Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where I make myself late for things to stop and admire one of the many fascinating, Jalop-worthy cars parked right on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Between the terrible road conditions, dense street grid, abundance of pedestrians and maniacal cabbies, New York is not a friendly environment for cars. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when you come upon something unique and unusual braving the conditions, and such is the case with this 1993 Buick Park Avenue.
What’s that you say? A first-gen Park Avenue is neither unique nor unusual? Well, maybe not if you live somewhere in the South, where there are a lot of church parking lots. But for those of us in the liberal, salt-addled northeast, and especially in the city that gave the finest incarnation of the FWD C-Body its goddamn name, these are getting rarer as the 1990s fade further into the rear view mirror. Get it, because time is a car. Driving on a flat circle. Which in this case is more than just a True Detective reference, as the Park Avenue nameplate does indeed ride again in China.
But I digress! We are gathered here today to pay tribute to the O.G. Park Avenue, the one that hit the streets right after we beat the Communists and right before we beat Saddam, sandwiched in that special time where America was pleasantly fat and bloated from the excesses of the decade prior but not yet wishing it might have done a little less blow, otherwise known as 1990.
There are a lot of things I miss about domestic cars from this period – bench seats, an ashtray for every seat, horizontal speedometers – but chief among them are the metonymic names that automakers used to move lackluster products like the Chrysler New Yorker Fifth Avenue or Dodge Dynasty. Words and phrases (Corinthian Leather!) that sounded opulent or prestigious or luxurious were just the thing to reinforce the consumer’s belief that they had purchased a fine luxury automobile. It feels almost quaint in this current age of alphabet soup, until you remember that the practice endures in components like GM’s MagneRide suspension system, whose name partly relies on the common man’s belief that anything involving magnets is fancy and possibly magic.
Even though the two examples I used above were shitty K-Cars, the Park Avenue name was born of similar circumstances, introduced as the top trim level for the Buick Electra in the mid-1970s. There it languished as a stand-in for THIS IS THE NICEST CAR WE SELL for over a decade as the Electra was downsized into irrelevance. Sad stuff, those late 80s Electras. Not even a front-hinged hood could make them cool, though this diagram might.
But even before the Electra took its final, COPD-strangled breath, Buick was busy figuring out a way to keep the Park Avenue nameplate alive. Witness the Buick Park Avenue Essence concept car, introduced in 1989 as a showcase for the design trends the company planned to embrace in the years ahead. The cosmetic similarities to that decade’s Park Avenue, Le Sabre and Riviera are immediately apparent – the fascia, the rounded edges, the C-pillar and trunk line – but true to its name, the Essence nailed down the, well, essence of what Buick sedans would become in a few short years. I’ll let my man Edward H. Mertz, Buick General Manager (in 1989), sell you on it:
“Essence is a fine example of Buick’s future direction of providing premium American motorcars that are distinctive, substantial, powerful and mature. We use substantial not necessarily to mean size, but substantial in content, character and feel. Distinctive means you will not easily mistake a Buick for another car, even from a block away. By powerful, we’re not talking about neck-snapping, tire-smoking power, but the sort of smooth, reassuring power and response for which Buick automobiles have always been known. And we see mature as a word that does not mean old, but which describes cars that are fully developed, enduring and not faddish in any way – cars that are in for the long haul.”
He ain’t wrong! Of course, the puff piece also points out the “orthopedically designed seats” and extra-wide door openings “for ease of entry and exit,” so they weren’t exactly banking on a rush of non-geriatric customers. You may also notice that it ran in the Boca Raton News. Nevertheless, a year later the first standalone Park Avenue hit the streets looking an awful lot like that Essence concept - not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I don’t mean that like how my friend’s mom does when she throws it in after mentioning a person’s sexuality in conversation. It’s a genuinely handsome sedan.
Let’s start at the front. When the Park Avenue debuted in 1990, it was such a clean departure from the homely designs of the 80s that more than one contemporary critic felt compelled to compare its body lines to the Jaguars of the day . This seems strained now, of course, but that’s called perspective, asshole. Imagine going on Buick junkets for a decade and seeing shit like the Century and Somerset, only to watch the curtain go up on a pair of timeless headlights and a graceful return to the dollar grin of the late 1940s. You’d be prone to hyperbole, too.
Traveling down the side, the straight-lined design has aged surprisingly well thanks in large part to its low beltline and airy cabin. Quarter glass front AND back – now that’s luxury. The wide C-Pillar slopes purposefully down toward the trunk at just enough of an angle to provide the definition that’s sorely missing from most modern sedans. It’s definitely a more successful interpretation of the Essence concept than its fraternal twin – the LeSabre – rounded out with some surprisingly OK full-width taillights. It’s worth pointing out that once again the European market was given a more attractive version, complete with amber indicators and rear fog lights.
As for what’s inside? It’s literally a pair of couches sitting behind a kitchen counter, and I fucking love it. Those ribbed leather seats are outrageously cushy, there are buttons aplenty, and the lack of a center console makes for an incredibly spacious front lounge area. Whatever your opinion, it’s a fairly iconic interior at this point, a twilight testament to midcentury American automotive design. If you can get past the standard clouds of menthol smoke, it’s on the short list for cross country road trip vehicles for sure.
Under the hood lies the venerable Series I 3800 V6, which is basically indestructible with regular maintenance, and sometimes you don’t even need to do that. It only put out 170 horsepower, although the Ultra trim featured a supercharger that boosted power to 225 by 1995. These are excellent sleepers, although unless I’m mistaken there was no suspension upgrade, so you’ll be doing a lot of wallowing. I personally love body roll, but it’s not for everybody (losers).
I’m gonna tell you right now, I’m not sure about the year. The first-gen Park Avenue ran mostly unchanged until 1997, but if I had to guess, I’d say 1993 since the nameplates on the side are on the back fender rather than the front door. The second generation, which some of you may recognize as the car from the computer version of the LIFE board game, had portholes for some reason. The Park Avenue soldiered on into the Bush years as more and more potential customers kept dying off, until Buick decided to ditch the stodgy name in 2005 and replace it with the Lucerne, a car that I wouldn’t recognize if it hit me but also had portholes. God, those pre-recession years. Shit was getting stale in the American automotive industry, you know? Just a sort of intellectual stagnation that permeated every facet of a GM car, from the decade-old gauge clusters to the bland, derivative design. And don’t get me started on those fucking portholes.
So, let us remember the Park Avenue not as a washed-up shell of itself, dying an ignoble death in listless times, but as the stately sedan it once was. This is your grandfather’s Buick, but the last one to carry that reputation with pride rather than pejoration. If you’re of a certain age, say, 25 to 40, its launch in the early nineties may have aligned with your grandfather’s own golden age, creating an indelible connection between the life cycles of man and machine; seeing a clean one can set off powerful waves of nostalgia.
Along with the Roadmaster and the bubble Caprice, the first-gen Park Avenue formed a triumvirate of nineties normality, reaching up and grasping the platonic ideal of an American sedan. A front, a back, and an honest, comfortable place to sit in between – what else do you need? This is not rocket science, and for a time the titans seemed to grasp that. May that time come again.