Our recent vintage review of a 1964 Cadillac included a lot of superlatives and deemed it to have earned its status as the standard of the luxury class field. In comparison to some European luxury cars it was a bargain, especially in light of its excellent performance, world-class comfort, convenience features and a high level of quality and materials. But what about its in-house stablemates, the ones that shared its C-Body, like the Buick Electra and Olds 98? A similarly-equipped base Cadillac Series 62 coupe cost some 25% more. Was it worth it?
This was the question the Car Life testers set out to answer in this road test of a Buick Electra 225 2-Door Sport Coupe. Obviously CL wasn’t going to tell prospective Cadillac buyers to not waste their money on one, but they did make the case that the Buick was an excellent car and comparable to the Cadillac and other American luxury cars in just about every respect. It was also more understated, a bonus to some buyers. The Electra was often stereotyped as a banker’s car; well, wouldn’t most bankers happily bank the 25% difference?
CL notes that the Electra gives nothing away in terms of size to the other luxury brands and Cadillac —that being still a plus factor back then — although it was all of 0.7 inches shorter, and only a mere 222.8″ long, not quite living up to its “225” moniker. “In performance, the Electra need eat no one’s dust (well, except for the Cadillac, which did have an 0.7 second quicker 0-60 time)…in roadability, it probably is the best of the group“. Better than the highly praised Cadillac? Probably not in actuality, but most likely its equal.
The Electra came standard with all the features and equipment then considered to be requisite in its field. That included the 345 hp 401 cubic inch V8, the new THM-400 automatic, power steering and brakes, and the usual basic essentials for minimum “luxury” standards, meaning the real luxury items like air conditioning, radio, power windows and seats, adjustable steering wheel, remote control outside mirrors and a host of other things we’ve long taken for granted were all optional. But quality materials and construction were standard.
The chassis was in principle very similar to the Cadillac’s, with the rigid X-Frame, the typical SLA coil spring front suspension and a rear suspension with a four links and coils.
The standard 401 V8 acquitted itself very well, with a quite brisk 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds and a 1/4 mile in 17.0 seconds @80 mph. An optional 425 cubic inch V8 was available in 340 and 360 hp (dual quads) trims, and would most likely equal or beat the Cadillac’s 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds and 1/4 mile time of 16.8 @85mph. Or maybe not, given that the 425’s 465 lb.ft. of torque were still shy of the Cadillac’s mighty 480 lb.ft.
Just how many dual-quad 425 equipped Electras were sold would be interesting to know; undoubtedly some. The Buick “nailhead” V8 had once been a staple on the drag strips and other go-fast applications in the ’50s and early ’60s, and one can easily imagine a former (or still current) hot rodder and a now successful something or other buying himself just such a machine.
Speaking of Buick Electra buyers, one very loyal one was Monsignor Nelligan at Immaculate Conception church in Towson. He was driving a black ’64 4-door sedan when we arrived there in 1965; then that winter a new ’66 was parked in front of the rectory, followed by a ’68; a new one every other year. I was told he came from a wealthy…banking family. And that he was the financial expert in the Baltimore Diocese.
The new THM-400 “Super Turbine 400” automatic was the icing on the cake, offering greater smoothness in shifting and three actual gears instead of the Super-Turbine’s two, although a 5-element torque converter had mitigated that to a very large extent. GM had done quite well with its two prong automatic transmission policy, with the fluid-coupling Hydramataic and the torque converter Dynaflow and Powerglide, but Chrysler had shown everyone the future with its Torqueflite back in 1957. GM undoubtedly had the best V8 engines in the ;50s and early ’60s, but in order to stay with or ahead of the game, it needed accept the reality that it needed to go the Torqueflite route. And the THM-400 was every bit as good, if not better.
An interesting tidbit: the Olds 98 2-door coupe cost $59 more than the Electra 225, and it still made do with the less-than-stellar “Slim Jim” Roto-Hydramatic. But as an apparent compensation, power windows and seats were standard, except on the 4-door sedan.
The Electra’s 3″ longer wheelbase compared the B-Body Buicks all went into rear seat leg room, which supposedly even trumped the Cadillac’s leg room by a hair (according to official AMA specs).
Buick’s large drum brakes were finned aluminum with a cast iron wear insert at the front and ribbed cast iron at the rear. On high speed braking tests, one of the rear wheels had a slight tendency to lock up. The measured stopping power was better than average and fade was “negligible“.
GM’s Saginaw power steering was the best of the Big Three at the time, offering more feel than the others, along with a quick 3.5 turns ratio.
The standard 2-ply tires with their recommended 24 psi inflation “worked even better with a few pounds inflation” above those levels. A fast drive over a mountain pass yielded more precise steering response and better cornering as a consequence.”In general, the handling abilities of the Electra 225 are surprisingly good for such a large, long car. Reasonably well balanced, it will go over a mountain road quick enough to satisfy most everyone, and with good power and good brakes, it does it in a most reassuring manner. Note to small car enthusiasts: If you haven’t tried one of these big bruisers lately, don’t knock them until you have — you may get your eyes opened.”
One has to really keep in mind that this was the perspective from1964. That same year, the Pontiac GTO came out, which really changed the equation. And the Olds 442 was the first with a rear anti-sway bar, setting a new standard for handling. And the new Mustang was available with a performance suspension. The reality is that 1964-1965, there was an utter sea change in the American market, and from that time forward, large cars like the Electra and Cadillac and the rest were suddenly seen in a new light: as luxury boats that were not designed to be true “driver’s cars”, and were no longer subjected to that kind of expectation in their reviews.
The Electra’s styling is all about straight lines and accentuating its length visually. “The use of bright metal trim is quite tasteful everywhere.“. Its slab sides, especially at the rear made gave it the gravitas the Olds 98 lacked. But they both sold about equally in 1964, with 68-69k sales. Cadillac outsold them both combined, with 166k sales. The market seemed to think the Cadillac was worth the 25 or more percent extra.
Interior materials and appointments exuded quality; the optional leather covered bucket seats enhanced that feeling, although the “ironing board shaped” center front armrest was a rare discordant note, being to low to use effectively “yet it was heavy enough to to turn the console lid into an effective finger guillotine“.
The Electra’s understated appearance and tasteful luxury combine with top-notch road manners result in “an elegant car…able to hold up its proud head even in the most lofty society.
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