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How Buick Works

Buick Strategy in the 1980s

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 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.

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

  • Buick New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Buick Used Car Reviews and Prices
  • 2008 Buick Lacrosse
  • 2008 Buick Lucerne