Recipe For Obscure Omelette

How will you have those eggs, mister?

1980 Buick Century Turbo. Image Curbside Classic

To the European autophile, American cars often lose their flavour should (or if) they land on soil at least three thousand miles from home. As a 1980s wet behind the ears teenager, all American cars were big, loud, had screeching tyres and could fly (dependent upon TV show) yet possessed an otherworldly draw for this spotty oik. 

No-one, not even the deep archives that DTW has become can know everything car. Thus, when even our American brethren are in the main unsure of this particular recipe, one can rest assured that we have stumbled upon a car whose character fits perfectly upon these pages, forty years late.

By the late 1970s, Buick sat as high as 5th place in homegrown sales. Money flowed, tastes melded whilst the perennial conservatism was occasionally allowed some holiday time. Had enough LaSabres or Riviera’s? Why not try the new for 1979 Century Turbo Coupé, sir? Sir? 

Image: oldcarbrochures

Styling big sellers were Buick’s recipe until this European flavoured (of sorts) aeroback pole-axed opinion. At a time when Buick’s badge grew wings, for your $5,268, a four door Sport Coupé could be had. A three speed manual gearbox was tied together to a (very short lived) 3.2 litre. Sporting in nature? As soup is to salad. Looks wise? These ingredients make not the soufflé; some prefer their eggs done differently.

The four door coupé left the scene almost as quickly as the old engine leaving the range as a three door only. Hatchback-esque in shape, the be-spoilered boot, sorry, trunk horrified potential purchasers who refused to see past this remarkable car’s attributes. That spoiler reduced drag by eighteen percent. 

oldcarbrochures

Lloyd Reuss was the catalyst in seeking a fresher, more youthful approach to the Buick recipe. Orchestrating designs that shied away from almost anything else manufactured at that time, the Century Turbo Coupé proved an expensive, devoid of sales anomaly. Project Engineer Bruce Robinson explained in the June 1979 issue of Car and Driver that money, or more pertinently, the lack of, was the deciding factor. “Anything spent on a new model or a new version of one existing you have to figure you can recover in sales.” That year witnessed 1,653 CTC sales and just 1,047 for the cars final year, 1980. Consider in the same timeframe, almost 22,000 of Buick’s own, less outré Regal Turbo Sport Coupé were had at similar, if not lower prices. What was Robinson thinking?

We wanted to go all out. Make the CTC like no other Buick in every regard.” In that respect, the recipe was an undivided success. In sound, the car’s V6 turbo took on a V8 sounding burble by having no mufflers, a single catalytic converter and twin exhausts.

A “delightful by-product” of less back pressure being ten more horses. Underneath, known as the FE1 handling package, brought in wider wheels, stiffer suspension (independent, coil springs front, rigid axle with four trailing link to the rear) and altered steering geometry. Reviews mention Buick-like ride but also steering numbness, a lack of frisson.

oldcarbrochures

Which is where the shape of the car comes into its own. Ignoring the rabble, decrying Flint’s flash in the frying pan, as to the two thousand seven hundred who actually bought an example, one applauds, loudly. Two score years has leaned favourably to the shape. Light on its tyres, commendably thin A and C pillars with the striking emphasis on the B. The best angles of view are probably the three quarter front or rear. The coupé’s DRG may approximate a slab of cheese aiming for the grater but why the devil not? Nothing wrong with a cheese omelette.

Side on gives the viewer our first appreciation of that kamm tailed, isogonic angled rear end. Sure, the overhang appears heavy, drawn to the kitchen floor, maybe but to these eyes, this is the béarnaise sauce to the remaining Benedict. Oozing solidity, function and form, this area is the talking point.[1]

Some might say rotten eggs (or maybe throw some) but compared with the sober saloons, elongated estates or traditional coupés (even from Buick) that abounded then, the essence of sport and perhaps more importantly, a sense of fun lies within the CTC. This is the General wearing his Dodin Bouffant and cookin’ up something, if not exactly good then at least tasty.

Ignore the fact that sales were an unmitigated disaster. The Century had few backers but since when did the popular majority mean anything? The ‘79 engine was fitted with a carburettor; often recalcitrant, fuel injection arrived the year after. One could read the car had verve when accelerating, leading to a 111mph top speed. Perfectly fine now, never mind back in 1979.

Compact dimensions, light and airy feel with its large greenhouse, the CTC would suit modern day conditions rather better than today’s overwrought aggression-mobiles – sporting doesn’t have to be angry. I’d rather drive an omelette than aspire to a wedge of overloaded unctuous quiche.

Distance combined with a lack of understanding have shoved to this car to the rear of the cupboard. One doubts any would have made it to Blighty (or European shores) and it’s clear that American buyers’ tastes lay elsewhere, which is a shame. Here, Buick were daring with the whisk, stirring up the establishment, but maintaining agitation is hard work.

What are we diving for today, Earl? Buick’s sales figures, Bud – didn’t you get the memo? Image: Hemmings Motor News

One proud owner was O.D. Smith who had a silver bodied light grey interior example. Gently encouraged to avoid the old man’s 1978 Turbo Regal and wait a year for the CTC to arrive, O.D. observed the sanguine advice, flying out to Michigan from California to pick up his new stamped steel wheels, aged 69. That advice stemmed from insider information; O.D.’s son, Gary, worked in the Buick studio and believed (correctly) his father and the CTC would bond. Finally, O.D.S had a car he could outdo his brother Harry, a Pontiac man.

For obvious reasons, car makers rarely indulge in obscure recipes but at least Buick tried. Is it beyond wishful thinking maybe one day the Century Turbo Coupé may inspire a successor? Service, please!

[1] Regarding the ‘79 Century’s styling, an internal struggle with rooflines occurred. Chevrolet and Pontiac received fastbacks with Buick and Oldsmobile, notchbacks. During development, this swopped over. The fastbacks were then to have hatchback openings, scrapped due to cost.

Data sources: Curbside Classic, Deans Garage 

Author: Andrew Miles

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

16 thoughts on “Recipe For Obscure Omelette”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Oh, dear me. We recently recalled the great high points of 1960’s American automotive styling, but this brings us back to Earth with a bump. The 1980’s really were grim, with almost every design besmirched by ugly protruding 5mph bumpers and regulation rectangular headlamps, and having all the style of a chest freezer.

    That said, here’s the most flattering photos of the two and four-door models I could find:


    Ignoring the hideous bumpers, I suppose they’re quite cleanly styled with smooth flanks, but there’s really little to enjoy. Any thoughts?

    1. Good morning, Andrew and Daniel. I can hardly distinguish this from a Chevrolet Citation. I like the smooth flanks, but there is indeed not that much to enjoy about it.

    2. Good morning, Daniel. A couple of thoughts, yes:
      1. Cover the nose and tail of the 5 door for a moment. Do any of the words, Chrysler, Talbot, Simca, Alpine, or 1305, float into your head. (Really the only resemblance is that both designs are glassy 70s six light fastback, but still…)
      2. This one strikes me also whenever I see an Audi A5 Sportback or A7, or indeed one of several other modern “sporty” 5-dr coupés: where is the rear wiper? Oh…

    3. Pretty awful really I think. Nicely written Andrew so thanks for posting as always.

  2. There’s a fastback to enjoy. For me, this already means a lot!
    OK, there are nicer examples for this feature…

  3. Then there’s Cadillac’s contemporary take on the fastback:

    More ‘interesting’ certainly…

    1. Good old GM: the response to downsizing was to simply cut off a metre from the back of the car and leave the rest as it was. The Seville is a standard Cadillac from the C-pillar forward.

    2. Cadillacs were still rwd apart from the Eldorado when this fwd Seville was introduced. The bustle back was previously seen on an outlandish V16 concept car by GM designer Wayne Kady.
      http://www.deansgarage.com/2010/wayne-kady/

      Like Freerk I’d initially thought this was a version of the X-body Chevrolet Citation/Pontiac Phoenix which were very similar-looking but actually hatchbacks – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Citation#/media/File:1980_Chevrolet_Citation_fr.jpg

      That it is the middle of the three main GM rwd platforms at the time explains why there was still a 3-speed manual option – it was a carry-over that would allow a cheaper base price to be advertised, even if it was for a configuration that would be almost impossible to order in practice.

  4. Another school day Andrew. I’ve never really taken to American motors, apart from a Mustang from the 60’s. Always thought the engineering was a little behind the times. Why, in the late 70’s, we’re they still using a 3 speed manual gearbox?, when, even the humble Austin Maxi, used 5 speed gearboxes from 1968 🤔

    1. My thoughts entirely. I knew three speed autos had been around pretty recently, but a three speed manual??

  5. As a teenager 20 years before Andrew, American cars were so different to anything this side of the pond, and so completely inappropriate. Sheer size to start with and, as Tim says, mechanically primitive, even by British standards of the ’60s. Having said that, there was an alluring self-assurance in the outward packaging of many which was just so….. American. The American Dream in road-going form with fuel and resources consumption to match.

    As for Daniel’s invitation for thoughts – Michael’s spot on. And if I half close my eyes and imagine the lower rear panel squared off, surely there’s a touch on Pininfarina in there? Almost, but not quite, elegant. Not the Cadillac, though; that’s just plain ‘orrible!

  6. My view is that the Big Three protested against the bumper regulations by making them look terrible. This has been their approach to all regulation: do it on sufferance. The Europeans mostly got on with the changes (sometimes rather badly) and the Japanese had no problem at all. They usually applied regs before anyone else and so were ahead of the game. I am reminded of the belly-aching over sulphur dioxode regulations. They said it was too costly and too hard and anyway the problem was licked and life carried on. About the Century in question, I find it hard to like. As Daniel said, the period was a nadir but probably didn´t have to be. Bad management and a culture of that’ll do led to this mess.

    1. In 1973, the very first year of the bumper requirement (front-only at first), GM offered a top series A-body with a full Endura (flexible plastic) front across all body styles and at least 2 divisions – Pontiac’s Grand Am and Chevrolet’s Chevelle Laguna.

      Sales of the Grand Am were niche but acceptable, those of the Laguna were not and in 1974 there was a new chrome-bumpered top series (Malibu Classic) that was a hit while Laguna was scaled back to coupe only and lived out its’ days as a NASCAR homologation special with a facelift for ’75 that was clearly designed for aero while meeting the minimum-frontal-era rules first and showroom appeal a distant second. The next Chevy sedan with a full Endura front was the 1984 facelift of the Cavalier.

  7. Would I be right in saying there was a slew of smaller Big Three cars which were merely large RWD cars with the back half halved? I can´t think of a FoMoCo equivalent – was there one?

  8. In 1984, as a very young man, I held a job as a draftsman (please excuse my American… draughtsman) for a small firm in Huntington Beach, California. My boss said we needed to bring some blueprints to a company in Chula Vista near San Diego—about 100 miles away. Immediately! I was told to make the delivery and instructed to take the company car—a 1978 Buick Regal coupe (not a turbo or sport anything). It shares the same rear-wheel drive A body of the Century Turbo Coupé. Once under way, I discovered the Regal possessed the same dreadful handling so typical of American cars of the time. I was ready for that. But I was not ready for the brakes, specifically the rear drums, which were exceedingly touchy. At the time my car was a 1971 Ford Torino sedan which felt like a Porsche in comparison. Anyway, I reached Chula Vista as a gentle rain began to fall—the freeway offramp was just a minute ahead. It had a fast left turn-off to the street that I took as smoothly as I could, but needed some braking for traffic and WHOA those drums locked-up! I pumped, I swerved right, left, right, left—but hit nothing. I started breathing again about two minutes later and made the delivery. It’s often said that the General Motors X body cars that followed had tricky brakes. I’m not sure the older A/G bodies were much better. In any case, your story car, the Century Turbo Coupé was, for its time, a clean and purposeful machine. In those days in America—during what some call the great brougham epoch—most cars were bloated, clumsy, numb, ponderous… It’s all rushing back to me! I will just say the cars were lousy.

  9. Could it have been designed to be a deliberate failure? Well, probably not, but it allowed Buick to have a trial run, in low volumes, and use much of its technology in the GNX, as celebrated here, recently. Every cloud…

    For all its awkwardness, it had good performance, for the time – a 16 second quarter mile isn’t bad, when the fastest cars today can just about hit 10 seconds. Here’s one in a stock drag race (I’d rather have the Studebaker Daytona, though).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.