It’s axiomatic that the smaller a general’s army, the greater the gold braid, medals and festoons on his uniform. The same is often true of automobiles. At least it was with the 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replica.
During the 1970s, the double whammy of emissions and serial fuel crises saw visual horsepower proliferate as the real stuff evaporated following assorted governmental edicts. Indeed, the 1976 Buick Century coupe would be wrapped with expansive sheets of decals, covering the better part of its doors and rear fenders in a bright orange and black “Free Spirit” eagle motif, as well as orange and black stripes on the hood, and a blacked-out tail panel.
At least the Century came by its decoration honestly. Buick had provided the Indianapolis 500 pace car in 1975, and quickly accepted the honor again the following year’s Indy 500; there’s loads of publicity to be had in pacing The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It was usually necessary to modify a production car to handle the task: taking corners at speed and accelerating quickly enough for the restarts. Often, the pace car “replicas” sold to the public are merely similar in appearance to the actual track-use car. The ’75 pace car, for example, was a Century powered by a 455-cubic inch (7460 cc) V-8. Under the hood of the replica was the ubiquitous and yawn-worthy General Motors 350 cubic inch V-8.
The ’76 actual race pacer had a turbocharged V6 that, with about 20 pounds of boost, produced 306 horsepower. The 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replica was available with a V6 as well–albeit a normally aspirated one. GM was in the throes of reducing engine sizes, even to the point of putting the 110-horsepower V6 in full-size chassis. Note: that’s not a typo. The Buick Century’s base engine made less power than today’s Mini Cooper. Using the V-6 resulted in the desired fuel economy of about 20 mpg, but also led to acceleration numbers measured in centuries.
However, the 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replica’s six-cylinder engine could be replaced by one of two V-8s, a 350 V8 with either a two- or four-barrel carburetor, rated at 145 horsepower or 165 horsepower respectively (and five ponies less in California due to that states more restrictive emissions regulations). A three-speed automatic was standard with the V8, mandatory with the V6 in California.
Power steering and brakes were still options for the 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replica, but radial tires and front discs had become standard equipment. The 1976 replicas, offered only in silver, got multihued decorations and, just like the real pace car, a gullwing Hurst Hatch roof was available.
Mike Pinto, of Bangor, Pennsylvania, bought one of the 1,291 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replicas Buick built. His had the Hurst T-bar roof, which is partly responsible, Pinto says, for the car still being in such good condition. The roof leaked, and the replacement panels obtained under warranty leaked even worse, so the car was never parked in the rain.
It was, by the way, the closest thing to a convertible from Buick in ’76; the division’s last drop was made the year before.
The doors on this two-door Century are long and heavy, seemingly opening half of the side of the car, though not making entry behind the skinny-rimmed sport steering wheel any easier. The wheel’s hub, with no airbag module, looks oddly small, while the hood is broad and flat. The instrument panel’s only needles are the circular speedometer and the fuel gauge.
The driver of a 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replica receives little information from the numb power steering, but the suspension was agreeably firm. Alas, the Century’s two-ton mass is the stuff of leisurely acceleration for the 145 horses of the Indy 500 pace car replica. As compensation, perhaps, Mike reports it’s an excellent car for long-distance highway driving.
That a next century of technology has advanced today’s cars beyond the performance of the 1970s should be expected, but perhaps this well-preserved example of a dark and trying time shouldn’t be faulted for its ribbons and braids. As the saying goes, one does what one can, and keeping the spirit of performance, if not the real thing, should be recognized. And with the bright plumage of the 1976 Buick Century Indy Pace Car Replica, it’s hard not to notice.