Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Buick made them go slow, too

The 1984 Buick Riviera Torch Relay Car

Certainly Buick in the 1980's is best remembered for creating two of the fastest production cars in history- the Grand National and the legendary GNX. These two rocket ships challenged the traditional view of Buick and along the way managed to embarrass a lot of Ferrari buyers. Darth Buick, as they were nicknamed, is the stuff of legends.

But Buick was a bit more versatile than that, and also managed to engineer a fleet of cars to go slow. Yes, slow. It's a fun story and it turns out there's a lot of engineering involved in making a slow car.

Buick's Offical Olympic Sponsor Logo

Buick signed on to be be a major sponsor of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It would be the first hosting of the Summer games on American soil since 1932, which coincidentally were also held in LA. Buick felt that the publicity of the Olympics would bring enormous new exposure to its fine line of cars.

The Torch Relay Route included 33 states

One major part of the buildup to the games was the Torch Relay. For the games of 1984, an enormous 84 day relay was planned, beginning at the United Nations in New York and ending up at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles some eighty-four days and seven thousand miles later. And the pace car for such an event would be a very special Buick.

Actually, more than one. Three Turbocharged 1984 Riviera Convertibles were prepared as Torch Relay Pace Cars. Powered by the same basic engine as a Grand National, these cars were modified not for speed, but for slow endurance. They had enormously advanced computer controlled cooling and electrical power output systems- they were designed to be able to traverse all kinds of terrain smoothly and at speeds of 2 to 12 mph. The Rivieras were accompanied at all times by a fleet of two new front drive Electra sedans, and affiliated GMC support vans. In all, a total of 32 specially prepared slow moving vehicles were constructed for the special Olympic fleet.

Period advertisement touting Buick's involvement in the Torch Relay

The Torch is carried through the Buick Plants (from All Things Buick)

The white Buick Torch Relay fleet performed flawlessly as it traversed the country at a speed averaging 6 mph. The route traversed the United States in a series of zig zags reaching major cities in 33 of the 50 states. In deference to Buick, the Torch Relay traveled right through Buick's Headquarters in Flint, MI where Buick employees carried the Olympic Flame between the plant buildings while their coworkers cheered them on.

The Torch passes through Northridge, CA

All told, over 3,600 runners were part of the historic event. Gina Helphill, granddaughter of Olympian Jesse Owens was the first torch bearer and Rafer Johnson was the last, carrying the Torch into Memorial Coliseum on July 28, 1984.

The Torch is carried through the City of Orange, CA

The Torch Relay pace car for that final leg was car number 31, one of the three Riviera convertibles. At the comclusion of the games, the car was presented to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum as a momento of the games from Buick. It remains in their collection today, in as new condition, and can be viewed once a month when their vehicle fleet is open to the public.

Torch Relay Riviera #31 in the basement of the Natural History Museum.

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