Not a BMW, but a Buick | Low-Buck Tech

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By Guest Writer
Jul 27, 2021 | Buick, 24 Hours of Lemons, Low-Buck Tech | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Story by Eric Rood

Despite some outward appearances, the Semi-Sentient Centenarians’ Lemons car is not an E36-chassis BMW. We know, it’s tough to pry apart the classic Bavarian livery from the car, but this is actually a 1996 Buick Century–a 1996 Buick Century that regularly beats up on BMW teams. Now on its third owners–the first two ironed out some mechanical wrinkles–the Century was scored by the Centenarians for the irresistible price of “Please haul it away.”

Like the BMW, the Century has six cylinders, but they’re arranged in a not-quite-as-sonorous 3.1-liter V6 arrangement. Like the BMW, the Century has a transmission–a four-speed auto–that drives the front wheels. And like the BMW, the Century has an independent-ish rear suspension–if a twist-beam with a trackbar is independent enough for you.

We should also point out that the Century–built on General Motors’ revised A-body platform–remained almost entirely unchanged through its entire production run from 1982 to ’96. Combined with the, uh, general crudeness of Malaise Era automobile assembly, the Century stops a few yards short of being the Ultimate Driving Machine (which is why Lemons’ organizers love it, of course).

So how does it come to pass that last century’s Century has routinely beaten many actual BMWs? 

The biggest endurance racing upside is the knowledge that these A-body cars can still be found everywhere on the road (in unsafe-to-horrifying condition, but still running) a half-decade removed from any maintenance. Fit and finish may never have been great, but GM made these suckers to last. The Centenarians’ drivetrain has hardly skipped a beat over several Lemons races.

[Running the 24 Hours of Lemons with as little time and effort as possible]

Considering Buick designed these for comfort over performance–and that they have no performance aftermarket at all–improving handling was a challenge. However, the team lopped off a coil or two from the cushy springs. That lowered the car, which made the impressively insistent understeer and nautical brake dive at least manageable.

After winning the Lemons top prize, the Index of Effluency, with a strong showing in a 24-hour race, the team gave it a 400cc shot in the engine bay: A junkyard Buick Terraza minivan donated its 3.5-liter V6 from the same engine family, bumping power to 200ish horses at the crank. The result? The Century clocked a shockingly reasonable 2:55 lap at Sebring while finishing mid-pack and beating more BMWs–and even outpacing Doorknob, GRM’s latest low-buck Miata entry, by more than a second and a half.

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jdogg
jdogg Reader
7/27/21 5:15 p.m.

hahaha. this thing rules. my mom's old Impala had the 3500 in it and I wondered if they were related. i bet that would be an absolute riot with a Series II 3800 supercharged

P3PPY
P3PPY Dork
7/27/21 7:21 p.m.

Funny. Today I was on a Teams meeting with a lady who had an unbroken string of BMWs, including a Z3, but is entering retirement in a Buick. Can’t say I blame her, they’ve kinda picked up BMW’s styling mantle these days...

 

carry on

malibuguy
malibuguy GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
7/28/21 6:59 a.m.

bummerworld cracked me up

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
7/28/21 7:18 a.m.

Quite an impressive underdog. Looks like somebody took the saying "A GM car will run badly longer than most cars will run at all" and applied that to endurance racing.

I wonder if any Regal GS or Grand Prix GTP bits would help with handling?

JesseWolfe
JesseWolfe Reader
7/28/21 7:47 a.m.

Did A-Body cars ever have the option of a manual transmission with any of the flavors of V6?

wvumtnbkr
wvumtnbkr GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
7/28/21 8:26 a.m.
JesseWolfe said:

Did A-Body cars ever have the option of a manual transmission with any of the flavors of V6?

Not sure, but there are plenty of people swapping manual trans into fwd cars and fieros with the 3500.  So, it is 100% possible with factory parts (other than maybe axles or a trans mount).

90BuickCentury
90BuickCentury Reader
7/28/21 8:53 a.m.

In reply to JesseWolfe :

1984-88 Pontiac 6000's had a 5 speed Getrag 5T40 as an option with the 2.8L V6. Chevy Celebrity may have had that option as well. Very rare today since most have been crushed or rusted out by now.

pinchvalve (Forum Supporter)
pinchvalve (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
7/28/21 10:48 a.m.

I had an '85 Century with the 4-pot. I  lasted a week before the engine died. Then another week on a replacement motor before the transmission died. Then a week after that, the exhaust fell off, taking the rear bumper with it.  I abandoned it in front of the dealer's service entrance and threatened to sue until they gave me a refund.

P3PPY
P3PPY Dork
7/29/21 6:54 p.m.
pinchvalve (Forum Supporter) said:

I had an '85 Century with the 4-pot. I  lasted a week before the engine died. Then another week on a replacement motor before the transmission died. Then a week after that, the exhaust fell off, taking the rear bumper with it.  I abandoned it in front of the dealer's service entrance and threatened to sue until they gave me a refund.

You mean these were NEW?!?

ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter)
ShinnyGroove (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
7/29/21 6:57 p.m.

The car in my profile pic is a 98 LeSabre that we made into a Lemons car. We raced it once and didn't even get 30 laps before the engine siezed from oil starvation. We met someone else at rhe track with a 90's Buick, they were pretty cool.  They had another car's worth of spares in their trailer and seemed to always need them. 

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