Steven Lang Gets a Woody (Wagon)

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
steven lang gets a woody wagon

The Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was God’s gift to Perry Como fans and the very last of the great all-American trucksters. It was also my gift to the family for last year’s Christmas road trip. I figured I’d nix my penchant for narrow European wagons to forestall the cantankerous habits of our two darling creatures. They needed space. We needed space… and boy, did this car have space!

The plan was to put my kids in the third seat, which was nearly a mile away from the Roadmaster’s front seats. Of course, I’d forgotten one important detail: no child tethers in the way back. So, there was to be no parole for Mom and Dad. On the positive side, by the time we were ready to take the Woody out of port, my wife had taken one look across her endless prow (the car’s) and decided that I would be the sole captain of the good ship Roadmaster.

Back in the day, the Roadmaster was an automotive mastodon. When the big Buick appeared in the late 90’s, large, bulbous, body-on-frame rear, wheel-drive wagons were about as fashionable as plaid pants and pipe tobacco. SUV’s, minivans and four-door pickups were all vying for the title of the all-American family vehicle. The Buick and its sister cars gathered dust in GM showrooms, lonely and unloved. Not even an LT1 small block V8 (transplanted from the Chevy Corvette) could save these siblings from instant obscurity. By 1997, the Roadmaster had gone the way of peckerwood golf clubs. It was, literally, history.

But what a piece of history. If ever a car represented the great American “living room on wheels” style, it was the Roadmaster. The expansive leather seats are thick and comfortable enough to turn the most aggressive pistonhead into a laid back Lay-Z-Boy. It came with electric everything, of course. The interior wood trim is made from a real tree, and the controls make iDrive seem like what it is (a ridiculously complex piece of equipment of dubious utility). You won’t find steering wheel buttons, and the GPS is a Rand-McNally map moldering in the glove box, but didn’t someone say “space is the ultimate luxury?” Or was it something about screaming?

Anyway, the Roadmaster’s a packrat’s dream. Big or small, short or tall, there’s plenty of space for it. The Buick’s rear glass window (close to the size of a solarium) slides up and down and the tailgate swings out or lowers. The fold down second row seats liberates a good hectare of cargo space. In fact, there’s more space in the back of a Roadmaster than entire small cars of its era. If the roof were high enough, a Geo Metro would fit inside.

When it comes to driving dynamics, the Roadmaster was built for drivers who understand both the metaphorical and literal meaning of staying on the straight and narrow. The 350 V8 and four-speed automatic will cruise all day at 85 to 90 mph, and never even see 2500 rpm.

Finally there’s the issue of exterior aesthetics. Contrary to what the modern day sewing circles and soccer contingents say, a woody wagon is indeed a beautiful thing to behold. Forget all those anodyne crossovers, minivans, SUVs and CUVs. The Roadmaster is American. And not just a ‘me-too’ American. A feel good, “I dig all things America!” American.

Maybe that’s why people smile at the Roadmaster, give it a thumbs up, and even mouth out the loving words (with and without irony) “Nice Woody!” A well-kept woody wagon is the equivalent of a well-lighted Christmas display during the holiday season. My kids fell in love with all the attention they got from the passer-by’s, which helped keep things on even keel during our sojourn. While my wife used the words “cold dead hands” when I asked if she would ever be willing to exchange her Volvo for the Buick, it’s not an inconceivable choice.

IF you’re willing to do without an LT1 engine, Buick Roadmaster wagons are reasonably priced. Taxis and police cars from that era were blessed with interchangeable parts; there were literally millions of parts for this powertrain combination, and they were all built to last. A car like the Roadmaster would in fact be the perfect cheap car for the long haul– if only you lived near an oil well.

Most owners of modern day trucks and trucklets won’t be fazed by the Roadmaster’s penchant for petrol. Still, as a daily commuter over long distances, as a vehicle that you have to, at some point park, the big Buick is all kinds of wrong. A Woody Roadmaster wagon is best for road trips, Home Depot runs and weekend rides with the family. It will give you a hankering for old cassette tapes and Norman Rockwell paintings. It’s Americana incarnate.

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  • Armadamaster Armadamaster on Mar 07, 2008

    Wow, great article. The LT1 door panels and dash pads are pretty horrible but the seats are fantastic versus ANY of today's offerings short of a new Town Car. Not much more I can say after all the great comments as well....I only wish folks would have thought the same of these cars ten years ago. Instead back then I remember cries about the B-bodies alegedly horrid MPG (25+ MPG HWY BTW) at $1.25 a gallon gas and how the B-bodies were "too big" while they shoved themselves into massive 12 MPG Suburbans. The cancellation of the B-bodies epitomizes what's been wrong with GM's car lineup over the last ten years, and why I'll be making the inevitable switch from my last two B-bodies, #8 and #9 BTW for me respectively, will be to Ford's Panthers which owe alot of their sales success over the last decade to GM's incompetence and greed (SUVs). Although I would like to try a B-body wagon before I'm though....B-body #10 perhaps?

  • on Jul 03, 2011

    [...] if it was a base 1991 Chevrolet Caprice in faded battleship grey with only 37,000 miles? As much as I love driving a big boat, owning an ancient mariner like this Caprice would have been no picnic. By the time you end up [...]

  • CoastieLenn They absolutely should.
  • Arthur Dailey Thanks for the clarification.@JeffS has nicely summarized most of my original comment.I greatly dislike the 'touring' light treatment. It seems like we all do. This generation of Mark is too short to pull off the continental hump and fake engine vents. With them the proportions look odd.As Corey so nicely put it 'disco was dead and so was its car'. Successive generations generally reject the vehicles that their parents drove (or drove them around in). And as the children of Boomers grew, the Boomers gave up their PLC's and rather than turning to station wagons to transport their growing brood turned to the newly available minivan.And the generation behind them, rather than aspiring to a PLC, instead leased 'German driving machines'.
  • SCE to AUX "Toyota has dropped a pic of the next Tacoma on Instagram."This is why the splashy auto show reveals are dead.
  • Sckid213 I feel like the Camry in Japan is what oddballs like the Kia K9 and Hyundai Eqqus felt here. Obviously those were higher-end vehicles than Camry, but they felt like they were in the wrong dimension here in the U.S.
  • FreedMike The Falcon was fast and temperamental. Is Ford sure this is what it wants to advertise?
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