Curbside Classics: 1961 Buick Electra And Oldsmobile 98 Hardtop Coupes – Big Beautiful Bubbletop Rarities

GM’s new 1961 cars appeared just a few weeks after we arrived in the US. I instantly fell in love with all of them, and covered up the walls of my side of the shared bedroom with dreamy ads and brochure images. Having deeply immersed myself in them virtually, the next thing was to spot them on the streets. One by one, all the various brands and models and body styles revealed themselves in their lithe new flesh; that is, except for these two: the Buick Electra and Olds 98 two-door hardtop coupes. Nary a one to be seen on the streets of Iowa City.

The same goes for the streets of Eugene, not surprisingly. I’m sure my eyes must have laid on one or two in the intervening sixty years; probably a tired, rusty and sagging one in New York or Baltimore. I’ve long given up the hunt for the real thing and so will have to share these with you virtually too, thanks to the web. But even there the pickings are slim, so let’s do this before they’re all gone.

This is how I remember it, and what a perfectly staged setting for what should have been our arrival in the US. Why wasn’t it there out front when we arrived in Cedar Rapids? Instead I had to ride in my dad’s boss’ wife’s dumpy 1949 Plymouth wagon. I was deprived of the Olds’ Skyrocket engine, Hydramatic Drive featuring Accel-A-Rotor action, never mind Roto-Matic power steering and Pedal-Ease power brakes. Welcome to America!


Buick seemed less enthusiastic about its Electra coupe, giving it bottom billing in this brochure page, and in not very flattering colors.

1961 was the last model year that GM Design VP Harley Earl was still in charge. In response to the excesses of 1958-1959, the 1961’s were a bit smaller externally as well as taller, for better interior room. Despite these practical concessions to a new decade, these cars’ styling was still firmly entrenched in the rocket-age idiom of the 1950s, including bubbletop roofs. Unlike in 1959-1960 when everyone from Chevy to Cadillac shared the same roof, the 1961 big C-Bodies got their own unique hardtop coupe roof. These turned out to be one-year wonders, as the 1962’s were quickly changed to reflect the influence of both the 1961 Continental as well as the preferences of new design boss Bill Mitchell.

We’ve given the Cadillac version some well-deserved attention here over the years, including a design analysis of how its “skegs” evolved during the design process. It was was more popular than the Olds and Buick versions, outselling them each by a ratio of 10:1. Its take rate was much higher, at 32% of total Series 62 and Deville lines. I clearly remember seeing my first one, a white one in a driveway of a very fine ranch house in Estes Park, CO. on our first vacation there in the summer of 1961.

The Electra coupe was chosen by only 8.9% of Electra/225 buyers, for a total of 4,250. That explains their rarity, then and now.

The grille of the Buick is effective and attractive, not over-wrought or gimmicky. One of the best that year, in my opinion. The 1962’s was duller.

It’s not uncommon to read that Bill Mitchell was responsible for the ’61s; Earl didn’t retire as VP of Design until December of 1958, by which time the design work on the ’61 models was by then well under way. This shot of the bladed fender and bumper “Dagmar” rather scream “Harley Earl”. 1950’s baroque gets a final outing.

As of course does the airy bubbletop roof. At least it was genuinely airier than the previous generation, meaning more interior space. If you’ve ever sat in the back of a ’59-’60 bubbletop, this was much appreciated. head room was greater, as was leg room, thanks to higher seats and taller roofs.

This complex jet-inspired tail light is another final artifact of the Earl era; it too was drastically simplified for 1962.

The dash is pretty typical of GM design for that time, and the deeply-dished steering wheel was another hallmark of the big GM cars.

It’s a concoction of 1950s lushness with a strong dash of 1960’s bitters; the basic shape of big GM cars through 1964. A hybrid, of sorts.

One does wonder what the ’61s would have looked like if Mitchell had taken the reins one year earlier? The 1963 Riviera, two years sooner?

As a frame of reference, here’s the bubbletop used on the B-Bodies. I did manage to find this one in Eugene.

And this is what the C-Body coupes morphed into for 1962.

The big Olds’ styling was a bit fussier than the Buick’s. It’s even got rocket skegs to go along with the pointy fender tips and afterburner tail lights. Like the Buick, its rear end was pretty drastically sanitized for ’62.

The Olds 98 coupe was just as unpopular as the Buick, with only 4,445 made, some 10% of the 98 line. It’s rather understandable why the Cadillac coupe was so much more popular, as a regular Olds 88 really made quite a bit more sense if you wanted a coupe. The same applies with the Buick; why not just get a LeSabre or Invicta? Their more rounded versions of the bubbletop also were more organic than this one with its roof’s rather sharp trailing edge.

The Olds’ front end comes off rather affected. It’s not a “pretty face” like the Buick’s, and the elements are not very cohesive and seem a bit overdone. It’s just a bit off, and not much in keeping with the times.

Those wheel covers have to be one of the more complex and expensive ones of the era. They’re trying awfully hard to look like exotic cast aluminum wheels. I’d rather like one for a wall clock.

Here’s a better view of that roomier rear seat. But it’s still not a nice place to sit when the sun’s out. That whole jet-plane bubbletop idea was brutal in terms of the actual reality of getting broiled by the sun. Even if air conditioning was on, the rays still hit the back of one’s neck and head and shoulders. Leg room looks quite ample back there; unlike Buick,Cadillac and Chevrolet, Olds was already using a perimeter frame as all the GM big cars would do so in 1965.

Looks like this one has an under-dash a/c unit; good thing, at least for the front seat passengers. That perimeter frame is making itself rather noticeable at the sill.

I haven’t gone into the mechanical details of these cars, as it’s been a stylistic look. They both had the biggest V8’s as standard; a 325 hp 401 cubic inch “nailhead” in the Buick backed up by Buick’s Turbine Drive; the Olds had a comparable 325 hp 394 cubic inch Rocket V8 backed by the new Roto-Hydramatic, a transmission that did not excel in durability.

Here’s a parting shot of the Olds; it may be awhile before you see one again.


Related reading:

CC 1961 Buick LeSabre Two Door Hardtop: Harley Earl’s Bubbletop Has Its Last Flight

Design: How The 1961 Cadillac Skegs Were Originally Designed