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My 1971 Buick Centurion: A Long-Term Relationship


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It was thirty-four years ago tonight -- December 16, 1970 -- that my Dad was contemplating his next automotive purchase. The time had come to replace the family's much-loved 1965 Wildcat 2-door hardtop, and my folks were busily planning a family vacation to San Diego over the Christmas holiday. The goal was to make the trek in a brand new full-size 1971 Buick.

The process of selecting a new Buick had really begun during the summer of 1970. We had looked at some of the beautiful 1970 Wildcats, but we realized that an all-new full-size Buick would arrive in the fall. "The Oregonian" newspaper had carried an article about a new Buick series to replace the Wildcat. Buick Motor Division had purchased the rights to the name "Centurion" from Challenger Corporation of Memphis, Tennessee, a manufacturer of Suburban-based ambulances. Buick had determined that it would reclaim the name of its famous 1956 Motorama dream car, the "Centurion".

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The Centurion would continue the "Century concept" of mating Buick Division's largest engine with its lightest standard size body, preserving the tradition of the Century, Invicta, and Wildcat series cars that preceded it. We were primed and poised to purchase a new Centurion, and eagerly awaited the annual September new model introduction.

September arrived with great disappointment. The United Auto Workers struck General Motors shortly after production of the new models began, and our local dealership had received exactly one new 1971 Buick, a Skylark 4-door sedan. There was no immediate end in sight for the strike, so we headed to the larger cities of Oregon's Willamette Valley to check the inventory at the Buick dealerships. Huling Buick of Eugene, Oregon had a beautiful Rosewood Electra 225 Custom 4-door hardtop on the showroom floor, and my Dad made a full-price cash offer, but the dealers were simply unwilling to sell the new models. The dealers had concluded that it was wiser to show prospective customers the few new cars in inventory, collecting orders for the time that production would resume. We returned home with the old Wildcat.

It was only after production resumed in early December and the new Buicks began trickling into the Pacific Northwest dealerships that we had hopes of buying a new Buick. Dad was sitting in a motel room in Portland, Oregon thirty-four years ago this evening, and he telephoned to say that he had leads on two possible Centurions. Wallace Buick on Sandy Boulevard had a Rosewood/Sandalwood vinyl roof Centurion 4-door hardtop, and Dad was very impressed with the appearance of this car. But he had telephoned Royal Moore Buick of suburban Hillsboro, and, after assuring Mr. Moore that he was not another dealer seeking cars, had learned that the dealership had just received one of the new Centurion Formal Coupes. Dad had an appointment with Mr. Moore the following day, December 17. I spent the evening back at home poring over the photos of the new Centurions in the Buick brochure.

Dad arrived at the dealership, and was led to the new Centurion in the service area, where it was being prepped for display. Mr. Moore explained that he had attended a dealers conference months before in Las Vegas, where the new Centurion models were unveiled. He had thought that the color combination of the Las Vegas car was so striking that he had ordered an identical car for his dealership's first Centurion. The car was finished in Sandpiper Beige with a dark brown vinyl roof, black Centurion paint stripe, and saddle vinyl interior.

Dad knew immediately that the Formal Coupe was the car for us, and the Wildcat was traded in. The Centurion was fitted with Buick's chrome road wheels, and Dad figured that Mom would think these wheels were an unnecessary extravagance. He instructed the dealership to exchange the tires and wheels with those of a new LeSabre sitting nearby. As luck would have it, he then noticed that the Centurion had the extra cost oversize tires, and this appealed to his practical nature, so the chrome road wheels and larger size dual stripe whitewall tires remained. The teenage boy sitting back home with the Buick brochure would be eternally grateful.

And, so, a long-term relationship began that continues to this day. When Dad arrived home with the new Centurion, even the owner of the Buick dealership was eager to see it. No one in town had yet seen a full-size '71 Buick of any description. The Centurion was an incredibly trouble-free car and a supremely comfortable long distance cruiser. Mom and Dad racked up many miles, and received numerous offers from others in our hometown who were eager to buy it. Many expressed that the Centurion was the "prettiest car in town".

They opted to keep the car after buying a new '77 Electra 225 Limited Landau coupe. By '79, however, the Centurion had passed into my possession. In 1982, I began to collect NOS parts in preparation for a cosmetic restoration. Bob Alberini, BCA #3038, was another early Centurion enthusiast, and he was extremely helpful in my quest to obtain parts and information. In late 1984, the car was taken to a Bellingham restoration shop for fresh lacquer paint and replacement of some of the stainless trim. It was not possible to locate the correct dark brown vinyl for the roof, so the upholsterers dyed a new roof covering to match the original. I had carefully documented the original Centurion paint stripe, and an artist was employed to repaint them.

Sandpiper Beige proved to be the second most popular color for the '71 Formal Coupes, with 1,671 deliveries of 11,892 cars produced.

A unique feature of the full-size 1971 Buicks was the vent louvres on the rear deck lid. The louvres functioned to exhaust air as part of the new power ventilation system. The large number of louvres on my car reflects its very early production; the body is no. 125 from the Southgate assembly plant. A short time after the beginning of the model year, the number of louvres was reduced from 54 to 24. The louvres apparently admitted more water into the drain-off system that it could handle, and some body styles created a positive pressure over the louvres, causing air to be drawn from the trunk area back into the passenger compartment. For these reasons, the louvres were eliminated altogether on the 1972 models. My car also has a series of openings in the rear of the hood over the concealed windshield wipers, and these were again discontinued midway through the 1971 model year.

It remains a pleasure to cruise in the same great Buick that I cruised in during my senior year of high school more than thirty years ago. In fact, the Centurion has now cruised in excess of 155,000 miles, but the engine and drive train have never required more than normal maintenance. Among my great memories are driving the car to the BCA National Meet in Los Angeles (1985) and the Flint Homecoming (1988). This fall, my wife and I enjoyed the Centurion on a wonderful three-day tour with the North Cascade Chapter, and my eighty-eight year-old Dad joined me and the Centurion at a car show in late September. I sometimes ask him if he figured he would still be riding in the Centurion thirty-four years later, and he admits that the possibility had never occurred to him. But I knew from the moment I saw the Centurion that it would be a long-term relationship.

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Better photos to follow. . .

Edited by Centurion (see edit history)
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Now I don't know which story I enjoyed more....this one, or the one about your 59!

I hope you will write up a version of both and send to the Bugle. Your beautiful cars and your excellent writing style deserve the "preservation" that a printed publication offers. Besides, it will allow other members to enjoy what you're sharing with us here.

Do you have any more cars? My appetite has been whetted for yet another fascinating story from you! THANKS!

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Philippe, yes, I have noticed that at least some of the other '71 full-size models experienced mid-year adjustments to the louvres. The Centurion and LeSabre were not unique in this regard, although the various divisions seem to differ in terms of the number of louvres.

Creating the post here regarding my '71 has brought additional memories to mind. Perhaps it's partly because I'm a "car guy", but there has always been a strong link between cars and other life events. In my case, I realize that the Centurion has played some role in many of the "milestone" events of my life since that day thirty-four years ago. My best friend chauffered my bride and me from the church to the reception on our wedding day -- in the Centurion -- and it was employed again for the honeymoon departure. The car made a special journey "home" to Oregon in celebration of Mom & Dad's Golden Wedding Anniversary, and the list goes on and on.

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Edited by Centurion (see edit history)
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Brian- a great story. The car still looks like it did when new. It is an amazing car. It is really great that you kept the car all of these years- something that many people wish they had of done with cars they have owned in the past. My dad for one would love to have his 1969 Camaro back. He is currently searching for another.

You are right about the trunk louvers- they were featured on many 1971 full-size GM cars. In fact, I think they were on ALL of them- including the wagons- which had them on the tailgates. My 1971 Caprice had the trunk louvers as well. My uncle had a 1971 Pontiac Grand Ville 4dr many years ago that had the louvers and I have even seen these louvers on the trunks of the 1971 Chevrolet Vega's so it was not just on the full-size cars. Perhaps even the mid-size models. I will have to research that. I think it added a very unique appearance to these cars and it was a very efficient design. Too bad it was discontinued for 1972.

Now I will have to check out your 59' Buick info. I have seen it before- a real winner.

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  • 6 years later...

Brian-

Thank you for posting this most comprehensive and well written article to the forum. I have admired your beautiful 1971 Centurion since first seeing it in the December 2007 issue of Collectible Automobile. The 1971 Buick Centurion Formal Coupe and the 1971 Cadillac Coupe deVille are two of my favorite cars.

After reading your article many times, I finally decided to contact you. By your recommendations, I joined BCA, registered on the forum and joined in on the fun. Thanks again!

Joe

New BCA Member

1973 Buick Regal

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Chris, thanks for sharing those great photos! It's fantastic to find a car with complete documentation since new.

And your new Burnished Cinnamon LeSabre is a beauty.

For the benefit of others here, I lived for many years in the area where the original owner family lived, and saw this car from time-to-time on the streets and highways. I was most excited to learn that Chris will be the new caretaker of this fine LeSabre!

Chris, how about some "Me and My Buick" entries for the other spectacular Buicks in your collection?

Edited by Centurion (see edit history)
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Great photos, Brian! The photo of your Centurion parked on the ramp of the former Buick dealership is especially dramatic! Hope you had your parking brake tightly set! This historic building is certainly reflective of the post war period, with a design that would be a challenge to run through plan check in the building department today.

I also look forward to Chris posting an article in "Me and My Buicks" on his '71 LeSabre along with other cars in his collection.

Joe

New BCA Member

1973 Buick Regal

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Brian, your Centurion looks as great today as I remember it several years ago when I visited with my sister. It's really something special to have two fantistic cars that you can say that you know their history and have owned through most of your adult life.

Thanks for your story and thanks again for the privilage for seeing both of your beautiful cars together.

Dan

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