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Our Cars--Mom's 1996 Buick Century

Submitted by Car Lust reader and commenter Al Sapp

*Author's note: In order to fully understand this post, it's worth noting that, at the time of writing, I’m 14.

Century #1When we think about the 1982-1996 Buick Century, not that we do often, we often think of the driver's age being somewhere between 76 and dead. And you'd be right. My mother bought this prosthetic limb beige Light Sand Rift Metallic '96 Century from a 94 year old family friend back in 2007. She was looking to replace her trusty but unneeded 1997 Dodge Caravan SWB. My brother and I had aged to the point where a minivan just wasn't necessary.

When she came into possession of the Buick, it had something like 38k on the odometer. Without sounding cliché, it was only ever driven to church on Sundays.

The Century's exterior had some old lady damage on the bumpers, hitting curbs and such, but was as flawless as a 90's mid size GM could be. The interior had no tears, stains or anything else marring it's sofa like bench seats. I believe when Mom first brought it home, there were cobwebs in the back seat. This was due to the fact it was seldom driven, and that it was likely nobody had sat in the back seat for a number of years. The overstuffed, power recline seats were as comfy as one would imagine.  I believe the only difference between the Century and the "Gutlass Ciera" was the dashboard.

The Buick was powered by 2.2 Liters of multiport fuel injected, overhead valve Detroit muscle. Muscle is a relative term. This gutless beast of an engine developed 120 horse power and 140 pounds feet of torque. Not exactly a GSX Stage 1, but it got you from A to B in comfort.

Here's how Chris Hafner described the Buick's Cutlass Ciera twin:

They were good-looking in a generic way, with blandly formal lines. They had the overstuffed bench seats, sloppy suspension, numb steering, two-spoke plastic steering wheel, and awful left control stalk typical of GM sedans of the time.

I'd agree. The cars were good looking, and well stanced. I never got to drive it, so I can't say much about the numb steering, but any passenger could certainly feel the sloppy suspension.  Build quality wasn't exceptional.

Century #2Alas, after a few years the pavement burning 2.2 started suffering. The alternator was the first thing to go.  A year or two later the top end of the motor had to be rebuilt. It still ran rough. We put it on Craigslist. (The photos are from the ad we posted.) After a month of not selling, we gave it to my retired car salesman grandfather to try and sell it. He sold it, to a mechanic trying to flip it. Mom later replaced the Buick with a Kia. Out of respect for my mother, I keep my opinions to myself.

Though I was never attached to it, I was still sad to see the old beast go. It’d be a fine first car, if it wasn’t front wheel drive, which, in large sedans, is taboo for me.

-Al S.

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Nice article. And I think you judged this vehicle spot-on.

That first paragraph was golden.

My mother bought a similar used late 80s-early 90s Cutlass Ciera sometime in her late 60s. Since she didn't drive much she didn't need or want anything better though she often talked about buying a new Accord.

I'd drive it when I flew into town for a visit and found it to be your typical GM A-Body Snoozemobile. At least it wasn't a Buick...which I recall reading in Car and Driver in the 80s, the buyers average age was somthing close to 60.

It sure was a elderly persons car. The owners manual was practically in large print.

Flew back home from the UK, with two British colleagues in tow. We rented a car, which they were going to use the rest of the week. I volunteered to drive, and the Hertz bus delivered us to a nondescript Buick, looking much like the one in the above photo. Only this one was colored in what is referred to as 'burgundy', which I think only makes Frenchmen hang their heads in shame. In any case, we hop in the Oldsmobuick, and there is a gasp from my British counterpart as he drops into the front seat. His eyes are large and his mouth agape, as all around us is a sea of burgundy man-made splendor that I as an American barely notice: burgundy velour seats, burgundy leather embossed plastic dash, plush burgundy carpet and headliner. In response to all this, my non-American friend summed it up nicely:

"Blimey, it looks like a bloody funeral parlor in here! Is this typical for an American car?"

Sadly, I had to confirm that, yes, indeed, most 1990s American cars look like a funeral parlor, or really, much more like the inside of a casket.

Seemed like those Centuries and the Cutlass Cieras were the quintessential rental cars of the 90s - go to any given Avis or Budget Rental car counter and those friggin' things were everywhere.

BTW, in the first paragraph your link to the 1982-96 Buick Century goes to the Wikipedia article. Might I suggest an alternative, a much more informative in-depth article from the Wikicars site. It's exceptionally well-written and the author really seems to know his stuff ;-)

http://wikicars.org/en/Buick_Century

Make it the wagon and I'm sold. :-)

Ugh... The rental counter once handed one of these to me, instead of one of the V-6 Chevy Corsicas I had reserved and normally rented before. They said the Corsicas were unavailable; all were being cleaned. I drove the Buick for a couple of miles, then turned around and handed back the keys, politely explaining it wasn't going to do for a long trip, and I'd wait for them to get one of the Chevys ready.

The Oldsmobuicks were omnipresent in the '90s, as were the Corsicas, but there was a night and day difference in the two platforms. Heck, a V-6 Corsica was a surprisingly zippy and well-mannered car in its day. I went on to own a Corsica with the Z52 sport package straight out of the GM catalog. The 3.1 V-6 and the sport-tuned suspension, plus a full set of analog gauges turned the unassuming fleet-queen into a fun and satisfying Q-ship. Alas, no pictures of it though. :(

E F Conrad, you are right, in that GM built a good car if you knew which boxes to check. If not, you got a sled that was barely worthy, if that, of being a rental car. Things like gauges, a decent radio, some power, and good handling should not be options.

Please stay tuned for a surprisingly positive post I'm working on that praises a GM car.

I had a 1996 Century I bought from my mother as a second car, after she bought a new Century in 2001 or so. Had around 60k on it. It had the same gutless engine, sloppy handling as the car from the article, but it was very reliable. Replaced an alternator in the Autozone parking lot once and the fuel pump in a hotel parking lot after renting a truck to go home and get tools and ramps during the weekend. Not sure how many more miles it went, as the ex got it in the divorce, but at the time, it had 160k or so on it. Yes it wasn't an exciting vehicle, but it was a very reliable vehicle.

In 1996 I rented a Century that looked identical but had a V6. It had less than 40 miles when I picked it up(22 miles, IIRC), but had some obvious defects from the factory. The weatherstripping had fallen off from the driver's door opening and then been slammed in the door, so I had to put it on properly myself. It would have worked better if the door seal wasn't kinked from being closed in the door. The other memorable things about it were the formless sofa seats, the complete lack of suspension damping(dry struts and shocks by accident?), and the powerful V6 with sporty exhaust. I've rented Corollas that were M3s by comparison.

My elderly landlady at my last place had a mid-90s Regal with less than 38K miles. It cost her thousands whenever it needed to be smogged and got her black-balled by AAA for all of the times it stranded her. I drove it to the Kia dealer for her to trade it in($500 mercy trade-in value, probably built into the cost of the new car), and the heater core blew on the way. My girlfriend and I finished the trip like Casey Jones, with our heads out the side windows to see around the smoke. Great cars, Buicks.

Among the group of car-oriented folks up here that I run with, we call these "Don Buicks" - my friend Don discovered that these make good "work" cars - several years back, and has now owned four or five of them. He'd sniff them out, either watching ones that sat in some elderly person's garage for a long spell, or cars that just sat out on the lawn for sale along the road. He never seemed to have much trouble with any one of them, other than normal wear stuff, and would run first one, then another, until the rustworms caught up with each of them in turn. His steady supply of good used Century sedans is beginning to dry up, as they are starting to be old cars now, so my friends and I are watching closely to see what Don's next serial vehicle-of-choice will turn out to be . . .

In 1986 I bought a used 1984 Buick Century wagon. It was the most unreliable car I have ever owned, and I once owned a Bug Eyed Sprite. I normally buy cars and drive them until they drop but this dog lasted less than 2 years. My mechanic retired shortly after I sold the car. I suspect that pig of a car contributed greatly to his retirement.

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