The Doctor Is IN

Doc, I think it’s my heart. 

1996 Buick Park Avenue. Image: music directory

From day one to sometime in the late 20th century, the archetypal Buick customer was formed of doctors, architects – the professional classes. Not for me the first 1990 evocation of this particular model, nor indeed the (admittedly beautiful) 1989 Essence concept. The syringe laced with youthful elixir came with in late 1996 in second-generation form, before handing over to the Lucerne (but not before transforming into something less coherent) in 2005. The Buick Park Avenue (BPA) – a sublime sedan. 

DTW’s own Richard Herriott sang some general praise here whereas today’s critique ploughs distinctly narrower avenues. Bill Porter, the Park Avenue’s designer offers, “a measure of stateliness is conveyed by Park Avenue’s generous proportions.” Its a soft car in stance, looks and Dynaride set up, almost harmless for a metal object weighing in at 1700Kgs.

Identically wheel-based to GM’s other comparable products – only the lengths differ – Oldsmobile’s Aurora (shorter) and Buick’s own Riviera (longer), the Park Avenue bags centre stage. Available in standard (plush) or Ultra (gizmos) trims, front wheel motive power came from the same 90° pushrod V6 3800cc engine, breathing naturally (205bhp) or for Ultra versions, 240 when supercharged. Park Avenues were never intended to be Corvette chasers. More Substantial. Powerful. Distinctive. Mature. 

Exterior views afford us the ubiquitous three box sedan silhouette but on this iteration, a four window DLO with black rubber alongside subtly thin chrome surrounds. This trope arches back through Buick’s history but was soon to change. The Park Avenue offered for its $40,000 (and upwards) a somewhat beige demeanour which the typical Buick driver positively lapped up. Sensitive to colour, lighter hues lifted the cars weight, while darker tones added gravitas – horses for courses. The front end has an almost Jaguar-esque grille with gunsight tri-shield on that elongated bonnet, apologies, hood. 

Image: automobile-spec

Aft, we find neatly chromed brake and turn signal lamps. Dependable, eminently clear, non-revolutionary with some additional Chrysler hints. Later versions gilded the lily somewhat. The C-pillar is large but softly rounded. Visibility appears perfectly adequate. 

Inside we find every conceivable gadget and comfort inducing convenience known to late twentieth century man. Seats, available in velour or leather and choices of colours could electronically manoeuvre ten ways. A six seater car offering a grandchild (or weedy European) centre stage or a cup holding armrest when Timmy was elsewhere.

CD, cassette playing or programmable radio stations were but a button push away. The steering wheel could alter not only volume (with the rotary dial rotating in cool symmetry) but also the air-con temperature. The front passenger got their very own hot and cold controls to play with. A firm palm shove emitting an authoritative horn sound.

Ashtray centre front requires similar efforts to close yet with fingertip opening. Buick’s engineers slimmed the door sill width along with subtle height extensions to the car for easy access; perfect for the more mature drivers these cars were aimed at.

Image: billingsblessingbags

On this particular Park Avenue, the dash came as one single complex magnesium casting with a delightful inch high raised edge housing the idiot lights, with David Dunbar’s surname in the centre, lest you forget what car you’re driving. Above the automatically dipping rear view mirror, near the double sun visors (with vanity mirror and dimmable light) one could flick a switch to open the gates and/or garage doors.

The ceiling housed a red LED Lamp Monitor for checking which bulb has popped when the ignition was switched on. Heady stuff for a quarter century ago. Real wood wrapped its way around the dash to the doors which housed the usual switches for windows, side-view mirrors and locks.

Dials were perfectly legible white on black analogue, glowing a luminous turquoise at night, which could be adjusted for brightness. Headlights could be set to automatic with the delightfully named Twilight Sentinel switch. The column mounted four speed automatic transmission (4T65E) allowed for either gently slurring or surprisingly swift changes dependant on the right foot’s mood. 

As a doctor’s bag would contain stethoscope, thermometer and perhaps, magic sponge, the BPA’s suspension was traditionally familiar. MacPherson struts front, semi-trailing arms on springs rear. Anti-lock brakes, traction control and GM’s Magnasteer for effortless boulevard or highway cruising. Again, the set up was not for frivolous twirling or tourniquets, although a competent helm-person (the fairer sex admiring the soft set up) could unleash some unexpected brio.

Of course none of this matters now, the quarter century old Park Avenue never selling in huge quantities even in its heyday but usually, once a Park Avenue owner, always a Park Avenue owner. The fact that the (rather too) similar Riviera cost less hardly assisted matters either, especially with the competition leaning towards a sporting bent, attracting beefier sales numbers.

But interest surrounding the Park Avenue remains undeniably strong. Seen today as a respectable entry level motor, engines can with withstand 300,000+ miles on basic maintenance. Generic parts availability lead to conservative repair bills and the majority of owners regularly serviced their Park Avenue leading to encouraging reviews when heading on down to the fifth owner.

When new, Buick provided a pamphlet (called Let’s Talk) on translating to the mechanic what noise derived from which area for more accurate repairs. Did Coventry or Stuttgart offer such a service?

Image: autoevolution

Perhaps worthy of greater interest being this car’s convergence of strong yet simple engineering without a fundamental reliance upon electronic systems to go haywire. As aggressive inasmuch the doctor transporting his golf clubs, this car is no quack. The Park Avenue may not instil a faster heart rate (cynics may offer the exact opposite to a defibrillator) but should be celebrated for being a living dinosaur. In today’s ultra fast, sportily aggressive age, this BPA offers the soothed brow, a healthy tonic, an encouraging prognosis. 

Can I make an appointment, please?

Ninety seconds of first-gen BPA in snow. Cheesy music, beautiful surroundings and a now classic car.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

21 thoughts on “The Doctor Is IN”

  1. I remember an article in the Dutch magazine Autovisie, where the headline read ‘Op pad met dokter Buick’ which would translate to ‘On the road with doctor Buick’, obviously referring to the car’s calm character as an antidote to the hectic world we live in today.

    One of my parent’s friends had one, from the first generation (model year 1991 – 1996). I believe it was burgundy. The gentleman passed away quite a few years ago and I don’t think his wife had a drivers license, so I don’t know who ended up owning the car after that.

    Naturally I had a soft spot for it, but my mom, who rode in it as a passenger once, wasn’t impressed. Too big and the suspension was so soft that speed bumps could only be taken at very low speed.

  2. Morning Andrew. Another informative and interesting article of a car I wasn’t aware of. It seemed very well spec’d too considering the era. Every day is a school day with your articles Andrew.

  3. I have a sneaking regard for cars like this. Buick knew its customers well and built cars that met their needs exactly. It’s ironic that, if it weren’t for the company’s historic links with China and the name recognition in that market, Buick might have gone the way of Pontiac or Oldsmobile.

    Over thirty years ago on our first trip together to California, my partner and I rented a Buick something-or-other for our three-week stay. It was just whatever GM’s compact sedan of that era was, but trimmed to match the tastes of typical Buick customer, with rasberry-coloured velour and plastic trim, a column auto shift, strip speedometer which only read up to 85mph (mandatory, IIRC, post 1970’s fuel crisis). The suspension was incredibly soft and cosseting, but the car was a handful on the twisting roads of the valleys and Hollywood hills. We nicknamed it the ‘Buick Blancmange’ and grew to appreciate it over the couple of thousand miles we clocked up.

    1. Found it! It was a 1990 Buick Skykark, just like this one and in the same colour:

      Here’s the lovely ‘Art Deco’ interior:

    2. I bet that’s a (distant) relative of the Ascona C and (not quite so distant) of the Cadillac Cimarron…

    3. Those were the days. I have a catalogue of GM models from the early 90’s. During that time they tried to penetrate the European market. The slogan was; ‘You’ll be impressed’. If we were impressed, that didn’t reflect in sales figures.

      I’ve always wondered about the speedometer with the horizontal numbering and the rotating movement of the needle, causing the spacing between the numbers to be stretched at the end and compressed in the middle. Nowadays you see more or less the same thing on circular dials with the spacing stretched at the low speeds and compressed at high speeds.

    4. It certainly was a close relative, Michael, but the interior ambience, ride and handling were like no Ascona or Cavalier I’ve ever driven!

  4. This video from 2003, narrated by Buick Chief Designer Bill Porter gives context to the rich design heritage of today’s subject car, which is specifically discussed 35 minutes in.

    1. The Skylark was on the GM ‘N’ platform shared with the Oldsmobile Calais and Pontiac Grand Am, which was indeed largely based on the ‘J’ Cavalier. It was intended as a replacement for the X cars (Citation et. al.) as well as the rear-drive G-body coupes (Olds Cutlass Supreme, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, etc.), although continuing popularity resulted in those models continuing through 1987-88.

  5. Thanks for this. Is it too much to suggest Buick´s designers were trying to make an American Jaguar? The cars have a lot in common regarding effortless, laid back power rather than canyon carving. For me this is epitome of Buick´s heyday. The cars actually were well made and I believe were made in historically Buick factories so there was an esprit de corps that helped workers do their best. Although I quite like the Cadillac coupés of the same period, if was to seriously imagine having an American car it´d be a Park Avenue of either the generation in this article or the rather more rectilinear predecessor. You could manage the V6 engines´ thirst more readily than Caddy´s V8s.
    Bill Porter´s work for Buick is documented in the Art Of American Car Design by C. Edson Armé. Last time I looked this book cost a fortune second hand.

    1. GM´s jumping name-plates: the predecessor to the BPA in this article was the 1984-1990 Buick Electra Park Avenue. This kind of thing doesn´t happen much with European brands. I can´t think of anything other than, perhaps, the way the Xsara Picasso became the Picasso. Or did it?

    2. Richard, I think the assumption that they tried to make an American Jaguar is close to the truth. If I remember correctly Bill Porter had an XJ as his daily driver at some point.

    3. Richard, Lyons has been quoted praising the 1963 Riviera and it is mentioned often that he took it for inspiration when designing the XJ4. That Riviera was said to have been inspired by coach built a Rolls Royce Bill Mitchell saw emerging “from the fog” on a visit to London. The stylistic relationship between Buick and Jaguar is discussed by Porter in the video I linked at 23:30.

  6. That is rather nice. It looks as though it ought to be related to the S-Type. It’s extremely colour sensitive, as you say, Andrew – it almost looks like a different car, depending on the shade.

    I found this link showing the (lovely) Essence concept and an Ultra concept with somewhat inventive accessories.

    I look forward to watching the video, gooddog.

  7. Well, dtw is a place to learn. This car, and cars like this, are not even being sold here. I had seen once something of a similar style, maybe a Cadillac. Probably it was an official diplomatic limousine of a foreign embassy. It was black and escorted by other cars, they were moving together.

  8. The production car is more pleasing than the Essence which seems to have a DLO where the highest point is behind the b-pillar. Is it packaged around the later Seville saloon because it also is longer and lower than the eventual BPA.

    1. The Essence is a bit strangely proportioned indeed. With the rising roof and the sloping boot, it almost reminds me of the Renault 12.

      Speaking about Renault, wasn’t it the Mégane Scenic that lost its Mégane name and just became the Scenic? I think the Xsara Picasso was never just ‘the’ Picasso. (regarding your comment above).

  9. My appreciation of Buicks results from having a Revell kit of a 1956 Buick Century (blue and white), which I’d always considered the apex of Buick design until the Riviera came along. By 1956 the ‘dagmars’ had been flattened, but with ‘nipples’ in the middle , reminiscent of a certain brand of foglight on sale in 50s Britain.
    So sad that Buick were reduced to re-badging Opels and Chinese fare.

  10. That 3800 V6 certainly had a long and interesting life. Derived from the all-aluminium 215ci V8 some time before Rover showed an interest, sent on a seven year sabbatical at Kaiser-Jeep from 1967-74, followed by a triumphant return in numerous and diverse applications, including the 1988 Holden Commodore VN and its successors until the 2004 VZ, which got the locally made High Feature V6.

  11. Oh, big old Buick! I remember renting a Buick Century in the early 2000s when I lived in the US. I rather liked it, even if it was the typical metallic beige favoured by seniors at that time (I was around 30). I remember thinking that you had to believe in its handling, rather than look for steering or suspension feedback, of which there was none. To drive it with enthusiasm on a twisty road was an act of trust and then the car delivered because it was absolutely safe and calm, like a golden retriever that would never ever bite you.

    During that time, while attending the annual Cincinnati Car Show I would always look for the Buick stand to sit in the back seat of a Park Avenue or LeSabre and quietly rest for a few minutes, safe in the knowledge that it was the quietest, softest, most comfortable place in all the show!

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