By on January 2, 2011

20 years. Most marriages and capital offenses don’t have that level of commitment. To think of how long that is for any daily driver, consider what was not in most cars back then. Airbags, anti-lock brakes, cd players… heck ‘premium sound’ usually landed you nothing more than a cassette deck and four speakers. Now consider that this one owner 1990 Buick Century has a design dating all the way back to 1982. We’re talking about a period of design where the world’s most popular entertainment consisted of Pac-man & Atari 2600’s. Ancient times. Good times. But bad times for Detroit. Very, very bad times.

I bought this car for $500 at a Carmax auction. Why? Well the interior was immacualte for starters. There was virtually no wear on the seats which is highly unusual for a bench seat from this era. Most of them will have fuzzy fabric that is looser than the skin of an octogenarian in Florida. The electronics will be in rigor mortis mode and the needles on the dash will be as erratic and hesitant as the family dog who takes one too many of Grandpa’s pills. 95+% of the Century’s contemporaries are already in the junkyard? So what made the difference with this one?

Money. Whoever had this paid Mr. Goodwrench to keep it in a time warp mode. Everything worked on the inside. Even the armrest/storage compartment that breaks if you look at it cross-eyed was working fine. No cracks. No rips. No tears anywhere. It was a complete freak of nature. The exterior was dent free, but badly needed a paint job. I spent $210 to put in a new medicine blue paint job with a few gold pinstripes. Throw in a $50 auction fee and about $40 for a tune-up and incidentals, and I have $800 in an AARP inspired unit with 102k miles.

So what would you do?

Rent: Not as crazy as you may think folks. The oldest rental vehicle I ever had this past year was a 1987 Acura Legend. Laugh if you must but that $600 investment has already yielded over $2000 thus far and may end up at $3500 if the current customer pays on the last few months of a 1 year note. The Century does not benefit from Japanese quality… at all. But if it can last 20 years for 1 owner. It should last a little while as a rental. I would rent it for $105 a week and try to keep it with older folks.

Finance: This is a classic.500 50/50. As in $500 down. $50 a week for 50 weeks. A lot of folks with fixed incomes and low savings end up getting these types of vehicles. They may have a bit of nostalgia for the older models. Especially if their recent ride suffered a terminal breakdown. It is an old car. But low mileage and a clean Carfax can sell almost anything.

Sell: This car may hit $2000 during tax season. Maybe. Unfortunately tax season won’t hit until February and before then I may just want to unload it and move on. One of the hardest battles a good dealer will have is when to liquidate old inventory. Everyone who has a lemon to sell will try to wait until the February thru May period where prices are sky high and a lot of ‘stupid money’ is at the auctions. But then again, I saw a 1999 Dodge Dakota with over 100k sell for $5k last Thursday. I can’t even get that retail but apparently some buyer from Texas really had to have one. God bless him.

Keep: No way in hell. I am not putting my family anywhere near a car that would be a deathtrap in a crash. Size doesn’t mean everything… but structural rigidity is You could probably kick a rear door on the flimsier cars of the 1980’s and the passenger would feel it. I shudder to think how well this one would do on a side impact with two kiddies stuck in the back. When you’re in college or starting out a cheap beater has it’s charms. Especially if it has a bench seat. But the only thing I miss from 1990 is my old leather jacket. An old car whose engineers may have voted for Jimmy Carter (or the elder Bush) is not a good keeper if you can avoid it.

So do I rent to people who hopefully dine at Shoney’s? Finance it on the belief that the car will last at least until the legal drinking age? Sell it and be done? Or bag the Insight and put thick tint on the sides and a ‘Hell’s Grannies’ sticker in the back. Screw it. I want the money. So what should I do?

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55 Comments on “Rent, Lease, Sell or Keep: 1990 Buick Century...”

  • avatar
    Brian E

    Finance seems like the quickest and easiest path to a profit on this one.

  • avatar

    “I spent $210 to put in a new medicine blue paint job with a few gold pinstripes.”
    Where did you get paint and stripes for $210? How long till it washes off in the next rain? Macco and Earl Sheib can’t beat that.

    Finance and sell it if you need the money now for pending purchases, rent it if you don’t and prefer the income stream.

  • avatar

    I could think of about 6 people right off the top of my head who would buy that car, especially in that excellent of condition. I know people who have owned three and four of those cars. While it may not be popular with motorheads, these cars have their own constituencies…

    Sell it. Up North.

    EDIT: One thing I forgot to mention, is that contrary to common belief, GM kept on refining even these old beasts up until they stopped selling them. Meaning that they got many refinements from their 1982 launch. IIRC, this one should have a fuel injected engine, airbags and 4 wheel anti lock brakes. Granted, structural rigidity will be nowhere near what we’re accustomed to these days, but there’s still a fair amount of mass there. Unless it gets steamrolled by a F450, it would probably hold up OK in an accident. But admittedly, no, I wouldn’t want to find out first hand.

    • 0 avatar

      1990 Century:

      Fuel injected engines-yes. The four cylinder was right from the start in 1982, various available V6 engines converted to fuel injection somewhat later (~mid 1980s). This being a 1990 model, it would have either the 2.5 liter “Iron Duke” 4 cylinder (throttle body injection) or the optional 3.3 liter “3300” V6 (multi-point fuel injection).

      Airbags-no, not until 1993 or thereabouts, and then only a driver’s side airbag.

      Four wheel anti-lock brakes-no, not even as an option in 1990. They became available around the same time as the airbag did, or shortly after.

    • 0 avatar

      @big_gms: It seems to me that the Iron Duke got port fuel injection sometime in the mid to late ’80’s. I remember driving our then new Celebrity company car back then, it was worlds better than the older carbureted 2.8 V6 Celebrity company cars. Also, a couple of acquaintances had a both a ’90 (or ’91?) Chevy Cavalier and Corsica (not the same person) with FI, ABS and airbags. I thought they made their way onto the A bodies that same year.

  • avatar

    As a matter of first impression, if you can hold on to that and get $2k out of it, I would regard it as a victory.  Let me start by saying that I have never owned a car with airbags, and my daily driver is a GM car of about this vintage.  Maybe people with families are more responsible.  Of course, the pickings of such GM cars that are at all decent is shockingly slim, limited to post 4.1-era Cadillacs and the full size B-bodies, IMHO.  This is neither.  I don’t have any experience with this model year.  Who knows, maybe the General got the kinks worked out by ’90, but 80’s Buicks sucked.  Really sucked.  Unload it while it can still move under its own power.  If my maths are correct, it looks like you can get $3000 by financing it.  If you can do that, shrines will be built in your honor.  Do your customers stop making payments if the car stops working?  I would suggest you let that question be your guide between finance and sell.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    This is an explicitly anti-aspirational car, so financing is out. Keep it around as a rental, unless it has one of those head-gasket-eating V6s. If so, sell it and never look back.

  • avatar

    $2,500 cash, watch them line up.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I’m with Buickman, put $2500 on the windsheild and then offer the fiance deal to anyone who can’t pay cash.

    • 0 avatar

      Bingo.  But take any cash offer over $1500.  The concern I have about financing it is that the slightest fender bender is surely an immediate insurance total, and I wonder if the insurance company will give it any value over your buyer’s deductible.  Buyer walks away and you end up telling the repo man to take it straight to the boneyard.

    • 0 avatar

      These cars were the very definition of paradoxes – out-dated design, but reliable as anything made by Toyota, according to CR reviews. Simply bulletproof. These things had the most cramped interiors for their size. What happened from the Celebrity and these? They are the same car, basically! If it makes sense to rent it, OK, but if you can sell it a a decent profit, always take the money!

  • avatar

    Who the hell would buy that thing? Anyone who’d want to drive it would already have bought one new – when they were 75…

  • avatar

    Looks like a classic old-folks special – bought new by a couple on retirement, never thrashed, not driven a whole lot, and always well-treated and maintained by the owners until they died or no longer drove. A lot of ’90s Buicks – including mine – seemed to share this fate. As for safety, the 1994 Regal got four stars in crash test ratings by the NHSTA – hardly a death trap. Also, the fact that this car has lasted for 20 years without any apparent severe problems seems to indicate that it ended up on the winning side of the GM quality lottery.

    While making money on rent seems to be the best option for you, anyone who scoops this car for $2,500 is getting pretty decent transportation for the money.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    “To think of how long that is for any daily driver, consider what was not in most cars back then. Airbags, anti-lock brakes, cd players… heck ‘premium sound’ usually landed you nothing more than a cassette deck and four speakers.”
    I drove a ’91 Volvo 940 turbo in college that had all those things. Of course, a Volvo that stickered for $33k new in ’91 had better offer a lot more than a GM sedan whose price probably wouldn’t break 20k with every option selected.

  • avatar

    That thing has beater written all over it. Sell it.

  • avatar

    Sell – to one of those movie car providers. They’re always complaining not enough survives from the eighties.

    On the safety front from the point of view of keeping – don’t – the spot welds will have weakened with time.

    If you need new wheels take this and your Costco card to the local Ford dealer.

  • avatar

    When my grandma passed away not too long ago she left us with a 1990 White Buick Century with about 9,000 miles on it.  Garage kept and pristine.  About this same time my brother failed out of college and needed a car to get to his job (working for my dad).  As punishment, my Dad gave my brother the Buick Century but had the car repainted puke green, and painted the wheels and grill gold.  He then had the windows tinted silver and to top it all off he put a fart can on it.  My dad thought it was the funniest thing ever.  My brother drove that car in shame for 2 years before it inexplicably caught fire on the way to work one day and burned up.  I imagine the day the car was reduced to a smoldering heap was the happiest day of my brother’s life.

  • avatar

    Sell it.  That car is ripe for a repair frenzy – 20 years of gaskets and seals all wanting to be replaced.  The transmission is soon to blow, and the A/C is due.  The suspension rubber and joints are tired.  Whoever returns it to you after renting or leasing will leave it in much worse condition.

  • avatar

    My high school parking lot was littered with these cars and their Cutlass Ciera clones.  And they were still common as cheap beer-run beaters when I was in college.
    Your mileage may very.  I’ve seen nasty, beat-to-death Celebrities that just wouldn’t die, and I’ve seen cream-puff late-production Centuries that were complete nightmares.
    Sell it.  The meticulous maintenance on this car may be hiding many chronic problems.  Maybe you’d get more out of it renting, but probably not.
    That said, I always had a thing for these stupid cars, especially in wagon form.  Something to do with being able to buy a brand new 1982 car in 1996.

    • 0 avatar

      @Buick6: “I’ve seen nasty, beat-to-death Celebrities that just wouldn’t die…”
      That would be my brother’s 1986 Celebrity. It finally was taken off the road last year after 23 years of service. Not that he drove it a lot in the last several years, but it was a good ‘town’ car. Truly one of the cockroaches of the road (R)…

  • avatar

    Donate it to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! The home for all things bizarre, unusual or just plain weird! (Such as any GM crapbox from the eighties surviving in running order until now).


  • avatar

    $2500 on the window with an option to finance.  I wouldn’t keep this car, if I were you.  A car built on a platform introduced in 1982 (A-body) derived from another platform introduced in 1980 (X-body) isn’t exactly one you’d want to keep around.

  • avatar

    I’m walking my dog in suburbs just north of Philadelphia where less than a half mile the neighbors are driving German and I see this era Buick and Cutlass. So there is a demand for them.

  • avatar

    Until about a year ago, my sweet little old landlady had a 1996 Buick Skylark V6 with less than 40K garaged in San Diego miles. It was some touch up paint and a detailing away from being a time warp concours competitor, but as transportation it was about as useful and economical as an electric car. It would take you where you were going, but it wouldn’t bring you back. At least not on the same day. It also wouldn’t smog without at least a new dashboard, according to the Buick dealer anyway. The previous CARB smog check had been a couple thousand dollars, but this one was going to be two grand to start with nothing but a shoulder shrug as to whether or not the new dashboard would finally extinguish the check engine light. It was time to trade for something else. The Buick sensed that it had won and celebrated by blowing its heater core as I drove to turn it in at the Kia dealer. Anyway, I’d have advised against buying this car in the first place. The money was made by the guy who took it as a $50 trade and liberated $500 from you.

  • avatar

    Sell, sell, sell!!! NHTSA has frontal impact at 4 stars for driver, 3 for front passenger.

  • avatar

    Here’s what ya do:
    Go to all of the high schools within a 100-mile radius, visiting them during lunch hours. Sell tickets at $20 a pop to at least 100 kids. These tickets are not raffle tickets to win the car but rather, spectator tickets to watch you set the car on fire and push it over a cliff with Justin Beiber hog-tied in the trunk. The exact location of event is to be disclosed once all tickets are sold.

  • avatar

    Sell it.  No shame here; these cars were better than most remember, at least if you babied them.  The only reason that I would not rent it is because all the rubber parts have to be nearing the end of their useful life.  Repairs are bound to come quickly if this is pressed into hundred plus miles a day.  But for a local/station car or a winter rat it would be ideal…

  • avatar

    My ex-carpool driver had the 85 Cutlass Ciera version of this. Her father-in-law gave it to them after he got the motor rebuilt. He was the kind of guy who would drive around until the mileage was exact before taking it to the dealer for service. It repaid him by mixing its oil and water at 60-some thousand miles. It had genuine mouse-fur upholstery, the fragile GM light/wiper//washer/turn signal switch that would break if you touched it a little too hard, a radio that would die but would come on again if you dimmed the lights and put on the left turn signal, etc., etc. It ended up growing moss in her yard for at least a couple of years. As for yours, sell it while it still can move itself.

  • avatar

    If it is a 3.1V6, then dump it. Or gamble on that intake manifold gasket longevity. The last time I heard the repair was running at 700 CAD or higher in my neck of Rockies.
    If it is a 3.3V6, then one may consider other options. Or use this Buick mill as a selling point – those who know will notice it.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      My ex wife’s 1993 Cutlass Ciera had the 3300, de-stroked 3800.  Torque-y little monster but ate transmissions every 75,000 miles.  (And yes it ate 2 transmissions while we had it, I don’t switch cars like some people.)  I would have been happy with a three speed auto instead of the fragile four if it had been longer lived.

    • 0 avatar

      The 3.1 liter V6 wasn’t installed in these until the 1994 model year; from 1989-1993 the V6 was the 3.3 liter “3300” unit, which was a fine engine. Prior to that, it was the Chevy 2.8 (~1986-88), Buick 3.0 (1982-85) or Buick 3.8 (not the “3800”) from 1985-88. There was also the Olds 4.3 liter diesel V6 through 1984 or ’85.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you for the info. However, I am afraid that this arrangement is dependant on a market – in some countries these were sold as Regals and I see them showing up as early as 1992.
      Like this 93 Regal from Japan
      (64 kkm only, by the way)

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Sell it. My demographic (IE high school senior/college student) loves these old beaters, especially in these lower-middle class Philly suburbs. My school’s lot is full of of 80s/90s GM iron everyday in the form of ~15 old Buicks/Pontiacs/Olds, and about 5 first-gen S10s. We could care less about the safety or cool-factor just as long as it gets from home to school and starts everyday.
    Then again, the more I think about, I can’t help but wonder if the bench seats have something to do with it.

  • avatar

    I remember my father had something similar, an ’87 Cutlass Ciera with a 2.8 V6.  I drove it for a while, and I completely understood why the Japanese automakers were able to make such inroads.
    It was a smooth and comfortable car, but it had an amazing amount of issues despite the relatively low mileage and excellent care.
    I’d flip it before you have issues.

  • avatar

    I’m a “bleed Ford blue” guy, but this is one of the few exceptions I’d make for GM. They built that FWD A-body for 8 years before this model. They got it figured out. The 2.5 either blows up before 100k, or runs forever. The 3.3 is a baby 3.8, which IMHO is the best engine GM ever turned out. A 90+ A-body is on the short list of GM products I would own.

    • 0 avatar

      +1.  Taurus had all the appeal in those years, but these Buicks (and Cutlass Ciera’s) may have been better cars (in a durable beater kind of way).  I say that by the time the car is 20 years old, all of the bad ones have long disappeared.  It had to be a decent car for the old folks to keep it and maintain it the way they did.  I’ll bet that this will make you lots of money as a rental.

  • avatar

    I’m amazed you can get $2,000 for one of these (must be pristine), I think that would be the best bet.  A 20 year old GM A-body is going to have issues, I don’t care how well the previous owners maintained it.  I bet the first week of a rental it blows something like the heater core.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Take the 2K. Personally I always perfered the Pontiac 6000 especially the SE or STE even better with AWD. Or the Olds Ciera sportier models International series.


  • avatar

    I had an ’86 Celebrity with the 2.8.  I liked the torque, comfort, and fuel economy . . . but I had to keep shutting it off in traffic jams because the radiator would boil over.  And that steering rack…man!

    And I had great luck with the 3.1 Corsica I owned.  I put 320,000 kilometers on it without a single problem, and it was still running perfectly when I sold it, without leaks or oil usage.  But I keep reading that this was not a good engine…?

    • 0 avatar

      It is not that ALL engines were affected, but you were lucky. Intake manifolds on the Gen III 3.1 and 3.4 engines would often deteriorate and allow coolant seeping into oil passages, turning oil into foamy crap. Overheating + no lubrication = unrepairable dead engine.

    • 0 avatar

      The supposed overheating issue stems from the switch that turns on the cooling fan, turns on at 235 degrees. This I know because I had a fuelie 2.8 in an 86 6000-STE. Once I figured out what was the problem I didn’t worry about it, it had a solid cooling system and a new radiator along with iron block and heads so thermal issues were nothing to worry about. Plus I ran with A/C on 90% of the time which turned the fan on and kept it nice and in the middle of the gauge.
      It was kind of entertaining in traffic to see if it would ever trip the warning light and beeper on the digital dash, never did, but I’d watch it march across and then drop back down as the fan kicked on and cooled it off.

  • avatar

    Didn’t that natterine nabob of rap Eminem drive a Century in the movie “8 Mile?”

  • avatar

    Damn that was one silky smooth car to drive…. that picture brings back good memories.  Keep the car.

  • avatar

    Sell it. That’s not a put-down. These are good cars. My mother-in-law inherited a ’93 Century when her father died. It was in OK shape, not as nice as this one, and didn’t have major issues. She already has an Altima and wanted to go down to one car, so she sold it to the housekeeper’s family for $950.
    The advice you’re getting is good. Sell it to high-school kids, the movie people, seniors who work with Meals on Wheels. When something happens, it’ll cost, and that’s not conducive to your business.

  • avatar

    If you really believe the things you said about the structural integrity of this car then YOUR integrity should tell you not to rent it out to anyone, least of all fragile seniors.
    Really, you just shouldn’t buy vehicles like this at all.
    Unless, of course, all you care about is money.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s all a little over the top.  I’m pretty sure everyone is well aware that a 20 year old Buick isn’t going to be as safe in an accident as a new one.  That hardly means that it’s immoral to sell or rent one.

  • avatar

    My 67 year old stepfather recently picked up a a mid 90’s model with the 3.1 for $1500. It was an a grandma special thats in excellent condition for its age.
    Starts, goes and everything works.
    When new they were forgettable appliances. Now its honorable appliance. If its in pristine condition, there is no shame in it. They got the job done back then and they get it done now.

  • avatar

    I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed by some of the people on this post. If a car doesn’t have airbags and get five star crash ratings, it’s all over for some of you nervous Nellies. I’m sure most of the most durable, easiest to service and most fun cars of the past 30 years would fail on one of these “consumer reports” style rubrics. You want to know what was a deathtrap? My father’s Matra Djet. It had a single chamber master cylinder with soft copper brake lines. The gas tank was the forward-most item in the fiberglass body, protected only by two small bumperettes that were guaranteed to pierce that tank in a front collision. The car was so unsafe that the previous owner called my father some years after to check if he was still alive. That’s a car you can probably say that your precious children shouldn’t be in (if you’re a real downer, I know I loved it as a kid.)
    As for the Century, If it is rust-free, I would buy it for $1000. My current beater is having serious rust issues and as a land yacht lover, I appreciate a small car with a big car ride and a front bench seat. If you can sell it for more, that’s the ticket. Rubber gaskets get old.

  • avatar

    Had one of those. 3.3l engine, blue Buick Century Limited. Great engine and transmission. 15 years old, over 300k miles and would still be running if not for the driver of the full-size pick-up truck behind me…Surprisingly good on gas. Like I said, bullet-proof engine and transmission. Everything else failed: Paint peeled off after 4 years…AC died during the 6th year…power windows…door locks…MAF sensor…oxygen sensor… power antenna…radio/cassette player…starter…water pump…alternator (every 3 years)…windshield cracked due to a heating system design flaw…heater resistor…radiator…turn lights relay…distributor…ignition switch… the rear brakes would lock-up every two years… The worst?…corroded brake lines!…and corroded gas lines near the gas tank! And that’s the reason I say, a GM car that old is a safety hazard. Get rid of it.

  • avatar

    How about this baby, Steven?

  • avatar

    I have to say that maybe my feelings on this car have alot to do with nostalgia but I would gladly spend cash on one in a heartbeat. My first car ever was a 1990 Buick Century LTD that I paid $200 for. I personally put over 160000 KM on it to add to the 200k already there. It was a 3.1 V6 that had better gas milage than my current ’07 Calibre (almost 700 km to a tank compared to 450 km). I spent maybe $500 on repairs in the couple of years that I had it years I had it and got 250 $ from a wreckers when I finally said goodbuy to “upgrade” to a 2000 Grand AM. I should have put the 2 thousand I spent on teh Grand am into the Buick’s rusting body instead.

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