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The Buick Electra: 1959-1990


✪ Buckle up, y’all…this will be a long one, no pun intended. The Electra was the top-of-the-line offering from Buick, spanning over 30 years and six generations. Introduced as a replacement for the Roadmaster line at the top of the Buick hierarchy, it served as a less-expensive alternative to Cadillac and a step up from a full-sized Oldsmobile or Pontiac. The name Electra came from Electra Waggoner Biggs, who owned one of the largest ranches in Texas and was sister-in-law to GM President Harlow H. Curtice. She was also the namesake of the Lockheed L-188 Electra aircraft, famously flown by Amelia Earhart.

First Generation 1959-1960

Post WWII the Roadmaster was the upper echelon of the Buick line until they revived the Limited nameplate in 1958, which took the top spot. Limited proved to be a sales failure and was discontinued after one year. For 1959, the Roadmaster line was re-named Electra and it shared its appearance with the mid-level Invicta and the entry-level LeSabre. A step up from the base Electra was the Electra 225, referencing the car’s overall length of 225 inches. This earned it the nickname “deuce and a quarter.” At the very top was the Electra 225 Riviera, a name previously used for a premium trim hardtop and sharing its six-window hardtop roof with Cadillac.

A four-window, four-door hardtop was also available as well as a 4-door, six-window pillared sedan. The two-door convertible model was only available as an Electra 225, while the 2-door hardtop offering was a base Electra. The 225 was a handsome car, with sculpted fenders and diagonal “Delta fins,” front and rear and slanted headlights, one high and one low on each side like some offerings of the day from Chrysler and the ‘58-‘60 Lincoln Continental. It was based upon the rear-wheel-drive GM C-body like the Oldsmobile 98 and all Cadillac models, riding on a 126.3-inch wheelbase, unlike the shorter-wheelbased Invicta and LeSabre. Power was provided by a 325 HP 401 cubic inch Wildcat V-8 with a 4-barrel carb and reached the rear wheels through a 2-speed Dynaflow automatic transmission. Power steering and brakes were standard, with Buick’s 12-inch finned brake drums providing good stopping power to bring this nearly two and a half ton behemoth to a halt.

On the inside, power windows and a power front bench seat were standard on the Electra 225 convertible and optional on other models, with power bucket seats optional on the convertible only. Those who did not opt for leather sat on nylon Mojave cloth or broadcloth combinations with “Cordaveen” (Naugahyde). Standard features also included a red-line speedometer, two-speed electric windshield wipers, a trip mileage indicator, cigar lighter, dual sun visors, padded dashboards, electric clock, a “Step-On” parking brake and a glovebox light. The trunk was lighted as well. We take most of these features for granted today even on inexpensive economy cars, but they were not common except in luxury models back then. Dual horns lived under the long hood and the 401 engine had dual exhausts. Super Deluxe wheel covers and an outside rearview mirror were also standard on the 225. Extra-wide moldings and a massive Electra emblem on the front differentiated it from lesser Buicks, and a script Electra 225 badge on the front fenders ahead of the wheels indicated the upper-level model.

A minor facelift came about in 1960 with headlights now on the same level and a more concave grill with Buick’s then-new “Trishield” logo in the center, still in use today. The front fenders also sported chrome “VentiPorts,” not seen since 1957. Electra and Electra 225 models received four “VentiPorts” to further distinguish them from lesser Buicks like the LeSabre and Invicta, which only had three. They also had wider rocker panel moldings and an Electra script on the front fenders, while this was replaced with Electra 225 on those models, with a circled Electra 225 badge on the trunk lid. 

A revised instrument panel graced the new interior with an innovative “Mirrormatic” feature that reflected the speedometer, odometer and warning indicators from an adjustable tilt mirror inside the dashboard for comfortable, glare-free viewing. A new two-spoke steering wheel had horn buttons, replacing the more common horn ring. Brisbane cloth interiors were found in closed-top models, while convertibles were still trimmed in leather. The convertible’s bucket-seat option was now available in coupes and featured a center consolette with a storage compartment. Electra 225s also featured a glare-proof rear-view mirror, a parking brake signal light, a map light and a safety buzzer.

Second Generation 1961-1964

The entire Buick line was re-designed for 1961 with shrunken fins, and the Electra grew rounded front fenders that protruded in front of the grill. A new compact model, the Skylark and its upper-level trim the Special, was added to the Buick lineup this year. Electras featured bright rocker panel and wheel arch moldings as well as four VentiPorts, while 225s had four hash marks on the lower fenders behind the front wheels. Electras sported power fabric seats and trim while 225s were trimmed in Calais cloth or optional leather, convertibles made do with vinyl. An optional Custom leather interior was made available for the 225, or one with vinyl, contrasting vertical stripes and 2-way power front bucket seats with center storage console. The Electra and Electra 225 were also now the same length.

New standard equipment included the new 401 cubic inch Nailhead V8 producing 325 HP, and since luxury car buyers did not want to shift their own gears by the 1960s the engine was mated to a two-speed Dynaflow automatic transmission, or a new Turbine-Drive automatic as an option. Standard features included the “Mirrormatic” instrument panel, directional signals, parking lights, turn signal lights, courtesy lights a full-flow oil filter, Deluxe steering wheel, dual armrests, custom padded seat cushions and gold accents on the Super Deluxe wheel covers.

For 1962 Buick discontinued the base Electra model and only sold the 225 and Riviera trims. A rakish sculptured re-style saw the outboard headlights flared into the front fender protrusions and a more prominent beltline ridge with chrome strip. 225 hardtop coupes and sedans sported a new convertible-inspired semi-formal roofline, while the Riviera hardtop sedan continued to use the pillarless six-window configuration. 225 models also had four hashmarks on the rear fenders with “Electra 225” spelled out above. Interiors were of fine cloth except for the convertible, which offered leather. Added to the list of standard features was a safety group and an accessory group.

1963 saw another re-style back when new car buyers, especially luxury car buyers, expected a refresh every year or so. Distinctive rear fenders with a sharp vertical edge and narrow back-up lights were reminiscent of Cadillac, except the taillights were horizontal and placed into the rear deck lid. The front sported a new cast grill, and the wheels and lower body moldings were chromed. The rear fenders were ribbed with red-filled Electra 225 badges. A cloth and vinyl combination graced the standard interior, while the Custom interior had vinyl and leather with power front bucket seats and a center storage console. Cruise control and a 7-way tilt steering wheel were new options. Buick dropped the Riviera name from the Electra lineup, shifting it to their new personal luxury coupe.

A major re-style for 1964 foreshadowed Buicks to come, with straight-cut rear fenders with vertical taillamps and fender skirts, making it more reminiscent of big brother Cadillacs. A protruding nose and die-cast grill were more like those found on Pontiacs. Vinyl and brocade cloth interiors were found on closed models, while leather again graced convertible interiors. A new 425 cubic inch V8 was introduced, rated at 340 HP with one four-barrel carb or 360 HP with two four-barrels in addition to the Nailhead 401, and the standard two-speed Dynaflow automatic was replaced with a new 3-speed Turbo-Hydromatic 400.

Third Generation 1965-1970

The entire GM lineup received a major redesign in 1965 dominated by flowing “Coke-bottle” lines and fastback roof profiles on coupes. Some of that made it into the Electra, but more subtly than GM’s sportier offerings. In the redesign, the six-window body style was eliminated, changing the look of most Buicks. A new body style, the thin-pillar 4-door sedan featuring frameless window glass with a thin chrome fixed B pillar was also offered. A new chassis with a full perimeter frame was developed, replacing the previous X-frame chassis.

Buick’s marketing strategy also changed, and the Electra 225 was now offered in two trim styles, base and Custom. Engine offerings were the same as the previous generation, with the Nailhead 401 and both versions of the 425 still available and the three speed Super Turbine 400 transmission standard for each.

Minor styling changes for 1966 included a new grill and a full-width taillight and trunk lid that sported an “Electra 225” script rather than just “Buick.” Inside, a revised instrument panel featured a new fuel gauge, new warning lights and a horizontal sweep speedometer, and front seat headrests became an option. Engine offerings remained the same except for the dual four-barrel 425, which became a dealer-installed option instead of a factory one.

1967 saw a moderate facelift, replacing the full-width grill for a Pontiac/Oldsmobile-like split design with a body-colored metal panel adorned with the Buick “Trishield” logo in the center, a more pronounced nose protrusion and more of an egg-crate grill. Base and Custom models remained, but a new “Limited” option package included ultra-luxurious interior trim. The “Limited” name was revived from Buick’s late-‘30s ultra-luxury flagship model, and also one from 1958. Power front disc brakes were optional as well as an 8-track player. The Nailhead 401 and 425 V8s disappeared, replaced by a new 430 cubic inch model rated at 360 HP.

Concealed windshield wipers made their way into Buick’s flagship in 1968, along with a slightly revised grill and taillights. A square speedometer replaced the previous horizontal-sweep design and a new steering wheel greeted the driver. New shoulder seatbelts were standard for driver and front-seat passenger. Base and Custom models remained, but the Limited option was only available on the Custom hard-top sedan.

1969 was a major restyle year for GM B and C-body cars, and the result was crisper lines for the top Buick with brightwork running from the front of the wheel arch and curving back diagonally down to the taillights. The protruding nose was much shrunken from the ‘67 and ‘68, with the Trishield logo mounted on a chrome piece splitting the grill. The chassis and inner body structure remained the same except for a one-inch increase in wheelbase. On the interior, front headrests were now standard due to a Federal safety mandate. The ignition switch moved to the steering column, and the steering wheel also locked when the big Buick’s transmission was in Park, a year ahead of the Federal mandate. Vent windows also disappeared as factory air conditioning became more commonplace. The Limited trim package was now available on Custom sedans and coupes, and offered a split 60/40 bench front seat with a center armrest. Standard on all models was a new variable-ratio power steering system and a revised front suspension called “Accu-Drive,” and Bendix four-piston disc brakes were optional as was a dual exhaust.

A revised grill and taillights marked the 1970 model, but a new 370 HP 455 cubic inch V8 now lurked under the hood, replacing the old 430. This was the final year of the Electra convertible, finned brake drums and high-compression engines. The radio antenna was now concealed in the windshield like other GM models. A new Estate Wagon, the first since 1964, shared the 455 engine and four VentiPorts, but was based on the shorter-wheelbase B-body LeSabre and Wildcat.

Fourth Generation 1971-1976

GM re-styled the B and C-body cars again for 1971, with full-sized cars becoming larger and heavier than before and interior room unmatched by any previous car. Curving body-sides, longer hoods and massive expanses of glass marked the new styling. The convertible was gone, as was the four-door pillared sedan. The new front end looked more Oldsmobile-like than Buick. A double-shell roof helped to meet new rollover regulations and provided a quieter interior as well. A new wrap-around, cockpit-style instrument panel grouped all the instruments and controls within easy reach of the driver and was shared with the B-body LeSabre and new Centurion models.

The 455 cubic inch V8 remained, but at an 8.5:1 compression ratio instead of the previous 10.25:1 as the result of a GM corporate mandate that all engines run on 91 octane leaded, low lead or unleaded gas. The result was that the HP of the massive 455 dropped from 370 to 315. Power front disc brakes were now standard along with the variable-ratio power steering and 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic transmission. A new power ventilation system that used the heater fan to draw air from the cowl vents into the interior to be exhausted through trunk or tailgate vents wasn’t well received, as the system drew cold air into the car before the heater could warm up, and it couldn’t be disabled. The system was revised for 1972 to alleviate the problem. The Estate Wagon was now based on the full-sized C-body like regular Electras and shared the Electra interior.

A new egg-crate grill differentiated the 1972 models, and the power ventilation system was revised and featured doorjamb vents instead of the trunk-mounted vents. The 455 V8’s output was now measured in net HP instead of gross as was all new cars, taking into account the drive train and dropping the HP rating to 250, but it was still making 315 HP measured at the crankshaft. Three trim levels were available, Electra 225, 225 Custom, and 225 Custom Limited.

1973 again saw a revised grill and taillights, along with a new federally mandated 5 MPH bumper. A new EGR valve was installed to meet more stringent emissions standards, and had been implemented on California cars the previous year.

Following the emerging “Badge Engineering” trend of only revising the front and rear from year to year, 1974 saw a new grill and taillights. The rear bumper also got the 5 MPH crash treatment to match the front because of Federal mandates. The Limited, previously a trim option, gained full model status and featured standard power windows and driver’s seat as well as optional leather upholstery (the first leather option since the 1963 Riviera) and a digital clock. If one did not opt for leather, it shared velour seats and door panels with the Oldsmobile 98 Regency and a new “Landau” option included the then-popular rear opera windows and rear-quarter vinyl roof. This was the last year for the pillarless hardtop coupe. The wrap-around instrument panel was heavily revised and offered an exclusive steering wheel design as well as an optional, but seldom ordered, driver’s-side airbag. A new “low fuel” light alerted drivers when the tank was down to four gallons, the previous bias-ply tires were replaced with radials, and a crude version of traction control called Max Trac was also an option. The 455 engine’s HP dropped to 230 with the addition of new emissions-control devices due to revised Federal mandates, unless buyers opted for the one-year-only Stage 1 455 with dual exhausts and 245 HP.

1975’s changes were more extensive, following changes on other GM C-bodies. All coupes now had fixed rear side windows and center posts. A revised full-width egg-crate grill now wrapped under the new rectangular headlights that all GM cars sported that year, allowing engineers to lower the front end to lessen wind resistance. Since there was no longer any sheet metal splitting the grill, the Trishield logo moved from there to a hood ornament. The hood also no longer went all the way to the grill, but stopped some inches short. The 1975 Electra was also the longest Buick ever built at 233.4 inches; over 19 feet.

The base Electra’s trim and appointments were upgraded to the same level as the previous year’s Custom, and a new, more upscale Park Avenue trim was situated above the Limited. Park Avenue’s interior featured velour, pillow-topped seats, a velour headliner, thicker carpet and an upscale door panel design. The Park Avenue Deluxe trim was even more luxurious, with every option available on the Electra including a posi-traction rear end, 15-inch Rallye wheels and rear automatic leveling. Power windows and driver’s seats were now standard on all Electra models along with revised door panels. A new, flat instrument panel replaced the wrap-around one of previous models and the horizontal sweep speedometer returned as a result, with top indicated speed lowered from 120 MPH to 100 and KPH (kilometers per hour) markings added as the United States was supposed to be transitioning to the metric system. A catalytic converter was added to the exhaust system to meet new emissions requirements, but it also increased maintenance intervals and improved fuel economy, important in a post-Arab Oil Embargo scenario of rising gasoline prices. However, this spelled the end of dual exhaust systems and the use of leaded gasoline, which could foul the converter. Rear-axle ratios were also lowered in the name of fuel economy and ever-stricter Federal emissions standards, and the resultant power-robbing smog control devices under the hood caused the HP rating of the 455 engine to fall to 205 HP. Another fuel economy measure was the introduction of a more reliable and efficient electronic ignition system that replaced the old points and condenser under the distributor cap.

Electra got a new plastic grill with vertical bars in 1976, replacing the cast egg-crate ones of the past. It did not extend below the headlights and the turn signals and running lights were moved there instead. Trim levels remained the same; 225, Limited and the more luxurious Park Avenue. Seats were now a notch-back diamond pattern and the parking brake release shifted to black instead of chrome. There was no cold air intake on the air cleaner housing and the carburetor and camshaft were changed to meet ever more stringent EPA standards. The rear axle ratio was changed as well. The Park Avenue Deluxe trim was dropped after poor sales in the previous year, totaling only 37 cars. The 455 V8 was still rated at 205 HP, but even in this weakened state it still managed to produce 345 ft. lb. of torque. Some Electras were built with 165 HP 350 V8s from other makes due to the GM strike which halted production of the standard 455, and owners of these cars were given a price rebate.

To commemorate the nation’s Bicentennial, color names were modified to mark the occasion; Judicial Black, Liberty White, Pewter Gray, Potomac Blue, Continental Blue, Concord Green, Constitution Green, Mount Vernon Cream, Buckskin Tan, Musket Brown, Boston Red and Independence Red. There were also four specialty colors; Congressional Cream, Revere Red, Colonial Yellow and Firecracker Orange.

Fifth Generation 1977-1984

GM downsized its full-sized C-body cars for 1977, and the Electra shed 800 lbs. of weight and 11 inches. Buick also ended production of the hardtop body style, leaving only two-door and four-door pillared sedans. This generation was offered in standard, Electra 225 (even though the length was now 222 inches) and Electra Limited trims. The upscale Park Avenue option was limited to two-door models, but the full-length center console was gone, never to return in a rear-wheel-drive Electra. The Estate Wagon rode not on the Electra chassis, but on the smaller B-body LeSabre with the front end from the Electra.

Since the lighter body and chassis needed less oomph to get around, the 455 V8 was gone for good and replaced with a 4-barrel carb equipped, 155 HP Buick 350 V8. Customers who wanted a little more under the hood could opt for the 185 HP Oldsmobile 403 V8. The downsizing proved to be a sales boon for Buick, selling 161,627 new Electras in 1977.

In 1978 there were minor revisions such as an updated grill and tail lamps and Park Avenue was promoted from an option package to a full trim level. 1979 saw another revision to the front fascia for a flatter look and the Buick emblem was added to the taillights.

GM’s B and C-bodies had a mid-cycle update in 1980, with Electra receiving a slightly lower hoodline and sloped headlight housings to improve aerodynamics in the wake of the second Energy Crisis of the prior decade. The grill was also revamped to a vertically-slatted design. Also in response to the Energy Crisis, the standard V8 was dropped in favor of a new 125 HP Buick 4.1 liter V6 to improve fuel economy. As before, customers wanting a V8 could choose between the Buick 350 putting out 155 HP or a 140 HP Oldsmobile 307. Unfortunately, the much-maligned and trouble-prone Oldsmobile 350 diesel was also an option, making 5 less HP than the V6. Buick also dropped the 225 designation for its upscale Electras in favor of the Park Avenue name.

From 1981 until the end of this generation Electra received few updates. One of the more notable changes was the deletion of the VentiPorts that had defined Buicks for over two decades, except on the Park Avenue trim.

Sixth Generation 1985-1990

GM downsized Electra again for 1985 using their new C-platform front-wheel-drive, transverse-engine design shared with the Oldsmobile 98 and Cadillac Deville, their first attempt at a full-sized car configured this way. This was nearly identical to GM’s H-platform, used by the Buick LeSabre, Oldsmobile 88 and Pontiac Bonneville. For the sake of weight savings and fuel economy they abandoned body-on-frame construction for a unibody chassis, with the result being two feet shorter, narrower, and 604 lbs. lighter than the previous generation while only losing one cubic foot of interior space to its predecessor. The floor was also flatter without the need for a transmission hump. Despite this, Popular Science magazine noted that the cars felt smaller inside, with thinner front seats and the side glass and windshield being closer to passengers than before.

Three trim levels were available; Electra (300, 380 or 430, corresponding to engine displacement), the more upscale Park Avenue, and the new, more sporty T-Type. New standard features included a Dynaride four-wheel independent suspension, 14” steel wheels with covers, power windows, A/C, an electronic fuel door release and rack & pinion steering. The Park Avenue added coach lamps, cruise control, an acoustics package and electric door locks and trunk release, while the new T-Type included the 3.8 liter engine, a firmer suspension (marketed as Grand Touring), a ceiling console, quartz analog gauge cluster, 45/45 bucket seats with a floor console, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, passenger assist straps, re-calibrated steering, and 15” alloy wheels with black-wall all-season radial tires. Options for all trim levels included powered driver and passenger seats, a two-position memory driver’s seat, either analog or electronic gauge clusters, 14” alloy wheels, a button-operated keyless entry pad, electronic climate control and electronic rear load-leveling suspension with air-pressurized Chapman struts.

A waterfall grill replaced the vertical slats and a front-hinged hood that slid forward on opening differentiated Electra from its C-platform Oldsmobile and Cadillac siblings. This hood proved troublesome due to the fact that if owners did not keep two hands on the hood to close it, the thinner metal could wrinkle. A drop-in license plate holder and tilt-up taillight assemblies made things more accessible in the rear.

The new engine layout necessitated a transaxle rather than a transmission and new engines; either a 100 HP Buick 3-liter V6, a 125 HP Buick 3.8 liter V6 or an 85 HP Oldsmobile 4.3 liter diesel V6 with 165 ft. lb. of torque, all with multi-port fuel injection and a mass airflow sensor. A four-speed automatic with overdrive filled the transaxle duty.

1986 saw the spare tire and wheel moved from its upright position in the forward trunk bulkhead to under the load floor for more cargo room, and the new Federally-mandated Center High Mount Stop Lamp made an appearance. New options included anti-lock brakes, electronic digital instrumentation and cell phone pre-wiring. Park Avenue gained a standard retractable clothes hanger. The 3-liter and 4.3 liter engines were dropped, leaving the 3.8 liter V6 as the only engine option, now producing 150 HP.

Flush composite headlights replaced exposed sealed-beam ones for 1987, with fixed glass and replaceable bulbs, with the ‘85-‘86 Electra four-headlight configuration reduced to two as a result. The outside mirrors were revised, and an Electra Limited trim replaced the number nomenclature by engine size on the base model.

1988 saw the two-door bodystyle eliminated, and a re-designed 165 HP 3800 V6 replaced the 3.8 liter, becoming GM’s flagship engine. The 3800 featured a balance shaft to to reduce vibration among other improvements. Front seat belts were door-mounted in 1989, and a key-fob keyless entry system replaced the number pad. Buick also introduced the Park Avenue Ultra trim, with silver lower body cladding, silver B-pillar overlays, unique 15-inch wheels, trim-specific grill and C-pillar badges, a vinyl roof with “frenched” stitching and a limousine-style rear window, leather trim on the steering wheel, seats, door panels, rear pull straps, front and center armrests and glove compartment door and dark burled wood trim. It also boasted 14 acoustic enhancements for a quieter ride, tinted glass, smoked taillights, a silver accent body stripe and a split front bench seat with split frame design and dual 20-way power adjustment, designed by famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. This seat was shared with Cadillac and installed in their Fleetwood Sixty Special. Other features included a power moonroof, automatic climate control, cornering lamps and GM’s Twilight Sentinel system that sensed changes in ambient light and turns exterior lights on and off accordingly, as well as a timer to keep the headlights on for up to three minutes after the key is removed. 4,815 Ultras were produced for 1989.

1990 saw the introduction of a standard Delco radio with cassette and a rear window defogger. The secondary seals on the doors were also revised to reduce wind noise. The Electra name would be dropped from the Buick lineup after this year, with the last Electra rolling off the assembly line on August 3, 1990. In 1991, Park Avenue would cease to be an Electra trim level and became a model in its own right as it had been previously, replacing Electra as the top-level Buick.

The Electra name is being revived for a new Buick electric vehicle starting in the 2024 model year.

I have a more personal connection to this car. My Mom drove a 1964 Electra 225 when I was growing up, and then a 1970 Wildcat. Both were excellent, with floaty suspensions typical of GM’s full-sized luxury cars that cushioned us from road irregularities, and had monster high HP and torque, low-revving V8s that provided effortless power. I remember many road trips to old-school Florida roadside attractions in those Buicks. Sadly I never got to drive either one, as she sold the Wildcat before we went to West Germany and before I got my driver’s license. I did get a taste of the GM luxury car experience once we got back, as Mom refused to drive the comparatively tiny Fiat 124 Sport that my Dad brought back from over there, which eventually became mine. She said it was because the Fiat was a stick-shift, but she learned to drive in the mid-1930s well before automatic transmissions became commonplace. I think it was because she didn’t trust any car that didn’t have 5 or 6 feet of hood ahead of her in a crash, like her Buicks and the 1972 Oldsmobile 98 Dad bought her after we came back to the States. The Olds was admittedly a step down in status from her Buicks, but was a full-sized ’70s luxobarge nonetheless with a 455 V8 engine that was powerful enough to get me into trouble the few times I drove it, just as my brother got into trouble before me in her Buicks. I truly miss all three cars, whenever I see one it brings back fond memories of my Mom & the trips we took. ✪

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