Buick had a lot to gain, but also plenty to lose when it revealed a trio of new products in 1959 — the LeSabre, Invicta and Electra.
For years, General Motors’ normally conservative Buick division had maintained its traditional names, including the Special, Century, Roadmaster, Riviera and Limited. These were titles that become icons of success. They were the status-symbol cars of the day.
Each and every September and October throughout the 1950s, Buick, along with every other North American automaker, would trot out its offerings for the coming year. More often than not, the public was treated to a barrage of fresh models that instantly rendered the previous ones dated and obsolete.
The economic downturn of 1958, which saw both sales and profits in the auto manufacturing sector unexpectedly nosedive, led to much handwringing among executives at the Big Three automakers as the 1959 model year approached.
This was especially the case at Buick, as the division was preparing to unveil a completely new lineup of redesigned and rebranded cars. The traditional names — every one of them — had been discarded in favour of three new labels: the price-leading LeSabre, sporty Invicta and luxury-oriented Electra.
Would traditional Buick buyers accept the new model series? Would new and more youthful customers be attracted to the trio of unfamiliar names? Only time would tell.
The styling of the 1959 Buicks was a radical departure from the familiar. Gone were the slab-sided behemoths of 1958 that appeared weighted down by massive amounts of chrome trim (up to 20 kilograms worth on some models, not including the bumpers). In their place were cars sculpted with clean, crisply angled lines, “delta-wing” tail fins and only modest amounts of brightwork along the doors and fenders.
The one carryover from the previous year was the “Dynastar” studded grille that closely resembled dental braces. By Buick standards, the cars were daring in the extreme.
Body styles for the new Buicks ran the gamut, from two- and four-door coupes and hardtops, four-door wagons and two-door convertibles. The four-door hardtop was particularly striking with its panoramic wrap-around front and rear window glass that gave passengers an unobstructed 360-degree view and made maneuvering these giants in tight spaces a little easier.
Along with a completely revamped series, the 1959 Buicks offered one additional power option. The base 250-horsepower 364-cubic-inch V-8 was standard in the base LeSabre. However, new that year was a 401-cubic-inch V-8 that was installed in the mid-range Invicta and top-of-the-line Electra. The bigger powerplant was rated at 325 horsepower, 50 more than the LeSabre-based engine. Connected to either engine was a choice of two automatic transmissions: two-speed Flight Pitch; or optional three-speed Triple-Turbine Dynaflow unit.
At the very pinnacle of the Buick lineup was the Electra 225, a model so named because it was 5.8 metres (or 225 inches) in length and rode on a wheelbase that was stretched about 7.5 centimetres beyond that of the LeSabre and Invicta.
To help launch the new Buicks, the division embarked on an aggressive print and TV advertising blitz that featured actor Dale Robertson, star of the TV western series “Tales of Wells Fargo.” At the end of each episode, Robertson was shown driving his Electra convertible off the studio lot. That year, an Electra 225 was also selected as the official pace car of the yearly Indianapolis 500 race, further contributing to the car’s positive publicity.
Whether it was the saturation marketing campaign or the attractive styling (or both), sales of the 1959 Buicks went through the roof. In fact, Edward Ragsdale, Buick’s general manager, was quoted as saying, “Our dealers could have delivered five times as many if they had them in stock.”
The popularity of the LeSabre, Invicta and Electra paved the way for even sleeker and more graceful looking Buicks. Although still king-sized, they helped chart a new course in North American automotive design.
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