Buick has obviously had a long and storied history, having been founded long before any of our regular readers were around and perhaps currently in its twilight years itself, at least as far as its presence on this continent is concerned. Many people have fond memories of one Buick or another, some might bench race Grand Nationals and GNX’s (along with some older iron), some might recall special summer nights in the back seat of a ’57 Buick Special, and others may have carpooled to middle school in a Buick Terazza. I won’t mention the Terazza again though, I promise.
While there are surely some (or a lot of) great cars to wear the Buick badge over the last century and almost a quarter, this here, the mostly mild-mannered H-Body, may be the best Buick ever made. And this particular one may be one of the best-preserved examples of the breed still above ground at this point. Not restored, just taken care of, the same way it apparently took care of its owner and hundreds of thousands of others took care of their owners as well. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the 1989 Buick LeSabre Limited pretty much exactly as it appeared in a 1989 Buick showroom to (perhaps) razzle and dazzle Bob and Mary, a midwestern couple in the prime of their lives, on one fine day in the late fall of 1988.
The Limited was the top dog in the lineup, if you consider the coupe-only and kinda sorta racy-ish T-Type a bit of a specialty item. I owned one in the early 90s (a T-Type I mean), and may have been one of the youngest to do so at the time. I think I was all of 24 or 25 years old, had seen my VW GTI wrecked and wanted something larger, which the T-Type certainly was. It eventually went away in favor of another VW as yet another spike in the odd and highly irregular EKG representing my car ownership choices.
There I am in my V-neck sweater at Stanford Cadillac taking delivery of my creampuff 1988 model, likely the only 20-something constantly falling into The Gap and living a few miles from Tesla’s future birthplace, never mind the tech center of the free world, and still choosing a Buick circa 1993. Time and place…time and place, it just wasn’t done, dude!
However, maybe that’s why I stopped to look at this 1989 sedan, just one example of 144,183 LeSabres built that year of the 723,297 total that comprised the 1986-1991 Buick H-body production run. I have no idea many how of those were “Limited” versions, especially as in American Automotive English (a subgenre of the English language) the word is loosely defined as meaning there are no limits as to how many there will be and if buyers don’t want them now, they’ll just go in the sales bank and be heavily discounted later.
Where to start…and my perspective may well be different than others. Buick to me was a solid marque. Very red, white, and blue. A little stuffy perhaps, but not really snooty. But not bottom of the barrel. Respectable. Mature? Perhaps mostly boring. Even if Buick-badged engines did power lots of race cars. Certainly by 1989 though much if any excitement was mostly gone as far as the general public was concerned which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a solid choice or absolutely worthy of consideration as a car for lots of folks. And generally not a decision to be faulted.
Just like Buick itself in the overall GM lineup and the overall market, the LeSabre model wasn’t the top car in the Buick lineup, the Electra and fancier Electra Park Avenue (also H-bodies) were above it as was the Reatta and the Riviera as well although those had fewer doors. And below it were the Skyhawk, Skylark, Century, and the Regal. Maybe I’ve mispositioned one or two, but that’s how I rank them in my mind and really, most of America probably wasn’t aware there were nine model names in the 1989 Buick showroom.
Some of those that may have wandered in were perhaps also starting to eyeball the two-door GMC S-15 Jimmy or three-row GMC Suburban on the other side of the joint space as well depending on how fertile they were or conversely how empty the nest was getting lately.
In any case, a solid mid-level ranking amongst the lineup. And sized representatively as well, inside and out, to fit the new paradigm of the entire 1980s where slimming down was in and it was all about getting physical as Olivia Newton-John so clearly reminded us earlier in the decade.
Slimmer, more toned, power through the front wheels for better grip and traction in poor conditions, and the inside cleaned out too for maximum space in the smaller exterior with everything lined up just so. You bought a Buick, you were probably a solid guy at your mid-management banking or corporate sales job and there were approving nods all around. Except in San Francisco – where everyone I knew did a double-take and wondered why did Jim the printing sales guy buy himself a Buick? Eff ’em, it was my car and I liked it, and my future wife didn’t seem to mind it. Boo-ya!
This one was just sitting below the azure skies as I sauntered past engrossed in my own Rocky Mountain High, nestled between a Freestar and a Cirrus. Besides a fair amount of dust and a little booboo right in the grille, this looked as good as anything sitting on the lot at Putnam Buick on the SF Peninsula back in ’89 so I had to take a closer look.
I’d always liked the front end of these, even the four-eyed sealed beam visage of the first year 1985 H-body Buicks; it looked clean, modern, and ready for some action as from here at least it’s as cleanly styled as anything else while still presenting a strongly American jawline. Claret red is quite a perfect color too, soak in too much of it and you might get a little tipsy without it being as bold as a deeper red, good thing it’s not as big as the ’75 which was a far worse wine year than the ’89 vintage.
Still, the styling works for me and has held up as clearly 1980s, but with the more modern touches such as fairly integrated and body colored bumpers without going full plastic fantastic as the successor 90s Buicks went toward and that now look cheap and bulbous more than anything else.
The back too, clean, and as I recall from my own, the license plate slotted into the lighting assembly, you had to open the trunk and the plate would just drop into a little slot from above and was then held in and framed by the plastic surround inside of the backup lights. Large tail lights were often a hallmark of Buicks and one of the things I recall vividly as a child in regard to American cars, usually the tail lights were far larger and wider than those of anything else on the road. Bulbs were cheap I guess and if they burned out at least there was another or another dozen in the same assembly to keep the party going.
This trunk is marred by the most useless accessory ever, how would you even tie something down on this? But that’s where Buick was in the day, and it doesn’t take away from the car itself, clearly added by a marketer of some sort rather than an engineer. Trunk racks were fading fast by this time though and have since disappeared entirely, only to be replaced by monster baskets and giant aerodynamic caskets on roofs that can at least hold something and have stuff strapped down either on or in them.
The faster backlight is preferable here too relative to the more formal Park Avenue variant, making the LeSabre a more “approachable” car and not as high-falutin’ wanna-be but not quite a Cadillac. That Caddy is reserved for Mr. Puff’N’Stuff, the bank president. Can’t go treadin’ on them toes now, y’hear? So Buick with a proletariat roofline it is.
Red, White, and Buick. No explanation needed.
It’s a little odd that a forward opening hood still requires a hood latch in the front of the car as this one did, but the hood itself is as vast as the plains, and tilts up like the steepest of the Rockies. This is one of the things I really like about Buick’s H-Body, but most owners probably never had to figure out how to open it.
They never opened it as below it sits one of America’s great engines, the Buick 3800! This V6 is a “pre-Series I” engine, the real star of the 3800 show is probably the later Series II from 1995 on after ’91’s Series I, but they are generally considered bulletproof (except for lower intake manifolds on the normally aspirated ones) and are extremely economical, never mind the 17/26 EPA rating, they seem to generally do better than that for many owners, I certainly don’t recall worrying about fuel economy.
In 1989 this engine produced 165 horsepower @ 5,200rpm and 210lb-ft of torque at a more impressive 2000rpm. In this car and mated to the 4-Speed Turbo Hydramatic (4T-60) , this engine was a very strong and willing performer. Of course the later supercharged versions (but not in a LeSabre) were even better, I fondly recall that engine in my own Regal GS from when I went back to the Buick well yet again a few years later.
Apparently a mechanic at least opened the hood if the notation on the air cleaner is any indication. It stated that the tranny was serviced at 40,000 miles in April of 2000. Hmmm. 40,000 miles in April of 2000. That’s only about 3,600 a year to that point.
I teased the interior a little earlier and no, this junkyard does not do a full interior detail before they set the cars out in the yard, it came in like this. Actually maybe a little better than this if that’s even possible, perhaps the owner spent time in Tokyo. This though is what it must have felt like to be car shopping in 1989 and slip into the back seat and look over into the front.
Not that you’d have any reason to not be comfortable in the back. Plenty of legroom, and enough pillow topped velour to feel close enough to George Costanza’s dream of being able to drape himself in velvet and eat a block of cheese. I suppose decadence is the feeling he was wanting to experience with that and this brings it even without leather. And being a Buick in the 1980s, it brings it to the masses.
Just like some people are leery of power doors in minivans to this day, others were still leery of power windows and locks in the 1980s. But Buick (and GM, and most everyone else on this continent) had that pretty much figured out by then, it was VW and Audi that did their shameful best to rob people of confidence in those by then simple electronics and assemblies.
Sure, the locks here made a very alarmingly loud clunking sound both when locking and unlocking them via the little touch plate but that was just positive affirmation that something mechanical was happening behind the scenes while everything else inside the car was virtually mausoleum silent. Well, the stalk (you know, the one that did EVERYthing!) on the GM columns were loud too when you finally forced it far enough up, down, forward, or back to get it to thunk into the desired position just prior to feeling like it was about to snap off. But that didn’t really matter, the other GM both up and down the ladder cars mostly had the same stalk.
Here’s my almost-brochure-worthy shot of the craftsman-like if not exactly bespoke woodwork in the LeSabre, if only the sun were a little higher and highlit the whole badge. Sure the wood is of the petroleum tree variety, but fake wood doesn’t bother many people, just when it lasts more than four hours or whatever that warning is can it cause problems.
Anyway, the upshot is this stuff also gets the job done, it doesn’t crack, it doesn’t peel, it doesn’t warp, you save a bundle on Lemon Pledge, it’s consistent in color and pattern from piece to piece and panel to panel and car to car and while it does not look really real, that’s okay, since by making 48 low(ish) monthly payments, the total starting price of $16,730 of this car before options doesn’t seem as real either. That’s $38,730 in today’s playmoney though so yeah, take the payment plan, it hurts less. Oh yeah, no chance of splinters either.
While the lot boy left the wheel turned and took the keys with him, many buyers likely settled in to these 60/40 split bench seats for the long haul of an afternoon while the salesperson supposedly went and chatted with the manager about the trade-in but probably just snuck a smoke or three in the detailing area of the dealership.
A few Newports later, the salesperson would have come back and invited the lucky couple (always a couple) to participate in that favorite American pastime, the four-square dance at the little Formica-topped table next to the watercooler and brochure stand, where they would all Do-Si-Do past each other about prices and trade-ins and get absolutely nowhere for a too-long while.
There you’d also discuss which Delco radio option you’d prefer, in this case the auto-reverse cassette one and if you wanted the manual or automatic climate control. You’d want the fancy and hopefully Y2K compatible one because you’re a forward thinker and GM owned Hughes so no problems there, so yep, the Limited trim level was the one to get, and the bordello red velour was great too since America’s Dirty Little Princess, Madame Heidi Fleiss, wasn’t in the news yet. How far we’ve come.
Which Buick dealer? Who knows but there are still just under 2,000 Buick dealers in the United States today selling a combined 200,000 vehicles in this country. One car every three days does not bode well for Buick dealers’ future, other manufacturers with that volume (usually premium marques) have about 300 dealers total across the 50 states doing the same volume. (Where you want to be a Buick dealer is in China where they sold over 800,000 last year among parts shortages, lockdowns, and a burgeoning economic crisis. But peeps gotta have their Buicks!)
I suppose the usual GMC pairing over here helps tremendously, my own local Buick dealer takes up a little bit of a building and lot, is overshadowed by GMC in the same shared space, but seemingly derives the majority of their income from their neighboring Honda store which sits on a lot about three times as large and is the one showroom that isn’t shared and got remodeled a few years back. Where is D&H GM by the way, the dealership from which this one stems? There are about a dozen towns and cities names Sheldon in the U.S. but none seem larger than a few thousand souls so I could not figure it out prior to publication.
Where are those dudes complaining about newfangled touchscreens when SOMEBODY was out there spec’ing touch panel HVAC systems placed below the main dashboard in line with where the ignition key goes over 30 years ago? Those are not actually buttons, just graphics to target with a finger, there is no tactile tell-tale that I could discern. How did anyone live to tell the tale? Here, let me adjust the fan speed, honey, lemme take a look, oh no, big truck, oncoming traffic, what’s that blaring horn, is it too hot in here and why am I going toward the lights…
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…and so on. I had NO idea these were a thing. At least today’s touch screens are more or less at eye level and can usually be controlled by voice command instead if you need one hand for the wheel and the second for the ciggy and the third one for the Big Gulp, oh, wait a minute. This seems absurd but the future was a big thing back in the day – I’ll take a touchscreen at eye level any day over this. J.H.C. on a popsicle stick, I tell ya!
A Buick is a family car. (Usually anyway, the Reatta was for me-time I guess). But here we have a picture of Michael, or William, or Robert, but definitely not Connor or Jayden or Jax’n as it’s dated 1985 on the back, who’s been on permanent ride-along duty for the last 33 years. Little Mikey or Billy or Bobby is now himself at the age where he’d normally maybe consider a Buick just like Grandma drove.
Perhaps he’d like that but all he can find in his local Buick showroom are a total of three nameplates instead of nine of which one (the Envision) is made in China and looks like a CUV, another (the Encore GX) in Korea (shameless plug for my positive review of it right here) that also looks like a smaller CUV sort of, and the last (the Enclave) is pretty much a badge engineered Chevy CUV stuffed with fluff assembled in Michigan. Michigan yes, but not Flint, the holy land of Buick whose loins this LeSabre was born of and where one uses bottled water instead of municipal water in a first world country with sometimes seemingly the infrastructure of Somalia.
54,313 miles. In 33 years. So it slowed down considerably after the already lengthy time it took to cover the first 40k. Since April 2000, there have been 22 more Aprils and each one saw an average of 651 miles added since the last or just under two miles a day on average. Perhaps it’s here because the battery died, who really knows, but if it was the battery, it earned it.
But I’ll bet this Buick started without fail every day it needed to, slotted into gear every time it was asked to, narrowly avoided the mailbox at the curb every time it backed out of the driveway (especially as of lately), and simply got its occupant where they wanted to go in comfort, the style they had became accustomed to and comfortable with, and did so unassumingly yet respectably. Because it’s a Buick and in 1989 the LeSabre was one of the best assembled cars with one of the highest levels of customer satisfaction in North America. According to J.D. Power and Associates anyway. And people bought them and liked what they bought. The proof is sitting on four welded rim stands in Denver. When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them. Indeed.