Vintage Review: 1977 Buick LeSabre Sport Coupe – Gran Sport By Another Name

(first posted 3/9/2017)   Of all GM’s downsized full-sized cars for 1977, arguably the most surprising one came from Buick.  That’s right, the blue-chip purveyor of premium family cars let loose a LeSabre 2-door replete with impressive handling capabilities for a big domestic coupe.  Car and Driver couldn’t pass up the opportunity to test drive an unexpected entry from Flint.

To be fair to Buick, the LeSabre Sport Coupe was not the first time the division had launched performance-oriented variants for some of its popular products.  In the mid-1960s for example, Buick introduced the Gran Sport package for the Riviera and the Skylark, the former bringing added handling finesse to the personal luxury class, while the latter represented Buick’s entry in the muscle car wars.

Even among the conventional B-Body cars, Buick served up a Gran Sport version of the Wildcat 2-door Hardtop and Convertible for 1966, though it was just a one-year wonder.  After all, even in the mid-1960s the market for full-sized family cars with sporty pretensions was not that large…

The Gran Sport continued to be available, either as individual models or as a trim package on the mid-sized Skylark/Century line into the 1970s.  As befitting Buick’s take on performance, most of these “muscle cars” were typically skewed toward luxury and style, all the better to appeal to a more refined (read mature) audience.  Let Chevy and Plymouth chase the kids with outrageous muscle machines—most Gran Sports (GSX models excepted) were for buyers seeking more flair and capability than the typical midsize Buick, but please—nothing too wild!

Likewise, the Riviera Gran Sport option brought minor cosmetic, performance and handling upgrades to Buick’s flagship coupes.  The Riviera GS models were subtle nods toward sportiness, primarily targeting buyers who wanted their personal luxury car loaded with all the the “goodies,” and if that meant a few performance-oriented enhancements, so be it.

However, as the 1970s domestic makers made their way into the heart of the Great Brougham Epoch, sales shifted toward the luxury models and interest in anything sporty waned, especially at a conservative division like Buick.  For the ’76 model year, the Gran Sport package was no longer on offer for any Buick—seemingly the end of an era…

Or not.

The spirit of the Gran Sport reappeared in the most unlikely place for 1977: Buick’s full-sized family car line—the LeSabre—received performance-oriented tweaks to create the new Sport Coupe.  Using the luxury-oriented LeSabre Custom Coupe as a starting point, the LeSabre Sport Coupe added handling enhancements including stiffer springs and shocks, thicker front stabilizer bar along with a rear stabilizer bar and faster ratio power steering (3.13 wheel turns versus 3.37 on other LeSabre models).  Also, unlike the rest of the ’77 LeSabre line which featured a standard 3.8 Liter V6, the Sport Coupe came standard with a V8, either the Pontiac-made 5.0 Liter (standard in 49 states) or the Buick-built 5.7 Liter (standard in California, optional elsewhere).  The Oldsmobile-built 6.6 Liter V8 was also available as the top engine option.  Turns out that the V8 engines were a one-year-only offering for the LeSabre Sport Coupe, as the 3.8 Liter Turbo V6 would become the only engine choice for that model beginning in 1978.

Externally, most moldings that were chrome on the LeSabre Custom Coupe were given the blackout treatment for the Sport Coupe.  Of course, buyers of either coupe could add more moldings, like protective body-side trim and door edge guards—parking lot protectors that doubled as profit extenders for GM!

Inside, however, the LeSabre Sport Coupe featured virtually identical trim to its Custom sister.  The standard notchback bench seat could be had in crushed velour or vinyl (a 60/40 split bench was optional), with plenty of fake wood trim, a column shifted automatic and silver-faced dials that only provided minimal instrumentation.  Really the only interior variation between the two cars was the steering wheel: a 3-spoke “sport” wheel was standard on the Sport Coupe.

However, the real magic of the LeSabre Sport Coupe was in how it drove.  For that assessment, the editors of Car and Driver spent some extended time with the “sporty” big Buick and reported their findings in the May 1977 issue.

While Road Test Magazine can be critiqued for content and editorial errors, Car and Driver was not immune to publishing incorrect data either.  For example, C&D mentions that the larger brakes from the Electra were standard on the LeSabre Sport Coupe, but Buick’s own 1977 Dealer Sales Manual does not mention that fact, listing the Sport Coupe brakes as being the same as regular LeSabre models (though all other variances are noted).  Among B-Body Buicks, only the newly downsized Riviera did in fact get the larger Electra brakes (along with a 4-wheel disc brake option), but not the LeSabre Sport Coupe.  Perhaps the engineering mule C&D tested was uniquely equipped—and no doubt the engineers would have liked a LeSabre Sport Coupe with better brakes.  But production LeSabre Sport Coupes apparently did not have them, at least according to factory literature issued directly from GM.

Another C&D factual error concerned color choices, which Car and Driver noted were limited to just 5 shades.  In reality, according to Buick literature, every exterior color available for the LeSabre could also be had on the Sport Coupe (14 in all), along with any color vinyl top (there were 7 vinyl top selections, not 5).  So buyers in 1977 could in fact have gotten a LeSabre Sport Coupe in a rainbow array of colors with a contrasting roof treatment if desired.  Buick even promoted such a car—go look at the press photos shown earlier in this post: sure looks like that LeSabre Sport Coupe, featured by Buick PR for the long lead press, had a contrasting color half vinyl top.

As usual, the Counterpoints offered a quick, accurate assessment of the LeSabre Sport Coupe.  In spite of the editors loving the notion of a domestic car with excellent handling capabilities, the truth was that the Sport Coupe was still very much a traditional big Buick (over 18 feet long, even after being downsized) with styling and interior trim that didn’t really speak to enthusiast buyers.

Ah yes, that interior.  Few import intenders would have swung open the long, heavy door of the LeSabre Sport Coupe, gazed at the crushed velour interior and shiny trim, and been tempted to try the car out.  Likewise, the typical Buick customer wouldn’t have appreciated the merits of the Sport Coupe over the LeSabre Custom—especially given how similar the cars looked inside, and would conceivably have been perplexed by the sharper handling intruding on the traditional “boulevard ride.”

Plus, there was the issue of price.  At $8,003 as equipped ($32,070 adjusted), the LeSabre Sport Coupe wasn’t a bad buy, but a loaded LeSabre Custom Coupe sold for approximately $500 less (~$2,000 adjusted).  For the average Buick buyer, better handling and blackout trim simply wouldn’t have been worth the extra cost.  As a cheaper Gran Sport package add-on, perhaps the idea of a sportier LeSabre might have made some sense, but a pricey stand-alone model was a tougher sell.

So how about sales?  Well, it is actually a challenge to calculate the total number of 1977 LeSabre Sport Coupes that Buick produced.  The only year Buick directly released sales numbers for the Sport Coupe was 1979, when Buick sold 3,582 of the sportiest LeSabre.  As such, the Sport Coupe represented 7% of ’79 LeSabre Coupe sales, with the base 2-door accounting for 15% of sales while the posh Limited (which replaced the Custom for 1979 as the luxury trim) accounted for the lions share—some 78% of coupes were so equipped.

Using 7% of total LeSabre 2-door sales as a guide, the production of Sport Coupes for 1977 could be estimated at 4,693 units (out of 67,044 total 2-doors).  Keep in mind, however, that most LeSabres sold were 4-doors (19,827 base and 103,855 Customs for ’77), so in reality the Sport Coupe probably amounted to a scant 2% of total LeSabre output, give or take.

Likely one of the biggest challenges for the LeSabre Sport Coupe was the imagery associated with the regular LeSabre line.  Buick had firmly established the LeSabre as the quintessential upscale family car.  In the 1977 Buick brochure, the opening spread for the newly-downsized LeSabre predominately featured the 4-door with visuals and copy touting the car’s credentials as a full-sized family sedan.  One funny note on this brochure shot: the family featured in the picture has mom and dad along with five kids—kind of a problem for the 6-passenger LeSabre sedan!  Did the kids take turns riding in the trunk?  Did mom stay home with a Calgon Bath to “take her away”?  Was there an Estate Wagon parked nearby while the LeSabre was just dad’s commuter car?

Even the 1979 LeSabre Sport Coupe, with the turbocharged 3.8 V6, was pictured as a kid hauler—hardly enticing bait for performance-seeking buyers potentially tempted by a Turbo…

Soon enough, the ill-fated attempt to inject “sport” into the heart of Buick’s premium American family car segment would be gone.  The turbocharged LeSabre Sport Coupe model bowed out after the 1980 model year.  For 1981, Buick dipped their toe into new nomenclature, with the T-Type badge being applied to an option package for the LeSabre Coupe.  The T-Type package consisted of “sporty” appearance items and bucket seats along with a “Gran Sport” suspension.  Under hood, there was nothing more than the regular, rather tame LeSabre engine offerings (3.8L V6, 4.1L V6, 5.0L V8 and 5.7L Diesel V8).  No details can be found on production for the LeSabre T-Type package, but it was gone for 1982 while Customs and Limiteds lived on.  So it was rather fitting that these cowpokes would ride off into the sunset with the one-year-only T-Type option.  Not a particularly Gran end to Sport for the B-Body Buick…