The cars we loved.
The mid 1970’s is widely regarded as a low point for American performance cars. Power had been slipping away as new regulations were squeezing the life out of the muscle car movement. Few true performance cars were left by the mid 70’s as decals replaced power. The Corvette, Mustang and Camaro all took power hits, while the Pontiac Trans-Am somehow held on defiantly. Detroit scrambled to keep up (EPA requirements) with what was going down (weight and horsepower). Buicks answer to this dilemma was to dust off V6 engine designs that could trace their beginnings to early 60’s AMC. New technology would enhance output thanks to a boost from turbocharging. This approach had benefits that were twofold: more power for bragging rights and better fuel economy for the growing legions of tree huggers. Eventually the top sporty Buick coupes would move from the Century to the more upscale Regal, but as the base intermediate in Buick’s line, the Century was a great place to start.
The Century was Buick’s versatile line of coupes, sedans and station wagons. As a GM A-body coupe, it had mild sporting pretensions as a, but got a serious image boost when it was chosen to pace the Indianapolis 500 in 1975. The model Buick provided was unlike any showroom bound car. It sported a beefed up 455-cubic V8, a dual exhaust and heavy-duty suspension. So impressed were the Indy people, that Buick was chosen again to pace the race in 1976.
This time the A-body cars got a facelift with a more modern quad headlamp design and a more angular look as opposed to the 73-76’ models. Under the hood there were changes too. Buick ran a technically bold one-off turbocharged V6. At almost half the size of last year’s V8, the turbo engine made a very impressive 306hp! Extensive engineering was done to make the pace car capable to keep pace speeds well over 100 mph on a hot track without overheating. The excitement caused by the decal laden pace car would find it’s way (in diluted form of course) to the showroom the following fall.
There were three engine options for the 76’ pace car replica. Three engine choices were available. The first two were an optional 350-cubic inch V8 with two or four-barrel carburetor configurations. Power ratings were 145 or 165 respectively. Sadly the standard engine, a V6 (which was the basis for the actual pace car) was not turbocharged and could muster as much power as a typical subcompact today at 110hp. Transmission options were even more restrictive, with a three-speed automatic being standard in the V8’s. There was a rarely chosen optional 4 speed manual for all engines. The new V6 did offer improved gas mileage over the V8’s and had become a popular choice.
Handling was improved thanks to the available Rallye suspension and a positive-traction differential. The interior did not deviate much from the standard Century, down to the simple gauge cluster. The replica did have a neat center console based shifter that resembled aircraft throttle levers. To most buyers, all these enhancements were probably secondary to the outward appearance of the replica. Where the 75 pace car replica design was all about the patriotic colors of red white and blue, the 76’ model oddly enough used a different color scheme. The actual cars pacing the race featured a slightly different design from the replicas. The replicas had eagles on the doors with graphic bar trailing them, while the actual pace car featured a full side graphic bar starting from the front of the car. All replicas came in silver only with bold contrasting red and black graphics using Buick’s “Free Sprit” theme. The theme featuring the eagle would become a standard graphic motif on sportier Buicks for much of the 70’s and early 80’s.
In picking up the red/orange in the graphics, the pace car replica featured 15’ painted red wheels with steel belted Goodyear performance tires. With a black out rear and brushed aluminum bar behind the Hurst T-bar roof, this Buick was as flashy as any Pontiac, but still had some of the restraint that Buick was known for. It may have been the sportiest variation of GM’s A-body “Colonnade” design until the Pontiac Can Am came along in 1977. Less than 2,000 of the 76’ pace car replicas were made. It’s anyone’s guess how many have survived today. As Buicks go, the 76’ Century pace car replica may not be all that special performance wise, but it represents Buicks eventual use of turbocharging for better fuel economy and later for legendary performance in cars like the Regal Grand National and GNX.