On May 19, 1903, David Dunbar Buick founded the Buick Motor Company. In the 110 years that followed, Buick has built more than 43 million vehicles, and as one of General Motors’ four core brands, that figure continues to grow. To celebrate Buick’s 110th anniversary tomorrow, we cycled through its lengthy history and picked 11 cars – one for each decade – that represent some of the most interesting, exciting, and desirable Buicks ever built. Which concepts and production models made the list? Read on to find out.
1938 Buick Y-Job
Ever ogled a concept car at an auto show? You have the Y-Job – and, of course, GM vice president of design Harley Earl – to thank for that. Designed for Earl’s personal use but pitched to management as an idea car to test the public’s reaction to new ideas, the Y-Job was a two-seat convertible built atop a stretched Buick chassis. Compared to normal ’38 Buicks, its bodywork was low-slung, long, and wide. Headlamps were hidden within the pontoon-like front fenders, and flanked a so-called waterfall grille that would soon become a trademark Buick cue. Wrap-around bumpers – front and rear – carried the eye around the car, as did rear wheel skirts, which were added after World War II. Although it didn’t become a production car per se, it sparked the public’s appetite for similar-looking vehicles and helped shape a generation of automobiles – especially Buicks.
1951 Le Sabre Concept
Technically, this follow-up to the Y-Job was never branded a Buick (merely a “GM Le Sabre”) but as the original publicity brochure explained, the Le Sabre was the result of a “long-term cooperation between GM Styling and the Buick Motor Division Engineering Staff.” Buick’s engineers were primarily responsible for drivetrain. Power came from a 333-hp, aluminum 215-cubic-inch V-8 that was capable of running on either gasoline or methanol. An four-speed automatic transmission was placed just ahead of the rear axle. Light metals weren’t relegated to the engine; the Le Sabre’s deck lid, cowl, and inner door panels were cast in magnesium; the hood, front fenders, and outer door panels made from stamped aluminum; and the rear fenders shaped from fiberglass.
All good, but the Le Sabre’s hallmark is its exterior form, which looks something like a jet fighter on wheels. A large, ovoid grille is placed high in the nose, and hides a pair of headlamps. Front fenders are low, flat, and long, emulating wings. Tail lamps are stacked in the tall rear tail fins, which flank a round nacelle, which emulates a jet engine. The design was updated slightly around 1954, when GM added intakes on either side of the front grille and tossed aside the original rear wheel skirts.
1953 Buick Skylark
Inspired by the emerging custom car/ hot rod scene, Buick designer Ned Nickles customized his own Buick, which in turn inspired Buick management to prepare a similar-looking vehicle – the Skylark — to commemorate the brand’s 50th anniversary. Although mechanically identical to the Roadmaster, the Skylark was offered only as a convertible, and was far more seductive than any other ‘53 Buick. Cut-down doors dipped along with the belt line, while the windshield frame and windows were lowered by two inches. At $5000 a pop, Skylarks were expensive, and only 1690 were sold in 1953. The 1954 Skylark looked more like its other Buick siblings, and only 836 before Buick pulled the plug.
1954 Buick Wildcat II Concept
The next concept car with the Wildcat name was again supposed to be Buick’s all-American take on the Chevrolet Corvette. Built from electric-blue fiberglass and introduced at the 1954 GM Motorama show, the Wildcat II’s styling was unmistakable for anything else. Its nose had flared, wing-style fenders that exposed some of the front suspension components — so they were plated in chrome, naturally. The scalloped fenders featured functional cooling vents for the 220-hp, 5.3-liter V-8 engine. The car’s fully automatic, electrically operated convertible top stowed beneath a cover aft of the two bucket seats.
The prominent front torpedo-like shapes on the front grille were called Dagmar guards, inspired by a well-endowed contemporary actress of the same name. The headlights would never have made it to the production stage. Though the parking lights were mounted to the front bumper, the headlights were fixed to the side of the windshield header and swiveled in sync with the steering. Unsurprisingly, the Wildcat II did not make production — a pity, given its forward-thinking design and graceful lines.
1956 Buick Centurion Concept
In what other decade could the Centurion concept have been conceived than the 1950s? It had big “Dagmar”-style bumper protrusions, an all-glass bubble roof, and a red-on-white paint scheme divided by a chrome trim line. Inside, an aircraft-style steering wheel sat atop a cantilever, and a functional monitor relayed images from a TV camera mounted in the tail. Air scoops out front directed air into the air conditioner, and specially designed wheel covers forced cooling air onto the brakes.
Aside from its glitz and glamour, the Buick Centurion concept is notable as one of the first automobiles that Chuck Jordan designed. Jordan, who later became vice president of design for GM, worked on many of the company’s Motorama cars, as well as working for the Cadillac and Opel divisions. He died in 2010 at the age of 83.
1963-1965 Buick Riviera
A design icon. The ’63-’65 Riviera share no body panels with any other General Motors vehicle, and it was better for it. Unlike the fussy Roadmaster Riviera that preceded the 1963 Buick Riviera, this car was low, long, clean, and sleek. As we wrote in our “Collectible Classic” on the car, “The Riviera — with its expansive egg-crate grille, pontoon fenders, neatly creased formal rear quarters, and sumptuous interior — was more successful at recalling, not mimicking, styling of the classic era than the much-vaunted Continental Mark II.”
If the gorgeous design didn’t create enough demand, GM purposely kept the initial run to just 40,000 units. Mated to a three-speed automatic, Rivieras offered two versions of the “Nailhead” OHV V-8 – 401 cu ft or 425 cu ft, good for 325 hp and 340 hp, respectively. 0-60 mph times when new were around eight seconds for the 425. But the Riviera was never meant to be a sports car – it had been designed as a “personal luxury car,” an idea shunned by Cadillac management and smartly picked up by Buick. Slated to compete with the likes of the Ford Thunderbird, the Riviera was a runaway success and sold over 100,000 copies in its first generation.
1970-1970 Buick GSX
As the muscle-car craze spiked, Buick had a problem: it made a lot of very nice, very luxurious cars, but few that would stoke the fires of youngsters who wanted performance. For 1970, the company introduced a 455-cubic-inch V-8 engine in its GS455 (based on the Skylark body). With up to 360 hp and 510 lb-ft on tap, the cars could run the quarter-mile in the mid-thirteen-second range. That was more than enough to put Buick on the map against the muscle cars of the day. But then Buick introduced the wild GSX option package, which was both pricey and rare. In 1970, it added $1196 to the $3282 base price of a GS455. It comprised a black plastic chin spoiler, a hood-mounted tachometer, a trunk-lid spoiler, a black stripe, black bucket seats, and yellow or white paint. It looked fantastic and, unlike some of Buick’s earlier sporty cars, had the performance to back it up at the drag strip. Fewer than 700 examples were built in 1970, and only about 124 were made in 1971. Today, the Buick GSX can fetch as much as $90,000 at auction.
1971-1972 Buick Riviera
The 1971-1972 Riviera “Boat-Tail” is probably the most legendary Riviera, if not one of the best-known Buicks. The design was led by Bill Mitchell, who looked to combine a number of classic shapes to create an eccentric and striking new coupe. He succeeded. Most notable about the early-’70’s Riviera’s design were the wide, flat haunches that spread out from the triangular rear hull. The rear window wrapped around the raised fuselage, too. The front end wasn’t nearly as radical as the rear, evolving the original Riviera’s fascia with more linear lines and shapes, as was en vogue in the 1970s. In profile, the ’71-’72 Riviera was more muscular – the tapered upper body allowed for more aggressive rear haunches, even with the car’s extreme 217.4-inch overall length. Despite facelifting the Riviera for 1973 – which neutered the radical tail – sales continued to be strong, with Buick moving over 30,000 units per year from ’71 to ’73.
The Riviera wasn’t all show and no go, either. A Gran Sport version upped the output of the 455-cu-in V-8 to up to 345 gross hp. This allowed the big two-door to run the quarter-mile dash in sixteen seconds from a standing start, do the run from 0-60 mph in as little as 8.5 seconds, and achieve a top speed of at least 125 mph. Standard disc brakes helped bring Buick’s boat to a stop.
1982 – 1987 Buick Grand National/GNX
It might be hard to imagine a time when NASCAR racers actually looked like their production counterparts, but it happened in 1981 and 1982, when Buick’s Regal elevated the company to win back-to-back manufacturer’s titles. The result was a special-edition options package in 1982, a set of 215 vehicles built by GM and then outfitted with special interior and exterior features by Cars and Concepts in Brighton, Michigan. All 214 of the cars were painted silver.
That’s fine, but the words “Buick” and “Grand National” conjure up images of tire-smoking, turbocharged V-6-powered black sports coupes — and that’s exactly what arrived in 1984. The 3.8-liter turbocharged V-6 made a stout 200 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, all of which were sent through a four-speed automatic transmission to the rear wheels. The Grand National was later upgraded to 245 hp and 355 lb-ft of torque, but the ultimate Regal was the 1987 GNX. The GNX’s all-black exterior hid a turbocharged V-6 that peaked at 276 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque; the power was enough to rocket the coupe to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and run the quarter mile in 13.5. Turbocharged Regals died along with the G-body Regal at the end of 19878, but was brought back to life only with the introduction of the current-generation Regal in 2009. Still, the current-generation Regal GS — the closest thing to a GNX you can buy on Buick lots today — falls exactly six horsepower short of the iconic ’80s muscle car.
1985 Buick Wildcat Concept
The name may have been a blast from the past, but at the time of its inception, the 1985 Wildcat concept seemed as if it were pulled straight from the future. The 1985 Buick Wildcat Concept was powered by a 3.8-liter turbocharged V-6 based on the engine underneath the hood of the Grand National. While the latter was an all-black, blocky/three-box coupe with two doors, the former was a red coupe with no doors. The Wildcat concept debuted at the 1985 SEMA show rocking 360 horsepower, all-wheel drive, and an electric “canopy” that opened to allow ingress/egress. Drivers on the inside were treated to a steering wheel that shifts to make climbing in/out easier, and a head-up display that showed speed. A flat-screen video display showed engine stats and vitals.
Sure, the Wildcat concept was strange, and it didn’t portend a future of swoopy vehicles: today’s Regals, Veranos, and Enclaves look nothing like this vehicle. And yet, much of the technology continued onto other cars: the turbocharged V-6 is back for 2014 in select Cadillac models. Interior features like a head-up display and LCD instrument readouts are found in Buick vehicles like the Regal and LaCrosse; cars with electric tilt/telescoping steering wheels can select “easy access” to automatically shift the steering wheel when the door is opened. Wildcat may have looked to Buick’s future, perhaps, but we wish the future proved to be as exciting as the Wildcat itself.
2007, 2013 Buick Riviera Concepts
By 2007, the Buick nameplate had become pretty stale in the U.S.; however, across the Pacific, the brand was leading the charge of American automakers in China. Enter the revival of the storied Riviera nameplate on this extroverted concept that debuted at the Shanghai Motor Show. Riding on General Motors’ Epsilon II platform that now underpins the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac XTS, the Riviera Concept was a daring look forward for the otherwise-staid brand. Designed mainly by the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC), the Riviera heralded in a new renaissance of style for Buick with its wide chrome grille, ice-blue lighting, and taut body panels. It was also supposed to be powered by an advanced hybrid powertrain. While the 2007 Riviera Concept never translated to a production vehicle, it did preview numerous design details for various models to follow.
GM revived the Riviera again this year, again for a concept that debuted at the Shanghai Motor Show. The second concept, which was also designed at the PATAC, again gives a look into the tri-shield brand’s future. Sleeker, more mature lines progressed from the 2007 concept, and the 2013 concept was equipped with a plug-in hybrid powertrain. However, unlike the first Riviera Concept, the 2013 model is rumored to lead to a four-door coupe production version.
-Jake Holmes, Evan McCausland, Donny Nordlicht, and Ben Timmins