The 1931 Buick Phaeton boasted one of the most advanced engines of the time.

Buick Origins

David Dunbar Buick was a canny Scottish industrialist but an unlikely auto builder. After making his mark with a process for annealing porcelain to steel for bathtubs, he turned to the profit opportunities of the horseless-carriage phenomenon. His first car, appearing in 1903, was a simple little chain-drive runabout with flat-twin power. One engine feature, overhead valves, was a rarity then, but has been a hallmark of almost all Buicks since.

In 1904, Buick moved from Detroit to Flint, Michigan, where it soon came under the control of William C. Durant. Buick prospered, and in 1908 Durant formed General Motors with Buick as its foundation and chief source of revenue. Six-cylinder engines arrived in 1914, and were the only type Buick offered from 1925 to '30. By that point, Buick buyers were mostly upper middle-class professional types who'd moved up from a Chevrolet, Oakland, or Oldsmobile -- hence the "doctor's car" sobriquet of the make's early years.

The Depression considerably reduced the size of this clientele -- and Buick sales -- but the division would bounce back strongly, reaching fourth in industry production for model-year 1938 (from a decade-low seventh in 1934-36).

The decision to offer costlier eight-cylinder cars came before the Wall Street crash, so Buick's sales problems in the early '30s, stemmed mainly from bad timing. At least the 1930 line corrected the bulged "pregnant" beltline styling that had been decidedly unpopular in 1929.

Buicks were conventional cars, arrayed in three series: the low-priced "40" on a 118-inch wheelbase, the midrange "50" on a 124-inch span, and the deluxe "60" on a 132-inch chassis. All carried "valve-in-head" sixes, the last six-cylinder engines at Buick until the 1960s. The 40 used a 257.5-cubic-incher with 81 horsepower, the 50 and 60 a 331.3-cid engine with 99 bhp. The 50 offered just four-door sedan and four-place sport coupe; 40 and 60 listed a full range of models, some quite scarce (only 836 seven-seat Series 60 limousines, for instance). Despite the deepening Depression, Buick finished third in industry production for the model year, mainly because competitors fared far worse.

For 1931 came an expanded lineup powered by the first Buick eights, among the most-advanced engines of their day: smooth and reliable five-main-bearing units designed by division chief engineer F.A. Bower. They included a 77-bhp 220.7 for the 50, now the least-costly Buick; a 272.6 with 90 bhp for the 60, the new midranger; and a 104-bhp 344.8-cid engine for new top-echelon Series 80 and 90.

The lengthened model roster again included sedans, coupes, phaetons, convertibles, and roadsters, plus Series 90 seven-seat sedan and limousine. The 50, which included a "second-series" group announced in early '31, rode the 114-inch wheelbase applied to the 1930 Marquette, Buick's short-lived junior make; 60, 80, and 90 spanned 118, 124, and 132 inches, respectively.

Straight eights would be Buick's mainstay for the next 22 years. The new 1931 engine proved its mettle at that year's Indianapolis 500 by powering a racer that Phil Shafer qualified at 105.1 mph; for the race he averaged 86.4 mph. Any '31 Buick was quick in showroom tune; 10-60 mph took about 25 seconds, quite speedy for the day, and 90 mph was possible.

The big news for 1932 was "Silent Second SynchroMesh" transmission, plus more horsepower for all engines. Power and most wheelbases went up again for 1933, but sales did not. As a partial consequence, Harlow H. Curtice was appointed Buick president in October that year.

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New streamlined styling, evident on this 1936 Buick Roadmaster, helped boost Buick sales in 1936.

1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939 Buicks

Buick president Harlow H. Curtice believed in "more speed for less money," and backed it up with an all-new 117-inch-wheelbase Series 40 for 1934. The result was a sales upturn aided by more modern, streamlined styling that broke sharply with "Roaring '20s" squarishness. Also featured linewide in '34 was GM's new "Knee-Action" (Dubonnet-type) independent front suspension, then a great step forward.

Though the 40 omitted flashy soft tops to emphasize far more popular coupes and sedans, its masterful blend of an inexpensive, Chevrolet-size platform and "important" Buick styling helped boost the division's 1934 output from some 47,000 to over 71,000. Buick then jumped way over 100,000 for model-year '36, and would reach even greater heights a few years hence.

Also in 1934, Curtice launched a $64 million factory modernization program that wasn't completed until 1940. However, plowing receipts back into facilities left little money for product improvements, so the 1935 Buicks weren't changed much. Offerings again comprised 40, 50, 60, and 90 with straight eights of 233, 235, 278, and 344 cid, respectively. There was one belated addition, though: a Series 40 convertible coupe.

More extensive changes occurred for 1936, as Buick adopted GM's all-steel "Turret Top" construction that eliminated the traditional fabric roof insert, gaining sleek all-new styling with it. The division also boasted more-potent engines with aluminum pistons. Series numbers began giving way to names that would last all the way through 1958 -- from the bottom, Special (40), Century (60), Roadmaster (80), and Limited (90). Respective wheelbases were 118, 122, 131 and 138 inches.

Styling was a big factor in Buick's 1936 resurgence. It was, of course, the work of Harley J. Earl, founder and head of GM's Art & Colour Section, the first formal styling department at a major automaker. Earl liked streamlining, and Buick had it for '36. Lines were rounder than ever, set off by more swept-back windshields, fully integrated trunks (instead of separate, detachable fixtures), and massive vertical-bar grilles. The public responded to this package by buying more than 168,000 Buicks for the model year. Calendar-1936 production reached near 180,000 as division volume returned to its pre-Depression level.

Engines choices were reduced for '36 from four to just two. Special retained its 93-bhp 233-cid eight. Other '36s carried a new 320-cid unit with 120 bhp. The latter would be a Buick mainstay through the '50s. Putting it in the lighter Special body made the new '36 Century a fast car, with genuine 100-mph top speed and 10-60 acceleration of 18-19 seconds. Besides good performance and sleek good looks, Century was attractively priced: as little as $1035 for the sport coupe and $1135 for the rakish convertible. It quickly became known as a "factory hot rod" (arguably Detroit's first) -- about the fastest thing you could buy for $1000 or so.

Such triumphs didn't imply much change for 1937. But Harley Earl wasn't satisfied, so Flint's Turret-Tops gained longer fenders with blunt trailing edges, plus horizontal grille bars and complementing side hood vents. Buick was perhaps GM's best-looking '37 car, and still an industry style-setter.

Mechanically, the bigger eight returned unchanged, but a longer stroke boosted Special's engine to 248 cid, horsepower to an even 100. Factory figures suggested a '37 Special could scale 10-60 mph in 19.2 seconds -- fine performance for the class and only a second behind the hot Century. New for all '37s were hypoid rear axle, improved generator, standard windshield defroster, front/rear antiroll bars, and a claimed industry first: a steering-wheel horn ring (Cord introduced it in '36).

The top-line Limited became almost Cadillac-exclusive in 1936-37, so it's puzzling they'd be long overlooked as collector's items. All late-'30s Limiteds were of "trunkback" configuration and carried dual spare tires in long "pontoon" front fenders. The elegant formal sedan of 1936-37 came with a glass division between front and rear compartments, plus the expected grand luxe trim.

Through 1939, the series included six- and eight-passenger sedans and a limousine. Limited chassis were supplied in fair numbers to custom coachbuilders such as Eureka, Miller, Sayers & Scoville, and Flexible for hearse, ambulance, and flower-car applications.

A new grille with fewer but thicker horizontal bars was the chief styling cue for 1938, but more mechanical changes made a good car even better. All-coil suspension -- another Buick first -- delivered a much-improved ride, aided by shock absorbers four times the typical size. Domed, high-compression pistons boosted horsepower on both engines, now dubbed "Dynaflash."

A new item for Special was a four-speed semi­automatic transmission, though it proved troublesome and was dropped after one year. Flint wouldn't attempt another clutchless drive until fully automatic Dynaflow about a decade later.

Buick by now had expanded to encompass a broad market. Prices ranged from $945 for the 1938 Special business coupe to near $2500 for the opulent eight-passenger Limited limo. For big spenders, Brunn still offered custom-bodied Limiteds, though far fewer than in the halcyon pre-Depression days.

Flint closed out the decade with lower-looking 1939 models mildly face-lifted with "waterfall" grilles, "streamboards" (optional concealed running boards), and a sunroof option on some models. Sidemount spare tires were still available, but not as frequently ordered. Special's 122-inch wheelbase (from 1937-38) shrank two inches. Other spans were unchanged from '38: 126-inch Century, 133-inch Roadmaster, 140-inch Limited.

Body choices were as plentiful as ever, prices as moderate. The natty Century convertible sport phaeton sold for just $1713, the sport coupe for $1175. Buick abandoned the increasingly unpopular rumble-seat ragtop for '39, but scored a safety innovation with flashing turn signals, installed at the rear as part of the trunk emblem. Also new were column-mounted gearshift and refillable shock absorbers.

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The 1941 Buick Limited chassis sported a new X-member design.

1940 and 1941 Buicks

Buick's buyers were quite loyal, and in the '40s the division would be GM's number-two seller, after Chevrolet. Throughout the decade, Buick usually ran fourth behind the "Low-Price Three" (Chevy, Ford, Plymouth), building upwards of 300,000 cars a year. GM endured an extended strike after World War II and Flint took awhile to regain momentum, but was back to over 324,000 cars for 1949.

Buicks of the '40s reflected the division's period slogan "Valve in Head -- Ahead in Value": big but reasonably priced cars that were a bit ostentatious. For those who felt status was everything, there was always Cadillac.

The early-'40s lineup was one of the widest in Buick history and wouldn't be matched until the mid '50s. Model groups expanded from four to six for 1940 with the addition of the Series 50 Super (another enduring name). It bowed with fewer models than the Special priced just below it, but included a handsome wood-bodied Estate wagon. Super and Special both rode a 121-inch wheelbase and carried the respected 248-cid straight eight, still with 107 bhp (as since 1938).

Priced above them -- and still with the brawny 320.2-cid eight -- were Century (60) and Roadmaster (now Series 70) on 126-inch chassis, plus two Limited lines: 133-inch-wheelbase Series 80 and 140-inch Series 90 (the latter confined to long sedans and limousines).

Buick again cataloged several interesting wares for 1940, but some were in their last season. Low sales had been thinning the ranks of convertible sedans. This year saw the final Century model; Super and Roadmaster versions would run one year more. "Streamlined Sedans" with fastback styling reminiscent of the Lincoln-Zephyr saw just 14 copies in the Series 80. More popular was the $1952 Series 80 convertible sedan (phaeton) with conventional lines, though only 250 were called for.

Custom styles were still around, but not as "factory" models. One rakish town car by Brewster on the Series 90 chassis would be the first Buick named a "Classic" by the Classic Car Club of America. Buffalo's Brunn was also still doing customs in 1940, including one fairly conventional town car on the Roadmaster platform.

Flint had a banner 1941, with model-year production soaring to 374,000. Leading that year's line were beautiful and opulent Brunn customs on the Limited chassis: phaeton, town car, landau brougham, and full landau. Most flamboyant was the convertible coupe, offered to dealers for $3500. At that price, only the prototype sold, but it was significant for a "sweep-spear" side motif that prefigured a postwar Buick hallmark.

Among production '41s, the two Limited lines were combined into a single Series 90 on a 139-inch wheelbase. Century was shorn of its convertible, convertible sedan, and club coupe. The Estate wagon shifted from Super to Special but cost some $200 more than in 1940. Reflecting its strong sales, Special split into two subseries: 121-inch-wheelbase 40 and 118-inch 40A. Styling was evolutionary, with a bolder, heavier grille and revised "ports" on the hood sides.

A new idea was the fastback, offered in Century and 40 Special trim as a four-door touring sedan and two-door business coupe and sedanet. A clean break with the "trunkback" era, it had great buyer appeal. The Special touring sedan alone sold over 100,000.

The 1941 Special/Super engine gained new-design high-compression pistons for more-efficient combustion that lifted horse­power to 115. Available for the 40 touring sedan and sedanet was "Compound Carburetion" -- two carburetors with a progressive linkage that added 10 bhp. This was standard on other '41s, resulting in 165 bhp for the 320 engine. Chassis were carry-overs for all but Limited, which used a new X-member design.

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Buick’s 1949 models, like this eye-catching 1949 Buick Roadmaster, were its first all-new models since World War II.

1942, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948 Buicks

World War II came at precisely the wrong time for Buick, which completely restyled for 1942 a la Harley Earl's 1939 "Y-Job" show car. The result was Flint's sleekest cars ever, with a wide, low, vertical-bar grille theme that would continue postwar. Fastback "torpedo" styling was more popular than ever.

Century, which would go into postwar limbo until 1954, was down to only two models, both fastbacks. Their Special counterparts continued to dominate sales of that two-series line (realigned into 40A and 40B on 118- and 121-inch wheelbases, respectively). Two-door sedanets were new for Super and Roadmaster. Most '42 Buicks wore Earl's new "Airfoil" front fenders swept back through almost the entire length of the car to meet the rear-fender leading edges. Limiteds and Specials lacked this, but had front fenders extended well into the doors.

As elsewhere in Detroit, Buicks built after January 1, 1942, used painted metal instead of chromed parts per government order. For the same reason, Specials and Supers exchanged aluminum pistons for cast-iron slugs. This, plus lowered compression, dropped horsepower to 110 (118 with Compound Carb­uretion). Production ground to a halt in early February after some 92,000 units, and wouldn't begin again until October 1945.

But thanks to its '42 redesign, Buick resumed civilian production in fine fettle. While nearly all makes were forced to issue warmed-over prewar models, Flint's styling was technically but a year old in 1945, and thus still fairly fresh. Packard, by contrast, returned with the two-year-old styling of its very handsome 1941-42 Clipper, then felt obliged to undertake a severe facelift for 1948.

Buick stretched its '42 tooling through the 1949 Special, then came back with a brand-new Special for 1950. (One year can make a big difference in the car business.) Exotic customs did not return; they simply weren't needed. A mere 2482 Buicks were built in the closing months of 1945, but output surged to more than 153,000 for model-year '46.

While the first postwar Buicks were basically '42s, there were fewer of them: Special, Super, and Roadmaster sedans and sedanets; Super and Roadmaster convertibles; Super Estate wagon; no Centurys or Limiteds; only one Special series.

Styling was cleaned up via single instead of double side moldings, simpler grille, and the first of Buick's distinctive "gun-sight" hood ornaments. Wheelbases were 121 inches for Special (as for 1942's Series 40B), 124 for Super, 129 for Roadmaster. Compound Carburetion didn't return either, so Special/Super remained at 110 bhp. This array of models, wheelbases, and engines would endure through 1948 with only minor changes.

Appearance alterations were also minor through '48, as GM was planning its first all-postwar models for 1949. The '47s gained a "wing-top" grille conferring a lower look; a new, more-elaborate crest appeared above it. The only changes for '48 were full-length belt moldings on Specials and chrome fender nameplates on Super/Roadmaster.

But Flint made big news for '48 with Dynaflow, its excellent new fully automatic transmission, arriving as a $244 option for Roadmaster only. Demand for this torque-converter unit proved so strong that Buick had to double planned installations. By 1951, Dynaflow was ordered by 85 percent of Buick buyers.

The all-new '49 models swelled Buick volume to 324,276 units -- again right behind Chevy-Ford-Plymouth. These were sleek and graceful cars next to the 1946-48s, and reviewers agreed they were worth the great attention they got. Harley Earl's team successfully translated aircraft themes to an automobile, and only a hint of the old separate rear fenders remained on Super and Roadmaster. Also new was the first of Buick's trademark "portholes" or "VentiPorts," an idea from designer Ned Nickles.

Buick's most eye-catching '49 was the Roadmaster Riviera, introduced at midyear along with Cadillac's Coupe de Ville and Oldsmobile's Holiday. As Detroit's first modern mass-produced "hardtop convertibles," they began a trend that would eventually render real convertibles obsolete. The '49 Riviera was a handsome, luxurious brute with a beautiful pillarless roofline. It was sold with either conventional straight side moldings or "sweep-spear" trim, soon to join VentiPorts as a make trademark.

With the main emphasis on styling, the '49 Buicks changed little mechanically, though Dynaflow-equipped Supers got ­higher, 6.9:1 compression that improved horsepower to 120. Roadmaster had been similarly raised to 150 in 1948, and continued that way with Dynaflow standard. Body styles stayed the same, save the new hardtop. The woody wagon was reworked to fit '49 styling, but sales remained modest. Roadmaster was put on a 126-inch wheelbase and Super reassigned to the 121-inch Special chassis. Buick would maintain this basic lineup through 1953.

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The pricey, fashionable 1953 Buick Skylark attracted wealthier buyers.

1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Buicks

All 1950 Buick models, Special now included, wore a new look dominated by big, "toothy" vertical-bar grilles and fuller body contours. This, too, would persist through '53. Specials also received a half-inch longer wheelbase. Though still attractively priced, the 1950s were a bit utilitarian. Offerings comprised standard and DeLuxe fastback and "Touring" notchback four-doors, fastback sedanet coupe, and a revived business coupe. With fastbacks quickly falling from buyer favor, the Special sedanet was Buick's only "jetback" for '51, when the Special received a Riviera hardtop, as had the Super for 1950.

The Riviera name also graced well-proportioned 1950-51 Super and Roadmaster four-door sedans with special long wheelbases (125.5 and 130.3 inches, respectively). Both lines also included woody Estate wagons through '53, with struc­tural body parts of mahogany and white ash. These were big and expensive. The '53 Roadmaster Estate cost a hefty $4031 and weighed 4315 pounds.

Super was Buick's volume seller in the early '50s, offering standard and Riviera sedans, a convertible, Riviera hardtop and the Estate, plus a 1950 sedanet and a handful of notchback '52 two-door sedans. Roadmaster styles essentially duplicated these.

All 1950-52 Buicks and the '53 Special continued to rely on aging but proven valve-in-head straight eights. Displacement, compression, and power varied with model and year. The 1950 Special engine delivered 115 bhp (120 bhp with Dynaflow) from its usual 248 cid. Supers and 1951-53 Specials offered up to 130 bhp from a bored-out 263.3-cid version. Roadmasters still used the 320, which was bumped up for '52 from 152 to 170 bhp.

Dynaflow (some called it "Dyna-slush") had been an increasingly popular Super/Special option since 1950 (it remained standard on Roadmaster). It multiplied torque via a drive turbine induced to rotate through an oil bath by a facing crankshaft-driven turbine. Dynaflow was smooth, but gave poor performance. The successor Twin-Turbine Dynaflow of 1953 was more positive and gave better oomph.

By decade's end an even better Triple-Turbine transmission was offered across the board at $296 extra. But no Dynaflow could deliver acceleration like the Cadillac/Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic, and was thus handicapped in the burgeoning '50s "horsepower race."

Golden Anniversary 1953 brought first-time availability of power steering and a 12-volt electrical system, but the highlight was a fine new overhead-valve V-8 for Super and Roadmaster. An oversquare design of 322 cid, this "Fireball" engine packed up to 188 bhp on industry-topping 8.5:1 compression. Roadmasters were demoted to a 121.5-inch wheelbase save the Riviera sedan, which shared the Super's 125.5-inch span.

Also highlighting Buick's 50th year was a flashy new limited-edition Roadmaster convertible. Called Skylark, it was perfect for Hollywood types and Texas oil barons. Only 1690 were sold that year, largely because of the extraordinary $5000 price.

Skylark was another of those long-famous Harley Earl styling projects, but was planned for the broadest possible appeal. Instead of being a two-seat sports car -- which accounted for only 0.27 percent of the '53 market -- it was a luxurious and sporty "personal" four-seater similar to Ford's post-1957 Thunderbirds. Like 1953's corresponding Olds Fiesta and Cadillac Eldorado, Skylark was basically a customized standard convertible, with four-inch lower windshield and top, plus fully radiused rear wheel cutouts. Though bereft of the trademark portholes, it sported Kelsey-Hayes chrome wire wheels, then becoming fashionable throughout Detroit.

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Buick's 1956 lineup, including this 1956 Buick Special, had its most powerful engines to date.

1954, 1955, 1956, 1957 Buicks

Along with Olds and Cadillac, Buick switched to longer, more-massively square bodies for 1954, but also revived its prewar "hot rod" with a new Century line offering the bigger Buick engine in the smaller Buick body. All models wore inverted-U grilles with fine vertical bars set under oval nacelles cradling headlamps and parking lamps. Windshields were newly wrapped as on recent GM showmobiles, and rear fenders kicked up to carry vertical pairs of bullet taillamps high in the trailing edges. Offerings regrouped to include convertibles, hardtops, and sedans in each series.

Century and Special also offered new all-steel four-door Estate wagons (remarkably with no ersatz wood). A two-door sedan was exclusive to Special, and was the price-leader at $2207.

Special belatedly received its own Fireball V-8 for '54, a 264-cid unit with 143/150 bhp. Other models carried the 322 with power ratings of 177 (manual-shift Super) to 200 (Roadmaster and Skylark). Wheelbases were realigned once more: 122 ­inches for Special/Century, 127 for Super/Roadmaster.

Skylark also returned for '54, but was much less "custom" than the '53, though that enabled Buick to trim price down to $4483. Now more Century than Roadmaster, the '54 stood apart with tacked-on tailfins and huge chrome-plated diecast taillight housings, plus the circular rear wheel openings. Overall, it somewhat resembled Buick's '54 Wildcat II show car, but was evidently less-impressive than the '53 Skylark, for only 836 were sold before the model was dropped.

Much of Buick's 1954 styling was previewed by the XP-300 and 1951 LeSabre show cars, rolling testbeds for numerous postwar GM ideas. Both used an experimental 215-cid aluminum V-8, a very special job unrelated to Buick's same-size early-'60s engine. With exactly square dimensions (3.25-inch bore and stroke), 10:1 compression, and a Roots-type supercharger, it produced over 300 bhp -- phenomenal for the day. However, it ran on a methanol/gasoline blend, not exactly common at local filling stations.

Both showpieces were futuristic. The 116-inch-wheelbase LeSabre sported a wrapped windshield and "Dagmar" bumpers. The XP-300, on an inch-shorter wheelbase, prefigured production '54 Buicks in its frontal treatment.

Speaking of production, Buick had been pushing relentlessly toward number-three, breaking its all-time record in calendar 1950 with more than 550,000 cars. The 1954 tally of 531,000 left Buick trailing only Chevrolet and Ford, a position it hadn't held since the '40s. The division's 1955 volume was another record: 781,000, nearly 50 percent higher than the previous best.

This success was owed largely to the Special, which had become one of America's most popular cars. Over 380,000 were built for 1955, Detroit's banner year of the decade, including 155,000 Riviera two-door hardtops, that season's single bestselling Buick. A deft '55 restyle kept sales booming, aided by even-more-potent V-8s delivering 188 bhp on Specials, 236 bhp elsewhere.

For mid-'55 came four-door Riviera hardtop sedans in the Special and Century series; Super and Roadmaster versions followed for '56. These (along with the Oldsmobile Holiday) were the first four-door hardtops, GM once again forcing the rest of the industry to play catch-up.

The '56 Buicks didn't sell as well as the '55s -- but then, '56 was a "breather" for most everyone. Another facelift introduced model-year designation to exterior nameplates, which Buick would abandon after 1957 amid customer complaints that it made the cars obsolete that much sooner.

The "horsepower race" was at full gallop, and the '56s were the most-power­ful Buicks yet. The Special now offered 220 bhp, other models 255. A Century could leap from 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds and top 110 mph, and every '56 Buick could do at least 100 mph.

Longer and lower new bodies arrived for '57 wearing slightly exaggerated '56 styling. Though division general manager Ed Ragsdale never said how much this makeover cost, it must have run several hundred million. Yet despite the most-sweeping alterations since '49, Buick's '57s didn't sell that well, mainly because rivals were pressing hard for industry design leadership. Chrysler, in fact, took over with its new fleet of longer, lower, glassier, and tailfinned cars created under Virgil Exner.

Still, Flint's '57s were dashing and fairly clean for the age. And horsepower was higher still: 250 for Special, an even 300 elsewhere, thanks to a bore/stroke job taking V-8 displacement to 364 cubes. Model changes were few but interesting: pillarless four-door wagons for Century and Special, plus a Series 75 Roadmaster Riviera hardtop coupe and sedan. The latter, just upmarket versions of the regular Series 70 models, had every possible standard luxury save air conditioning: Dynaflow, power steering and brakes, dual exhausts, automatic windshield washers, backup lights, clock, special interior with deep-pile carpeting, and more.

But though 1957 was a decent year for Buick, it was even better for Plymouth, which pushed Flint from third to fourth in sales for the first time in three years.

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Buick's 1958 models, including this 1958 Buick Caballero, sold poorly and were considered overly ornate.

1958 and 1959 Buicks

Sales were sluggish in 1958, notable for the gaudiest Buicks ever. From contrived chrome-draped fins to a monster grille holding 160 shiny little squares, Flint's "B-58" models looked overtly ornate -- especially the heroically over-decorated Limited, newly revived: The '58s were also the fattest Buicks since the war -- some 400 pounds heavier than the 1950s and three to four inches longer than the '57s -- so performance suffered with unchanged horsepower.

No '58 Buick sold well, though the year's flash recession was as much to blame as the garish styling. Model-year production stopped at some 240,000, and Flint dropped behind Olds to fifth in sales. Air suspension was offered, but seldom ordered. In all, '58 was a very bad year for Buick.

So was 1959. But where the '58s were ostentatious, the '59s were tasteful. Though again dominated by omnipresent tailfins -- bigger than ever now, and newly canted -- the '59s were smooth, clean, and fairly dignified, with huge windshields, fewer chrome grille squares -- and no sweep-spears. Buick now shared corporate A- and B-bodies with sister GM makes, but it wasn't obvious. Nor was the fact that '59 styling was a hasty reply to Chrysler's successful '57s. But thank goodness for it. Original '59 plans called for face-lifted '58s, which were gruesome.

For the first time in two decades, Buick retitled its series for '59. Special became LeSabre, Invicta replaced Century, and Super and Roadmaster were now Electra and Electra 225. The last two rode a 126.3-inch wheelbase, trimmed 1.2 inches from 1957-58. LeSabre/Invicta shared a 123-inch chassis and Special/Century body styles save hardtop wagons, which were dropped due to low sales. Electras were priced quite a bit lower than counterpart '58s, spanning a $3800-$4300 range. Buick was called 1959's most-changed car, and the changes were for the better.

On the mechanical side, 1959 brought a new 401-cid V-8 with 325 bhp for the upper three series; LeSabre stayed with the last Special's 364. Power brakes and steering were standard on Electras, a $150 option elsewhere. Air conditioning was $430 across the board. Air suspension (for the rear only) was still nominally available -- and still almost never ordered due to unresolved reliability problems.

Significantly, Buick dealers sold more Opels than ever in '59. The "captive import" from GM's German subsidiary had been assigned to Buick in '58, and soon nabbed a fair number of customers weary of oversized, overweight cars. But Buick was already planning its own compact, and its star would rise again.

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The striking design of the 1963 Buick Riviera revitalized the Buick image.

1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 Buicks

Buick volume soared from about 250,000 cars and ninth place in 1960 to more than 665,000 and a tight hold on fifth by '69. This success was due partly to the advent of compacts and partly to increased demand for traditional Buicks. Electra sales, for instance, were only some 56,000 in 1960 but nearly 159,000 by '69. Corresponding LeSabre figures were about 152,000 and nearly 198,000. Wildcat, which replaced Invicta for '63, began at about 35,000 but was almost double that by decade's end.

The aforementioned compact appeared for 1961 as the smallest Buick in 50 years. Reviving the Special name, it was one of three "second-wave" GM compacts -- the Buick-Olds-Pontiac models that followed Chevy's Corvair (and borrowed some of its body engineering).

Riding a 112-inch wheelbase, Special offered base and DeLuxe coupe, sedan, and four-door wagon in the $2300-$2700 range. All carried a new 215-cid aluminum-block V-8 with 155 bhp -- light, smooth, and efficient. (Amazingly, production lasted into the 21st century. GM sold manufacturing rights to Rover, which used it in Rover cars and Land Rover utility vehicles beginning in the late '60s.)

Responding quickly to the sporty-car craze begun by the 1960 Corvair Monza, Buick fielded a more special Special DeLuxe coupe for mid '61. This one resurrected another familiar name: Skylark. No-cost bucket seats, optional vinyl roof, and a 185-bhp V-8 helped sell more than 12,000 in that short debut season. For 1962 came Skylark and Special DeLuxe convertibles, an optional Borg-Warner four-speed gearbox -- and more than 42,000 Buick compact sales.

The big Buicks changed dramatically after the 1960 models, which were basically toned-down '59s. The '61s rode unchanged wheelbases but weighed 100-200 pounds less, looked much cleaner, and boasted fewer gimmicks.

For 1962, Buick unleashed the Wildcat as a specialty Invicta: a two-ton, 123-inch-wheelbase luxury hardtop priced around $4000 and sporting bucket seats, vinyl roof, and unique exterior badging. First-year sales were so good that Wildcat replaced Invicta on all midrange senior Buicks for '63 save a single wagon (fewer than 3500 sold), after which the Invicta name disappeared.

As noted, the premium Electras attracted increased sales right away. Two series continued for 1960-61: standard Electra and the posher Electra 225, named for its overall length in ­inches and soon popularly known as the "Deuce-and-a-Quarter." This setup didn't last, however, as all Electras became 225s for '62. Buick then concentrated on fewer offerings. Electra's standard engine through 1966 was a 325-bhp 401 V-8. A bored-out 425 with 340/360 bhp became optionally available by 1964. Both then gave way to a standard 430 with 360 horses.

Buick styling wasn't exceptional in the 1960s, with one singular exception: the new-for-'63 Riviera (recycling yet another well-known Flint moniker). This svelte personal-luxury hardtop coupe changed Buicks' stodgy image almost overnight. Many people felt that GM styling chief William L. Mitchell (who'd succeeded Harley Earl on his retirement back in '58) had fathered one of the best automotive shapes of all time.

This new Riviera was first conceived as a LaSalle, reviving Cadillac's lower-priced nameplate of 1927-40. (It wasn't the first attempt. Buick head designer Ned Nickles had penned an experimental "LaSalle II" roadster and hardtop sedan for the 1955 Motorama, both with trademark vertical-themed grille.) The impetus was Ford's highly successful four-seat Thunderbird that bowed for 1958. At one time, a convertible, four-door hardtop, and even a convertible sedan were considered. Ultimately, the hardtop-coupe clay model approved in early 1961 was assigned to Buick to give it a shot in the sales arm. Not that there was much choice. Cadillac didn't have facilities to build the car (and didn't need it), Chevrolet was enjoying record sales, and Oldsmobile and Pontiac had other fish to fry.

Mitchell freely admitted to borrowing some of the '63 Riviera's design elements. Its razor-edge roof styling, for instance, was inspired by certain 1950s English custom body-work. But the finished product was handsome and individual. As scheduled, model-year production was exactly 40,000.

Riding a 117-inch wheelbase, Riviera was about 14 inches shorter and 200-300 pounds lighter than other big '63 Buicks. At first, Electra's 325-bhp 401 V-8 was standard and the new 340-bhp 425 optional, but the latter became base power for '64, when optional horses increased to 360. Standard two-speed Turbine Drive was used for '63, three-speed Hydra-Matic thereafter. Handling was up to performance, which was strong. The typical 325-bhp Riv ran the quarter-mile in 16 seconds at 85 mph; a 360-bhp car managed 15.5 seconds and 90-plus mph.

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A stroked 340 V-8 was standard for the 1966 Buick LeSabre.

1964, 1965, 1966 Buicks

For 1964, Buick joined Olds and Pontiac in offering larger, restyled compacts with GM's new midsize A-body platform, also used by Chevy's new Chevelle. Wheelbase stretched to 115 inches for all body styles except the new Skylark Sport Wagon, which had a 120-inch wheelbase. The Sport Wagon (and Olds Vista Cruisers) featured a raised rear roof section with glass insets on three sides.

There were new engines, too: a 225-cid V-6 (a novelty for Detroit) with 155 bhp, and a cast-iron 300-cid V-8 with 210/250 bhp. With that, the plush Skylark rapidly became the most-popular smaller Buick. Skylark/Special production was about 9-to-10 for '64, but Skylark had reached a near 5-to-1 ratio by 1969.

Flint's 1964 standards were longer overall but unchanged in wheelbase. The compacts' new 300 V-8 became base LeSabre power. Like the Century of yore, Wildcat was the division's hot rod, carrying the Electra 401 in the lighter, shorter LeSabre chassis. Reflecting its popularity, a four-door sedan joined the convertible and two hardtops that year. All '64 seniors retained their '63 look, but with corners and edges ­rounded off. Riviera was little changed, but production dropped by about 2500 units.

The division's 1965 production was 50 percent above its 1960 total, putting Buick fifth in the annual industry race. An expanded lineup in general and the unique Riviera in particular were responsible, but so was a very strong overall market that bought Detroit cars in record numbers: over 9.3 million for the calendar year, the best since '55.

Like everyone else in 1965, Buick proliferated trim and model variations so buyers could virtually custom-build their cars. That year's junior line comprised V-6 and V-8 Skylarks and standard and DeLuxe Specials priced from about $2350 to $3000, plus V-8 Special "Sportwagons" in the $3000-$3200 range. Wildcat returned with three body types in standard, DeLuxe, and Custom trim, plus DeLuxe and Custom convertibles. LeSabre and Electra 225 offered the same in standard and Custom versions.

At $4440 base, the Electra 225 Custom convertible was the priciest '65 Buick, with the elegant Riviera close behind at $4408. Engine assignments stood pat. Riviera gained added distinction via hidden headlights, the four beams moving from the main grille to stack vertically behind front-fender subgrilles reworked into "clamshells." Taillights moved down into the rear bumper.

A memorable new option arrived for '65: the Gran Sport package for Riviera and Skylark. It delivered some $250 worth of performance goodies, including oversize tires, Super-Turbine 300 automatic, and Wildcat 401 V-8. The Skylark Gran Sport was every inch a grand tourer, though it was really Buick's "muscle car" reply to Pontiac's hot-selling year-old GTO. The Riviera GS was even grander in its way, capable of 125 mph flat out. Motor Trend magazine said it "goes and handles better than before, and that's quite an improvement."

The big attraction for 1966 was a second-generation Riviera, a cousin to that year's new E-body front-drive Olds Toronado. The Riv retained rear drive and looked much more massive than the crisp 1963-65, yet wheelbase was only two inches longer. More-curvaceous contours, wide hidden-headlamp grille, and a sleek semifastback roof with vestiges of the previous razor edges made it impressive to the eye. Yet it sold for only about $4400, which today seems unbelievably low.

Other '66 Buicks were mainly carryovers, but a stroked 340 version of the 300 V-8 was made standard for LeSabres and Skylark Sportwagons.

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Buick produced a recordbreaking 665,000 cars in 1969, including this 1969 Buick Wildcat.

1967, 1968, 1969 Buicks

Modestly redone grilles, side trim, and taillights were again the principal alterations for '67 juniors, but that year's seniors got new GM B- and C-bodies with flowing semifastback profiles on hardtop coupes and more voluptuous lines everywhere else. Identifying the '67 Riviera was a horizontal-crossbar grille and revamped parking lights.

Specials and Skylarks continued with the 225 V-6 and 300/340 V-8s for '67, but a new 430 V-8 -- Buick's biggest engine -- was now standard for Wildcat, Electra, and Riviera. Though no more potent than the 425, it was smoother and quieter.

A new Special/Skylark option was a cast-iron 400, a bored-and-stroked 340. This formed the heart of a new Skylark subseries called GS 400 offering convertible, two-door hardtop, and pillared coupe with handling suspension, bucket seats, and other sporty touches. A similar hardtop with the 340 engine bowed as the GS 340. Model-year sales were excellent, exceeding 560,000.

Skylark sold in record numbers for 1968, partly because Specials were trimmed to just three DeLuxe models. Like other '68 GM intermediates, junior Buicks adopted a new "split-wheelbase" A-body making for 112-inch Special/Skylark two-doors, 116-inch Special four-doors and DeLuxe wagons, and 121-inch Sportwagons (versus 120 inches in 1964-67).

The hot GS 400 returned minus coupe, while GS 340 gave way to a GS 350 with a bored 350-cid V-8 packing 280 bhp. A 230-bhp version was a new Special/Skylark option and standard for Sport­wagon, Skylark Custom, and LeSabres; all these offered the tuned unit at extra cost. The 225 V-6 gave way to a Chevy-built 250 inline six with lower compression, reflecting 1968's new federal emissions rules.

Like the '67s, the big '68 Buicks had side sculpturing (traced with moldings on some models) recalling the '50s "sweep-spear," plus divided grilles, big bumpers, and, new that season, hidden wipers. The rebodied midsizers wore similar down-sloped side "character" lines, plus new grilles, the hide-away wipers, pointy rear fenders, and taillamps in big back bumpers. Riviera got a heavy-handed divided grille that made it look more contrived than in 1966-67.

Many Buicks returned to tradition with stylized front-fender "ventiports." Exceptions were Wildcats, GS 400s, and Skylark Customs, where rectangular trim was used to suggest air vents of various types.

No engine changes occurred for record-breaking 1969, when Buick built more than 665,000 cars, its decade high, though it still ran fifth in the industry. Seniors again received new bodies, this time with ventless side glass and a squarer, more-formal look.

The year-old junior line displayed the expected minor trim shuffles; Gran Sports and Sportwagons remained separate series, as in '68. LeSabre still rode a 123-inch wheelbase, but so did Wildcat for the first time in four years.

This hot-selling line continued into 1970, but without Specials -- the smaller workaday models were now Skylarks -- and with Estate wagons in a separate series. The latter remained big upper-class two- and three-seat haulers battling the likes of Chrysler's Town & Country.

All full-sizers acquired new grilles, bumpers, and taillights; intermediates received longer hoods, bulkier lower-body contours, and different grilles for each series. Riviera also gained a longer hood, reverted to exposed headlamps astride a thin-line vertical-bar grille, sported a wider rear window and altered bumpers, and offered rear fender skirts as a first-time option. The result was more dignified, if a tad stuffy.

Buick's main mechanical development was an enormous 455 V-8. An outgrowth of the 430 it supplanted, this monster gulped premium gas at the rate of 12 mpg on compression ratios of at least 10:1. The last mammoth V-8 Buick would build, the 455 bowed in '70 with 350, 360, or 370 bhp, and was standard for the GS and LeSabre 455s, Riviera, Electra 225, Wildcat, and Estates.

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The 1971 Buick Riviera's controversial "boattail" deck was discontinued after 1973.

1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 Buicks

Flint would remain staunchly committed to big cars throughout the '70s, but energy economics and government mandates inevitably prompted smaller models as time passed. Never­the­less, full-size cars remained Buick's bread-and-butter through 1975, accounting for over 40 percent of total division sales.

GM completely redesigned its full-size models for 1971, and that year's big Buicks were the largest and heaviest yet -- as big as American cars would ever get. Styling was more rounded, with smoothly curved "fuselage" bodysides, massive hoods, and broader expanses of glass.

Wildcat was retitled Centurion (recalling a mid-'50s Buick show car), and shared its B-body platform with the popular LeSabre. The upmarket Electra remained a C-body cousin to Olds Ninety-Eight and Cadillac de Ville. Estate wagons moved up to its 127-inch wheelbase.

Big Buicks continued in this form through 1976, becoming busier and somewhat bulkier each year, but not significantly changed except where needed to satisfy blossoming safety and emissions rules. All were thirsty. The last 455-cid Electra, for example, was good for only 8.7 mpg in the Environmental Protection Agency's city-fuel-economy ratings.

Riviera also bulked up for '71, gaining three inches between wheel centers (to 122). It also gained about 120 needless pounds, though it looked like more. Dominating swoopy new Bill Mitchell styling was a dramatic "boattail" deck that proved controversial and was thus short-lived -- gone after '73. The GS option, a last vestige of sport, vanished after 1975, but Buick tried to keep enthusiasts interested with a "Rallye" package offering reinforced front antiroll bar, a new rear bar, and heavy-duty springs and shocks. This was claimed to provide even better ride and handling than the GS, and probably should have been standard to handle the size and weight of these beasts.

Oddball styling and outsize heft must have contributed to Riviera's sagging fortunes in this period; by 1975, sales were less than half of what they'd been five years before.

The last of the 1968-vintage Skylarks appeared for 1971-72. They remained solid, good-looking middleweights, though their engines were being emasculated by power-sapping emission-control devices, which meant Gran Sports weren't so hot anymore. Signaling the imminent demise of midsize Buick convertibles (ragtop sales were down to a trickle industrywide), Skylark hardtop coupes offered a fold-back cloth sunroof as a new '72 option. Trim packages created a bevy of models: base, 350 and Custom Skylarks, plus Sportwagons and Gran Sports.

Buick's last true muscle cars were also 1970-72 models. They've since become coveted collectibles for their performance and miniscule production. A prime example is the 1970 GSX, a bespoilered GS 455 hardtop with new "Stage I" engine tuning; it saw only 678 copies; the GS 455 convertible was little higher at 1416. Both were back for '71 (GSX as an option package) with bold black body stripes and hood paint, special grille, chrome wheels, and fat tires. Figures aren't available for the '71 GSX, but only 902 GS ragtops were built and just 8268 hardtops, reflecting the big drop in performance-car demand after 1969.

For 1973, the respected Century name returned once more, this time on redesigned intermediate Buicks with unchanged wheelbases. All employed a new-generation A-body with so-called "Colonnade" styling that did away with pillarless coupes and sedans. Convertibles were no more, GM reacting to a proposed federal rule on rollover protection that would have outlawed ragtops but which ironically never materialized.

Bolstered by spiffy Luxus and Regal submodels (the latter made a separate series after '74), the midsize Centurys sold well through 1977, providing an important "safety net" at times when inflation and rising fuel prices sent would-be big-car buyers scurrying for thriftier alternatives.

A compact also returned to Buick, its first in 10 years. Arriving for mid '73 as the Apollo, it was just a rebadged clone of the 111-inch-wheelbase X-body Chevrolet Nova from 1968, with the same three body styles (two- and four-door sedans and a hatchback two-door) plus, initially, the same 250-cid Chevy straight six as standard power. It was a definite asset during the big-car sales slump touched off by the Middle East oil embargo late that year, but intermediates would remain more important to Buick's overall health.

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In response to the energy crisis, Buick began downsizing its larger models, like the 1977 Buick Estate Wagon.

1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979 Buicks

Confusing buyers for 1975 was the return of the Skylark name at the top of the compact line, where it would eventually supplant Apollo. In common with all X-body variants that year, Buick's version gained heavily revised outer panels that gave it something like European "sports sedan" flair.

A genuine surprise was the new-for-'75 Skyhawk, the smallest Buick in living memory. A near twin to the Vega-based Chevrolet Monza, this 97-inch-wheelbase subcompact "hatch-coupe" took a bit more than eight percent of total division sales in its first six months. Though not light for its size, Skyhawk offered a decent performance/economy blend thanks to a new 90-degree 231-cid V-6 engine, the only one available. Rated at 110 bhp, and also standard power for the '75 Skylark, Century, and Regal, this would be a significant engine in years to come.

Model-year 1977 brought the first of GM's downsized cars. Sometime before the first energy crisis, management had decided to move to smaller, lighter, more-economical designs in every size and price category. Its largest cars were the logical starting point, and they were rendered even more timely by the government corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) that took effect for '78.

The first fruits of this program were dramatically evident at Buick, where LeSabre and Electra shrank to almost Century size. Wheelbases contracted to 116 and 119 inches, ­respectively (Estate wagons rode the shorter one); curb weights dropped several hundred pounds. This made smaller engines feasible, yet interiors were within inches of the old behemoths' size. Riviera wasn't left out, becoming a high-spec version of the new B-body LeSabre (though it would soon return to the corporate E-body).

Electras through 1979 relied on a standard Chevy-built 350 V-8; a new 403 with 185 bhp was optional, courtesy of Olds. Convertibles were no more (killed after '75), but two- and four-door sedans were offered in LeSabre, LeSabre Custom, Electra 225, and 225 Limited series. The following year brought even fancier Electra Park Avenue models. An interesting 1978 addition was the LeSabre sport coupe, powered by that year's new 165-bhp turbocharged version of the Buick V-6.

Intermediates were next on the corporate slenderizing schedule, so a smaller Century bowed for 1978 along with a separate Regal series of personal-luxury coupes, all built on a new 108.1-inch-wheelbase A-body. Regal sold well from the start, but Century didn't. Sloped-roof "aeroback" styling on the two- and four-door sedans was out of phase with buyer tastes, though there was nothing wrong with the handsome wagon.

Buick corrected this mistake for 1980 with a more-formal-looking notchback four-door bearing a faint resemblance to the first-generation Cadillac Seville, and sales took off. Buick had turbocharged its V-6 with the new midsize line in mind, offering it in sporty Century and Regal sport coupe models. But the sales pattern was the same, and the blown Century vanished with aerobacks.

Riviera was downsized a second time for '79. Styling was crisper and tighter, and front-wheel drive finally put the model in line with its Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado cousins. A turbo V-6 was available here, too. Though most buyers opted for standard powerplants, the blown Riv was a fine performer -- able to leap from 0-60 mph in under 12 seconds while averaging close to 20 mpg in more-restrained driving, this despite a still-bulky 3800-pound curb weight.

Though it promised much, the little Skyhawk hatch-coupe was never a big seller and disappeared after 1980. One interesting 1979-80 variation was the Road Hawk, a package aimed at younger buyers more interested in sportscar looks than genuine ability. Fore and aft spoilers, special paint and tape stripes, identifying decals, mag-style wheels, and larger tires were included, but there was little action to back up the brag.

Yet despite the occasional flawed product and market miscalculation, Buick had moved with changing buyer demands in the '70s, reaping the benefit of good sales while some other makes faltered. Per tradition, Buick anticipated most market trends and responded with cars that, if not on the leading edge of design, were at least in tune with the times. Strong sales year after year were proof that Buick not only knew its market but how to satisfy it.

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Buick Image Gallery
Buick Image Gallery

Buick's offerings in the early 1980s, like this 1982 Buick Riviera convertible, were aimed at a youthful, wealthier audience. See more pictures of Buick cars.

Buick Strategy in the 1980s

Buick began the '80s by again reaching out to the younger, more-affluent types who'd bought Gran Sports in the "flower power" era. This reflected the product policies of Lloyd Reuss, a former division chief engineer who became Buick general manager in 1980. A genuine "car guy," Reuss wanted some Buicks to be American-style BMWs, and he got his way.

By 1983, there were sporty T type editions of every Buick save for the LeSabre and plush Electra, featuring black exterior trim, firmer chassis, more-potent engines, and "driver-oriented" interiors. Buick also mounted an Indy-car racing program for its V-6 and offered over-the-counter hop-up parts to cement its hoped-for image as a more youthful, performance-oriented outfit.

This strategy worked well for a time, but ultimately backfired. Buick jumped to third in industry production for 1982-83 and ran fourth in model years '81 and 1984-86. Even so, '86 volume was well down on '85's, and the slide continued into 1987, when Buick fell to fifth, behind Oldsmobile.

A significant factor was strong new competition from Pontiac, which offered many of the same basic cars but had recently returned to its '60s-style performance theme and returned to third for the first time since 1970. Trying to be all things to all people, Reuss later conceded, only confused Buick's image -- and its customers.

In the end, it didn't matter. Chairman Roger Smith's wholesale corporate reorganization, ordained in 1984 to reverse GM's withering market share and in evidence by '87, called for returning each GM make to its distinct rung on the price-and-prestige ladder fashioned back in the '30s by legendary president Alfred P. Sloan. At Flint, this meant a hasty retreat from T types and turbo V-6s, and by decade's end the division had mostly returned to its traditional brand of upper-middle-class luxury -- a "doctor's car" once more.

Big Buicks entered the '80s with subtly restyled sheetmetal said to reduce wind resistance as an aid to fuel economy. Toward the same end, more extensive use of lighter materials also netted an average 150-pound weight savings, about half that achieved with the '77s. It's odd how perspective changes. GM's first downsized big cars seemed quite small next to Big Three rivals of the day. Now they look just as large as their outsized predecessors.

The 1980 Riviera was basically a reprise but introduced a long-time Cadillac feature: "Twilight Sentinel," the automatic on/off headlamp control with delay timer (for keeping the lights on for up to three minutes after switching off the ignition to illuminate your path).

An important new Buick arrived in the spring of '79 as an early-1980 entry. This was a front-drive replacement for the long-running rear-drive Skylark, sharing GM's technically advanced new 104.9-inch-wheelbase X-body platform with siblings Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, and Oldsmobile Omega. Buick had learned its styling lesson, so this new, smaller compact was offered only in traditional notchback form. Design highlights included rack-and-pinion steering, all-coil suspension, and transversely mounted engines -- either 2.5-liter Pontiac-built inline-four or an optional 2.8-liter 60-degree V-6 from Chevrolet.

Skylark performed well with the latter, and tastefully done sport coupe and sport sedan models offered firmer suspension and sportier appointments for more-serious drivers. Likely on the strength of the Buick name, Skylark became the second-best-selling X-car after the higher-volume, lower-priced Citation. Unfortunately, execution left much to be desired on all X-cars, which soon supplanted the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare as the most-recalled cars from Detroit.

Buick's generally strong sales in the '80s reflected a consistent model lineup, which evolved in step with those of other GM divisions but was, perhaps, more clear-cut to buyers from year to year. Some individual models certainly seemed ageless. The big 1977-vintage Electra and LeSabre, for example, hardly changed at all after their 1980 update, receiving only minor styling and equipment shuffles through mid-decade while accounting for about a quarter of division output each year.

The full-size Estate wagons continued in this vein through 1990, garnering fewer sales as time passed, but coupe and sedan models gave way to more-efficient and popular front-drive successors, beginning with 1985's new C-body Electra. A similar H-body LeSabre arrived the following year.

Announcing a second wave of GM downsizing, these smaller big Buicks shared a 110.8-inch wheelbase and measured some two feet shorter and 400 pounds lighter than the 1977-84 models. Yet they hardly sacrificed any passenger room and were vastly more pleasurable to drive, thriftier with fuel, and adequately quick. Transverse-mounted V-6s mated to four-speed over-drive automatic transaxles across the board.

Initially, 3.0-liter gasoline and 4.3-liter diesel engines were offered, but soon vanished in favor of the old reliable 3.8-liter gas unit, though updated with sequential multiport electronic fuel injection and, from '86, roller valve lifters. A modified "3800" engine with 165 bhp (versus 150) arrived on certain '88s. Electra coupes disappeared after 1987, when the top-line Park Avenue became a separate model and a laudable new antilock brake system (announced for '86) became more widely available for both series.

Electra offered a subtly sporty T Type sedan, LeSabre a T Type coupe. But, as always, the traditional Custom and Limited lines sold better by far. And those sales were good: around 100,000-150,000 a year.

But though Buick suffered from rising sales of Japanese cars as much as any Detroit make, it could not escape the cumulative effects of misguided corporate policies that severely eroded GM's market share by 1990.

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The 1987 Buick Grand National couldn't help Buick's slumping sales.

1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 Buick Riviera

New for 1986, the sixth generation Buick Riviera, the third downsized personal-luxury Buick in 10 years laid a gigantic egg. Sales plunged to an 11-year Riviera low, the '86 tally off a whopping 70 percent from model-year '85. The 1987-88 results were even poorer.

In a way, this was curious. On a tighter 108-inch wheelbase, this new Riviera was far more nimble than the old, and its quiet, well-mannered drivetrain was basically the same as found in Electra/LeSabre. But it was evidently a bit too small for Riviera customers. An unfortunate styling resemblance to Buick's N-body Somerset/Skylark didn't help, and hardly anyone liked the gimmicky Graphic Control Center, a touch-sensitive TV-type screen that needlessly complicated even simple tasks like changing radio stations.

Hoping to turn things around, Buick made the '89 Riviera look more "important," adding 11 inches to overall length, ladling on chrome, and restyling the tail to resemble that of the 1979-85 models. Did it work? Yes and no. Production leaped from about 8600 for '88 to over 21,000 for '89, but the latter ­wasn't even half the total of a decade before. The 1990s sold only about 1300 units better. A more-conventional dash was a welcome change that season.

All this must have greatly disappointed Flint executives, who'd seen the 1981-84 Riviera average 50,000 model-year sales and the '85 over 65,000 (the increase no doubt due to buyers learning of the shrunken '86). Like the last rear-drive Buicks, these cars changed little after 1980.

There was a mild facelift for '84, and an optional Olds-built 350 V-8 was offered through '82, but turbo and nonturbo V-6s were available all along (the latter a new 4.1-liter from '81), as was a 350 Olds diesel V-8 (a troublesome beast, and thus rarely ordered), and choice of standard and T Type coupes.

Riviera's most interesting '80s development was the advent of its first convertible, bowing at mid 1982. A coupe conversion performed by an outside contractor, it was a handsome rig, fairly solid for a droptop and as luxurious as any Riv. But it was heavier and slower with its standard 4.1 V-6 (fitted to most examples, though the turbo 3.8 was ostensibly available) and found few takers at $25,000-plus.

Production was predictably limited -- just 1248, 1750, 500, and 400, respectively, for 1982-85 -- scarcity that guarantees this as a minor future collectible at least. Of course, the ragtop Riv died with the '86 E-body, which was deemed too small to be a practical four-seater in convertible form (though Buick later showed a prototype of just such a car).

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The 1983 Buick Skyhawk faced stiff competition from Chevy and Pontiac.

Buick Skyhawk and Buick Somerset

Buick still peddled a subcompact Skyhawk in the '80s, though quite different from the same-named late-'70s hatch coupe. Bowing for '82, this was one of GM's five front-drive J-body models, riding a 101.2-inch-wheelbase chassis with all-coil suspension via front MacPherson struts and a rear beam axle on trailing arms. Buick wouldn't get a convertible version like Chevy and Pontiac, but did offer their two- and four-door notchback styles plus 5-door wagons from '83 and a "fasthatch" coupe from '86.

Engines were the same four-cylinder fare used by sister Js: Chevy-built overhead-valve 2.0-liter (abandoned after '87) and a Brazilian-built overhead-cam unit. The latter, initially a 1.8, was also offered as a more-potent turbocharged version from 1984; both grew to 2.0 liters for '87, after which the blown engine was cancelled. Custom and plusher Limited trim was cataloged all along.

The inevitable T Types arrived for '83 -- notchback two-doors first, then fasthatch coupes too. Styling changed little through the final '89 models save an optional hidden-headlamp nose from 1986. Coupes, turbos, and T Types were all dropped after '87 due to dwindling sales and the division's return to its more-traditional "Premium American Motorcars" thrust.

In sales, Skyhawk typically ran in the middle of the J-car pack -- behind Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac's 2000/Sunbird but ahead of Olds Firenza and Cadillac Cimarron. While none of these cars matched certain Japanese rivals for refinement, workmanship, and economy, they were at least competent and sometimes pleasant.

Skyhawk probably benefited as much from the Buick corporate badge as any design feature, but would surely have sold better without so much intramural competition. As it was, production peaked with the '84 models -- over 145,000 built. After dropping for '85, volume recovered to some 91,500 for industry banner-year '86. But that spurt was a fluke. By '89, Skyhawk sales were down below 30,000.

Much of the J-car's basic engineering appeared in the 1985 Somerset Regal, a notchback two-door heralding the arrival of GM's new N-body. Buick wasn't able to trade on the popular Regal name the way Olds did with Cutlass, so this car soon became just Somerset. Companion N-body four-doors arrived for '86 under the Skylark, finishing off the last X-body models; Somersets became Skylarks two years later.

Through 1987, Somerset/Skylark engines comprised the familiar 2.5 four (updated to "Generation II" specs that season) and extra-cost Buick 3.0 V-6. An added option for '88 was Oldsmobile's new "Quad 4," a dual-overhead-cam 2.3-liter four with four valves per cylinder, an aluminum head, and a cast-iron block. With a healthy 150 bhp even in mild initial tune, the Quad-4 promised much. But it wasn't in the same league with similar Japanese engines for smoothness, quietness, and lugging power. Buick was thus wise to retain the V-6 (unlike Pontiac, which dropped it for the '88 Grand Am).

The N-body Buick got off to a good start. Some 86,000 were built for the abbreviated debut model year, followed by nearly 138,000 of the '86s. Like Skyhawk, this was not a state-of-the-art competitor, but it kept getting better. Among the more-notable improvements was the 1989 exchange of 3.0 V-6 for the torquier 160-bhp "3300" unit. The following year brought more logical ergonomics to all Skylarks, plus a new Luxury Edition four-door and a Gran Sport coupe.

Having learned with the J-cars that too many corporate clones spoil the sales broth, GM returned to more individual styling for a trio of 1988 midsize coupes. At Buick, this new front-drive GM10 or W-body design replaced the rear-drive Regal, but retained make appearance "cues" to stand apart more clearly from the related Pontiac Grand Prix and Olds Cutlass Supreme. Significantly, wheelbase was cut just 0.6-inch from the previous Regal's, to the benefit of passenger space; base curb weight slimmed some 250 pounds and overall length by 8.4 inches, to the benefit of economy and handling.

The usual Custom and Limited versions were on hand, and a Gran Sport appearance/handling package offered front "bib" spoiler, rocker-panel skirts, black grille, aluminum road wheels, and other "Euro" touches.

All models initially carried a transverse, port-injected 2.8 Chevy V-6 of 125 bhp and four-speed overdrive automatic trans­axle, plus all-disc brakes -- uncommon in mass-market Detroiters. Equally laudable was the all-independent suspension with the expected front struts and coil springs, plus rear struts on single trailing links and dual lateral links connected by a single transverse plastic leaf spring, as on the big C/H-bodies.

Despite such technical finesse, Regal finished well-down on the midsize sales chart for 1988. The reason, said many pundits, was GM's delay in introducing planned four-door models, a style far preferred in this class.

GM remedied its mistake for 1991, and Buick added Regal sedans with the same trim levels and wheelbase as its W-body coupes. By that point, the 2.8 V-6 had been enlarged to a 3.1 with 10 more bhp, and a praise-worthy antilock braking system (ABS) was offered optionally on Limited and GS models. Despite all this, Regal sales continued to disappoint.

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The 1990 Buick Reatta convertible -- Buick's first "in-house" ragtop in years -- suffered from poor workmanship.

Buick Reatta

Another '88 newcomer was a more telling sign of Buick's late-decade fortunes. It was Flint's first production two-seater, named Reatta (derived from an American Indian word for ­lariat). Though basically a Riviera cut down to a 98.5-inch wheelbase, Reatta was only 4.5 inches shorter overall and almost as heavy (at 3350 pounds). Powertrain and dashboard also came from the Riv, but styling was Reatta's own: smooth, rounded, "friendly."

Buick took pains to note that Reatta was not a sports car but a "mature" two-seater emphasizing luxury, comfort, even practicality. Extensive standard equipment limited options to just an electric sliding sunroof and a driver's seat with no fewer than 16 power adjustments. You had to contend with the dubious Graphic Control Center in 1988-89 models, but the roomy two-place cabin and a largish trunk with drop-down pass-through panel invited long-distance touring.

Even better, Reatta was shrewdly priced: around $25,000 initially, about half as much as Cadillac's slow-selling Italian-bodied Allanté convertible.

An open-air Reatta bowed for 1990 as Buick's first "in-house" ragtop in 15 years. (It would have appeared in early '89 but for last-minute production troubles.) Both 1990 Reattas gained a standard driver-side airbag and conventional audio and climate controls. The '91s boasted a further-improved 3800 V-6, new electronic shift control for the four-speed automatic transmission, standard touring tires, and a shorter final drive for sprightlier pickup.

Yet for all its appealing qualities, the Reatta was a fish out of water: conceived in the heady days of Buick sportiness but born to a division fast returning to "The Great American Road." It did have the handcrafted aura of a genuine limited edition, built at a special new "Reatta Craft Centre" (though that was situated at Olds in Lansing, not at Flint). Yet Riviera offered the same basic car for less money -- plus the bonus of a back seat.

Worse, Reatta workmanship was erratic, especially on the convertible, which not only made do with a manual top but was downright pricey at an initial $34,995 -- $6700 above the coupe.

With all this, Reatta failed to meet even its minimum yearly sales goal of 10,000 units and was thus dropped after 1991. Total production was precisely 21,850, including a mere 2437 ragtops (only 305 of which were built to '91 specs).

Reatta was a sad loss for those who appreciate interesting cars, but it died in a good cause. The aging of America's vast "baby-boom" generation implied growing demand for the sort of "modern conservatism" traditional from Flint.

Indeed, the division enjoyed something close to prosperity in the early '90s, running third in calendar-year sales among domestic makes before yielding to a resurgent Pontiac in 1993. Still, this success was only relative, as Buick volume was down to barely half its mid '80s level -- about half-a-million cars per year. Worse, GM as a whole was losing money by the ton: $2 billion in 1990 alone, a massive $4.5 billion in '91.

Analysts found no mystery in that. Quite simply, they said, GM still had too many factories with too much capacity to build too many vehicles for too few customers. By contrast, Ford and Chrysler had become leaner and more efficient in the '80s.

GM merely redrew its organizational chart to enter the '90s with the highest overhead and lowest per-unit profit of the Big Three (not to mention the Japanese "transplant" operations that now loomed large in the total U.S. picture). By 1993, GM's net losses over four years had reached a towering $18 billion.

By that point, GM had endured another painful reorganization and numerous plant closings, plus an unprecedented 1992 "palace coup" that summarily ousted chairman Robert Stempel and president Lloyd Reuss after just two years in office. GM was making money again just two years later, thanks to the efforts of new president John F. "Jack" Smith, who'd recently turned things around for GM Europe, and John Smale, the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble.

In a sense, Buick had long been showing the way to GM's future. As the purveyor of "Premium American Motorcars," it entered the '90s with one of Detroit's stronger "brand images," thanks to a well-established lineup of cars that made no apologies for being smooth, lush, and Detroit-traditional. Buick worked hard to strengthen its position even further in the '90s. Dropping Reatta had been but a first step.

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Spacious and well-equipped, the 1993 Buick Roadmaster sold fairly well.

1990s Buick Roadmaster

In its quest to strengthen its position in the 1990s, in 1991 Buick introduced the first Roadmaster in 35 years. It was only that year's restyled Chevy Caprice in Buick dress, built on the same rear-drive B-body chassis from '77.

But this new "Roadie" was big, spacious, and well-equipped in the best tradition of full-size Detroiters. In other words, it was a lot of car for the money, considering it was cheaper than the smaller, more efficient front-drive Park Avenue.

An Estate wagon bowed first with fake-wood siding, eight-passenger seating, handy two-way tailgate with separate lift-up window, and a $21,500 price tag.

Six-passenger standard and Limited sedans followed for '92 in the $22,000-$24,000 range. That same year, the base 170-hp 5.0-liter V-8 was bolstered by a much torquier 5.7-liter option.

The '94s could run close to $27,000, but they also ran with a standard 350 LT1 V-8 from Chevy's latest Corvette sports car, though in low-stress, 260-bhp tune. Car and Driver clocked one at 7.8 seconds 0-60, but pulling power, not sheer acceleration, was the name of this game -- as in towing trailers and boats.

The reborn Roadmaster pulled a fair number of customers, all things considered: a best of 85,500 for '92, 30,000 to 40,000 for 1993-95. Though that wasn't much compared to the levels of 10 and 20 years before, each sale was almost pure gravy, as the elderly platform and other major components had been paid for long ago.

But the Roadmaster would die after '96 to make room for more-profitable sport-utility vehicle production at the Arlington, Texas, factory that also built the Caprice. Like Reatta, the '90s Roadmaster served a purpose, but it was clearly a car of Buick's past, not its future.

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After years of few styling changes, the 1997 Buick Century sported a complete redesign.

Buick Century and Buick Regal

Smaller cars, particularly intermediates, were far more important to Buick's fortunes in the '80s. For 1981 these comprised the workaday Regal coupes and a mostly carryover group of Century sedans and wagons. All continued the 1978 A-body design that was renamed G-body for '82, when the Centurys became Regals and Buick's 4.1-liter V-6 replaced a 4.3 V-8 option.

Model-year volume was some 384,500 for 1981 and over 328,000 for '82, not bad for two very difficult industry years. Production eased to some 226,000 for 1983-84, by which time four-speed automatic transmissions had been adopted as a much better bet for improved mileage.

Meantime, Buick had introduced the first front-drive Century, a notchback coupe and sedan built on the new 1982 A-body used by sister Chevy, Olds, and Pontiac models. Like them, this Century was just a "deluxe" X-car with more expansive sheet-metal and plusher interiors on the same 104.9-inch wheelbase. Initial engine choices were a 2.5-liter Pontiac four; a new 3.0-liter Buick V-6 (destroked from 3.8); and a 4.3-liter Olds diesel V-6.

Euro-style T Types were added for '83. The following year brought a 3.8-liter option (standard for T Types) and new five-door Custom and Limited Estate wagons (replacing the old Regal models).

Though little changed for '85, Century displaced Regal (now down to coupes only) as Buick's best-seller, with annual production through 1987 of over a quarter-million units. The '86s were modestly restyled via a curiously unaerodynamic under-cut nose. The T Type coupe vanished, Chevy's familiar 2.8 V-6 ousted Buick's 3.0 as the step-up engine, and the 3.8 gained 25 horses (for 150 total) via low-friction roller valve lifters, sequential-port injection, and distributorless triple-coil ignition.

For 1987, the T Type became a package option, and both the four and 2.8 V-6 received "Generation II" improvements conferring slightly more power. More standard equipment eased the sticker shock of 1988 prices that were up to the $12,000-$15,000 range (versus $10,000-$12,000 five years before).

The 1989s received a minor facelift and a new 160-bhp 3.3-liter V-6 derived from the veteran 3.8 (to replace the 2.8). Nevertheless, volume withered to some 150,000 for '88, then dropped below 90,000 for '89, thanks to a worsening national economy and other factors. Still, this was highly important business for Flint -- and highly creditable for such an elderly basic design.

The aging front-drive Century was one of Flint's most profitable assets in the early 1990s. Buick increased quality and added features that customers wanted while keeping the lid on price. While holding on to an old design might seem questionable, Buick couldn't afford to let this one die, because the Century had come to have great appeal for rental-car companies and other fleet buyers; in fact, they now accounted for the majority of sales.

The improved workmanship was just a timely bonus, the result of a gradual but wholesale reengineering effort for both Century and Oldsmobile's related Cutlass Ciera. And it paid off. In 1993, the influential J.D. Power organization ranked this elderly duo near the top of the industry for initial vehicle quality.

Sales, of course, were the most important payoff, and Century model-year production remained well above 100,000 for 1990-95. This was achieved with remarkably few changes: a more-orthodox face for '91, new downpriced Special models for '92 (recycling yet another familiar Buick name), a new 2.2-liter base four for '93 (ousting the old Iron Duke at last). A standard driver-side airbag and ABS arrived for '94, when offerings thinned to Custom and Special sedans and a Special wagon.

By that point, Buick was into "value pricing" (like other GM divisions), which meant selling well-equipped cars for several hundred dollars less than if they were "optioned up" the usual way. Yet Century's price spread hadn't changed that much, with stickers still in the affordable $16,000-$18,000 range. Even more than Roadmaster, Buick's "old dog" A-body had learned some profit­able new tricks -- enough to earn a complete redesign for '97.

Two collectible '80s Buicks are found among the rear-drive Regal coupes, which were reskinned for '81 with crisper, more-aerodynamic lines that persisted through the end of series production in December 1987. These are the hot turbo-powered T Type and Grand National.

The new-for-'82 Regal T Type replaced the previous sport coupe as Flint's "factory hot rod," offering fat tires, beefier chassis, attention-getting exterior, and plush interior. Horse­power was rated at 175-180 bhp at first, then boosted to 200 bhp for 1984 via sequential-port fuel injection.

The GN bowed at mid '82 as a low-volume commemorative car (named for the Chevy-powered Regals then starting to clean up on the NASCAR circuit), but in reality, it was just a fancy T Type. After a one-year hiatus, though, Grand National returned with a mean all-black exterior and more unique touches.

For 1986 came a turbo intercooler that swelled horses by 35 for both T Type and GN. Recalibrated engine electronics gave the '87s 10 bhp more -- and truly phenomenal acceleration. In fact, these Buicks bid fair as the fastest cars in the land, able to bound from 0 to 60 in about six seconds.

Quicker still was the 1987 GNX, a $30,000 end-of-the-line limited edition (547 built, by contractor ASC) with higher turbo boost, "smarter" electronics, cleaner porting, bigger tires, meaner looks, a claimed 300 bhp (276 actual) and a mighty 355-420 pound-feet of torque. Magazine testers clocked 0-60 in the mid-fives and the quarter-mile in about 14.5 seconds at 95 mph.

For all this grandstanding, the Regal T Type was always a peripheral seller and the GN almost invisible (only 215 of the '82s, about 2000 for '84, even fewer for 1985-87). Still, they were great fun, even if Buick wasn't the place one expected to find a modern muscle car.

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1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 Buick LeSabre

Continuing as Buick's top-seller by far, the full-size H-body LeSabre drew well over 150,000 orders each model year in 1992-94. Its stellar second-place finish in J.D. Power's 1989 quality survey prompted Buick to bill itself as "the new symbol for quality in America." LeSabre also earned "best family car" honors from Family Circle magazine and a string of yearly Best Buy endorsements from Consumer Guide®.

Helping the cause was a thorough 1992 redesign featuring a more rounded and contemporary look, a smoother 3800 V-6, standard driver-side airbag, and useful no-cost extras like power windows and GM's "PASS-Key" antitheft ignition.

Coupes disappeared, but Custom and Limited sedans kept moving out the door on the strength of appealing high-teens starting prices and considered yearly feature upgrades like standard power door locks ('93), passenger airbag and heat-reflecting "solar control" glass ('94) and high-value "Select Series" models ('95). Though LeSabre had no more allure for enthusiasts than a Century or Regal, it offered solid family transport with a modicum of luxury at a fair price, a combination many folks found hard to resist.

Buick's flagship C-body line received a similar makeover for 1991, gaining more-fulsome lines inspired by the '89 Essence show car, plus plastic front fenders and eight inches in overall length (wheelbase was unchanged).

Models thinned to a $24,385 Park Avenue sedan and a posh new $27,420 Park Avenue Ultra. Both carried 3800 V-6s with tuned-port injection and 170 bhp, plus four-speed automatic transaxles with electronic shift control newly integrated with the engine computer. Also on hand: standard driver-side airbag, ABS, solar-control windshield glass, and full power assists.

Befitting its name, the Ultra came with a leather-trimmed interior and a few unique styling touches. Come 1992, it added a supercharged V-6, the only such engine in U.S. production other than Ford's Thunderbird SC unit. Unlike Buick turbos of the '70s and '80s, Ultra's supercharged engine was tuned for low-speed torque, not high-end power. Still, its 205 bhp wasn't exactly puny, so neither was performance. Where the regular Park Avenue took 9.2 seconds 0-60, the Ultra needed about eight.

Also new for '92 was optional traction control for both models (later extended to LeSabre as well). This praiseworthy feature was appreciated even more when the Ultra went to 225 bhp for 1994 -- good for seven seconds flat in the benchmark sprint to 60.

The 1995 base model got a reengineered "Series II" 3800 with vibration-quelling "balance shafts." The blown V-6 followed suit for '96 and muscled up to 240 bhp -- not bad for a lowly pushrod engine then over 20 years old.

Like their linemates, Park Avenue/Ultra added a few standard features each year. While that necessarily pushed up prices, customers seemed willing to go along. That was especially true for '91, when the series doubled its model-year production to over 100,000. Annual volume then settled to between 55,000 and 68,000 through mid-decade.

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Buick Skylark

The compact Buick Skylark was an X-body for 1981-85, an N-body thereafter. For all the recalls and attendant bad publicity that plagued GM's X-cars in these years, the Skylark sold well. Buick built over a quarter-million of the '81s and more than 100,000 a year for 1982-84.

The '85s ended the line at around 93,000. Changes in styling, engineering, and models were strictly evolutionary. There were always 2.5 four and 2.8 V-6 coupes and sedans (except '85, sedans only) in base/Custom and Limited trim.

Sport versions through '82 and the two-door 1983-85 T Type could be had with a high-output V-6 (port-injected for '85) and came with distinctive exteriors and Buick's firmer "Gran Touring" suspension package. In all, this Skylark served Buick well.

The compact N-body Skylark was much less important to Buick in the early '90s than it was in the '80s. Indeed, sales declined most every model year even as Pontiac's similar Grand Am steadily drew up to four times as many buyers. Skylark's 1992 redesign didn't help, with a flashy, sharp-lined exterior and an oddly drawn dash worthy of Salvador Dali.

Skylark offered coupes and sedans in base and Gran Sport trim for '92, then in Custom, Limited, and GS guise, through '95. GS models always had a standard V-6: a Buick 3.3 through '93, then a Chevy-built 3.1. Either was preferable to the otherwise-standard Quad-4, which remained a rough-and-rowdy runner despite GM's best efforts to civilize it (including the belated addition of twin balance shafts for '95, when it was prosaically retitled Twin Cam).

A three-speed automatic was still the lone transmission and thus quite passé even for a compact. An optional four-speed unit arrived for '94, when all Skylarks gained a driver-side airbag as well as standard air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, power windows, and automatic power door locks.

By that point, Skylark had added special "value-priced" models in the hotly contested $14,000-$18,000 bracket. Yet despite such tactics and worthy interim changes, this was still one of those cars that seemed to aim more at Hertz and Avis than Joe and Jane America.

Buick tried bolstering Skylark's showroom appeal with a 1996 facelift featuring a toned-down exterior and a more orthodox dashboard with standard passenger's airbag. At the same time, the base four was enlarged to 2.4 liters, mostly for better low-speed torque (horsepower was unchanged), and was teamed with the four-speed automatic like the V-6. And all models boasted standard traction control.

But none of this helped sales, which actually declined to the 50,000-unit level. With that and a new cost-cutting push by GM managers, Buick exited the compact field after 1997.

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1990s Buick Riviera

A changing market and GM's steadily declining share of it -- down to less than 30 percent by the mid '90s -- would ­eventually claim another Buick, the once-proud Riviera. Its future certainly looked bleak as the decade opened, as the restyled '89 was left to soldier on for four model years without significant change.

Though there were laudable technical advances like electronic transmission control and standard ABS, they only kept the car current without making it more compelling. Worse, the luxury-coupe market started to nosedive in an early-decade recession. As a result, Riv sales were flat for 1991-92 at some 12,000-13,000 per year, then plunged to a paltry 4555 for '93. And there were no '94s at all.

But that's only because Buick had prepared an all-new Riviera for a spring '94 debut. Artfully detailed and refreshingly different, the 1995 model marked a renaissance for the ­personal-luxury Buick -- arguably the most-exciting Riviera in a quarter-century. Styling was a major attraction. Developed under studio chief Bill Porter, it had begun as a variation on the curvy Lucerne showmobile, but ended up like no Buick before. Some saw a hint of trendy "cab forward" proportioning, others a touch of Jaguar and even Ferrari Dino in the smoothly carved nose, tail, and profile.

Even if you didn't like the new look -- and not everyone did -- you had to admire its audacity. Car and Driver, for one, praised "the boldness and coherence of the Riviera's design, [though] the shape somehow doesn't make our hearts flutter instantly. But neither did we tire of it quickly, for there's a wealth of visual detail that was gradually revealed to us as we spent time with the car."

The reborn Riviera was definitely larger and more "substantial" than the 1989-93 generation, growing nine inches longer, 1.9 inches wider, and 238 pounds heavier. The weight gain ­partly reflected the use of a new "G-car" platform, claimed to be the stiffest in GM history. It was the same structure used for Oldsmobile's new '95 Aurora sedan, but aside from sharing a few underskin components and a 113.8-inch wheelbase, the two cars were nothing alike.

The move from E-body to G-car gave Riviera a modern independent rear suspension with semitrailing arms, toe-control links, coil springs and antiroll bar. Together with a strut-type front end and Buick chassis tuning, the Riv handled with confidence, if not Euro firmness, and delivered a great American-style ride.

The interior enhanced comfort by offering space enough for six -- five with available front buckets -- plus the expected upscale decor and a handsome reverse-slant instrument panel that prompted faint memories of 1963.

Early '95 Rivieras carried the 225-bhp supercharged V-6 from that season's Park Avenue Ultra. Despite fair heft (nearly 3800 pounds) and mandatory four-speed autobox, the blown Riv clocked a brisk 7.9 seconds in 0-60 runs by Consumer Guide®.

A less-expensive, standard model soon followed with the unblown 205-bhp Series II engine. Both versions packed standard four-wheel ABS, full power, dual-zone climate control, a remote-keyless-entry system and many other amenities now expected in the class. Even so, the base Riv stickered at just over $28,000, thousands less than pricey foreign luxury coupes, not to mention domestic rivals. The supercharged model was only some $1100 upstream, and even a full option load ­wouldn't push it much beyond $32 grand.

Enthusiasts must have been happy to see Riviera not only alive and well but more elegant and desirable than it had been in a long, long time. Buick was happy to see sales go through the roof, relatively speaking, turning out 41,442 for the extended 1995 run. But that would be the peak. With buyers fast deserting big coupes for upscale sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) and luxury import-brand sedans, Riviera sales dropped to just over 18,000 for '96, inched up to almost 19,000 for '97, then plunged to 10,953 for '98.

There were few changes along the way though, the supercharged engine was boosted to 240 bhp for '96 and was the only engine available for '98, when bucket seats were standardized too.

But the market had spoken, and Riviera was consigned to history after a token 2000-unit run for 1999. Of those, about 200 were specially trimmed Silver Arrow models, a nostalgic nod to the Bill Mitchell show car previewing the classic '63 Riviera. Though the valedictory edition may emerge one day as a minor collector's item, it was a sad finale for what had been one of the most glamorous of all Buicks.

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Updated styling and a wealth of new features contributed to the 1998 Buick Park Avenue's success.

1997, 1998, 1999 Buicks

Losing Riviera and Skylark did not seriously affect Buick business in the late '90s, which stayed fairly steady with some 400,000 or more sales each calendar year through 2000.

Timely redesigns were a big help, with 1997 a pivotal model year. Century and Regal were recast on a new corporate W-body platform shared with Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile's new midsize '98 Intrigue. Coupes were forgotten, but sedans got smooth, handsome lines on longer wheelbases that made for roomier interiors.

Century targeted the family market with six-passenger Custom and Limited models using a 3.1-liter V-6. Regal catered to luxury seekers with LS and bucket-seat GS sedans using 3.8-liter V-6s -- a 195-bhp version for LS, a hot 240-bhp supercharged version for GS, which also boasted leather upholstery, sporty styling accents, and handling-oriented Gran Touring suspension.

Centurys base-priced some $2000-$3000 less than Regals and, perhaps as a result, were far more popular, drawing well over 100,000 calendar-year sales in 1998-2000 versus 65,000-75,000 for Regal.

To its credit, Buick generally held the price line while adding features most every season. The '99 Centurys, for example, got standard traction control and a useful tire-pressure monitor, while GM's new OnStar communications system moved from optional to standard for 2001 GS Regals and Limited Centurys.

Century and Regal were good values for traditional sedan buyers. Despite few changes to an aging design, sales remained strong for the first few years of the twenty-first century. However, volume fell rapidly preceding their demise during the 2004 season.

The admirable G-platform was the basis for redesigned big Buicks, starting with 1997's Park Avenue and Park Avenue Ultra. Here, too, styling was more curvaceous, though still Buick-conservative, and interiors became more spacious thanks to a longer wheelbase (by three inches), though overall length was little changed.

Predictably, Flint's flagships offered a pile of new features, including front shoulder belts conveniently integrated with the seat, an aircraft-style head-up display projecting speed and other data onto the windshield at driver eye level, and "rain-sensing" wipers that varied intermittent sweeps according to moisture detected on the windshield.

Arriving a bit later was Cadillac's praiseworthy "StabiliTrak" electronic antiskid system, which throttled back power and/or applied brakes to individual wheels to keep you on course.

With all this, plus reasonable prices of $30,000-$35,000, Park Avenue calendar-year sales improved a healthy 44 percent in '97 and held in the 58,000-62,000 range for '98 and '99.

Buick revived a tradition with the addition of portholes to the front fenders of the 2003 Park Avenue Ultra. Last seen on '83 Electras, the portholes returned as part of Buick's 100th anniversary celebration. For its last year in 2005, all Park Avenues (not just Ultras) proudly displayed portholes. Model-year sales dwindled to just 9,363 for that final year.

LeSabre got a mild cosmetic freshening for 1997 before it, too, became a G-car. The introduction of the new LeSabre transferred production to Detroit and marked the end of Buick production in Flint, where most Buicks had been built since 1904. Buick moved its headquarters from Flint to Detroit's Renaissance Center the previous year. Thus ended nearly a century of association between Buick and Flint.

Appropriately, the redesigned 2000 models bowed in early 1999, the 40th anniversary of the LeSabre nameplate -- on production Buicks, that is. Interior room improved via a longer wheelbase, plus a little extra width and even height, yet overall length and weight were again little changed. Styling was more closely aligned with Park Avenue's, and many of the flagship's features were on hand.

Even the sophisticated StabiliTrak system was available in a new "Driver Confidence" package that also included the head-up display and self-sealing tires, though it required the Gran Touring suspension option.

Yet for all the changes -- including more nimble handling, a bene­fit of the stout G-car structure -- LeSabre remained a resolutely conservative, upper-middle-class Buick with a family-friendly character and value pricing in low-$20,000 territory. Trouble was, many families had long since preferred minivans and SUVs over full-size sedans, which partly explains why LeSabre calendar-year sales remained essentially flat at just under 150,000 per year through 2000.

To mark Buick's 100th year in 2003, LeSabre added a Celebration Edition which featured StabilTrak antiskid control, head-up instrument display, and unique trim. The G-car LeSabre went out of production after the 2005 season.

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The 2005 Buick LaCrosse replaced two models: the Buick Century and the Buick Regal.

Buick LaCrosse, Buick Lucerne, Buick Rendezvous, Buick Rainier, and Buick Terraza

For 2005, both Century and Regal were replaced by a single nameplate: LaCrosse. CX and CXL versions, aimed at the traditional Buick buyer, had a soft ride and were powered by GM's venerable 3.8-liter V-6 with 200 horsepower.

CXS was aimed at import buyers with firmer suspension and a 240-bhp 3.6-liter twincam V-6 that had been introduced in the 2004 Cadillac CTS and SRX. The new engine was not only quicker than the 3.8-liter, but was also smoother. Styling was cleaner and showed the new direction of Buick design. The interior design also moved forward with better materials and assembly.

The LaCrosse was a significant improvement over the models it replaced. All versions were comfortable and the CXS offered good handling as well. However, LaCrosse failed to match the combined sales of its two predecessors.

Just as LaCrosse replaced two familiar nameplates, so did Lucerne in 2006. Taking over for both LaSabre (a Buick staple since 1959) and Park Avenue, the Lucerne shared a platform with the Cadillac DTS. Occupying a middle ground between the aggressive Chrysler 300 and the conservative Toyota Avalon, Lucerne redefined traditional Buick values for the twenty-first century.

Ride was soft in the Buick tradition, but some complained that the boulevard ride was gained at the price of boat-like handling. Silence was also a Buick tradition and Buick put a renewed effort into the quietness of its new models. The 3.8-liter V-6 with 197 bhp from the previous cars was joined by Cadillac's Northstar V-8 engine with 275 horsepower -- Buick's first ­passenger-car V-8 in more than a decade. Interiors were more luxurious with fit and materials to match any car in its class.

Light-truck demand grew at a phenomenal pace throughout the 1990s, one of the most important market trends of the decade. Another was GM's steady loss of market share, which withered to only some 25 percent by the start of the new millennium.

Attempting to turn things around, GM embraced "brand management," a philosophy that said good products were less important to sales than a good name with a good image. It was a new twist on the old "sell the sizzle, not the steak" idea, and it didn't work in the much more competitive late-'90s market. Worse for Buick, brand management was a distraction that left the division on the sidelines of the profitable light-truck action.

GM finally corrected the oversight with the 2002 Rendezvous, Buick's first truck in 70 years. Actually, this was one of a new breed of "crossover" vehicles that were raking in big money by combining truck-type styling and utility with carlike refinement and driving ease.

Rendezvous was related to Pontiac's similarly conceived Aztek, which bowed about a year before it, but was far more attractive, as most critics said. Both amounted to clever reskins of GM's basic 1997 front-drive minivan design, with different outer sheetmetal giving a quasi-SUV appearance, plus four conventional side doors.

As a Buick, Rendezvous one-upped Aztek with better standard trim and equipment, not to mention a four-inch longer wheelbase that made room for available three-row seating for up to seven, a must feature for this new kind of vehicle. Each offered models with front-wheel drive or GM's new "VersaTrak" all-wheel drive, but the only engine was the corporation's hoary 3.4-liter pushrod V-6, which sent 185 bhp through a four-speed automatic transmission.

Buick finally introduced its "crossover" vehicle, the Rendezvous, in 2002. Shown here is the 2005 Buick Rendezvous.

A much needed boost in power came in 2004 with the availability of a 245-bhp twincam 3.6-liter V-6. For 2006 a new base engine added ten horsepower. Despite the pedestrian underpinnings, Rendezvous emerged as a pleasant, well-equipped package that expanded Buick's market reach.

That reach was expanded further with a truck-based SUV in 2004 and a minivan in '05. The Rainier was Buick's version of GM's much-cloned midsize sport ute. Other variations were the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada, Isuzu Ascender, and Saab 9-7X. The Buick's standard engine was a 275-bhp inline six; a 290-bhp V-8 was optional. Rainier included luxuries expected of a Buick -- leather upholstery, power front seats, and automatic climate control. Buick also added extra insulation and laminated glass for a quieter ride.

Terraza was a General Motors minivan with an SUV-style nose added to create what GM called a "crossover sport van." The Chevrolet Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6, and Saturn Relay shared the same design. Terraza was the most expensive and luxurious of the group.

Buick entered its second century with declining sales and market share. However, a renewed focus on comfort and silence was evident in the Lucerne. The crossover Enclave concept is expected as a 2007 production model and promises to be a stronger SUV entry than Rendezvous or Rainier. After a rocky start to a new century, Buick seems to be finding direction and building better vehicles.

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