All good things must come to an end, for better or for worse. Summer must end and turn to fall, the young must grow old, the lovely springtime flowers must wilt. In the automotive world, the heady postwar days of the 50s and 60s found their logical conclusion in the early 1970s, when government standards, fuel crises, and changing public taste saw the massive wheeled barges known as full-size sedans fall out of fashion. The 1971-1976 GM cars, including this 1973 Buick LeSabre seen here, ultimately became the final expression of the full size American sedan as envisioned by the auto execs in the unregulated days of the 60s.
During those golden postwar years, the design mantra of the day was longer, lower, and wider. As the decade progressed, big cars got bigger in every dimension. It became inevitable that a tipping point would soon be reached, and the 1971-1976 big GM cars can be seen as the ultimate expression of this. Coming close to 20 feet long and hitting almost 5000 pounds on the scales, these cars were behemoths in every sense of the word. Their powertrains were just as big: the base engines across all divisions were no smaller than 350 cubic inches, and Buick, Olds, and Pontiac all had 455 cubic inch motors on hand if 350 Ib/ft of torque from the 350 was not enough. Cadillac, not one to be outdone, offered up a massive 500 ci engine that in its original 1970 high compression form sent to the driven wheels an astounding 550 Ib/ft of torque and 400 hp.
However, the opportunity to get drunk on all this power and size did not last long. The hangover was coming – and it was a painful one. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government began putting in place rules and regulations for emissions compliance, demanding that Detroit build cleaner cars that polluted less. Before this, automakers were unencumbered by government regulation: no safety standards, no crash testing, no EPA. What they built was hindered only by imagination and a R&D budget. But environmental concerns, along with safety concerns, led to Uncle Sam laying down demands for curbing pollution and increasing safety. What this meant was that the Big 3’s land yachts could no longer burn leaded gas and breathe freely through largely unrestricted exhausts. Technologies such as evaporative canisters, catalytic converters, A.I.R systems, and other emissions equipment was now required, all of which sapped power and performance considerably. Carmakers also had to temper their engines by lowering compression ratios and gear ratios, and refrain from big carburetors and aggressive camshafts. All of this resulted in neutered and lackluster performance compared to cars built prior to these regulations.
For buyers of LeSabres and cars of similar ilk, the decreased performance would have been disappointing as they traded in their high compression Electras and Wildcats. They would’ve been further disappointed by the dearth of quality found within these rolling living rooms. Unlike cars of just three or five years earlier, quality metal and chrome had disappeared from the interiors, replaced instead with cheap feeling and sad looking plastics that had a propensity of discoloring and fading. The tactile feel of the controls and the switches no longer offered the heft or substance of the earlier cars. Simply shutting a door on a 1971 Buick versus a 1970 Buick would lend an audible confirmation to the decline in quality as bean counters began to overrule the engineers. It was the first time the GM Mark of Excellence was showing signs of tarnishing.
The choked engines and poorer build quality were still in their infancy in 1973, with the worst yet to come. Buick could still boast of a reputation that called to mind country clubs, valet parking, and people of class and distinction. Buick had always played second fiddle to Cadillac within the corporate ladder of GM brands, but the brand held strong appeal for the wealthy traditionalist for whom a Cadillac was far too ostentatious. When this black LeSabre coupe rolled off the assembly line, complete with whitewalls and a simulated cloth top, it would’ve whisked its proud first owners to and fro in smart and tasteful early 1970s style.
Seeing this beat Buick today, replete with a tatterdemalion top and interior, reminds of where the brand found itself in during those hazy days of disco and bell bottoms. It was years away from the AARP image it found itself burdened with, and it still had autonomy within GM. People still bought Buicks because of their style, quality, and distinct powertrains, not because their local dealer offered them a better deal than the guys shilling Oldsmobiles across the street. This Buick, and all the 1971-1976 GM cars, were the final iteration of the great American full size sedan in its true form. It was the last of the unabashedly large cars and the last hurrah of the longer, lower, and wider design ethos that served as Detroit’s guiding light. When the sun set on these cars in fall of 1976, it marked the end of Big 3 dominance and the end of a time when a full size car was de rigueur for the Joe Everymans and John Does of the USA.
While the LeSabre patiently waits for its date with the crusher, it poignantly reminds of the finality of life. Everything has its time in the sun, and everything must pass on. It is as cyclical and predictable as the seasons themselves. But before this LeSabre succumbs to its fate, it offers in its junkyard repose an opportunity to hark back to the days when GM was king, and the good times had yet to fall into the rearview mirror of life.