Curbside Classic: 1991 Buick Century Coupe – If We Make It Forever It Will Be Good

(first posted 6/10/2011)    In car years, fifteen years might as well be a century. It’s late, so help me out: what other American car was built for fifteen years, since the Model T? Oh right; the Checker. The Jeep Wagoneer was a truck; well for that matter, so was the Checker. So what am I missing? Yes; the Century’s body-mate, the Cutlass Ciera. These two A-Bodies set some kind of record, for sure. Ironic too, coming from the company that invented the annual styling change. Since out of the some 2.2 million A-Centuries built the overwhelming majority were four-door sedans, let’s celebrate the Century’s longevity coup with a coupe.

The A-Team story is a massive one; they were undoubtedly the most visible face of the General during those difficult years of its production (1982 -1996). Anybody who ever walked into a rental counter during the A-poch was all too likely to find themselves in these all-too familiar surroundings. Let’s face it; the interiors of these GM fleet queens were much more likely to be remembered than their totally forgettable exteriors.

Stepping into your Hertz Century was like a preview of the visit you were just about to make to your parents’ house: highly predictable: decade after decade, the (mostly) same furniture and decor, everything in its familiar place. The slightly roarty thrumm of the Buick V6 was like your father’s voice: you could recognize it anywhere, under any of the millions of GM cars it powered, including his Buick Skylark. And the Century’s handling was like Mom’s bland cooking: Predictable, but uninspired. The whole experience was comforting, in a way; but you were always glad to get home to the more eclectic surroundings of your own house and car, not to mention Mexican and Asian food.

Perhaps that was actually the brilliance of the Century’s longevity as a rental car staple: there was never any need to familiarize oneself with any of the controls; everything just fell to hand from years of practice. You could slide in and drive it blindfolded. Kind of like the toilet bowl in your parents’ house: you could hit it even in total darkness at three in the morning having just snuck in from a wild night out and under the influence of one thing or another (or some combination thereof). And your left hand just automatically reached for the cruise control, or that familiar towel bar to steady your wobbly stance.

My analogy is not meant to demean, but just looking at that picture of the interior brings a flood of rental car memories. One of them has to do with the coupe version like this one, except for being an Olds, as if that made any real difference. The Century and Ciera were as indistinguishable from each other as Wonder bread is from Sunbeam white bread. If the motel clerk asked you what you were driving, you’d mutter…one of those white GM rentals; do you want me to go look and see whether it’s an Olds or Buick? No, never mind.

Anyway, the Century and its trusty Ciera stablemate arrived in 1982 in the ever-popular four door sedan and what may have been called a coupe, but what was technically a two-door sedan, a body style (and nomenclature) that was rather archaic by then. Why? Beats me. But it sure didn’t sell worth beans.

Even when it was gussied up, as in the euro-sporty blacked out “T” version, or this very rare Gran Sport, made only for 1986, of which all of 1029 were built. Trying to compete with the handsome aero T-Bird, I assume?

olds 1987 cutlass ciera coupe_1987_side

Before I lose my story thread, I was on a business trip to Chicago in 1986, and given the keys to an otherwise almost identical Olds Ciera. But lo and behold! When I found my car on the lot, it had this brand new coupe roof! I either hadn’t been reading Motor Trend faithfully enough, or GM had done one of its curious fleet numbers, sending out early production cars to the rental companies before they were properly introduced to the public.

I admit I may have muffed the new coupe’s intro, but I swear GM did this kind of thing: my boss from NY came to visit me in what I think was 1987, and when we walked out to his rental to go for lunch, it was a car I had never seen or properly known of its existence: a Chevy Corsica! For a guy who couldn’t help but keep up on new car intros, even if it was cars that didn’t interest all that much, this was like driving up in a 1965 Chevy…six months before its introduction. Whoa! “Are you working for GM on the side, as a prototype tester?”

chevrolet corsica

Wikipedia confirms it: “The Corsica was first sold as fleet cars to rental agencies and to large companies in 1987, prior to mainstream release.” Ok; that’s a curious reversal of the usual strategy, but then GM did lots of things that repeatedly surprised me back then. I had already started my personal GM Death Watch some years earlier…

Anyway, the new coupe roof eventually migrated to the Century in 1989.  But the new roofline didn’t help sales either: less than 5% of Centuries came with it, and it was dropped after a few years. Makes this almost a rare bird.

That GM inter-brand confusion problem does tend to be emblematic of the good old GM of the time. And the Century embodies a few others too. Typically for its maker, the Century took a while to really start to feel like it was well built. That’s not to say the early versions were downright shaky, like the X-Bodies it essentially was. Yes, I’m sure we all know that by now, but the transformation from GM’s Deadliest Sin to perhaps one of its best-made cars ever was remarkable: because the new Century managed to hide its roots so well; it would have taken an X-ray to see its X-body skeleton.

But then the Century just kept on being built, seemingly forever. In its prime retail sales years, in the mid-late eighties, Buick moved some quarter million of them per year. In that era, the Centiera twins were the functional equivalent of the Camry. No need to elaborate.

But unlike the Camry’s regular four year cycle of complete refreshment, the Century became lost in time. GM was addicted to maintaining its volume, to try to stem its ever-shrinking market share by whatever means its marketing mavens could cook up. So continuing the Century while spitting out same-sized newer Regals must have made sense to somebody.

And for the Century and Ciera, that meant turning into what became essentially a fleet-only car in its later years. I suppose a few of them were sold to certain geriatric private buyers if they asked nicely. But for what it’s worth, the Centieras became the equivalent of the Checker; just aimed at different slice of the fleet market.

Why not? GM had made good money on these cars in their prime retail years, and the line workers could build them blindfolded by them, and still turn out one of GM’s best built cars of the period. In 1993, J.D. Power affirmed that, saying the Century was somewhere very near the top of the pile.

And although the listed price of the Century roughly increased along with the rate of inflation, the discounts, especially to fleets, were ever bigger. I seem to distinctly remember reading that the typical fleet Century was going for $12k near the end of its long road. That’s thousands less (adjusted) than what they were going for back in their retail heyday.

It seems like just yesterday that the City of Eugene bought a whole passel of Centuries in ’95 or ’96 for their building inspectors and such. And it seems like only this morning that they were finally replaced (by Prii, of course). A real living time capsule, and odd too, to see a like-new white Century driving up to your job site almost a quarter century after it was introduced. Made you feel old. Or comforted, sort of; like standing there looking down at that familiar toilet bowl and knowing you could hit it blindfolded.

Well, my parents’ house is history, as is the old GM. But lots of memories remain. The A-Body story is a vast one, and we’ve had quite a few chapters here already. And there will probably be more.