Blackhawk Down

If you’re feeling sinister…

Image: Hemmings Auto News

One sure fire way of upsetting your customers is to halt production of an established favourite. Buick caused a national outcry when they axed the Grand National. When the Riviera was retired, the overtures were quieter perhaps but no less felt. GM rolled out concepts from time to time, and potential customers took notice until the realisation dawned that this was more a case of theatrics over genuine articles – another false dawn.

Are we perhaps being a little harsh here? Given the chance to design something from scratch, any designer worth their salt would leap at the opportunity. Released from the shackles of corporate martyrdom and Buick orthodoxy, Mike Doble’s impending retirement would allow him a final spotlight moment.

Created in 2001 as an early centennial gift to themselves, Buick top brass must have swallowed hard. Roger W. Adams, then general manager said, “Blackhawk is a very interesting statement for Buick. Our cars always have had strong elements of power and style – and this is a good time to remind folks of that.

Doble, creator of many a show concept, found inspiration from a rather unlikely source: hot rods. But no chrome-laden, exposed engined beast would concept Blackhawk be. Doble wished to blend traditional Buick themes with modern techniques and materials, handing over the project to an external (but known and trusted) organisation. And with it, opened a Pandora’s box.

Doble approached five design studios, tasking them to express their ‘ultimate custom Buick’ ideas. Headed by former Buick designer, Steven D. Pasteiner, Advanced Automobile Technologies, set up in 1989 was eventually handed the golden ticket. Known in-house for his work on the 1960s Gran Sport and ’70s Regal models, the pairing of Buick design chief and former Tri-shield architect was bound by a shared enthusiasm, with Doble pushing for a contemporary design while Pasteiner brought his experience of that extensive back catalogue.

First strike, the grille. Harking from 1939, this no-nonsense altar of silvered fins, split by a thin elongated vee broad enough to pin a Tri-Shield to lent Blackhawk an almost ghoulish grin, setting the tone for the journey around the black cherry coloured bodywork. A further nod to past triumphs being the rotating gunsight headlamps – in this case, piercing xenon units. 

In-keeping with the retro theme, the elegantly curved windshield was split. Curved too was that elongated body, mirroring styles from Buick’s post war torpedo heyday. More retrospective analogies led to rear rubber being fractionally wider than the front – 295/45/R18 as opposed to 295/35/R18 covering polished chrome five spoke wheels – very similar to Flint produce of the mid-1960s, for that custom car feel.

A circa-1970, 455 cubic inch Buick V8 was unearthed, fitted with electronic fuel injection and was deposited beneath the hood, offering a theoretical 460bhp with over 500 foot pounds of torque. Of more contemporary vintage however was the gearbox, a 4L80E, four-speed automatic. Suspension, both front and rear was fully independent, derived it’s said from a Corvette. Contrary to popular belief, Pasteiner did not utilise an old Riviera or Roadmaster chassis. An original Roadmaster from Doug Seybodt did however provide panels in order to be heavily modified over the unique chassis.

After all, faintly resembling the fabled Buick Y-Job does not equate to the Blackhawk actually being a Y-Job. 

Image: Hemmings Auto News

The interior though is all 1996 Riviera, modified slightly to fit containing the modern conveniences a typical Buick owner would insist upon, including sat-nav, buff leather, a top-notch sound system and a wooden steering wheel, unique to the car. The Blackhawk’s party piece was its retractable roof. What at first sight appeared too bulky to slink into the boot recess, the carbon fibre lid could withdraw at the touch of a button leaving occupants in clear sight to be gawped at by the incredulous. Who said anything about shrinking violets?

But do we consider the Blackhawk beautiful? Even by Doble’s and Buick’s own descriptions, the car seemed particularly difficult to pigeon hole. Laden with overt classical references sitting alongside somewhat incongruous modernity, Blackhawk seemed neither fish nor fowl. Plainly eye-catching, but for reasons difficult to wholly articulate.

Shunning the usual auto show exposé haunts for those containing Tri-Shield bias, Blackhawk, unsurprisingly divided attitudes, while generating rumours which rivalled the sub-five second 0-60 sprint. ‘The Blackhawk is to be made! With some production friendly changes this will be the new Riviera!‘ The car even made it to the silver screen, driven by Will Smith in the movie, Bad Boys II. But once the honeymoon period of touring and entertaining was over, the Blackhawk was stored within the GM Heritage Centre, with executives stating, “These vehicles are sacred.” Just then, the squeeze on The General’s accounts began to tighten.

Image: Autoblog

In 2009, GM auctioned off over two hundred of these sacred vehicles, Blackhawk included. At that year’s Barret-Jackson, Scottsdale, Arizona sale, Blackhawk sold for $475,000 ($522,500 with commission). A tidy sum for the individuals involved, a drop in the ocean for GM, awash as it was with red ink.

Those buyers were Paul and Chris Andrews of Forth Worth, who admitted after purchasing this was a “show, not a go-car.” Their team of restorers “ironed out engineering bugs,” making the car fully functional, keeping Blackhawk for just over five years before offloading this, along with seventy others in the May 2015 RM Sotherby auction. Notable additions, a 1934 Packard 12 coupe, sold for $2.2M, a 1962 Ferrari Superamericana cabriolet for $7.75M and even a blue 1987 Range Rover for a piffling $27,000.

The car was offered with no reserve, selling for $363,000 – not a dime of course heading into The General’s coffers. So where does this leave us? A moribund manufacturer, customers unreservedly antagonised and a single anachronistic example of a designer’s idea now residing in someone else’s collection. No secular journey, this – Blackhawk is down.

Data sources: Hemings.com, conceptcarz.com, motor1.com, concept-cars.org

Author: Andrew Miles

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

9 thoughts on “Blackhawk Down”

  1. Good morning, Andrew. I’d forgotten all about the ’03 Buick Blackhawk. It’s hard for me to believe that this has a custom made chassis. To my eyes it looks like they’ve translated the Y-job styling elements to a chassis with hard points that compromised the proportions.

    In that respect I think the Holden Efijy is a more convincing effort.

    1. Hi Freerk. That’s a concept I haven’t seen before. You’re right, it’s better proportioned than the ludicrous Blackhawk.

  2. Good afternoon Andrew. The Blackhawk is, of course, ridiculous, but still rather appealing to me. It reminds me of the original Batmobile from the DC Comics in the late 1930s.

    The photos above don’t really do it justice:

    Here’s the roof in action:

    It is, of course, a blatant rip-off of the Y-Job:

    1. It doesn’t come across as a product of GM design, but the work of one of the hot rod makers, now known as customisers, someone like Chip Fooose, only Mr Foose might have finessed the proportions a little better. Like his Impression’ show car.

  3. Good afternoon Andrew. An interesting article showing , once again, the profligacy of Car Manufacturers. I have no knowledge of whether the chassis is custom made or not but the car seems extremely long to my eyes. Not ideal for the suburbs I would suggest. Notwithstanding that it looks absolutely beautiful.

  4. Apropos of Buick’s future:

    I love how this concept plays with the sweep spear while utilizing the one-way opaque glazing seen on the 2017 Opel GT concept. We’re half a world away from Flint, Michigan now, as Rüsselsheim fades in the distance. Would in-car tea service play well in Britain? At last, something with an air of futurism from Buick, and finally a true echo of the spirit and purpose of the Y-Job.

    1. Isn’t it good to see side window sill lines coming back down again, so that people can see from inside to outside the vehicle?
      Something also apparent in Hyundai’s latest van. A vehicle which is now a big seller in New Zealand.

  5. In-car tea service….? Yeah, right. Imagine the lovely burns you and your loved ones can get from that lot spilling!

    1. The tea set reveals the influence of Buick’s primary market, China.
      MPVs have a more upmarket image there than the ‘people carrier’ ‘family hauler’ image of the rest of the world, the current Buick GL8 with it’s auspicious name, (the number 8) is seen as luxury VIP transport. This is an image from GM China’s current advertising…

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