Is this six-wheel Buick a prototypical tribute to Pennsylvania?


The concept of states’ rights, whereby a state in the USA retains a level of political autonomy from the federal government, is certainly a hot topic these days. It’s protected under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and, though everyone can agree that there are pros and cons to every move the government makes, which side this six-wheeled Buick belongs on is certainly up for debate.

You see, it takes a special set of circumstances to create a three-axle, two-door version of Buick’s 1971 flagship model, the Electra. It has a second rear axle that drops down like the landing gear of an airplane, and the second set of wheels ostensibly helps the Buick track straight and true in foul winter weather. (More on that later—we aren’t pulling that theory out of thin air).

All of this period-correct engineering is currently for sale on Facebook Marketplace (we discovered it via The Drive) for the thought-provoking price of $100,000. The car appears to have been restored to a high standard after years of neglect, at least from the handful of photos and the unintentionally cryptic description provided. And that’s where the story goes cattywampus across the Internet: Plenty of news outlets coyly suggest this could be a prototype made with the blessings of the Buick factory. The suggestion is made with a wink and a smile, so let’s unpack what’s going on here.

The “Deuce and a Quarter” donor car was originally penned under the strict tutelage of Bill Mitchell. Though he was known for better people skills than his predecessor, Mitchell still fought hard to earn a legacy laden with success. We may never know whether he would have green-lit this packaging nightmare six-wheel prototype, had the sketches come across his desk, but his aesthetic design philosophy would likely have guaranteed its demise. (And perhaps the GM designer with the stones to create such an oddity would be looking for a new job … )

Even if GM’s design department would have signed off on this Electra, there’s the matter of making such additions while passing federal safety guidelines. The early 1970s was an era in which the government mandated only the most basic of safety features, so a three-axle prototype could pass muster. (Not anymore, hence why modern experiments usually bolt stuff up to a pre-approved body. More on that later.)

This Electra raises the question: Even if GM’s Design studio would kill it with fire, would the feds be interested in encouraging the industry to pursue the three-axle concept?

The good folks at take all the guesswork out of the equation. They reiterate what is listed in the Facebook Marketplace ad: The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT) issued a state grant in 1971 (1972?) for a whopping $60,000 dollars, with the goal of creating a rear-wheel-drive vehicle that was less likely to oversteer in wintry conditions. If this prototype Buick was the fruit of such an effort, it suggests that extra wheels make a vehicle safer and, more to the point, less likely to wreak havoc on paved roads than studded tires.

Let’s assume it did prove such a point, and marinate on that situation: $60,000 in taxpayer funds to heavily modify a car with the intention of reducing the need for studded winter rubber. That’s a little over $440,000 in today’s dollars, a princely sum to protect roads—and at the expense of automotive R&D budgets. Think of the handling penalty of having all that weight back there!

So here we are in 2023, looking at a seemingly well-restored Buick Electra with two extra wheels. (Someone had the foresight to get six Buick rally wheels to add some period-correct style.) PENNDOT, surprisingly, is still handing out grants to (seemingly) worthy causes. Hopefully, the state’s selection criteria have advanced as much as automotive technology has improved in the last 52 years. We’re crossing our fingers that the PENNDOT archives date back to the creation of the prototype Buick: With any luck, the next owner can contact the state’s archives in Harrisburg, learn this vehicle’s full story, and share it so all may know.

Compared to the automotive experiments on the road these days, the Electra’s fender skirt alone is admirable, a tribute to a moment in time when aesthetic elegance truly mattered. It reminds us of a moment we may never see again: A craftsman painstakingly modifying a car bought with money earned from a state grant. Today’s experimental self-driving vehicles are backed by corporations with deep pockets, and the prototypes wear their expensive, bolt-on sensors as marks of honor. We taxpayers may have reservations about both in our society, but these two cars are certainly a study in contrasts.

The auto industry has accomplished a heckuva lot for safety with software these days, but it’s delightful to see what we did decades ago, when heavy-handed hardware changes were the best options we had. Let’s hope more is unearthed about this particular Buick Electra in the coming months.




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    Studded winter tires were banned where I live decades ago. Other places allow them and only sand the roads…

    Not sure anyone has ever followed-up and studied non-metal studs to see if they are as bad for the roads.

    Considering the damage the “brine” mix does to bridges and everything else along the roadside the mechanical wear of the road with metal studded tires might actually be further ahead.

    At first, I thought it must have a hot tub in the trunk or something, and was previously owned by Hugh Hefner. Interesting to learn that it maybe was a study in winter-handling, and even more interesting that it might have been state funded. I hope we learn more of its full history as time goes on.

    This desktop written article leaves too many questions. Love to see the axle set up, interior shots. Something that shows how to possibly engage the system. This article like too many on this sight are couch pieces. I enjoy the find but you leave too much to the imagination lol.

    Sad but true. Considering the seller isn’t very tech savvy (the Facebook seller giving the modest amount of info is doing it as a favor) this might be all we get until the next owner does more online documentation. If you got an extra 100k lying around, have I got a deal for you. 🙂

    With a little more effort, a 5th wheel (7th wheel?) attachment for pulling a big trailer could be added. And Caddy’s 500-cube engine for all that weight!

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