Buick to offer Roadmaster for first time since 1954

January 10, 1991|By Michael D. Towle | Michael D. Towle,Fort Wort Star-Telegram

In Flint, Mich., the name Roadmaster means a lot. It conjures up memories of the post-World War II boom years, of portholes on cars, of massive vertical-bar grilles and of hardtop convertibles.

The Roadmaster -- which has been revived and is being produced by Buick at the General Motors assembly plant in Arlington, Texas -- is a name from days gone by.

It is a flashback to an era when it was taken for granted that American car buyers would drive home anything Detroit's automakers put into showrooms. There were no Hondas or Nissans to contend with.

But things are different now -- and so is Flint.

The birthplace of General Motors Corp., the Rust Belt city of nearly 160,000 people has become something of a symbol of what went wrong at the auto giant.

Devastated by plant closings and layoffs, Flint became the setting for filmmaker Michael Moore's satirical documentary "Roger & Me," which focused on the devastation a declining GM brought to this city.

But it has also been the setting for the unlikely comeback of Buick, an auto company now selling cars said to stack up against any.

It's at Buick City that GM builds the Buick LeSabre, which for the past two years has received the highest quality ranking of any American-made car, according to the annual survey done by J.D. Power & Associates, an automotive research firm in Agoura Hills, Calif.

And that effort continues as Buick produces in Arlington its first Roadmaster since 1954.

"We've talked about what we can do to get the quality level up to where we can put the Buick badge on this (the Roadmaster)," said Tony Derhake, general engineering and planning manager at Buick.

Buick, which struggled for an identity different from GM's Oldsmobile line through much of the 1980s, has returned to its roots as a maker of premium American cars, mainly for a mature, upscale customer.

"Ever since the fourth quarter of last year, the entire industry has been in a slump, but Buick's sales are up," said Cynthia Certo of Integrated Automotive Resources of Wayne, Pa. "They are doing quite well, and they have done that by refining the division's image.

The Roadmaster will give Buick its first full-size, rear-wheel-drive entry in five years. The company believes that the powerful, stylish Roadmaster will quickly cut out a sizable niche in the 600,000-unit rear-drive market.

The car, which will be released this spring as a 1992 model, will be powered by a 5.7-liter V-8 engine with 180 horsepower. Standard features on the aerodynamic sedan will be anti-lock brakes, driver-side airbag, side-window defoggers, power windows and a driver-side express-down window system and remote keyless entry system.

The Roadmaster, which analysts say will sell for about $20,000, will give the company a car to compete with Ford's Mercury Grand Marquis and, to some extent, the highly successful Lincoln Town Car.

Last year, Buick's share of the total U.S. market was 5.56 percent, up from 5.52 percent in 1988 and 5.44 percent in 1987. Company officials are working toward regaining the 9-percent stake Buick held in the mid-1980s.

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