Albtraum Auto: 1985 Buick Skyhawk

A 1985 Buick Skyhawk parked across the street from my building a few weeks back and it has been haunting me ever since. 


This car has just been on my mind since late June. I don’t have any good reason for why I can’t put it away, file it back into my hard drive – mental or digital. That Lagonda came and passed. That Challenger came and passed. I still keep coming back to this Skyhawk, wondering what stirs my obsession, wondering what or why or how I feel about this car.

How many people have been run over by Buick Skyhawks?

How many workers did GM lay off because of bad cars like this Skyhawk?

How many times did this car’s owner get passed over for a promotion to still drive this rusted old car with a mismatching front right hubcap?

These questions and other increasingly inane worries haunt me as I continue to fawn over the flat brown panels, as I dream about the shakes and rattles through the steering wheel, as I fantasize about this junkyard bait. From no perspective in the world of automotive commentary is this a good car. Historically it represents the nadir of General Motors – the mid eighties were troubled years for the leader of the American automotive industry and this Skyhawk almost proudly displays the marks of its deadly sins. Amid a dizzying series of vast investments in high technology in manufacturing and engineering, GM let its both its design and its quality control whither. Cars from across the divisions were built poorly and at high cost. Look at the hole of rust just beside the gleaming emblem touting fuel injection and GM’s failure to create competitive products seems all too clear. Moreover, the Skyhawk was a part of the first wave of cars GM marketed to the public by its chassis designation; this Buick shared an much of its shape and construction with Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac as one of the “J-Cars”. Vauxhalls, Opels, Toyotas, Isuzus, and Holdens all shared the J-Body, a platform that lived on as in America in the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire to 2004 and 2005, respectively. In spite of the shared development costs, in spite of the large volumes of cars sold these cars all seem to be failures, eroding away at the company itself.


From a contemporary driving perspective the Skyhawk is a shitty car. It’s one crash from being totaled. It’s a beater. It almost certainly shakes and grumbles its way down the road because even when new it was hardly an exceptional vehicle – crude components let down by weak construction defined the car. The sheen of newness has fully faded and the harsh sun of 2011 rose on very few Buick Skyhawks – their rareness does not speak to much engineering merit.


From a social standpoint the Skyhawk seems most troubled. While many architects and planners may dream of a world where what kind of car you drive doesn’t matter, where the propaganda of planned obsolescence and “you are what you drive” don’t lead people to buy into such a destructive, consumptive machine, today people reflect much of their life onto their commuter cars. The unattended dents, scrapes, scratches, and holes you see would probably have been fixed, if only the owner had the money to do so. Actually, no – the cost of replacing this car with something more modern and more respectable is low enough that if the owner had much more money at all, this Buick would be in a junkyard. So this car is no plaything and no crush could ever be appropriate. A commuter car like this old two-door sedan is much more representative of automotive ills than of toy-like joys. These are the cars that sit in traffic for years on end. These are the cars that get drunk-driven. These are the cars that account for more than thirty thousand vehicle related-deaths per year.

Where do these melodramatic thoughts come from?

Why do I obsess with the negative with this Buick?

As if it wasn’t obvious already, I deeply adore this car. Perhaps I only foster thoughtless dreams of freedom from the possession of nice things. Perhaps it is part of a longing to escape from the pressure of finding success in employment. Perhaps I’m only using this Buick Skyhawk to vent some pent up angst of a freshly unemployed college graduate.

But there still feels to be something deeper in this car, be it even just a base attraction to its brown paint and dated styling.

It must have just been something in the light that makes me think it’s pretty.

It must just be some psychological something that makes me think I like it.

It must just be misguided feelings, a stupid crush.

It is time for my tortured fling with an ’85 Buick to come to a close. It’s not healthy. Though my feelings are certainly confused as to what I think this car stands for or how I alternatively idolize and denounce those symbols, this car remains somewhat distant from its associations. It’s just a dumb machine. Tell it to drive fast along a mountain road and it will not think. You will be thrilled, but the car will not be thinking, trying to thrill you. Tell it to drive straight into a wall and it will do so. It will not think. It is a thoughtless, dumb machine. Still, I can’t help but see something more in this old brown Buick. Actually, there’s something I need to say to this Skyhawk. I…I love you.

For Reference:

I found this great little forum thread of some totally unabashed J-Car love and its internationality. I also found a look at how GM marketed its platform-sharing here, in this 1982 NYTimes article by Thomas Friedman, as well as a critical perspective on GM’s 1980s manufacturing troubles here in a 1995 article by Ward’s AutoWorld. And in case you’re wondering what “Albtraum Auto” means, it’s German for “nightmare car”, but it seems to me to often get used in newspaper headlines to refer to a breakdown of the automotive-based portions of German society. Global warming, traffic jams, acid rain – these are all topics that might bet the title “Albtraum Auto’, which might be best translated as “nightmare: cars”. If there any Germans out there reading this who think I’m off base, drop a line in the comments section.

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