Curbside Classic: 1988 Buick LeSabre and LeSabre T-Type – The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The Buick LeSabre.  Everyone knows what it is.  Or at least was.  It was the car that Buick brought forth to replace the price-leader Special when it gave all-new names to its all-new cars in 1959.  The LeSabre plodded on for decades as Buick’s big-car bargain.  But for a few years Buick injected a wholly different personality into the vanilla LeSabre.  This piece will compare this Bi-polar Buick in all of its (their?) glory.

1986 was the year that General Motors moved the LeSabre out of the classic B body that had dated from 1977.  The ’86 model was known as the H body and was an entirely new car, most notably different in its first use of front wheel drive for the bread-and-butter LeSabre.  The 1986 H body was a smaller variation on the 1985 C body which had first brought this general package to buyers as the Buick Electra.

The coupe model was particularly attractive, a successful updating of the attractive roof treatment found on 2-door LeSabres from 1977-79.  Unfortunately, the car came along just as sales of larger 2-door cars began their slow descent into showroom irrelevance.  By 1991 the body style generated a measly 1181 units of production.  There would be no 2-door LeSabre from that point on.

Even early in the run, a two-door LeSabre was not a common animal.  Attractive though it may have been, most Buick buyers by then were four door sedan people and so were their LeSabres.  How could we describe the typical LeSabre of this generation?  Vanilla?  White-bread?  Ordinary?  Any of these terms might fit, but then we could also add Competent, Decent and Solid.  There was, however, another LeSabre that sort of played Mr. Hyde to the regular car’s Dr. Jekyll.

I like to think that everyone here is familiar with the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde was first published in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The story was a morality play about good and evil, and involved an upstanding, mild-mannered doctor.  Unfortunately, he started down the slippery slope of self experimentation, which led to his periodic transformation into an evil alter-ego who would commit the kinds of unspeakable acts which Dr. Jekyll would never have considered.  I count at least one film adaptation of the story during each of twelve straight decades from the 1900s right up to the current one.

Anyhow, to the plain Dr. Jekyll version of the LeSabre was added its darker alter-ego, the T-Type.

A performance Buick was nothing new.  It could be argued that Buick had been building performance cars since the 1936 Century, which was a relatively small vehicle with the big Roadmaster engine.  Performance was clearly the goal of the Gran Sports of the late 1960s, which reached their apex with the GSX Stage I of 1970 and the experimental Stage II version that followed it.  Only two Stage II cars were built, each estimated to churn out over 500 bhp.  But one thing led to another as the industry transitioned from muscle to malaise and the Stage II failed to survive its gestation.

Buick wasn’t finished with performance, as it began toying with a series of Centurys powered by some ever-stronger turbocharged versions of its V6 engine, two of which paced the Indianapolis 500 (1976 and 1981).  And as the A body became the G body, the Buick Grand National hit the streets ready to kick ass and take names.

One curious offshoot of the well-known Grand National program was the LeSabre Grand National of 1986.  Buick built a total of either 112 or 117 of them (depending on the source), all black with gray interiors, in order to qualify the model for NASCAR competition.  Was this the last LeSabre to compete on superspeedways?  Quite likely.

And a bigger question, was it worth it?  LeSabres were campaigned in NASCAR for only 1986 (3 cars) and 1987 (4 cars) before being replaced by the Regal for the 1988 season.  A more complete treatment of these LeSabres at NASCAR (which was the source for this photo) can be found here.

Why the Grand National instead of a normal LeSabre coupe?  The GN incorporated a special smaller rear quarter window to improve the car’s aerodynamics at high speed – a feature that was more functional than attractive.  While the LeSabre Grand National was generally well equipped, the only style of seating offered was a cloth 60/40 bench seat.  Yawn.

With the NASCAR approval in the bag, Buick deep-sixed the GN.  In its place was the more showroom-friendly T-Type.  The LeSabre was the next-to-last Buick to get a T-Type model, lagging the Riviera, Skyhawk, Skylark, Century and Regal.  While some might have guessed that the T-Type stood for “turbocharged”, those guessers would be wrong in most cases, and certainly in the case of the LeSabre.   Although the car got no more than the 150 bhp 3.8 V6 to power it, it did at least come with the FE-1 handling suspension and sticky Goodyear Eagle GTs mounted to its polished aluminum wheels.

The LeSabre T-Type was a better car for the retail buyer than the LeSabre GN, if for no other reason than the bucket seat interior with a floor shift in the console.  Unique wheels, spoilers and badging completed the appearance package.  Which came off quite well to the eyes of this observer.  OK, a Buick with buckets and a handling package – I will admit that this was not really a full-on Mr. Hyde.  That would have been the Regal-derived Grand National which was discontinued after 1987.  But work with me here.  Mr. Hyde Lite?

I took pictures of the black car in March of 2012 and immediately thought “Mr. Hyde.”  This black T-Type looked so menacing (even if it really wasn’t) and all I needed was a plain, ordinary LeSabre coupe to serve as the contrasting Dr. Jekyll.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I was finally rescued a few weeks ago when, during an exchange in some comments to another post here, the commenter known as The Professor shared a shot of the white car.  He generously offered the use of his pictures from sunny southern California after I sent him an inquiry by email.

Let that sink in for a moment – I found the rare T-Type in central Indiana while I needed to go to California for a “regular” LeSabre coupe from this time period.  Our Dr. Jekyll Buick may be more of a unicorn in SoCal than the Mr. Hyde version is anywhere else.

Let us return to our literary analogy.  As Hyde took over Jekyll’s personality because of a flaw in the formula for his serum, Jekyll killed himself to protect the world from his evil other self.  The story with these Buicks is less dramatic.  The T-Type hardly took over, having generated original registrations of 4,123 (1987) 6,426 (1988) and 5,389 (1989).  And instead of suicide the T-Type was more of a homicide with Buick Division pulling the trigger following disappointing 1989 sales.  And in case you think that a T-Type Electra had a better chance at success, Buick got 478 of them out the door in 1990 before ending the T-type era altogether.

Buick would sell a lot of LeSabres over the next several years.  The two final generations of the LeSabre (1992-99 and 2000-05) were popular cars within a rapidly shrinking demographic.  But there would be no more two-door models and certainly nothing even hinting at any kind of performance.  So, just like in the story, we finish with no more Mr. Hyde . . .

. . . as well as no more Dr. Jekyll.  Don’t you just hate the stories where everyone dies in the end?


Thanks to The Professor who generously offered me the use of his shots, which were originally posted at his site


Further Reading:

1988 Buick LeSabre T-Type – A Young Man Buys An Old Man’s Car (COAL by Jim Klein)

1986 Buick LeSabre Custom – Heavenly Hash (Perry Shoar)

Shockingly Low Volume Cars – The Buick Edition (Jason Shafer)

More information on the LeSabre Grand National can be found here at the 1986 LeSabre Grand National Registry: