Savannah Postcard (2)

The Century nameplate adhered to Buick’s mid-size cars from 1973 to 2005. In this postcard we look at the last two iterations.

Buick is a brand I think of as approximating to a combination of Rover, Lancia and Volvo but with a distinct veneer of the Ghia-character of European Fords. I hope that evokes the idea of the middle-market with comfort-orientated accoutrements. If we

apply some further refinement to the mental model, I need to say I am thinking of late 70s and 1980s Volvo not the contemporary incarnation. Volvo is now modern, cool and Scandinavian. In the late 70s and for most of the 1980s it was the most American of European brands. Think of the bordeaux velours, chrome embellishments and the forml, upright c-pillar of the 700-series cars.

The Rover element hopefully suggests the upper-middle class customer of the classic longboat cars: the doctor, vet, mid-level banker and headmaster who had a professional qualification and some spare cash for life’s modest additional luxuries. It is a brand jammed between the melée of the lower-middle market and the slow-circulation of the upper-echelon marques such as Jaguar or Mercedes. Buick has historically always played second string to Cadillac, a distinction more about attitude than anything to do with substance. Buick’s relatively lower prices levels were a sign of reserve. I don’t know if this was ever true of Rover since for many years it never had to fight with an in-house brand.

Lancia’s part in this soup of references is to convey the notions of brand engineering. For more than half a century, the Buick brand has offered nothing distinct technologically from Cadillac or any other GM brand. In much the same way, poor Lancia has had to modify and adapt to Fiat engineering. What Lancia had that Fiat did not was the tradition and culture of its own factory. When that closed, Lancia was no more.

Buicks were mostly made in Flint, Michigan. These days they are a Chinese-market brand. 80% of Buicks are sold there. In the US, Buick occupies 1.2% of the market. The contrast is stark though: Lancia is strongest on its home turf. Buick is a shadow of its former self, big overseas but a minnow domestically.

The general character of all these brands (Volvo less so) is that they are all from the contested middle sector. Not that cheap and not very expensive. You can criticise them from two directions, not good enough value for money (Ford and Peugeot often offer excellent mid-size cars) and not costly enough (the cost of a Benz is a feature not a problem). The decline of all these brands (Volvo excepted) is down in part to the coallescence of brands under corporate umbrellas such that technical differentiation is made all but impossible.

And the other element is the squeezed middle. In a world of broader income distributions, the middle market was larger. These days it would seem people hunt for value or prestige. In between you have to sell on abstractions like comfort, elegance, not-being-at-the extremes. Hard sells.

The car we have here are a facelifted fifth generation Century (from 1991 onward) and a sixth generation model (from 1997 to 2005). You can consider the fact that the engine range for this mid-size car is much narrower than the equivalent Passat, Mondeo or Vectra: four cylinder units of about 2.5 litre capacity and six-cylinders of about 3.0 to 3.5 litres. Or outputs from 90 bhp to 150 bhp, roughly. GM offered more brands but didn’t space them out much within their ranks.

I had a look inside the six generation Century and it had no rear centre armrest. Brandscape: you need to trade up for that.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

11 thoughts on “Savannah Postcard (2)”

  1. Interesting – thank you, Richard. Even the basic stuff these days is unimaginably sci-fi in its spec compared with, say, 20 years ago. That makes differentiation harder and means that it’s down to material quality and design to set things apart now, I guess.

  2. P.S. For a split second, when I saw the first image, my mind said ‘Vauxhall Senator’.

  3. Initially I only looked at the pictures and when I first saw the fourth picture from top with the yellow lines I thought they were Herriott Marks™ and looked for the feature these lines were meant to mark out.
    Does the US landscape feature coloured objects deliberately arranged in a way that you can park cars in front of them to mark out certain design details so Richard doesn’t have to do it himself?

    1. I hadn´t seen those yellow lines until you drew my attention to them. The car´s don´t have a lot of features though. Bland sums them up. The last Century has some watered down coke-bottle along the flanks. In side view the boot and c-pillar seem to big and too far forward. And there is so little brightwork on the last Century. Did Buick customers really want a car this bland?

    2. The older car with the Rover 200-style nose at least has a feature in form of its awful forward leaning rear door trailing edge shutline, resulting in that cheap black plastic panel behind the door in the C post. That’s worse than bland and did customers really want something that awful?

    3. If you look at the 1982-1988 version of the Century you find it has a real glass pane on the C-pillar. When they restyled it they took out content. I think the 1982-1988 version is more pleasing. I didn´t realise the full extent of the awfulness of the 1989 version. Overall the car is so mediocre it defies close examination. It´s large but cheap. It´s missing a lot of content despite some superficial details the equivalent Chevrolet lacked.

  4. When I lived in the US I rented a sixth gen Buick Century for the weekend. It was exactly the same metallic tan as the one in the pictures, and probably the same trim level, ie one or two up from the bare-bones basic version. It was broad and comfortable inside, like a pair of loose trousers with a bit of stretch built into the fabric. The handling was golden retreiver-friendly, but not as fun. Safe and competent would probably be a better description. The V6 was throaty and very torquey and the 4-speed automatic was typically American in its smoothness, slurring its way from gear to gear, almost always picking the correct gear. American manufacturers really were the best at automatic transmissions back then. Over all, an easy, solid car to live with, but not much fun.

    As for the Buick brand, I think it reached its peak both in desirability and definition in the 60s and maybe the 70s too. A big Buick in the 60s was a car for the judge, whereas a Cadillac was more for the star lawyer.

    The 80s were a bit of a mess, with compact Buicks and sporty “T-Type” versions, even big turbo-powered muscle cars that were faster (and more exclusive) than the Corvette. The 90s and early 2000s were years of blandness, often extreme, and the later 2000s appear to be, sadly, turning into times of irrelevance for the once grand old brand.

  5. Buick fwd cars had, for many years, the saving grace of the 3800 V6, a cast iron distant relative of the Buick/Rover v8, these things run for ever, even if extremely neglected.

  6. Good evening Richard. As I recall, Buick’s US customer demographic tended to be middle-aged or older drivers who enjoyed modest affluence in their later years, allowing them to trade up from the Chevrolet they used to own. That explains the wilfully conservative styling and old-fashioned features such as strip speedometers and column shifts that remained long after other GM marques had abandoned them.

    On our first trip to California together in 1990, my partner and had a Buick rental car, a sedan roughly the size of the contemporary Cavalier/Ascona, but with the above-mentioned features and raspberry coloured crushed velour upholstery with matching headlining and trim. The suspension settings were ultra soft and the steering was incredibly light, which actually made the car hard to position on anything like a twisty road. It felt decades out of date compared to our E30 at home, but I guess that was the intention, given the target buyers.

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