Savannah Postcard (3)

Truly one of the great and lovely names in the back catalogues of car history: Electra.

1985-1990 Buick Electra in Savannah, Georgia

General Motors has produced some very charming cars and they have also been incredibly bad custodians of their brand equity. Here is an example of a great name on a good car, relics of an abandoned market and an abandoned badge. More than 30 years after it ceased production, the Electra name still casts bright-blue light, and it made my afternoon when I saw this one while I was about to return from an appointment on the outskirts of the city. This version of the Electra ran from 1985 to 1990. Some versions had the Park Avenue suffix which turned into a free-standing model in 1991, a remarkably different kind of car, visually.

1985 Buick Electra 2 door (source). Wierd, isn’t it? The front half of a huge car and the boot of a huge car with little in between.

The Buick Electra could be legally obtained in only a pair of forms: the four-dour saloon shown in the title picture and the two-door coupé illustrated in the stock photos above this paragraph. In typical GM-style customers could only have one of two engines (almost nobody went with the diesel). One transmission sent power to the front-wheels. As you might have noticed, this Electra isn’t in the tradition of really big Buicks. It was a shade over 5 metres long, just 20 cm longer than a Volvo 760 which came out the year before.

Buick Electra. Image: oldcarbrochures

Anyone who wanted an estate could have a car bearing the same name but looking entirely different, a car based on the old body-on-frame B-body, a much different proposition to the down-sized C-body here.

Image: webcarstory. You can read more about the car here.

The coupé is a pretty handsome car (and also weird), but I have never seen one in the metal. They only made 15,000 units and gave up production at the end of the third year of sale, quite fed up with its failure in the market.

These kinds of Buicks seemed to me the ones best suited to Europe if GM had found the energy and resources to install some smaller engines. Volvo managed quite well to propel the similarly sized 740 with 4-cylinder engines and the 760 with a 6-cylinder. Admittedly, the Volvo weighed a bit less, from 1300 kg to 1400 kg. The Electra weighted in at 1500 kg. However, such a weight difference could easily have been handled with a modest adjustment to a 4-cyclinder or 6-cylinder engine available to GM.

1983 Mercury Cougar: source

What I really ought to dig into was the formal roof line, of which this Electra is a great example. This trend appears to have its origins at the end of the 1970s. Like a cloud, the phenomenon gets harder to see the closer you look. Around 1979-1984 some US saloons have a rear windscreen approaching vertical. And the 1984 Volvo 700-series is only one of several cars that appeared at around this time with the kind of upright C-pillar we see on today’s Electra.

You might think GM got there definitively first but really the style appeared in several places at the same time. The 1983 Mercury Cougar gets to the point very clearly with its plumb-vertical back glass. Volvo’s car is the next year. The GM versions mostly appear the year after. Who got there first? Which formal roof is the definitive one?

Here’s the interior (source):

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I did not get close to many of the cars I saw in Savannah for reasons of personal security. That’s why I have stock photos of the interior. If you really like this car you’re in for bad news as there are none for sale in Europe that I can find. Would a mid-1980s Jaguar XJ suffice? Or maybe a Rover 800, sir? Or perhaps a Volvo 760 GLE is the car that gets closest.

Author: richard herriott

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

23 thoughts on “Savannah Postcard (3)”

  1. It is weird to me that as a resident of the Western U.S. (Silicon Valley and Tucson) I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Electra of this generation, yet Volvo 700/900 series cars are still rather prevalent and in regular use. That’s predictable for the ‘Bay Area’, but you’d think in Middle America that Buicks would have more staying power. The closest I’ve seen are the smaller contemporary Le Sabre and of course the ubiquitous Century as pictured in Savannah Postcard (2). Wikipedia tells me they sold over half a million Electras of this generation across the three body styles; where have they all gone?

  2. My folks shopped for a car in 1985, ranging from slightly used Cadillac Sedans de Ville and Lincoln Town Cars to new Chev Monte Carlos and Buick Regals. They settled on a new near-loaded 1985 Park Avenue sedan, white with white padded roof and burgundy velour interior. It was basically a less expensive Cadillac, and was missing only moonroof, memory seats and leather.
    It was a ‘right-sized’ car for my mom, the shorter length and sloping hood a welcome change from the 1967 Ford LTD she had driven. It was smooth riding in the Buick tradition, and comfortable. The venerable Buick 3.8L V6 was great too.
    But being mid-80s GM, it suffered many issues, starting about a year into ownership. First was the transmission, the kick down operating intermittently. Next, a rear speaker developed a weird chirp they could never fix. That was followed by 2 replacement mass air flow sensors by year 4. After that, a series of electrical gremlins (including with the digital AC control) and worn out convenience motors (like the power antenna). At some point my dad rigged up a starter bypass under the hood as something in the dash went awry.
    That said, my mom and sister drove that Buick until 2002, and that car was still a fairly comfortable ride though by then the Canadian winters had eaten away at the body.
    Overall, it was a nice car, still quite Buick-looking and Buick-feeling.

  3. Good morning Richard and thanks for another postcard. The Electra (brilliant name) you feature is very hard to ‘scale’ from the photos. It looks like it’s Vectra-sized, but is actually quite a bit bigger, as you point out. I rather like its ‘formal’ looks.

    That Cougar is hid-e-ous! Here is its much nicer Ford Thunderbird sibling:

    Why on earth would one (presumably) pay more for an uglified version of the T-bird?

  4. That formal roof with the vertical rear window seemed to appear quite suddenly in Europe and fully formed. I think you need a substantial car for it to look right; the Rover 213/ Honda Ballade (1984) always had a bit of a Meercat stance to my eyes. Wikipedia states that the Volvo 740 launched in 1982, a bit earlier than I expected and I can’t help thinking that seeing a 740 in the street in 1982 would have left a much more futuristic impression than seeing the same car for the first time in 1984.
    I used to think that Alfa’s 1977 Giulietta kick started this style- it’s how I’d draw it from memory- but photos show a very conventional rear angled windshield, it’s other details that make the rear look abrupt.

    I’m thinking that a recent DTW darling might be a very early adopter… the XJ-S. The sail panels hide the impact but I’m sure the back windscreen is almost vertical. I recall it not been parallel with the angle of the rear side windows.

    The earliest one I can think of though is the Maserati Merak (1972), again buttresses hide the impact but as you can see through them, or take them off completely you can see that the rear window is as vertical as can be.

    More important question; what gains by this? I’d guess that decreasing the volume of air in the cabin (From an area that isn’t really usable) decreases echo potential creating a NVH benefit and aides faster cabin heating/cooling. Presumably demisting the rear window would also warm your passenger’s necks due to their close proximity? Could adoption of this style have been facilitated by laminated windscreens, you wouldn’t have wanted a design like this in the era of plain glass!

  5. Aahhh…. the Electra Park Avenue. Good memories of that as I spent quite a bit of time in one on my yearly summer holiday visits to my brochure collecting friend in Indianapolis. A friend of his had one, and on the wide open roads I found it a very pleasant and comfortable place to be in. By the way, here is an interesting bit of trivia about the 1985-1990 generation: they had a feature that many owners never realized was there- a fold out coat/jacket-hanger in the driver’s side rear door.

  6. The 1976-79 Cadillac Seville was the originator of the vertical backlight. It soon proliferated through GM and then the other US manufacturers. The 1985 C-body was perhaps the last new US design to use it as it fell out of favour at about that time due to overuse.

    1. Thanks, Stumack. The lineage seems to be Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, the 1976 Seville and then onwards as described above. The Mercury Cougar designer pushed it to the fullest degree. The other cars seem to stand shy of an aparent vertical glass. The surrounding features also alter the perception of the glass.

  7. Each to their own obviously but I for one think these are horrible looking cars. I’m rather keen on American cars generally but not these. Everything from the odd proportions to the ghastly rear screen angle and including the monstrous interior makes me quite happy these cars are disappearing.

  8. Goodness, half a million of these made and practically no-one in America sees them anymore. What chance the European Electra spotter?

    Well done Richard for snapping these, to me, fascinating models. I have to agree, they are odd looking but in an interesting and pleasing manner. The four door works better for me.

    . That interior, along with the “secret” coat hanger, looks inordinately comfortable. A crying shame GM at the time were so disappointing in terms of reliability, customer service, management, etc, etc…

  9. That red Electra 380 2 door is not awful, nor is the Somerset Regal (Cavalier size), nor the Riviera (in between those). One sausage, three sizes (as was the style at the time).

    Should you find the Electra proportionally challenging, perhaps try this recipe from Highland Park: Drop a small cocktail frankfurter into a full sized bun, slather liberally with condiments, serve three years later.

  10. It would have been good if the rear window could have been retracted and opened (like the Lincoln Continental Mk 3 and the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser of the late ’50s).

  11. Thank you very much for the postcards. My thoughts, 3 doors have almost disappeared from both sides of the Atlantic. People are anyway asking “when i used the rear doors last time?” And what about the trunk in USA “when was it full last time?” Does it really need to be that big? There was a nice article on bloomberg ” americans have been always used to too much car”

    1. Nice to have became need to have. I am usually the only person in my 406. The boot mostly contains some unused things in a plastic storage box, a bike rack and an orange rug.

    2. JT: It´s a rhetorical way of voicing the opinion that a case could be made that American drivers expected cars of a size greater than could be justified by a reasonable observer. That there is no one, single, universally acceptable arbiter on this matter doesn´t mean the point can´t be made. Does one single human weighing 160 kg need a vehicle weighing more than 2000 kg for enough of the time to justify the allocation of resources to this task? I think some do. Most don´t.

  12. Quoting, “americans have been always used to too much car”….

    Too much according to whom?

    1. The comment does refer to an article in Bloomberg, but it is part of a very many-faced discourse in various media on American excess.

      Jack Kerouac observed,

      “It’s all too much and not enough at the same time.”

      Some people have commented that it is part of the American character, and it is reflected in many facets of life, including politics extant. For example, Mary Trumps best-selling book on her uncle, an impeached ex-president is titled

      “Too Much Is Never Enough” and muses well on the phenomenom.

  13. GM’s second downsizing wave, when they finally shifted to FWD, was to me tragically flawed. They went too far, with the meek-looking 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood being the worse and looking like those four year old kids that parents dress up with a suit and tie:

    Fortunately by 1989 they started mending their ways with a restyling that brought some dignity back to the name Fleetwood:

    By the way Brrrruno, that built-in coat hanger is awesome; I’ve never seen it before! It reminds me of another 1980s interior trick from a US manufacturer, the three-way sun visor on the first gen Ford Taurus. You could flip it down as usual, then flip a separate panel to the side, and finally, pull out a third panel to cover that small space between sun visor and interior rear view mirror. Pretty clever (unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good picture of it).

  14. Normally I don’t like thick pillars, but if you broadened the C-pillars a few inches and put a bit more slope on the rear window this wouldn’t look too bad. I think it’s the formal roof that kills it. Thankfully this style didn’t play much outside the US. I remember an article in Car and Driver back then decrying GM’s “whackback rooflines”.
    It seems a bit pointless to aerodynamically refine the rest of your design, then saddle it with this eddy-generator.

  15. Hi Richard

    Reasonable person? Reasonable according to whom?

    Need? Who defines what is needed and what is not?

    1. It looks like you´re in danger of playing the relativism card, JT.

      The relativism card is the one that asks “who´s to say who´s right and wrong?” or here, “reasonable according to whom?”. The ultimate answer to that is nobody can, at all, ever say.

      Nobody can trump the relativism card without the use of force or appeals to a superior being. If you play that card then the debate ends as there are no grounds for further discussion. since The relativism card means any conclusion reached is anulled. Whatever I decide (or you decide) is worthless since the gambit “who´s to say anyway” has been used.

      Most arguments in ordinary life carry with them the un-stated rider “under reasonable conditions, using reasonable arguments that most people would consider plausible”. This restaurant is too costly, that coat is not that nice, Bob shouldn´t be so mean etc. Indeed this entire website´s deliberations fail to survive the “who´s to say” test.

      We don´t usually have to mention this rider until something profound or existential comes up. A discussion about whether cars in a certain market are a bit too big or too small isn´t one of them.

      Perhaps the great tragedy in modern discourse is the search for absolutes. There aren´t any.

      In case you think I am trying to argue that there are absolutes values, I am not. The search for a non-relativist positions also leads to dangerous conclusions and they are also only imposed, finally, by force or appeals to a superior being. We´d like to find a balance such that 1) we may safely offer views that are not supported by ultimate points of reference and 2) such that we might wish to restrict ourselves to positions that are not morally repugnant.

  16. Good Morning Richard!

    Before commenting further on your argument and describing the consequences of taking that particular approach there is a clarification to make. It ought to assist us in getting to the guts of the matter.

    You stated that there are no absolutes.

    Is that an absolute?

    What of your life?

    To falsify the proposition one example will suffice. Above are two to ponder (there are many others but most take a lot of writing to work all the way through and no, they do not demand a spirit-monster or even an authority). Anyway, have a think on these two.


    P.S. I have to go off sailing (winds a-coming) and likely won’t be on-line for a bit. Will try when I can and if there is reception. Otherwise I’ll write you when I return mid-week (all going to plan) or maybe a little later. Apologies.

    1. JT: This exchange is heading in ever-decreasing circles.

      I have a mad idea. How about we refrain from getting to the guts of the matter?

      Enjoy your sailing.

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