By on April 13, 2010

Enough of VW hippie buses and the counterculture. What we need is an antidote, the polar opposite of the VW bus: genuine Detroit iron, slathered with some less genuine vinyl applique. A Buick Roadmaster wagon, an All-American icon, will do the job nicely. These aren’t exactly common in Eugene, but one of our more prominent citizens drove one of these before he died; in fact this might be his very car. And who might I be referring to?

Ken Kesey. Yup, the last time I saw him and his wife Faye tooling through town, he was driving one exactly like this, although I don’t remember his having lost its front fender wood. How utterly perfect and fitting, for the original Merry Prankster to be driving a big Buick woody.

Let’s not forget the underlying message of the Pranksters: don’t take things so damn seriously, because things are not always what they appear to be. Or my (adopted) version: just because you think it doesn’t make it true. Anyway, maybe Ken just liked the big cushy seats and a nice soft ride. Probably some of both.

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63 Comments on “Curbside Classic Outtake: Defying Stereotypes (Again)...”


  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    I may yet get one of these, if I can find a decent one….or a Fleetwood. I have lots of great memories of my 95 Impala SS, the great ride and acceleration. I was easy to overlook the mismatched interior plastics and the misaligned rear wheels (a common Impala problem, though not a big deal)

    Let’s not forget that these died when the Arlington plant was switched to full size SUV’s to feed the craze. I think that plant is pretty quiet now?

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      “Let’s not forget that these died when the Arlington plant was switched to full size SUV’s to feed the craze. I think that plant is pretty quiet now?”

      I don’t know about that plant but when that announcement was made I started my own personal GM Deathwatch. April 1996, the day the music died for me. I so badly wanted an LT1 powered Roadmaster to replace my 1987 Cutlass Sedan.

    • 0 avatar
      superbadd75

      Actually, no, they’re not quiet at all. They run at least two shifts out there, and my customers that work there mention that they’ve been quite busy. Arlington is doing just fine. For now. If gas goes up much more that could change rather quickly.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      The plant which made these vehicles but died was Willow Run Assy., in Ypsilanti, Mich.. Production was consolidated at Arlington, TX before the change-over to full-size SUV production.

      Edit: I think the other plant that qualified as dying was Cadillac’s original home plant at Clark Avenue in Detroit, Mich., the Fleetwood production from there went to Arlington, TX too IIRC.

  • avatar
    rnc

    My grandmother had one of these, spent alot of time as a 14yr old flying around her small country town with her as my co-pilot (she was brave). I can see how people would miss these things, they were exactly what they were intended to be.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Love the last of the B-bodies. I’m watching a couple of eBay auctions on them right now. Roadmaster wagons and Impala SSs seem to be the majority of survivors, too bad my significant other has an irrational hatred of wagons brought on by a stinky motion sick inducing 85 Caprice Classic with vinyl siding.

  • avatar

    Enjoying one of these right now. 1991 Caprice, 305/700R-4, 135,000 miles, tight and rot free as can be. Bought from original owner for $1,000. Have driven it from Pittsburgh to Nashville and back as well as to the in-laws in Syracuse. Helps keep the miles off my wife’s ’05 Outback and gets MPG in low 20′s at steady 70-75MPH.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Further.

  • avatar
    ott

    I remember seeing a Caprice Wagon done up as an Impala SS about 10 years ago. Black on Black with the Impala wheels and badges, this thing was HOT and well done. Don’t think GM ever built an Impala SS wagon, but upon seeing that recreation, I wished mightily that they had. Beautiful.

    • 0 avatar
      whynotaztec

      Also see if you can find pics of the El Camino version – that looked nice too.

      Lots of love for these on here, why the heck didn’t they sell more? And yes they are pretty big, especially the wagons from the rear. But my Impala held 3 infant car seats across the back seat, no problem.

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    All us owners just love our Roadmonsters. GM, please bring it back – and I mean full size and with an LS-1.

    • 0 avatar
      ott

      I second that Mark, though with the untimely demise of the awesome Hemi Dodge Magnum, I don’t think GM is too eager to step into that particular part of the pond, especially now. Pity…

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I always liked these. After spending a few years in an Olds 98 and a Cadillac Brougham from the 80s with the anemic 307, the idea of that LT1 engine appealed to me. But it was a shame that GM couldn’t figure a way to put the Gen-U-Ine Buick front clip on the wagon. And in my area, the rear quarter panels developed rust holes on any of these that saw anything approaching normal use.
    Even recently, I was looking for something that could serve my family of 5 following the sudden death by traffic accident of my 1st Gen Odyssey, but I couldn’t sell my kids on the rear facing back seat or my wife on the gas mileage.
    Oh well, maybe someday.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    Lord, that beast should have its own zip code!

  • avatar

    I thinking remember when these came, “why???”

    I still don’t understand the appeal, but I’m trying. Anyone?

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      What eggsalad said below you is my response. I’m more balanced in saying that the B-body from GM and the Panther platform from Ford are the pinnacle of American V8 powered 4 door front engine rear drive design that is accessible to the masses. The Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300, and Dodge Magnum come close but the availability of tiny little 2.7ltr V6s in those cars keep them off the top of the heap in my mind.

      After the B-Body stopped production in April of 96 and now that the Panther platform is ceasing production there’s nothing left for us to buy that’s V8 powered RWD with 4 doors other than cars made by foreign companies and crew cab trucks and SUVs. And I am one person who HATES SUVS and trucks all luxed up! TRUCKS SHOULD WORK! SUVS SHOULD ACTUALLY GO OFF-ROAD OR BE OWNED BY PEOPLE WITH 8 KIDS OR A MILE LONG DRIVEWAY THAT NEVER GETS PLOWED IN ARCTIC WINTERS, NOT 90lb SOCCER MOMS! (rant off)

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      After the B-Body stopped production in April of 96 and now that the Panther platform is ceasing production there’s nothing left for us to buy that’s V8 powered RWD with 4 doors other than cars made by foreign companies and crew cab trucks and SUVs.

      There is the aforementioned Chrysler LX-platform sedans. Also, the CTS-V and Northstar STS are V8, RWD sedans.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      But how accessible to the masses are they? (The Caddies I mean. They’re a lot less exclusive than Cadillacs used to be but still a lot more exclusive than my teacher salary will allow.)

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Not when new. The Cadillac depreciation curve can make it doable if you really want one though.

      However, I don’t think there are any new V8 vehicles currently for sale that I would consider “accessible to the masses”. $30K is pretty much the entry price for eight cylinders unless you want to buy a regular-cab truck or a full-size van.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Honestly, these are the ultimate expression of the body-on-frame automobile, based on some 70 years of GM experience.

    Also to add… these things can TOW. Most passenger cars sold today come with a recommendation against towing. I think if you ordered the tow package, these wagons could tow 6000 lb.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    Of the 3 wagons: Caprice, Roadmaster and the Oldsmobile one (don’t remember the name) I liked the Olds more.

    Seen a couple of them down here. FTW

    • 0 avatar
      MadHungarian

      The Olds was the Custom Cruiser. They are rarely seen because they were only made in 1991-92. Olds got basically all the Buick features without the woodgrain and with better front styling. The Roadmaster front clip is a bit of a cheat, with a Buick-ish grille designed to fit the Caprice grille opening. Look at a Roadmaster sedan and you will see the difference. All the Oldsmobiles, and the 1991-93 Buicks, got one of the best instrument panels ever put by GM into a non-sports car. A full complement of readable round analog gauges (simple is good).

    • 0 avatar
      Bimmer

      No wonder I’ve never heard, let alone seen Olds version. Since in two years of production only 12,010 were made.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      I always liked the styling of the Oldsmobile version best but have seen very few over the years. When I see one and my neck snaps around I always have trouble explaining to people I’m with why that’s just as interesting to me as an exotic supercar with similarly low production numbers.

    • 0 avatar
      Stingray

      Of the last gen B-Body cars I’ve seen down here:
      * 91-92 Caprices, imported officially by GM, also imported by the political police. People usually call them the “Platillo Volador” or flying saucer (to lazy to translate and used Google translator, which found yesterday has got very good).
      * Roadmaster sedan.
      * Caprice Wagon
      * Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser
      * 95-96 Caprices, V6 and V8

      Don’t remember having seen the Buick wagon
      The Olds I saw had some light blue color, but it rocked. And last year I found a cheap Caprice wagon that I missed :(

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    I must humbly and truthfully report that whenever my 13-year-old daughter sees one of these on the road (seldom) she cries out, “That’s the ugliest car ever!” Her taste runs towards Porsches, so she’s not all wrong.

    I think these bulbous uber-wagons look like suppositories, myself, but I never say so because I don’t want to explain what that word means.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Does your daughter get conflicted when she sees a Cayenne? ;O)

    • 0 avatar
      john.fritz

      I had a roommate back in the nineties that repeatedly stated these cars were the biggest pieces of shit that GM ever made.

      I never missed an opportunity to vigorously disagree with him on this point. Although I have been driving Panther platforms exclusively since about 1994, I absolutely love these cars.

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    Ah, the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. I had an `83 with no side paneling. One of about seven Oldsmobiles I have owned. I always preferred the `90 and below B-body wagons.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Until the early part of this century when the old fellow retired and sold the franchise, my father’s boss who owned a John Deer Dealership had his salesmen exclusively driving 1979 to 1990 B-body wagons. Drove them for parts deliveries to farmers and for deliveries of new and used lawn mowers. He personally put 400,000 miles on one 1983 Caprice Wagon with only a transmission replacement. My father had one of those things parked in the driveway painted up green and yellow with John Deer stickers all over it for most of my childhood. Everything from Caprices to Pontiac Safaris to Oldsmobile Custom Cruisers and the rarely seen Buick Estate. I had one of them flat out with the speedometer buried a couple of times and found it quite stable at speed.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    I always think of big old boats like this as Millenium Falcon cars, per Luke Skywalker’s first comment upon seeing that Corellian cruiser.

    The automotive landscape has moved beyond these tanks: people who want BOF, RWD, and bulk bought Tahoes and Suburbans, while people who wanted a sedan bought Impalas and Devilles. The non-fleet sales of the Crown Vic in its last decade of general availability serve as an effective epitaph for the form.

    Still, it’s an interesting exercise to ponder what might have happened if the VT Holden Calais had in fact been brought over here as the 1997 Buick Roadmaster. Probably nothing…

  • avatar

    Aren’t these the cars that Americans think of – big, floaty and terminally uncool – when they think station wagon?
    And is it not the reason why the choice for wagons are so few in North America?
    No doubt they offer a lot of utility, considering most of them I see today have ladders on the roof and paint cans or carpet in the back,but there are unintended consequences to this as well.
    Personally I’m surprised by the number of fans for this land barge, but to each their own.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    These have their place…my friend’s dad bought a 1980 Custom Cruiser Diesel fully maxed out. We called it the Luxury Liner. I can still here the Talking Heads playing “Electric Guitar”, the smell of many one-hits, and the clink of spent whippets on the floor…

    • 0 avatar
      GeneralMalaise

      “… the clink of spent whippets on the floor…”

      Good Lord, I’ve heard of wild, misspent youth, but how many of the streamlined hounds would you go through in an average afternoon?

      Oh… you meant whippits? Bad for the brain cells.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Wow! What a flashback. My mom was absolutely mortified when the original title for this article came out.

    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/steven-lang-gets-a-woody/

    If gas were $1 a gallon I would still have it around. The car that is…

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Forget everything I said. Lang’s assessment is the reason people miss these cars. Everything he said is spot on.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      glad you clarified that … for a moment, i thought we would have to explain the meaning of “chronic priapism”…

    • 0 avatar
      Stingray

      I have one nice idea. Remove the 3rd row of seat, and use the space for some CNG tanks. Rear suspension reinforcement is a must.

      Swap an LSX powertrain… hehehehehemmmmm. Cheap, from a wrecked Silverado. From that platform and some money: LS6 or better heads, Corvette cam, headers, 400HP

      Enjoy.

      It would work for me perfectly locally. Gas is like 0.05$/gallon and CNG is free :D. Free > Cheap.

      Crap, I almost forgot, hide 1 or 2 tanks of naaaaawwwwzzzz, and use a 150 or 300HP wet shot. With the LS1, the additional weight in the back and naaaaawwwwzzzzz you’d have a very very nice sleeper. Flawless Victory.

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    The sheer ginormousness of it! Fold the rear seats down and host a swinger’s party in the back… AND transport a coffin to the cemetary… without mussing your hair.

    It’s a beautiful thing.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    God, do these ever suck.

    The roofline made it a pain to get stuff and people in and out, they took up acres of parking space (oh, sorry, did you want to be able to open a door?) but were still kind of low inside. They wallowed, sucked gas, trim pieces fell off, etc. Mechanically they were ok once you replaced all the under-spec’ed OEM parts.

    That the body was built to sag was just icing on the cake.

    I can completely understand how minivans and later, SUVs, kicked the crap out of cars like this. The Caravan/Voyager succeeded in spades despite being mechanically crap; these were relatively reliable and died despite that.

    As a kid who grew up in this era, give me a wood-panelled Magic Wagon (or an Aerostar, or a Toyota Van, or even a VW) eight days a week.

    • 0 avatar
      MadHungarian

      Umm, are we talking about the same cars? These wagons were well known (and still are) for returning mileage in the low 20′s. Better than mmost fullsize SUV’s with the same cargo and towing capacity. More than twice the mileage of a typical 1970′s fullsize wagon. Sadly, they still qualified for Cash for Clunkers, just barely, because of EPA’s retroactive manipulation of the numbers.

      The liftover height is much lower than most SUV’s. They’e not as tall inside as some SUV’s, but they are MUCH longer, and that is much more useful in the real world.

      I’ve seen these used up and beat to hell, but not sagging. Never heard of that as an issue. They do tend to lose some trim bits. In that respect the 1977-90 generation was better made (except for the notorious falling headliners of that era). Mechanically they seem to run forever (opinions differ, but I think the 1991-93 are more trouble free than the LT-1) and being a Chevy small block RWD drivetrain, you can’t get much easier or cheaper to fix than that.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Maybe it’s an age thing, but we had one of these, courtesy of my maternal grandfather who worked at GM but lost his license due to a few DUIs, for a few months. At the time, my parents were driving a Corolla and we were a family of five, and the room was helpful. It certainly allowed my parents to save a little longer for a real minivan.

      At the end of the six months we were all pretty tired of the wallowy ride and impossible-to-park dimensions; my parents were certainly done with the miserable in-city mileage (if I recall, 10mpg or so was about par). Chrysler’s vans were a miracle by comparison, but my parents were so soured on Chrysler products by my paternal grandfather’s Dodge Aspen that they picked Toyota’s oddball Van instead. The Van seated seven in more comfort than Caprice, nearly doubled the Chevy’s city mileage and could be parked on a whim (88″ wheelbase, baby!).

      These cars appeal to gearheads, but actual families defected to minivans (especially the front-drive Chryslers) for a really good reason.

      The “sag” comment has more to do with the general visual look of these cars. Perhaps “beached whale” might be more accurate.

  • avatar
    MusicMachine

    A white wood-grained Roadmaster nailed the rear of my ’87 Nissan Sentra–totaling it. I don’t think the Buick’s hood was even wrinkled! The woman driving, however, like my Nissan–SMASHED!
    If we can’t keep the drunks off the road; PERHAPS WE SHOULD MAKE ALL THE CARS THE SAME SIZE???!!!

  • avatar
    dcdriver

    The George Clooney character in the movie “Burn After Reading” drove one of these. It came in handy for his home depot runs for parts for that “machine” he built in the basement.

  • avatar
    ConejoZing

    Pontiac Family Station Wagon … early EARLY memories. Dad used to throttle that thing HARD on the onramps. If memory serves me correctly, I seem to recall the Pontiac was rather un Buick … kind of a shuddering terminal intensity. This Pontiac station wagon probably made any possibility of me being a longterm Oldsmobile or Buick driver nearly impossible lol.

    Then there was that Ford…

    Ford Aerostar family “Minivan” – some of my favorite moments in life happened when the Aerostar was the family ride. Final Fantasy 2 (aka 4), Zelda Link to the Past, epic elementary school adventures.

    Ah, nostalgia.

  • avatar
    UnclePete

    B-body wagons are great. I see at least one (and not the same one) every day here in central NH. The fact these are still around in “salt country” says a lot right there.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    “It was easy to overlook … the misaligned rear wheels (a common Impala problem, though not a big deal)”

    The wagons did have a wider track on the back axle than the front end. This was necessary to accommodate a 4×8 sheet of plywood between the rear wheel housings. I think it also made the GM full-size wagon more stable for roof loads and towing. I don’t know Ford managed the 4′ interior width without widening the rear track on their wagons, but their wagons look awkward with the body overhanging the rear wheels, and just can’t be as stable. Cheaper to produce, no doubt, and unlike the GM’s odd width, the Ford wagons were a source of positraction rear axles for customizers.

    Certain people loved these wagons because they could do duty as either a limousine or pickup truck. Many of these wagons ended their lives as house painter’s vehicles. The large floor offered lots of space without stacking paint cans, and the low roof was easy to load ladders on. If you had a purpose for owning one, they made perfect sense. The demolition derby circuit has been eating them up for quite a lot of years now.

    The model run of these wagons needed to be preserved by lopping a wasted foot off both ends and 6″ off the width, without making them into Malibu wagons. That would be very close to a Ford Taurus X. GM was remiss in not providing rear seat headrests, and, stupidly, the back seat never had a split folding feature. On the other hand, the 3-way tailgate was brilliant.

    I had a ’79 Impala wagon for 11 years. 350ci, 4bbl, positraction. The simple installation of Monroe air shocks cured the sagging tail end. Cruised at 20mpg and capable of 24mpg. With 6 people aboard, that was 120 miles per passenger gallon. All of those 6 people could be in on a conversation, unlike the people in the far ends of a 3-row minvan. A flip of the back seat provided a large flat sleeping area.

    It had a surprisingly tight turning radius, and was incredibly stable on snow and ice. Very predictable handling allowed it to be drifted with ease. The positraction and a load in the back made it formidable for steep climbs and in deep snow.

    It survived hundreds of trips up logging roads, and never developed a rattle or leaked dust. But the paint continually exfoliated, and the body steel rusted enthusiastically. It did without the wood siding, but had very classy looking 2-tone silver and grey paint, divided by a pinstripe. The stylish roofrack added a finishing touch.

    These wagons had three body versions. The original ’77-’79′s, the ’80-’89(?), and the ’90-’93. Or something like that. The original ones were angular, with the rear doors mounted awkwardly crooked to transition between the sedan’s front half and the wider cargo area of the wagon. The ’80+’s were more rounded with a lower hood. The rear doors were curved to make the width transition. The very rounded final generation absorbed the width variations in the body style.

    Probably the rarest version is the Olds Custom Cruiser version with the sceni-cruiser roof windows.

    There’s a club in Europe that collects these cars!

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    During the run of the first two generations of the wagons, the Canadian Parisiene sedan for a year or two had integrated bumpers. Because it had rear fender skirts, it had no fender flares. It was a fairly aerodynamic-looking thing, although I don’t know if its mileage was any better. The bumpers on all the other versions of these cars stuck out to the sides, and they had wheelhouse flares.

    So when they made the Pontiac Safari for those years, it had an integrated front bumper and a protruding rear one (which was wider than the front to begin with). Because it used Pontiac sedan front fenders, it had no flares on them. But it used the Chev wagon rear end, which did have fender flares. So it had a very clumsily-assembled appearance.

    Our lives are incomplete without knowing such things.

  • avatar
    TG57

    There are a lot of these big 1990s GM wagons here in Michigan, including the more uncommon two-year-only 1991-1992 Custom Cruiser variant. I’ve always found the Olds the most desirable, not only for the extra rarity, but the body-colored trim details, two-tone paint scheme, split grille, Olds rims, and “vista roof” make it quite a bit cooler looking than the Caprice or Roadmaster (yes, I know the Buick has the Vista Roof too, but the rest still stands). The Buick definitely has the best interior, though – I’ve never sat in a Roadmaster but those seats have always looked soooo luxurious and comfy, and that dashboard is far better than the pre-1994 Chevy one, which pretty much sucked with its ugly and hard to read strip speedometer with (IIRC) hardly any other gauges at all.

    I understand that a minivan or even an SUV is probably more practical for an actual family all things considered, but I would take a full-size wagon over those any day. Yeah, they are terrible to park, and get pretty poor fuel economy in the city, but they are decently useful for hauling/towing and more importantly to me have the character, novelty value, and class (relatively speaking) that an Explorer or Caravan sorely lacks. Some day I will pick up a pampered, elderly owned, low-mileage example of one of these on the cheap and use it as a lazy cruiser for relaxed weekend drives. Ahhh… how lovely it is just to imagine that.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      The Buick definitely has the best interior, though – I’ve never sat in a Roadmaster but those seats have always looked soooo luxurious and comfy…

      You assume correctly. Particularly in the Limited.

  • avatar
    Disaster

    IMHO, the Caprice, and it’s siblings, were a HUGE breath of fresh air compared to the other horrible styling GM was putting out at the time. Never understood the fake wood siding on any vehicle…Ughhhh.

    Wonder when we’ll go full circle back to wagons….Wagons, Minivans, SUVs, CUVs,…..Wagon?

  • avatar
    mcarr

    I loved these cars, but never got to own one. Can you imagine if GM were to reincarnate the Caprice? 5.3 V8, 6-speed, the MDS might actually work with a more aerodynamic vehicle than a Silverado. I’m guessing 25+ mpg. SS version with the 400hp 6.2. Then bring out the baby Duramax diesel and get 30+ mpg. If someone made a car that could actually tow something, I wouldn’t need a truck.

  • avatar
    A is A

    “Or my (adopted) version: just because you think it doesn’t make it true”

    “A is A” is shorter.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    There’s a house around the corner from me that has two B-body wagons in the driveway. Always makes me smile when I go by, I miss big wagons, reminds me of being a kid.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    As the father of a big family, I really wanted to like this car. I tried and tried to justify buying one of them used, since I wasn’t even married when they first appeared. I love big wagons.

    But the problem was the quality. These cars have the nastiest, cheapest looking interior. The gaps within the IP panels and flimsiest door panels just cried out “temporary”. Every knob and switch wiggled as though it was a $10 electric fan. The humongous intrument panels filled with blank plastic vinyl lacked any intention beyond covering the glove box.

    These cars lumbered like a Macy’s Thanksgiving float. The front fenders swept over the hood horizon with no indication of where they ended. These cars squeaked, rattled and groaned like a forty year old car.

    Even with massive station wagon lust, these GM wagons couldn’t turn me on like most station wagons do. I wish they did because there is a part of me that really likes daddy cars like that.

  • avatar
    big_gms

    These cars seem to have a dedicated following today. Locally, there was a 1991 or 1992 Custom Cruiser for sale at a local used car dealer. It looked nice and clean. It stayed on the lot for about a week and then it was gone, while many of the other cars on the lot have been there for weeks or in some cases, months.

    There’s a small outfit here in the Midwest, can’t remember where or what it’s called, that specializes in fixing and selling these cars and absolutely nothing else. They buy wrecked ones for parts and do some restoration work, IIRC. I met one of the guys at the Iola (Wisconsin) old car show several years ago and got his business card, which of course I’ve lost since then. They have a small website, too, but I’ll be damned if I can find it.

    The ironic thing about these cars is that when they came out, everybody hated the styling. Now, 14-20 years later, people love ‘em.


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