Flip This Car Extra: 1994 Buick Roadmaster—Beast vs. Blizzard

By Christopher Smith

February 21, 2011


Seyth Miersma recently had his own tale of conquering Snowpocalyse 2011 in the Mazda 2 long-termer around Ann Arbor. Since I work outside the Winding Road home office a few hours north, I’m privy to a more rural setting for my daily commuting, but that can bring with it a whole new set of problems when it comes to big snow. The 1994 Buick Roadmaster is still in my grasp; it has proven to be a staple of all-weather reliability and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to relay my own blizzard story as experienced behind the wheel of the Beast. It also gives me a chance to drop a few not-so-sneaky hints as to the upcoming Flip This Car machine for the next series, which also happens to be a white sedan but is decidedly better suited for rallycross. Whoops, there’s a hint already.
Part six is slated to discuss the Beast’s Rally America adventure (which took place just prior to the blizzard) and the final sale, which is still pending. Until then, I offer this firsthand account of how a large, rear-wheel drive sedan wearing all-season truck tires (and a slightly naive automotive journalist) took on nature’s recent wintertime fury.
Tuesday, 8 p.m.: Weather forecasters are saying big time northerly winds should turn east-west roads into scenes from The Day After Tomorrow, and since the drive to my local office is 12 miles due west on a major two-lane followed by a three-mile jaunt south, I briefly consider relying on the recently acquired all-wheel drive replacement to the Roadmaster. Ultimately, mechanical issues and an unfamiliarity with its character in the white stuff prompt me to stick with the Beast, but as a backup plan, I text a coworker with a Jeep Liberty wearing fresh, aggressive rubber. She agrees to caravan with the Buick and I just in case we get in over our heads—figuratively or literally.
Wednesday, 6:50 a.m.: With over an hour reserved for the 15-mile trip, I confidently trudge though a three foot snowdrift to the Beast, sitting in the driveway just outside the garage, facing the unplowed side street. I’m instantly aware of a neighbor stuck in his own driveway a few houses down. I start shoveling mine.
7:01 a.m.: A snow plow clears the left side of my DNA-sized street seconds before I leave. I’m simultaneously happy for the clear path to the main road and upset over having my snowcross challenge unapologetically stripped away.
7:07 a.m.: I successfully arrive at the pre-arranged meeting point for my co-worker (who we'll call  “Ms. Indiana Jeep” or "Ms. Indiana" for short) ahead of schedule. The main roads are snow covered but plowed and lifeless, save for a small convoy of emergency vehicles heading in the direction I need to go. Despite the wind and whipping snow, it looks to be an uneventful journey.
7:15 a.m.: Ms. Indiana arrives, asking about the emergency vehicles and whether or not we should take route B, a decidedly rural road parallel with the main drag. I shrug off the emergency vehicles as they could be heading anywhere.
7:17 a.m.: “Anywhere” actually means a mile or so down the road, to a tractor-trailer slide-off that blocks the whole enchilada. Given no alternative, we retreat to our starting point in the hopes that route B is also plowed, at least enough to detour around the accident.
7:24 a.m.: Route B is reasonably clear on the roads surrounding the accident. We arrive at a four-way intersection that, through a left turn, will take us back to the main drag, but Ms. Indiana continues straight, deciding to give the truly rural east-west road a shot in her brawny Jeep rather than turtle along behind the slower cars we’d caught up with. I assume the road is still plowed in that direction, and that she knows what she’s doing.
7:24:20 a.m.: Ms. Indiana disappears in a massive cloud of snow, as route B further west is in fact an unplowed, two-lane snow globe. We stop not more than a couple hundred feet from the intersection; a white Cavalier that also went straight is hopelessly stuck in what’s easily two feet of snow. I realize Ms. Indiana is actually following a set of tracks on the wrong side of the road, and we're stopped because an oncoming car is in fact using those tracks. I put the Beast in reverse and gingerly apply throttle, figuring we would backtrack to where there actually was a road to follow, but Ms. Indiana instead charges forward once the oncoming car passes, leaving me completely behind. In a moment of sheer insanity, I pull the Beast into first and try to follow.
7:25 a.m.: I crest a small hill barely an eighth of a mile from the hopelessly stranded Cavalier, stopping upon a square of solid asphalt to reevaluate the situation before a monster snow drift reevaluates things for me. I call Ms. Indiana, who stopped a quarter-mile down the road once she realized I wasn’t behind her. She’s pretty much committed to plowing through all of route B, even asking if I’d like to abandon the Beast in the snow and ride with her, despite not being stuck. I politely decline, execute a three-point turn and put my faith in the Roadmaster’s ability to tackle two feet of snow with virtually no momentum, using a single set of tracks as a guide.
7:27 a.m.: Halfway through the two-track, an oncoming Chevrolet Avalanche threatens to thwart my slow but steady progress back to the clear intersection. Fortunately, the Avalanche driver understands the situation and dives into fresh snow to the right, leaving me a “clear” path past the buried Cavalier and back to the intersection. I call Ms. Indiana to inform her of my success. She’s determined to continue her impression of a snow plow, leaving the Beast and I without a wingman for the rest of the journey. It was a Jeep thing—I didn’t understand.
7:36 a.m.: I hold the Beast in second for the two-mile sprint back to the main road, allowing for prolific, manageable power to blast through colossally large snow drifts marring an otherwise plowed surface. My speed and concentration are such that I almost slide through the stop sign once I get there, but with the detour finally completed I’m at least back to some measure of civilization.
7:40 a.m.: The main road is wonderfully plowed and absolutely empty. Having dodged a major crisis on route B, I move to what I perceive as the middle of the street and punch it to make up for lost time. The Beast runs arrow-straight as if it were on a desert highway, digging into the hard pack snow with a determined bite.
7:48 a.m.: I approach the final leg of the commute; three-miles of decidedly rural road punctuated by three hills and a section of medium-speed esses. It doesn’t necessarily see a significant amount of traffic, but with a rather sizable facility employing hundreds of people along the way, surely it would be plowed.
7:50 a.m.: It’s not plowed, and the few tracks meandering down the road say it is deep.
7:50:05 a.m.: I consider parking at a nearby gas station and catching a ride with Ms. Indiana, provided she hasn’t succumbed to the perils of the unbroken route B, but the Roadmaster doesn’t like that idea. It wants to complete the trip. For four months this inanimate object has been silent in its actions or desires, but no longer. Now it’s asking if I have the stones to pull this off, because it damn well has the muscle. We call Mother Nature’s bluff—I execute another manual downshift to second and careen off the main road. This time there would be no turning around.
7:50:15 a.m.: The snow is deeper than I expect and building speed is tough. I have roughly a half-mile to get some momentum before the first hill but there’s a nasty side effect to speed. The snow is so deep that it’s pushing the car up into a type of float that gets worse the faster I go. Keeping the tail in line requires constant correction, and deeper patches of snow keep stealing the momentum I build.
7:51 a.m.: Thin spots in the snow give me extra moments of acceleration, and I crest the hill with surprising gusto, still frantically sawing the wheel for control. Gravity is now an ally, and I apply as much throttle as the conditions will reasonably handle. I reach upwards of 60 miles per hour in preparation for the next hill, but that speed has also turned the Buick into a gigantic snowboard despite its mass.
7:52 a.m.: The phone rings. Ms. Indiana conquered route B and is telling me just how bad the last stretch of road looks, unaware that I’m already deep into it. I tell her I’m busting chops about a mile down, albeit more sideways than not, and to keep an eye out just in case I run into a snowy brick wall or lose the wrestling match with the steering wheel. She doesn’t seem to immediately comprehend that I’m actually ahead of her now, but she at least wishes me good luck before I disconnect the call.
7:53 a.m.: All the time spent playing with the Beast—all the backroads tomfoolery, the SCCA Rallycross, the intentional slow motion throttle oversteer on virtually every snow covered corner—is coming to a head on this stretch of snowy hell. The Buick’s sheer mass is pounding snow out of the way, but momentum is the only way to carry it through the deeper stretches. The second hill is about to be breached and deep snow has me down to around 30, but I’m still moving in and facing (more or less) the right direction. The journey so far has been a moment-by-moment progression; now I give myself the luxury of thinking I might actually make it.
7:54 a.m.:  I crest the third and final hill, having managed to get my speed back up to around 50. With barely a mile to go, only a gentle set of 45 mph esses and a slight uphill grade stand between the Beast, this driver, and a well-earned rest for the both of us. Barring oncoming traffic, there should be no further problems.
7:55 a.m.:  I encounter oncoming traffic—a slightly lifted four-wheel drive Dodge truck—just as I enter the esses. I deftly move out of the track to the right and instantly feel the drag of deep, completely unbroken snow. I add more throttle to compensate, resulting in a snow-blowing drift angle that must have been borderline biblical. In one of those rare freeze-frame moments, I can count the fillings in the mouth of the Dodge’s gape-jawed driver as we pass—the Beast pointing in his direction while power powder sliding the proper line of the corner.
7:56 a.m.:  The Beast and I drift sideways into the snowbound office parking lot, stopping on a few plowed squares near the door. Incredulously, another co-worker has already arrived in a [expletive-deleted] two-wheel drive Ford Ranger, momentarily deflating my triumph over the blizzard. Ms. Indiana arrives two minutes later, her mighty Jeep having cleared 10 miles of unplowed road but in the process losing to not one, but two rear-wheel drive machines sporting all-season tires. She doesn’t care—she’s simply elated to be alive. 
In 17 years of driving I can honestly say that final three-mile balancing act of finding traction through non-stop power sliding, holding momentum, and hammering snow with brute force was among my top five—if not the top three—most intense driving events I’ve ever had the pleasure (or terror) of experiencing. And as this story posts, yet another major winter storm is providing the ingredients for a second epic commute, only this time the new  turbocharged Flip This Car machine is waiting in the garage, ready to attack the elements. But here’s the thing: In the morning, it’s not going anywhere.
Why is that? You guessed it—the Buick is still sitting in the driveway and it’s hungry for more snow. More importantly, I’m hungry for more Buick. What a freakin’ car.