By on August 30, 2011

While scanning endless strips of 35mm negatives for the Impala Hell Project series, I keep running across shots of random cars I thought were interesting at the time. This sort of photography led, 15 years later, to my Down On The Street series, and so I thought I’d share this set of grainy Tri-X photographs of a Malaise Buick in California’s Central Valley, captured on a super-cheapo Ansco Pix Panorama camera.
For most of the later part of 1993, I had a job delivering tropical fish to aquarium stores throughout Northern California, either in a Mitsubishi Fuso box truck (top speed: 58 MPH!) or a beat-to-hell diesel Ford Econoline van. In addition to a boombox powered by alligator clips running to the truck’s fusebox, I always brought a camera along when I drove my route. These shots were taken from the Econoline, on I-5 near Stockton.
I remember thinking “In not too many years, all these battered Detroit luxury barges will be gone, so I should document the final years of this era” when I took these photographs. Sure enough, you rarely saw beater 5,000-pound Malaise dreamboats on the roads after about 1995, and they’re going to be all but extinct now that scrap steel is so valuable. This particular Electra probably never saw the 21st century.
It was 105 degrees out and the Buick’s windows were down, meaning the air conditioning (and probably more than half the power windows) was kaput. What would the equivalent car be today? A ’91 Roadmaster! Not quite as luxurious, thanks to its Caprice ancestry, and much less torque with a mere 305 or 350 cubic inches versus 455 for the Electra… but it’s still possible to enjoy a cheap 20-year-old Buick land yacht.

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46 Comments on “Down On The 1993 Stockton Highway: Battle-Scarred 1973 Buick Electra 225...”


  • avatar
    jj99

    Just after college, I bought an old 73 Buick Centurian 2 door ( sort of like the electra ) at an estate sale in Tustin, CA ( Orange County ). It was almost 20 years old, and had 20K miles. After I got done replacing the tires, brake parts, hoses, and belts, it was my daily driver. I loved that car. It was a very light yellow with tan leather, and it had the 455. One of my favorites.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    (Speaking of torque) It makes me wonder how man years we’ll be seeing the occasional 3800 or 3.9 V6 powered base model Lucerne on the highway or how quickly the Panthers will disappear from the landscape… To my kids a standard wheelbase Town Car will be enormous. Sigh…

    • 0 avatar

      Fortunately, massive Mercedes-Benz W126s will be with us for decades to come. They will coast into the future on build quality alone.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I’m not so sure. Cars seem to have a market-optimized natural size. The Lucerne or any Panther isn’t appreciably bigger** than an Accord (!!), Avalon or Azera.

      People like big cars, and—extinction events like the late 70s/early 80s aside—product designers cater to that preference.

      ** On the outside. Inside they’re often smaller!

      • 0 avatar
        86er

        ** On the outside. Inside they’re often smaller!

        Maybe if you’re ten feet tall. Give me copious hip and shoulder room and I’m set.

        Oh, and nice find, Murilee. That car has just about the perfect proportions.

      • 0 avatar

        Small cars have gotten bigger. Compare an ’11 Civic (or even a Fit) to a ’73.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        Maybe if you’re ten feet tall. Give me copious hip and shoulder room and I’m set.

        So what you’re saying, while I might be a ten foot circus freak who drives a clown car, the average Panther buyer is roughly spherical?

        I will give that this is a nice-looking car. There’s a way to do the rear-fender “hips” that seems to have been forgotten, or at least grossly misunderstood (ref: the modern Challenger)

      • 0 avatar
        86er

        So what you’re saying, while I might be a ten foot circus freak who drives a clown car, the average Panther buyer is roughly spherical?

        It’s also glandular.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    There is a tendency here to believe that the living today are better and smarter people than the ones that came before them. As a result, when we find societal artifacts from years ago, our first impulse is to mock them. It makes us feel better. In other cultures, it would be considered disrespectful. In America, we believe in progress to the point where we believe we are superior and more moral people than our ancestors.

    I notice this often when discussing old cars. In my business we say that miracles only last six months before they are considered status quo. So, it shouldn’t be odd for us to see a car manufactured forty years ago and see more wrong than right. We aren’t the intended market for this car, because the intended market for this car was in the early 1970s and had experienced a life completely different from ours with differing values, needs and dreams.

    Buick in 1973 was where Camry is in 2012 – catering to “mature” drivers. The differences we see in these cars are generational. There is a difference between a 60 year old in 1973, than one today.

    The 5000 pound Electra 225 was attractive to 60 somethings who grew up with brick streets, traffic cops, the Roosevelt Depression, WWII, and an entirely different outlook on life. High school was to them, what college is to us today. A factory job was to them what a service job is to us today.

    The 225 represented everything modern to this generation. It was huge, plush, roomy, silent, solid, American and floated at turnpike speeds on electrically lit, multi-lane expressways past steel mills, factories and skyscrapers. Ladies who sacrificed during the War Years and Childrearing Years at home earned the ample luxuries found in these cars. Engines and ashtrays were huge.

    The Camry represents everything modern to the current generation of 60 somethings. This generation grew up in a entitled luxurious suburban America of television, stereo, computers, universities and fast food on every corner. The Camry represents this era to 60 year olds. It gives that generation what that generation thinks it wants.

    I believe in forty years the 2012 Camry will be just as vilified by the next generation, based on their values and beliefs, just as we do to the Electra 225 today. And, when the 1973 Electra 225 is seen forty years from now, it will look as bizarre and odd as a 1933 Terraplane.

    The cars reflect the perceived realities of the 60 somethings buying them in the era they were manufactured.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      There is a tendency here to believe that the living today are better and smarter people than the ones that came before them

      There’s also a tendency among people, as they age, to see those coming up behind them as degenerates.

      Both views have some truth to them, but are largely wrong. People are people, regardless of when they were born. Looking for quantum leaps (back or forward) in sociological development is just an acamdemic way of trying to justify age-based snobbery.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        That’s correct.
        Science exposes as fact that we are copies of earlier generations, and are our offspring. Believing that the older ones are Neanderthals and the younger ones degenerates is actually insulting yourself.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      “There is a difference between a 60 year old in 1973, than one today.”

      Thank you. I rest my case!

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      Thank You, VanillaDude! Very well said. My parents were of that Buick generation, and my brother-in-law (60) and his contemporaries are Camry drivers.

      Of course we mocked big Buicks then for their inefficiency as we mock the Camcordaltima for its plain-vanillaness, but the effect is the same.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Great post! I remember visiting one of my great uncles who lived in Fresno, in 1969 when I was in college. Together, he and my grandfather started a commercial refrigeration business in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1930s. Sadly, my grandfather died only a few years after they had started of a ruptured appendix. But my uncle soldiered on and built a very successful business, based on the needs of the wine industry, apparently. Anyway, he took me around the valley in this great big car — something like an Electra 225 — and was quite proud of it. Already indoctrinated into the “European car” ethos, I thought it was big and ponderous. But, I did have one valid criticism. I had to put the power seat all the way on the floor to have sufficient headroom . . . and I was only 6’4″ at the time.

      I have a feeling that my kids won’t give a rat’s ass about cars at all. To them, they will simply be appliances.

  • avatar
    mechimike

    I saw some fellow driving a primered out, beat up 4 door early 70′s Caddy the other day. And I remember thinking how long its been since I’d seen that. It seems like old cars are basically shown two directions- they become restored, rarely driven show pieces, or they get scrapped. Both are pretty sad ends, IMO.

    • 0 avatar
      texan01

      One of the reasons I love my ’77 Chevelle is it rides the line between the two. Its un-restored and has 35 year old sunbeaten paint. Looks great in pictures, but in person it’s a whole different animal.

      I also drive the heck out of it, and the looks on peoples faces when they see it is always amusing.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    “…so I thought I’d share this set of grainy Tri-X photographs…”

    That’s your whole problem, Tri-X. Garbage film. I used to shoot Panatomic-X. With an ASA of 32, my photos can be blown up to billboard size! You just have to be careful when panning, otherwise your subject will be hoplessly blurred! I know…

    In a pinch, I used Plus-X, but always preferred Panatomic.

    • 0 avatar
      fiasco

      But try using a $5 toy camera with a shutter speed of 1/100 sec fixed and a fixed aperture of f8 or f11 at 55 mph with 32 speed film! Tri-X is the film for that job (although some TMZ 3200 might get really trippy/grainy/weird/IT’S ART!!!!).

      Now I have the sudden urge to drag out my Holga…

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Now if only I could buy film cheaply for my Kodak Six-Sixteen!

        But I haven’t shot film since I went digital in 2005. My Pentax K1000 sits in a corner, probably never to be used again…

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Zackman: I have the same issue with an Olympus OM-1 from the early 70′s. It sits in a box in my basement.

        OTOH, I have gone through many digital cameras since I got my first one 10 years ago. I have yet to step up to a digital SLR, though. I may try and find one on Craigslist or some such place; I don’t know that I want to pop for a new box and find I don’t like it.

        @Murilee: “Also, the danger with photography is that one becomes a slave to the hardware.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that concerning cameras, drum kits, cars, computers…

        I think I’m finally at the time of life where the ‘better’ is no longer a major concern. I think I’m happy learning to live with what I have.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        @geozinger:

        Cameras! ‘Way back 40-ish years ago, when on Okinawa, I could have bought a king’s ransom’s worth of cameras for very little. Try this: A Yashica twin lens reflex for $48.00 & a Yashica Electro 35 for $50.00. A Pentax for $100.00, A tiny half-frame Olympus for around $50.00. Did I buy any of those? Nope. What did I take pictures with? Are you ready? A Polaroid 210 and a $4.75 Instamatic I got with Hill Brothers coffee can lids!

        What did I buy? Records, a set of AR-3A speakers and a Marantz Model 22 receiver and a Panasonic 8-track under-dash, removable car stereo with an FM cartridge!

        I still have the Marantz 22 and it works perfectly 40 years on!

        When back in NoCal, I had a pair of polarized lens sunglasses. I used to hold one of the lenses over my instamatic’s lens when shooting a photo on a bright, sunny day and the result was surprisingly good!

        My avatar over on “CC” was taken with that camera, sans sunglasses lens filter!

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Zackman: Oh yeah, forgot about stereos. I mostly purchased Panasonic (Technics) equipment and Pioneer equipment, particularly their speakers. Up until several years ago, I had a pair of Pioneer CS 99-As. IIRC, it took a 200 watt amp to run them. They got damaged in storage, however and I gave them away. I never wanted to find out how much they were worth, I would be highly bummed probably.

        Yashica, there’s a camera you never hear about any more. To be honest, I haven’t done any home developing in years, but I don’t miss the chemicals, either. Nasty stuff.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Holy cow, geo, I’m buying you more beer! I owned a set of Pioneer CS-99 speakers for a year before I sold them to contribute to my savings in anticipation of my major stereo purchase above in late ’71! I picked up the CS-99 my first trip to Okinawa in 1970. Had an AR turntable, too! That was back in an era when your word was good – at least mine was and a buddy lent me $400 in cash so I could buy all this stuff! Paid him back in four months. Add that to my ’64 Chevy in my CC avatar, now I know why I was broke all the time!

        Should have bought the camera and saved a ton of money! Yeah, I used to develop my B&W film, too. Glad I don’t anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      I got a deal on a shitload of bulk not-quite-expired Tri-X from a going-out-of-business photography store in San Francisco, which is why I shot so much of it. Remember, I was a dirt-poor slacker back then.

      • 0 avatar

        Also, the danger with photography is that one becomes a slave to the hardware. If only I had (insert name of expensive piece of camera gear) I’d be able to take much better photographs.

      • 0 avatar
        Sinistermisterman

        “…the danger with photography is that one becomes a slave to the hardware…”
        Absolutely true. I know a huge number of people who own TONS of equipment, but yet never actually take any damn photos (I’m starting to fall into the trap).

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Really? Tri-X, properly developed, easily enlarged to 11 x 14, with acceptably fine grain. Moreover, unlike Pan-X and Plus-X, Tri-X is a “long toe” film which holds highlight detail better without losing shadows.

      Also, exposing slow film on other than bright sunlight usually requires larger lens aperatures and/or slower shutter speeds, either one of which can degrade the image, with either soft focus, blur, flare or lack of contrast.

      “Choose your poison” as they say. But to call Tri-X “junk film” is just unjustified.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    A friend of mine has the 1972 version of that car. It’s his main driver, and he’s driven it all over the US and Canada, to hobby meets – usually with a few hundred pounds of license plates in the trunk: yes, I collect them too. That car must have 400,000 miles on it now. A couple of years ago he redid the chrome on the perfectly straight bumpers, and got the car repainted in its original caramel color. He told me once that he has a low-mileage blue one waiting in the garage in case he needs it, but short of getting hit by a train or a big tree I don’t know what it will take to retire the caramel one – and not retire him.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    My grandfather, a Philadelphia lawyer then in his mid-60s, traded his ’66 Riviera for a ’71 Electra coupe (I guess he was turned off by the boattail Riv) and then a ’74 four-door, so I was familiar with these boats as a teenager. But I don’t understand how “malaise era” applies to any 1973 car, given that the oil embargo didn’t occur until the ’74s were in production. Until then, it seemed that future generations of full-size cars would grow even larger – on the outside, that is – and gas would continue to be around 29 cents a gallon. On the other hand, if you mean “a car that a fellow living in the malaise era would have driven, having bought it new and now finding himself unhappily paying a lot more to operate it,” then perhaps I can understand.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Even before the Arab Oil Embargo, tightening emissions regulations were reducing power and making cars harder to start.

      The 5-mph bumper requirement for the 1973 model year ruined the looks of most cars while adding weight.

      After 1970, workmanship declined for most domestic cars, corners were increasingly cut in construction techniques, and interior materials were cheapened.

      Cars were becoming less attractive and “fun” before the first gas crunch, which happened in late 1973. Detroit was well off its stride before late 1973.

    • 0 avatar
      dmchyla

      My first “car memory” is of our ’71 Electra 225 coupe. We used that car like today’s SUV – trips up north, towing our 25′ boat, plenty of room for me, my brother and sister, and all of our stuff in the huge trunk. Kept it until the early 80′s, it had some left in it but had been sitting outside too long and the mice got to it.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    Even before the two gas crunches and Jimmy Carter, the first round of emissions regulations were strangling those big honking engines and people were being taught to think about pollution. We all know that the first muscle car craze was effectively killed by the insurance industry in 1970.

    In fact, I’ve read that GM President Pete Estes ordered the immediate downsizing of the big cars at that exact moment in time; previous plans were to have a rehash of the same-old, same-old.So while the big luxobarges were very much for sale in late 1973, they were mostly designed in a more optimistic time of the mid-to-late Sixties.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Before the Arab Oil Embargo, GM supposedly had 550 and 600 cubic inch V-8s planned for Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile to cope with the power losses caused by emission controls.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      My understanding is that pollution controls strangled the ’74 models much more than they did the ’73s, and that the technologies used in both model years were just stopgaps until better-performing catalyst-based systems were ready; these began to appear in many 1975 models.

      So I don’t know whether it’s fair to use that as a basis for including 1973 cars generally as part of the, let’s say, period of decline. The ’74s deserve inclusion, though, for their (temporarily) mandated seat-belt ignition interlocks; we had a ’74 Grand LeMans coupe so equipped.

      As for the bumpers: Some manufacturers responded more elegantly than others to the requirement that bumpers actually serve their purpose. Some added more weight than others. But here again the 1974 models were worse than the ’73s, not just because the 5-mph bumper was now required at both ends rather than just the front, but also because some imported cars that met or got a waiver from the 1973 requirements (such as the MGB) became quite ugly for ’74.

      Workmanship? In the case I’m most familiar with, the new-for-1971 full-size GM line, some of the obvious workmanship problems were indistinguishable from design problems. If you design a car with such an extreme side-window curvature – and for no good reason! – you’ll get build problems that inevitably lead to these windows falling out of their tracks. Workmanship was pretty bad even in the 1960s; trim was often misaligned, and some cars tended to turn to rust almost visibly fast (for example, the 1967 Pontiac intermediates).

      So I say the dividing line should be the considerably more wretched (on average) 1974 cars. A final point: The new-for-’73 Pontiac Grand Prix and Grand Am reintroduced real wood veneer interior trim, last seen on a Pontiac in 1966. (Of course, within a few years they switched to simulated wood…)

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    After all, there was no reason to think 35-cent gasoline wouldn’t last forever, right?

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    Fear not, the Electra lives! Just this weekend I attended a small, local car show here in the south ‘burbs of Chicago, and saw an entire row of nicely kept/restored Deuce and a Quarters. Convertibles, no less. All, as it happens, owned and shown by middle-aged black guys. I assume that most of the owners were impressed in their formative years by an older male role model who was the epitome of cool in his new 225.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    To me, the 1973 model year — which to that point set a sales record — was the first year of serious decline. The emissions on that model year were just as stringent as the 1974 models. FYI, ’73 cars had the seat belt interlock. I remember my Dad making a knot with the passenger seat belt to defeat the system on our Duster; the old man wouldn’t wear seat belts until it became law 10 years later.

    The only advantage that ’73 had over ’74 models were the prettier and more fragile rear 2.5 bumpers. Just for fun, see at 45:00 how Kojak’s team handled a fender-bender with the 5-mph bumpers with his ’74 Buick Century: http://www.hulu.com/watch/6/kojak-cop-in-a-cage

    One thing I remember that has been lost from that era: it was common for bumpers to be ordered with rubber stopper extensions, somewhat softer versions at what the cops use. They were great for parallel parking and a lot better-looking than those god-awful fabric/plastic things people use now.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      The interlock appeared in 1974-model cars only, although 1973 cars had a buzzer. Here’s an excerpt from a 2004 National Academies Press book, Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use (reference citations omitted, but see link at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10832&page=42):

      “On January 1, 1972, NHTSA required passenger vehicles for sale in the United States to be equipped with passive restraints protecting vehicle occupants in frontal barrier crashes up to and including 30 mph, or alternatively, with a buzzer–light reminder system. With few exceptions of cars sold with inflatable front cushions, the automobile manufacturers opted for the reminder system. The system consisted of a flashing light and buzzer, which activated continuously for at least 1 minute if the vehicle was placed in gear and the driver or front outboard passenger was not belted. The simple sensor system used to activate the reminder system, however, could be bypassed easily. Moreover, once the belt was left in an extended position or buckled, the reminder system would not be activated again.

      “When it became evident that the introduction of passive restraint systems would be delayed, NHTSA moved to require ignition interlock systems on all cars as an interim measure. Effective August 15, 1973, NHTSA required that all Model Year 1974 passenger vehicles be equipped with an ignition interlock that allowed the vehicle to start only if the driver was seated and the belts were extended more than four inches from their normally stowed position or the belts were latched.”

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    OK, I stand corrected. It was still a PITA for most people.

  • avatar
    CougarXR7

    I can guarantee that my upcoming ’72 Delta 88 convert will neither be a pampered garage queen nor a beater. It’s no showpiece, but it’ll be out cruising with the top down whenever the weather permits :).

  • avatar
    obbop

    Vile spawn are vile spawn no matter what vile generation whelped the noisy stinky foul creatures.


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