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.

For more on the amazing Buick, old and new, see: