By on March 28, 2016

1986 Buick Regal Somerset in California junkyard, LH front view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Because General Motors felt that the world — or at least Michigan and maybe Wisconsin — needed a small, affordable personal luxury coupé with a digital instrument cluster, rackety pushrod four-cylinder engine, and a name that started life as the designation for an early-’80s Regal trim package, the 1985-87 Buick Somerset, sibling to the N-Body Pontiac Grand Am, was born. I have an unexplainable fascination with The General’s attempts to compete with high-end German sporty luxury in the 1980s and 1990s, so I was drawn to this California Somerset like a personal-injury attorney scenting an Accord driver with Takata airbag fragments embedded in his flesh.

1986 Buick Regal Somerset in California junkyard, Iron Duke engine - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Somerset buyers could get an optional 3.0-liter V6 making 125 horsepower, but the standard engine was the 2.5-liter Iron Duke four-banger, a sturdy-but-primitive engine based on one bank of the Pontiac 301 V8. The Iron Duke would have been a fine powerplant for a Soviet irrigation pump, but it seemed out-of-place on an alleged luxury coupé.

1986 Buick Regal Somerset in California junkyard, radio - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The coolest thing about the Somerset was this odd pod-mounted radio perched atop the HVAC controls. If a Somerset owner, weary of Delco sound optimized for Dream Academy, felt like upgrading to more modern audio gear … well, tough luck!

1986 Buick Regal Somerset in California junkyard, seat fabric - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

According to the ’86 Somerset brochure, “new fabric will be found in the Somerset Custom and an extraordinary velour cloth in the Limited.” Since this is a Custom, we are looking at the “new fabric” in this photograph.

1986 Buick Regal Somerset in California junkyard, headliner tied in knot - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Standard on all Somersets (as well as many other 1980s Detroit cars) was a headliner that fell down and had to be re-attached with staples, thumbtacks, or simply tied in a knot to keep the cloth from blocking the driver’s vision.

1986 Buick Regal Somerset in California junkyard, hood ornament - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The second-coolest Somerset feature was this classy hood ornament.

Gimme savvy! Gimme cool! Gimme a car that breaks all the rules! The only place to get cheesier False Rock in this era was within a Cavalier ad.

The car of choice for sexy lawyers late for an arms-for-hostages negotiation with Adnan Khashoggi.

[Images: © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

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78 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1986 Buick Somerset Custom...”


  • avatar
    JimZ

    are you sure you’re not confusing this with the Pontiac “Trophy 4” from the ’60s, which was literally a 389 with one bank excised?

    • 0 avatar
      thattruthguy

      This is the descendant of the 1977 Iron Duke, which is based on the lightweight Pontiac 301 v8.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        I can’t find anything which confirms that. I guess I could see it if it uses the same pistons and valve gear and has the same bore spacing, but it’s a unique block and head.

        • 0 avatar
          Lack Thereof

          It was launched alongside the “new” downsized 301 V8 in 1977, directly sharing pistons, rods, rings, and assorted small components. The 301 was already a pretty big deviation from previous Pontiac V8’s, with smaller bore spacing and a shorter deck among other small changes.

          The iron duke might not be as bad of a hack job as the Tempest 4-cylinder, but it’s definitely half a 301.
          The 301 was only in production for a few years, though, and is completely forgettable, so any practical parts sharing between the more common Pontiac V8’s and Iron Duke derivatives is pretty much impossible.

          Hemmings has some limited information. The best source of info on them, though, is the guys who build racing & boating versions of them.

  • avatar
    vent-L-8

    Digital everything … crank windows.

  • avatar
    Tomifobia

    “If a Somerset owner, weary of Delco sound optimized for Dream Academy, felt like upgrading to more modern audio gear … well, tough luck!”

    Not much different from today’s model-specific “infotainment systems” is it?

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      So maybe GM was ahead of its time. Who knew?

    • 0 avatar
      Willyam

      There were some weird ones during this period. My favorite was my roommate’s ’81 Liftback Corolla (one of the cars that cemented the Corolla’s impossible to kill reputation for me, because he actively tried to kill it for years). The radio was in a big plastic pod that swiveled from driver to passenger. For visibility, I guess.

      http://images.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/09-1981-Toyota-Corolla-Down-On-the-Junkyard-Pictures-courtesy-of-Phil-Murilee-Martin-Greden-550×412.jpg

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    I was fascinated by these too, particularly with the performance handling package and its wide for the time 60 series tires, and the Buick Riviera of the same year, which pretty much looked exactly like this.

  • avatar
    Storz

    Awesome. My first car was an ’85 Olds Calais Supreme sister to this car. Mine had the 3.0 V6 and 3spd slushbox, completely non functional powerseats and windows. Many fond memories!

  • avatar
    StudeDude

    I was amazed that these cars were relatively popular back in the ’80s. Another example of the beancounters controlling the offerings of GM and what that eventually lead to in 2009.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      Living through that time, I was also amazed that these things [GM sedans] were so numerous. So many consumers must just adore mediocrity and substandard build quality.

  • avatar
    makuribu

    I know somebody who bought the Calais version, new, with the 5 speed manual transmission. It ended its days in a Denver area scrapyard just a couple years ago. The only thing worse than a horrible unreliable car is a horrible car that won’t die.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Ugh, you reminded me that I need to figure out what to do with my (2006) GTO’s sagging headliner.
    Brings me back to the days of trying to fix my (1990) Sunbird’s – I found blue staples to match the outside paint.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I really can’t tell the difference between these and a Skylark. Weren’t they even sold at the same time?

    Is the black grille one in the ad a T-Type?

    Why is the secretary married to the ferry boat captain?

    So confuse.

  • avatar

    My dad, a Biuck man, considered one for a few hours and test drove it in ’85. He bought a Mercury Marquis Brougham.

  • avatar
    pdieten

    Heeeeeyyy! I resemble that remark.

    I live in Wisconsin. These were not rare. My brother had one (come to think of it, I think his was a gray 4-door Skylark, not this coupe. But I digress.) He bought it used in ’91 for maybe $3000 or so, he was about 20 at the time. It had the four, but nonetheless was a nice looking car for the time, and the interior was not the worst place in the world to be. Certainly a lot more pleasant than a Corsica, anyway.

    Unfortunately he was not the most careful sort with his cars and he ended up totaling the thing maybe two years after he got it…

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Stranded between a LeSabre 3800 and a Northstar Deville. Not deserving of such lofty company. This one is also a weird combination of clean and dirty. Seats and dash panel? Very clean. Buttons around radio? Filthy. And those broken light lenses likely didn’t all happen at once, so the owner never bothered.

  • avatar
    montecarl

    The t-type version of this car was nice for the time…

  • avatar
    rpm1200

    I’ve never seen that CD player before, people usually went for the tape deck. It seems silly and confusing that they would double up the radio preset buttons with the balance/fader controls.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    My cousin had one of these, I believe an MY87. They were such crap.

  • avatar
    pbr

    At the time I could not figure out what either Somerset was supposed to accomplish. Japanese brands barely had any penetration to our socio-economic cadre, Europeans had none whatsoever. Expensive oddities for the odd rich uncle, maybe. Some of our friends spoke longingly of wanting a Somerset, but when pressed could not explain why. Among my friends, “no V-8, no care” was the prevailing view.

  • avatar
    JLGOLDEN

    These cars debuted just a couple of years before I had a driver’s license…and I wanted one BAD. I was head over heels for this, the Grand Am, and the Calais. Finally, in 1995, I fulfilled my craving with the purchase of 1990 Grand Am. That Tech 4 “Iron Duke” was a noisy, raspy little thing, and the interior quality was pitiful, but it was the car’s exterior *style* that always had me beaming and proud.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I do believe that’s our old friend the Iron Duke under the hood.

    A friend of had one of these…in a freakin’ Camaro. With an automatic. Awe inspiring.

  • avatar
    06V66speed

    N Bodies gets no love. Figures.

    Guess I’m the odd man out, I always liked the Calais, and still have a W41 Calais high at the top of my bucket list.

    Any who, growing up as a kid who’s family managed a large used car dealership certainly had its perks. I could get my hands on any of the cars I wanted (within reason), and seems like every few weeks, we had new “demos” in the family to drive. One of which being a late 80’s N-Body Grand Am (GT…?), which was that deep maroon/burgundy color with the color-matched alloys (any one remember those?). At the time (myself being all of 8 or 9), I thought it was pretty dammed cool. Come to think of it, for the life of me, I guess they’ve all been crushed a long time ago. I haven’t seen one of those in ages.

    As far as the Somerset goes, an old friend of mine’s boyfriend picked up a Somerset a few years ago with pretty-well-shot flat gray paint for roughly $300. It finally kicked the bucket not too long ago. It always surprised me that it had a digital cluster despite being such a P.O.S.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      I absolutely remember the color keyed rims of the SE, arguably the hottest version of the N. The 1987-88 versions had the sprightly 2 liter turbo four from the Sunbird GT as a rare option but most had the 3.0 liter V-6. 1989 and up SEs had one of the Quad 4s – H.O. for manual and the regular one for automatics.

      In the early ’90s they offered an LE with the W32 package that had most of the SE’s goodies but without ABS and the body colored wheels. The GT effectively replaced the SE as the hot model with the 1992 restyle.

      All Ns got restyled that year to squeeze a few more years out of them. I always thought the 1992 Skylark GS was a hot looking car and considered buying one, but it had no go. If it had had the hot Quad 4 and a manual, I’d have been more likely to have pulled the trigger.

  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    I feel like I know GM products pretty well, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one of these on the road in my entire life.

  • avatar
    laserwizard

    One of the garbage cars that helped to sink GM. Worthless and cheaply built. Although the cloth seats wore well.

  • avatar
    Balto

    Still wearing its blue plates!

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    You know, the wacky Skylark that replaced this thing was at least INTERESTING.

    • 0 avatar

      Styling inspired by the 39 Buick, one of my favorites. Horrible car though.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      With those built-in side skirts and angular rear end, those 1992 Skylarks harkened back to the ’68-69 Buick Specials. I thought they looked particularly good in two tone, with that grey bottom and turquoise or blue top. But while the Achieva SCX and Grand Am GT got the hot (for the time) H.O. Quad Four and 5-speed, the GS was saddled with the pedestrian 3.3 liter V-6 and automatic.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Interesting? Certainly…but this is THE worst dash. Ever.

      http://www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/1992-instrument-panel.jpg

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        Is that actually the production dash!?

        • 0 avatar
          Superdessucke

          I admit it hasn’t aged well, particularly in that unflattering whorehouse red, but I remember it was befitting of the swoopy nature of the exterior styling.

          Yea, now it looks like it was penned by someone who dropped two tabs of LSD and stared at a fan for 8 hours but, back then, it looked like what we thought the future was supposed to look like. I also recall looking with satisfaction at how that auto shift knob turned subtly to hand.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        It was even worse after 20 years of warping and self destruction.

  • avatar
    sckid213

    What would everyone say is the modern-day equivalent to this Somerset?

    I say Acura ILX.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The 85-89 Grand Am coupe was quite popular in the suburb of NYC where I grew up. The SE model with the handling package and alloy wheels was the one to buy probably because the price point was below a Firebird. For some reason they were usually driven by college or just graduated women who had “big hair’ shoulder pads and some hair metal band cassette in the player.

    The Calais and Somerset/Skylark seemed to appeal to a older demographic.

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    Was there anything GM didn’t try to stuff an Iron Duke (or some variant) in to? One of my Omegas had one. It was in a co-worker’s Camaro. And I believe an ex’s GMC Jimmy. They seem, at times, to be ubiquitous with Junk Yard Find.

    • 0 avatar
      Lack Thereof

      Their plan was that the new corporate 60º V6es were going to go into everything, but then dealers demanded 4-cylinders. And which 4-cylinder shared a bellhousing with the 60º V6? Good old Iron Duke.

  • avatar
    wibigdog

    A co-worker had one in ’99. It was so weird to me that such a rusted-out POS had a digital dash right out of Knight Rider. Rust killed it in early 2000, but the dash still worked.

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?

  • avatar
    ehaase

    I believe the Iron Duke was based upon the Chevy II 4 cylinder but shared pistons with the 301. I also believe the N bodies originally were meant to replace the G body coupes (Grand Prix, Cutlass Supreme, and Regal), but GM changed plans as the older coupes still sold so well and gas prices declined in the 1980’s.

  • avatar
    THEjeffSmif

    One of my gym coaches in middle school had a blue/silver 88 Cutlass-Calais 2-door with all the options & a brown 83 Mercury Capri. He always parked parallel with the gym doors & the Olds always had the both windows down. I think the Calais was his wife’s car that he inherited through marriage but I thought it looked edgier at the time vs. the bubble-hatch Capri. Nowadays I think the Capri was probably the better-built car.

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    The iron duke has nothing in common with any pontiac V8. The block was a virtual carbon copy of the 60’s Chevy11 4 cylinder, it even used the chevy straight 6 – V8 bellhousing until 1982, at which point they switched to the 60% V6 bellhousing so that they could stick with one transmission while offering both engines in the front wheel drive cars. Other than that the main difference between the iron duke and the chevy11 engine were that the duke used a crossflow head. In the early 60’s pontiac did try sawing the 389 in half, and to say that engine was a disaster would be putting it kindly.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    There was a guy 3 or 4 yrs my senior who spent a fortune integrating an alpine amp and subwoofer with that goofy OEM stereo.
    One of my buddies had a turbo Pontiac variant of this model. It was a convertible in red/red. Seemed quick to me.I think it was only a 3spd auto though. It was much better looking than the oldsmabuick version.

  • avatar

    In 1986 GM sedans suddenly looked modern. The baroque styling of the late 70s disappeared overnight, which was a good thing.

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