Vintage Review: 1979 Buick Century Turbo Coupe – This Wild Turkey Tried To Fly

(first posted 11/23/2017)       Today, as Americans prepare to gobble up turkey in celebration of Thanksgiving, I thought it would be fun to take a look at an automotive fowl.  This 1979 Car and Driver review provides the perfect taste of turbocharged turkey.

For decades, Buick had enjoyed a comfortable perch near the top of the General Motors divisional hierarchy.  Typically seen as more upscale than its corporate siblings (save for King of the Hill Cadillac), Buick enjoyed a cornucopia of riches, combining relatively high volume (the 5th best selling brand in the U.S. in the late 1970s) with the handsome margins afforded by its premium positioning.  Conservative, comfortable cruisers were Buick’s stock in trade, and buyers loved them.

When downsizing swept the American car industry in the late 1970s, Buick served up some winners.  Though smaller than its predecessors, the reduced-scale Regal Coupe, for example, was exactly what the market expected from Buick and was a big hit.

Buick even decided to get a little saucy and play around with turbocharging beginning in 1978, though when packaged in models like the Regal Sport Coupe, the blown engines simply became the hearts of rather conventional Detroit coupes.  The Buick Turbo models were not big sellers, but at least they offered a bit of cayenne pepper in the gravy.

But not all of Buick’s downsized cars were a success.  Shaped a bit like a Butterball in the rear, the Aeroback Century models hit the market with a thud.  Similar to the kid in the photograph above, most people were left thinking “what is with the back of this car?!?!?”  In both 2-door and 4-door guise, the Aeroback Century models were an unmitigated disaster.

My paternal grandmother, who had owned 5 mid-sized Buick sedans since the 1960s (and had been a lifelong Buick driver), couldn’t wrap her head around the Aeroback Century.  When she was in the market for a new car in 1979, she defected from Buick (though at least sticking with GM) and picked up a Poncho instead.

While she never truly loved the Pontiac (what can I say, WoWo was a Buick gal), at least the Grand LeMans was more conventionally styled.

So, left with slow selling Turbo models and slow selling hunchback Century Coupes, what was Buick to do?  Eureka!!  Combine them!!  And then add gaudy graphics befitting a Pontiac Trans Am in full “screaming chicken” mode.  What better way to excite traditional Buick buyers?  And lure youthful sports car prospects?

Was it a recipe for success?  Let’s see what Car and Driver had to say.

Right out of the gate, C&D noted that the Century Turbo Coupe was a paradox, with two contradictory ideas mashed together.  Kind of like the encroachment of Black Friday binge shopping on Thanksgiving evening….

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  Yes, Buick’s engineers set out to build a car that looked, drove and sounded like no other Buick, and they succeeded.  The only problem was that was about the last thing most Buick customers were seeking (they wanted to buy Buicks precisely because they were Buicks).

Fear not, however, GM was still GM.  While Buick engineers may have been going wild with suspension tuning and turbos, sort of like overly rambunctious children at the Thanksgiving kid’s table, The General was in no mood to give them extra sugar.  That’s right, the infamous GM bean counters wouldn’t cough-up the added dough to provide a manual transmission or a modified instrument panel that didn’t look like the one in Aunt Lavinia’s Regal.  So, in addition to not appealing to Buick buyers, the rare enthusiasts who might have actually wanted a quirky, rather large sports coupe were equally repelled by the lack of a proper driving environment.

Car and Driver’s Counterpoint section sometimes felt a bit like a conversation after Thanksgiving dinner is over and everyone has had a bit too much to eat and drink: the guard comes down and the truth comes out.  Rich Ceppos wished that the Turbo magic had been applied to the more modern, just introduced FWD Skylark (be careful what you wish for).  Don Sherman was bluntest: the Century Turbo Coupe was a miss in every way, from styling, to equipment to its basic mission.  Patrick Bedard tried to pat down ruffled feathers by praising the Turbo V6 as a modern-day hot rod engine, combining performance and efficiency (sadly, in reality Buick’s promises of “V8 power with V6 efficiency” for the Turbo turned out to be “V6 power with V8 efficiency”).  But none of the editors really loved the car.

And even in summation for the article, Car and Driver ever so politely deemed the Century Sport Coupe a turkey, missing all the potential intended buyer groups.  Which, in reality, is exactly what happened:  only a paltry 1,653 Century Sport Coupes were sold for 1979 (compared with 21,389 of the more typically Buick Regal Turbo Sport Coupes that left dealer lots).  Plus, at $8,473 ($30,600 adjusted) as tested, the Century Turbo Sport Coupe pricing was well into Regal territory, making the conventional choice even more of a no brainer.

So there you have it.  When it came time to carve things up, this high flying hawk was nothing more than a desperate turkey just trying to run fast.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!!

Additional Reading: Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: Buick Edition, Part II by William Stopford