers, it looked ready to go.

 It also sported the ubiquitous chrome luggage rack on the trunk, a wildly popular accessory on GM cars in the ’80s, from Cutlass Supremes to Electras, and A-body Cieras and Centurys. I never, ever once saw one of these carrying luggage. I guess it was just for looks.

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 The $1750 asking price seemed a bargain considering all the new parts on it. Apparently someone else agreed, as I’ve recently seen it in traffic a couple of times with new plates. Seems that the new owner is having good luck with it, since I shot these photos back in October.

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 While this vintage Electra and Park Avenue did well for Buick, it was a little too square for many tastes; the 1986 LeSabre and Delta 88 corrected that with faster C-pillars, and the best Buick followed suit in 1991 with a new Jaguar-like Park Avenue. The Electra name was sadly retired after 1990, and the Park Avenue itself was discontinued after a short 2006 run. Will we ever get another big Buick? I hope so!

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