Monday, June 25, 2012

How to make money buying, driving old cars: Lessons from the bus that ate my Buick

The bus ate my Buick. It was raining on a Thursday just after 6 p.m. when I noticed my 1976 Buick Century Special parked sideways on a Birmingham, Alabama sidewalk. “What the heck happened?,” I thought. “I know that I didn’t park my car like that!” 
  Jammed under the driver’s side window felt, a police officer’s business card had the answer to my question. The smeared blue ink of the ‘incident report’ number had been scribbled out after a 20-ton city bus struck my Buick. The raindrops signaled the beginning of the end for my favorite $300 daily driver.

Why did they stop making great interior colors? The ’76 Buick’s cabin was bathed in a stunning red. 

Grandma-fresh Buick with 20,000 miles 
  This, then 30-year-old, Buick spent its entire life in my hometown. Short trips to the beauty shop, post office and grocery store were responsible for the paltry 20,000 miles on the odometer. The Buick’s stunning red interior was in near-perfect condition. I bought it and gave the 105hp, 231-cubic inch, Buick V6 a tune-up and a new exhaust system to add some pep. New rubber and swap meet rims complimented the Bicentennial Buick. The little V6 would scoot the big car down the road at 21 mpg but it could not turn a tire to save its life. 

21,933 actual miles on the 1976 Buick Century.

Damage assessment 
  The damage to my car was minimal. GM’s bumper design worked well. The Buick’s left rear bumper shock was pushed in a few inches. The giant jolt that sent the Century onto the sidewalk left some minor quarter panel damage. The trunk opened and shut without trouble. Glass and plastic from the other vehicle littered the road, where the car I refer to as the “Gray Ghost” was parked. I tossed a large, unbroken, amber turn signal lens into the floorboard of my Buick before I drove off the curb and toward home. I had no idea the lens belonged to a bus that had to be towed from the scene of the wreck.

This is how the 1976 Buick looked after I bought it and drove it home. White walls and wheel covers!

The bus didn’t do it 

  The city transit bus that hit my Buick was not at fault according to the city. I found this out the following day when I contacted the police officer and picked up the “incident report.” The bus swerved to miss a van that ran a red light. The bus was an innocent victim of the red light runner despite striking my Buick. The driver of the van had insurance. “Yes!” The insurance company was located out of state. “Uh oh!”

The ’76 Buick Century Special became my daily driver after a tune-up, tires, rims and new exhaust were added.

Buick background
  I bought the ’76 Buick with the intention of flipping it for a quick profit but my NASCAR nostalgia kicked in and I decided to make it my daily driver. These were the first bodystyles that I remember as a NASCAR fan. I loved the triangular rear side windows that made the car look fast, sitting still. Big-bodied cars were a site to behold on the high banks of Talladega and Daytona. I was so stoked about my Buick Special “not rod” that I drove it through the Talladega infield on a race weekend and got tons of thumbs up everywhere I went. The fact that I snagged a running car for $300 was reason to celebrate, the Talladega seal of approval was a bonus. I loved that car.

"Special" became the base model Century offering in 1975 on the A-Body, Colonnade Buicks.

Insurance tussle 

  Six months of back-and-forth dealings with the out-of-state insurer was a huge headache but worth every minute. The average estimates to repair the Buick were $2700. The insurance company offered me $700, to total out my daily driver, but I refused. I fought hard and provided them with a documented mileage statement and photos of the overall condition of the car. They upped their offer slightly. Still no deal. Finally, six months after the bus hit my Buick, we agreed on a number and they sent me a fat check. To my surprise, it was enough money to buy a dependable daily driver. 
  I could live with the settlement but there was one condition. The car would be picked up by a salvage yard. No more 1976 Buick for me. The low-mile, dependable, 21 mpg, daily driver would be taken off the road and parted out. Yes, the bus ate my Buick but the insurance check cleared. Now I’m on the lookout for another Buick Century Special V6.

Old cars are money in the bank 

  Buying an old car with low miles is a much better deal than buying a new car. The costs of ownership are much cheaper, plus you have a car like no one else  on the road. You can’t buy that one-of-a-kind swagger at a new car dealership.  A new car loses up to half of its value in five years. If you buy an older car, you may see a return on your investment. Remember to keep it insured and have it appraised. If it gets wrecked, don’t give it up unless the price is right.

– Jody Potter,

Notice the lack of an optional passenger’s side mirror? “Special” meant base model Buick. Better fuel mileage too?

1976 Buick Colonnade model Production numbers 
Century Series
  2-door Colonnade coupe – 59,448
  4-door Colonnade sedan – 33,632
Century Custom
  2-door Colonnade coupe – 34,036
  4-door Colonnade sedan – 19,728
  Station wagon —————– 16,625
Regal Series
  2-door Colonnade coupe – 124,498
  4-door Colonnade sedan – 17,118
  2-door coupe —————–  20,082

I’m still digging to find “after” photos from the wreck.

Tailgaters beware of the 5 mph bumpers on these Colonnade A-bodies. They can put a whipping on a bus.

Know of a junkyard I need to visit or want to send me photos and info about a barn find, car or junkyard?  Send emails to


Anonymous said...

I acquired my 1980 Buick LeSabre Limited with 35,000 miles in 2004 or 2005 from my grandmother. The 4.1 (252ci) V6 starts out the same as your 231, then gets a larger bore, a 4-barrel (Quadrajet), and some of the upgraded heavy-duty components (like the crankshaft) from the 231 turbo...still only good for 125hp. I wish it was in as good cosmetic condition as yours. Mine came with dents, rotted plastic, a couple small surface rust spots, and rusted/faded Buick rally wheels, but nearly salvagable paint which I neglected so it's now horribly faded and beyond salvation.

I converted it to 5 speed manual mostly because I like driving stick and partly for fuel economy in daily driving (I get 25-29mpg). I may start using the term "not rod". ;) Besides being efficient, it's dependable, incredibly cheap to own/maintain/repair, extremely practical (the cavernous trunk would be a good place to park a smaller car), and more comfortable than anything else on the road.

I worry about that sort of thing happening to me, and I see that I was right. Insurance companies are going to want to total my car and offer me a paltry few hundred bucks for my pride and joy made of my blood, sweat and tears (got any other cliches I can squeeze in?). I may have less leverage than you due to the cosmetic condition of my car. Let's hope I never find out.

Junkyard Life said...

Wow! A low-mile, 5-speed Buick LeSabre. This may be the next big trend in "not rodding." A low-dough, gas saver with room to haul 5 passengers and their gear. Lets see somebody try to buy a running Honda Accord for $300. It's not gonna happen! Deals are out there on American wheels.

Insurance companies should be held accountable. Should your car be damaged beyond repair - you should receive enough money to cover a similar replacement, including the 5-speed conversion.

I hope my experience can help others say no to low ball offers from insurance companies. Good luck and don’t park near intersections.

Anonymous said...

Aliens ate my Buick, Man. Aliens....