The very first foreign car I found and wrote up when I moved to Tokyo in January 2020 (remember those care-free pre-Covid times?) was a similar Buick. However, I was never satisfied with that post, chiefly because the photos were pretty poor. It took a while, but I finally happened upon a fine-looking and fully accessible Buick Regal Estate Wagon. So here’s a second look at this unlikely American guest star of the Japanese wagon scene.
Wagons are big in Japan. They were even bigger in the ‘90s, before all manner of luxury minivans and SUVs really started to gain traction, but they haven’t died out yet. You can still get them from most of the domestic makers, as well as imported models from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Peugeot or Volvo. Back in the early ‘90s, you could add quite a lot of names to that list, including US-made GM and Ford products.
I’m not sure when Yanase, Japan’s premier foreign car dealer, started importing the Buick Century sedan and wagon. It seems it took a little while and a bit of investment for the operation to bear fruit. First, the cars needed a few changes to be sold legally in Japan, such as amber turn signals for the taillights.
One blatant stumbling block was the model’s name, which was strictly reserved for Toyota on the JDM. So the Buick Century became the Regal, amusingly transcribed, pronounced and Google-translated as “Legal” on many Japanese-language documents.
As I stated, the exact moment of introduction of the Buick “Legal” range on the JDM is not known to me, but the year 1990 is a decent enough guesstimate. Back then, the yen was still strong and the wagon, which was always the most popular car of the range, cost quite a bit, i.e. ¥4.38m. By 1995, thanks to devaluation (due to the economy tanking) and the importer’s efforts in selling more units, the price had gone down by over ¥1m and was now equivalent to a higher trim Crown wagon. All Buick Regals imported were fully-optioned and all came with the V6 (3.3 litres, then 3.1 from 1993) – none of that Iron Duke ruffian for GM’s distinguished Japanese clientele.
During that time, i.e. the early ‘90s, the Buick wagon really took off (well, as much as a decade-old American design can take off in Japan). I read somewhere that Yanase were struggling to meet demand, so certain parallel imports were allowed. I don’t know how this kind of gray import could be arranged under the Japanese system, but I gather it’s all about who you are and who you know.
Our feature car could well be one of those rumoured gray market Buicks. There are a lot of signs: the Yanase sticker is absent, as is the GM emblem seen on legal Regals and, quite obviously, the amber turn signals are absent here. These look to me like the standard Buick Century rear lights, though I will of course defer to the experts (Mr Stern, if you would be so kind?…) The Yanase sticker could have been peeled off I suppose, though judging from the number I’ve seen on older imports (e.g. Mercedes-Benzes), that is unlikely.
That’s not all. The tailpipe is quite different from the official Regals, which have a specific straight design. Our feature car’s exhaust is angled to the left side, just like US models. None of the cars I’ve seen up to this one have this exhaust, or these taillights. The missing GM emblem is also quite telling, though that particular item’s whereabouts may have varied according to the model year.
For comparison, here’s another picture taken from the 1993 Japanese brochure. Not as clear as one would like, but the salient points (taillamps, GM emblem, exhaust) are pretty visible.
And here are two Regal wagon rear ends I photographed earlier this year. The blue Regal, which I think is a 1995 model year (revamped interior, compared to the yellow Regal) shows the Yanase sticker and the GM emblems quite clearly. The latter seem to have moved on the red Regal, which might identify it as a ’96.
So, do we have a pure US-bred Buick here? No, it’s far from being that simple, of course. Our yellow Buick wagon has 14-inch alloys and a rear wiper – neither of these two options were commonly seen on North American models, but they were included on all Japanese ones. Again, previous sightings and brochure shots bear this out. And of course, there are no “Century” scripts on this car – it’s all Regal and above board, almost as if respecting Toyota’s precious trademark rights was more important than enforcing turn signal laws.
However, though some turn signal laws were apparently bypassed, additional repeaters were grafted onto the front fenders. There may be many other details I’m not picking up, but that and the Regal scripts, at a minimum, means this car must have been imported here new and made to look as close to the Yanase cars as possible, with the alloys and the rear wiper. Question mark as regards that rather extreme radio antenna – that might be specific to this particular car.
Stepping inside, I reckon most everything in here would look identical in a circa 1993 US-market Century. Who’d have thought these infamous GM mouse fur interiors could make it to the 2020s pretty much intact?
We had the Pontiac 6000 version of this car – a white 1986 S/E wagon with a floor shifter that hauled the T87 family on many a European jaunt in the early ‘90s. We went to the UK with it, crossed the Alps a few times – including to Innsbruck, Aosta and Bavaria… We even took that thing on the Autobahn. I sat in that rear seat (or the rearmost one behind it) a lot. Never was it ever as pristine as what we have here. Cause and effect? For sure. But it also makes one wonder who bought these deluxe wagons in Japan back then. My father picked a family hauler because he had four kids. This Buick doesn’t seem to have had too many dirty, sticky and clumsy mini-humans fouling its lush carpets with their muddy shoes or picking the plastiwood off its doors.
And speaking of woodgrain, the Japanese were justifiably impressed by the Buick’s generous appliqué. You have to hand it to GM: “moderation” was not in their vocabulary. Even the door handles came decorated in the stuff. That’s how you know they cared.
It’s difficult to ascertain how many of these Buicks ended up in Japan (Regally speaking). Hundreds certainly, thousands perhaps. Much more than that is unlikely, but that’s a complete blind guess. Japanese sources claim that the traditional-looking Di-Noc-clad Buick Regal Estate trounced the jelly bean Ford Taurus Wagon in popularity. It similarly overshadowed the Buick sedans – not only its “Regal” sister model, but also the Park Avenue, which GM gamely tried to peddle here. This apparent demand seems to have been high enough to justify an additional trickle of cars coming in through channels other than the official importer. Who and how this was done is still nebulous, but I think we can say this definitely happened. So much for the famously rigid Japanese regulatory environment.
CC Outtake: c. 1995 Buick Century Wagon – A Century Ago…, by Joseph Dennis
Ballotside Outtake: Buick Century Wagon, by Tom Klockau
COAL – 1988 Buick Century – My First Wagon, by TJ1977