Worst Car Wednesday: Disasterous Buick, Oldsmobile 1970s GM Aerobacks

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Worst Car Wednesday will delve into how and why some truly horrible mass-produced cars were ever created. We set the stage and report on how consumers reacted and what the manufacturers did to “fix” their mistakes. Look, we know there are fans for some of these creations. We are some of those fans. But the facts belie martyrdom. For our first stab at Worst Car Wednesday we look at the disastrous spectacle of the 1970s Buick and Oldsmobile Aerobacks. It wasn’t pretty. 

1978 Buick Century Aeroback sedans in red and blue

1978 Buick Century four-door Aeroback sedans | GM

GM knew it had to downsize but didn’t know what to do. With two oil crises in the early 1970s, everyone was demanding smaller cars were better. Downsizing and front-wheel-drive were GM’s mantra. While the subcompacts got the front-wheel-drive, everything else was downsized. GM’s A-bodies were traditionally labeled “compact cars.” The A-body was scheduled to be downsized for 1978. To help Buick and Oldsmobile stand out from the Chevys and Pontiacs GM granted those divisions a truly unique A-body: the Aeroback.

It was surprising that GM went back to this Aeroback body style for 1978

1978 Buick Aeroback side view
GM Aeroback profile | GM

Fastback sedans were nothing new for GM. Before and after WWII all divisions of GM got fastback two- and four-door sedans. But by 1953 they were all gone and the traditional three-box sedan became the modern car. So it was surprising that GM went back to this body style for 1978. For two years it was available both as a two-and four-door sedan for Buick and Oldsmobile. What a disaster it became.

The era of downsizing meant everything was compromised to some extent. From drivetrains to bodies it was a brave new world. On average the 1978 A-bodies were four-inches shorter and 600 lbs lighter than 1977 models. This was a huge leap for GM. Remember that the Oldsmobile Cutlass for a number of years was the best-selling car in America. So there was a lot on the line.

The rear of the Aerobacks became a ski-slope of bad

rear 3/4 buick aeroback
1979 Buick Century Aeroback coupe | GM

Traditionally styled Chevy and Pontiac coupes, wagons, and sedans weathered the change. Taking on the folded paper styling of the time with flat surfaces and hard edges, it was still done in an elegant GM way. But with the Buick and Oldsmobile lines, GM took a chance at experimenting with what might resonate with consumers by offering the Aerobacks. Retaining the other lines’ styling up front, the rear became a ski-slope of bad. It looked like an extended AMC Gremlin.

Some have suggested GM wanted these sedans to resemble some of the Japanese offerings that were proving so popular. What that means is looking like a hatchback. In some ways, they do resemble hatchbacks. Unfortunately, GM never offered an Aeroback as a hatchback. Yes, it’s confusing. What were they thinking? 

By sloping the back so low the Aerobacks looked weak in the rear. It was like it had been rear-ended from most angles. In designer renderings, we’re sure the styling looked sexy as hell. But, once it was pinned to a platform, it became a mistake of massive proportions. In more ways than one. Let’s be honest; these were truly horribly-designed cars.

Buick Century Aeroback numbers bombed from 134,372 in 1977 to 54,372 in 1978

Red 1978 Oldsmobile aeroback
1978 Oldsmobile Aeroback | GM

In both 1978 and 1979, Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass sedans featured the compromised sloping back. Sales were bad, miserably bad. Cutlass sales dropped from 207,764 in 1977 to 120,192 in 1978. Buick Century numbers bombed from 134,372 in 1977 to 54,372 in 1978.

Almost immediately GM went on a crash course to create a notchback four-door for the two divisions. That style was proving successful with many GM lines and would help to support these four-door sedans. The notchbacks debuted in 1980 to the relief of GM dealerships everywhere. But what to do with the Aeroback coupes?

They soldiered on through 1980 and then were unceremoniously dropped

advertising for 1979 Oldsmobile Aerobacks
Advertising for 1979 Oldsmobile Aerobacks | GM

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They soldiered on through 1980 and then were unceremoniously dropped. If you happen to come across a Century Turbo coupe or Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 coupe they’re rare. Not that being rare necessarily translates to valuable. But there are enough fans of these failures to keep prices high. Especially for what they are. 

About 2,000 or less of each one was ever produced. The ducktail on the Century Turbo coupe helped to fix the weak, sloughed-off rear end. The 442 got a lower-body band of gold to accent the black body. It visually pinched the rear which didn’t improve anything. Still, they do have a certain look to them. 

GM wasn’t done with mega-disasters but you’ll have to check back on Wednesdays to find out what other disasters GM wrought. And other manufacturers too. There are plenty to choose from. See you next Wednesday.