Curbside Classic: 1985 Buick Electra Park Avenue – Soft Car Meets Tough Crowd

The blessing of Google Translate notwithstanding, it’s always a bit of a crap-shoot to suss out hard info from Japanese websites. But usually, with a little perseverance, it’s possible to figure out a number of facts and figures about a lot of things. You can find testimonials of present and past owners, the occasional road test, cars for sale – you know, fodder and filler for content. Didn’t get that with this Buick, though. Not even a decent brochure scan. Ominous much?

I take it most of you will be familiar with this generation of Park Avenues. Yes, I know they’re technically called “Electra Park Avenue,” but they sure aren’t badged as such – and in Japan, the Electra bit seems to have been omitted from the majority of the sales literature, as they didn’t bother with plain old Electras here. So I’ll skip to calling it just “Park Avenue,” if that’s OK.

This was Buick’s take on the 1985-91 C-body, the first FWD senior Buick. Irv Rybicki outdid himself, with a vaguely Volvo-esque shape, with an almost vertical backlight for that oh-so-popular (but oh-so-ugly) “formal” roofline. This was garnished with generous amounts of brightwork on the nose – and, for the Park Avenue, on the sides too, as well as the large horizontal taillight clusters that were all the rage at the time.

Not a triumph of modern design, to be sure, but hardly the worst of a rather dismal period in GM’s history, the C-body was also sold as the Oldsmobile 98 Regency and the Cadillac De Ville. The Buick version was perhaps the least offensive of the three, particularly if one omitted to order faux wire wheel covers and the vinyl roof. Perhaps that explains why this was the C-body sedan that GM picked for their Japanese importer, Yanase, to try and sell by the handful.

Yes, I think we’re talking literal handfuls per annum here. Unlike the next generation Park Avenue, which everyone thought looked the part, this one failed to convince more than *wild guesstimate alert* about 50 to 100 people to sign the dotted line at their friendly local Yanase dealership. Trouble was the rest of the floor space would have been littered with Mercedes-Benzes, Audis and, if American metal was really on the shopping list, a good ol’ Fleetwood would have looked a lot more alluring than the Park Avenue.

Not that it didn’t have its charms, mind you. The difference in ambiance and design philosophy between this interior and that of, say, a BMW 5-Series or even a Jaguar XJ6 was pretty stark, but if this particular shade of plastiwood was to your liking and the ultra-soft seats fit your fundamentals, the Buick had you covered (in whipped cream and chocolate syrup). Parfait for a sundae outing.

At the price these were going for, there was some chance that the owner would have been of the chauffeured sort, too. And there again, the Park Avenue had its merits: a buttery-smooth suspension, plenty of headroom thanks to that “formal” roofline and ample legroom thanks to the elimination of the transmission hump.

But it seems there were other factors at play. It was nigh on impossible to find good data and usable Yanase sales brochure scans for this car, but I did find out how much they were going for in 1990. The price may have been a bit different when our feature car was bought in 1985, but it’s the same model and 1990 prices were pretty easy to figure out for contemporary E-segment imports. So let’s do a Japanese comparison table and see the Park Avenue in more context.

At over ¥6m a pop, the Park Avenue was swimming with sharks – most of them imported. The lone domestic car, the Celsior, was a formidable opponent. But so were the BMW, the Alfa and the Mercedes, which all could run circles around the poor Buick, not to mention the Lincoln and the Chrysler. You might wonder why domestic E-segment cars, such as the Nissan Cima, the Mitsubishi Debonair, the Mazda Luce, the Toyota Crown or the Honda Legend, aren’t in here: they were all way cheaper – i.e. under ¥5m, even in their highest trim. Heck, even the (by then ancient, but still super high status) Toyota Century and Nissan President cost less than the Buick.

This was a very, very tough crowd to compete in for any model, but especially for the Park Avenue. To be fair, I’m not sure what the price was in 1985, when this particular car was bought. And it was a new design then, so one assumes it would have been more attractive from that point of view as well. But even in 1985, the Buick’s emphasis on soft seats and leisurely acceleration would have seemed a little off-beat. Japanese carmakers could do that very well too, albeit for a much cheaper price and with better quality.

That’s not to say that the Japanese market had no appetite for US-made vehicles: the Corvette, the Firebird and the Mustang had a dedicated following. Another niche was the last RWD full-sizers, i.e. higher-end Cadillac or Lincoln sedans, but also Chevy or Mercury wagons. Add a strong demand for the Jeep range (especially the Wagoneer), and some vans (Dodge and Chevy only, please), and the picture doesn’t look quite so bleak.

Sure, there was a literal boatload of Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas being sold in North America for every Big Three car that found a home in Japan, but there was always a niche to be catered for, if one looked hard enough. Lower and mid-range four-door American family cars were just no longer a compelling proposition for Japanese customers – or European ones, come to that. They were losing ground even at home.

Buick scored a lot better in the ‘90s with the subsequent Park Avenue, which had a lot more style, and with the “Regal” wagon, which is still (and by far) the most commonly-seen representative of the marque in the Land of the Rising Sun. Even with its fugly mirrors and amber turn signals, this export version of the GM C-body was a non-starter, making this one’s visit to Tokyo’s own CC-filled avenue in the park all the more unexpected.


Related posts:


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

Curbside Classic: 1989 Buick Electra Limited: Limited’s the Right Word, by Brendan Saur

Curbside Musings: 1990 Buick Park Avenue Ultra – Small Footprint, Big Luxury, by Joseph Dennis