Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1965 Buick LeSabre 400 – Small Block Big Body Buick


It seems a bit odd for Buick to use the little 300 cubic inch V8 (derived from the aluminum 215 V8) in their very-much full-size LeSabre when the cheaper Pontiac Catalina came standard with a husky 389 V8 and even the wimpy Olds Jetstar 88 had a 330 V8. That’s only 17 cubic inches more than a 283 Chevy Impala, where a 327 was just a few bucks more. Presumably Buick knew that its target buyers weren’t so much looking at performance as other traditional Buick qualities. And with the base 210hp 300 V8 and the two-speed ST-300 automatic, that was the reality, performance-wise.

But for those looking for a bit of a sharper edge on their ‘Sabre , there was the “400” option package, which included a 250 hp four-barrel version of the 300 V8 teamed with the excellent ST-400 (Turbo Hydramatic). It’s not exactly common for a transmission to give its name to a car trim level, but in this case it rather deserved it.

CL notes that the LeSabre is for folks who really want a big Buick without a big engine. Well, that’s something of a long tradition, going back to the popular Special back in the forties and early fifties that used a small-block straight eight and then a smaller displacement version of the “nailhead” V8 in some years afterwards. But by 1962, the 401 nailhead was the smallest V8 available on the LeSabre, and it seemed to be going the way of the other mid-priced GM brands with large base engines.

Then in 1964, when the 300 inch iron-block (but still aluminum head) V8 arrived, it became the base engine in the LeSabre. The 400 package was obviously designed to give the LeSabre a bit more punch as befitting its brand, so the new THM-400 was teamed with it along with a four barrel carb and higher compression ratio.

Even though the 300 V8 lost its aluminum heads and intake manifold in 1965, it was still exceptionally light, thus Buick saw fit to substitute cast iron finned drums on the brakes instead of the finned aluminum drums (with cast iron liner) used on the other big Buicks. That’s still drastically better than what Olds did with its similar Jetstar 88, by installing the little drums used on the mid-sized F-85/Cutlass. The LeSabre achieved mediocre a deceleration rate but at least the big 12″ drums were quite fade resistant.

CL notes that the big Buicks switched to the now-standard perimeter frame for 1965 (except the Riviera, which kept the X-Frame through 1970). But they made a major mistake by claiming that the longer 126″ wheelbase Wildcat and Electra got its additional 3″ of length by repositioning the rear axle on the same frame and within the same rear wheel openings. Hello? I know that was done to get maybe an inch of variation on some Ford and Chrysler cars, but 3″ would have been highly visible. As this LeSabre (top) and Wildcat (bottom) coupes clearly show, the Wildcat and Electra had a longer front end, where that extra 3″ of wheelbase resided. It was Pontiac that got a few extra inches in the rear for its Star Chief and Bonneville lines, but even they pushed the wheel opening back too. A rather embarrassing mistake by CL.

CL does rightly point out that—unlike common perception—these perimeter frames were designed to be flexible and that the stiff self-supporting body structure provided the actual torsional stiffness, not the frame, which was relegated mostly to carrying the engine and front suspension and the rear suspension. And contrary to popular belief, the former X-Frame was actually a very stiff frame, unlike the perimeter frames.

The new suspension design was intended to reduce harshness and enhance the ride quality. CL noted that the LeSabre’s handling and stability “is at least as good as Buicks we’ve tested before”.

The 300 V8 was exceptionally light, weighing only 466.6 lbs, as compared to 560 lbs for the Olds 330 V8, 596 for the Pontiac 326, and 534 lbs for the Chevy 327. This reduced front end weight, always a good thing, although the LeSabre still weighed 4262 lbs. The three-speed THM-400 was the key ingredient in allowing the little V8 to make the most of its potential, the result being “reasonably brisk performance”. Actually, its tested 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds is quite good, right in the same ballpark as many of the bigger engine cars. No need to apologize in that regard, although presumably it took a bit more revs to achieve that than a bigger engine.

The ’64 version of the 300 V8 still had aluminum heads and intake manifold, eliminating any bimetallic electrolytic reaction in the coolant, an issue that had created problems, probably quite similar to the ones that had plagued the all-aluminum 215 V8. The new 1965 cast iron heads also had larger valves and improved gas passages.

The regular LeSabre came with a three speed manual as standard; a Muncie four speed manual was optional (undoubtedly a rare sight) as well as both the ST-300 automatic or the THM-400, both with switch-pitch torque converters. Given the mere $21 more that the THM-400 cost versus the ST-300, it was deemed a bargain. In these heavier cars, especially with the smaller engine, the additional intermediate gear mad a substantial difference.  CL wondered why the ST-300 was even still available on the LeSabre.

The general feel of the car showed that Buick was continuing to make progress in the overall quality of workmanship, materials and engineering.

But there were a few debits in the ledger too: the sweeping semi-fastback roof created blind spots, the huge doors were heavy and awkward to handle, and CL felt that maybe Buick seemed to have somehow managed to get the instrument panel upside down, with the key instruments very low and out of the normal lines of sight while various knobs for lights and such were in a band across the top, not down low where one usually expected them. Both were the opposite of what was obvious and natural. It was another slave-to-flashy-design thing, like so many others back then. Ergonomics? What’s that?

Among other items on the long options list was a “speed minder”; when the pre-selected speed was exceeded, a harsh buzzer went off. Just like all cars in Japans used to do when exceeding 100 km/h. Given the very low speedometer mounting, it may have been a handy gadget, along with cruise control.

In summation, the quality materials and fine workmanship of the LeSabre was perfect for those that wanted a luxury image at a budget price. That had precisely been the formula that had driven Buick sales rapidly higher in the fifties with its Special, so it was a familiar formula, the difference being that full size cars were in a long-term secular decline. By the mid-sixties, many found smaller and sportier cars to be more appealing, but then all those Buick drivers from the fifties did need something new from time to time. The LeSabre fit the bill.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic Lite: 1967 Buick LeSabre 400 Sedan – That Does Not Mean a 400 Engine, Oddly Enough

Curbside Classic: 1965 Buick Wildcat – Sabre Tooth Cat Or Dodo Bird?