By on December 28, 2010

Christmas 2010. Baseball cards have been replaced with Pokemon cards. An Army knife that could have made my mom faint back when, is now part of my son’s Boy Scouts arsenal. We even did a scavenger hunt for their last present. Which lead to a ‘paper guitar’ that I know has more computing power than my old Colecovision. Here I am counting my blessings while pecking away in an ‘open’ office where I get to hear and see everything. The kids have their games. The wife has enough wine for 2011, and my gas and electric bill was less than $100 for two months straight. What can I say, life is good. I also got me a present.

Isn’t she a brute! I saw her huddled up in a corner at a Carmax sale. Milldew remnants on the front fender and roof. Scratches on the derriere. You turn that simple metal key and… nothing. For some reason (ok, profit) I have always looked at these monstrous mastodons known as Roadmaster. The wagons get all the attention one can muster by having 60+ dealers look at the very same vehicle at the very same time. I never get them cheap at the Carmax auctions.

This particular Carmax auction also happens to be a ‘one lane sale’ which means that prices will be high and opportunities will be thin. I never buy the ‘finance fodder’ here because at these sales, it usually is a battle for who has the best finance customers. But not all cars here fit the dealer’s aspiring 75 a week / 60 month mold. By this measure alone, an 18 year old Shamu with a vinyl roof is one unloved bastard. Only the Scrooges and cash dealers love these cars. Thank God! Because when I opened the hood I found some surprisingly wonderful presents.

Recent belts. New fluids. A shiny new alternator. Heck even one of those Platinum Diehard batteries which usually outlasts most presidencies. The front grille had nary a nick on it and the headlights were surprisingly clear. This one already had promise.

The interior? Wow talk about your time warp! The seats were cushy thick leather made out of the best cows and chemicals GM offered to the AARP’s of the Clinton Era. The radio was factory original. Cassette tape and all. The dashboard and door panels were even without the usual cracks, rips, and the proverbial missing buttons.

This one fit the mold of the ‘garage queen’. GM managed to have the cheapest plastics this side of a Chrysler during the early 1990’s and unfortunately, even their luxury cars found themselves with parts bin materials that didn’t last. A Lexus this was not but the owner definitely kept it up and it was all there.

It was early that day. So I got a chance to look at the trunk and undercarriage along with the tires, exterior door panels, and the various areas of the car where water and rust can kill from within. This was a garage kept car that was loved. No cheap modifications. A few dents were a given and the tires were tweeners (not Michelins, not Walmarts). Not a showhorse. Not a workhorse. It hadn’t been ‘put out wet’ by the prior owner.

I also get to sales early so the bird dogs can’t bother me as much. This gives me time to find a few details about the vehicles as well. Carmax has buyers who appraise dozens of vehicles every week before they’re traded in. As part of that process they can give you a brief synopsis on their condition.

I find out from one of the buyers that they ‘think’ it’s a starter. ‘Think’ is a very relative term in the auction business. As in, “I think it has at least one thing wrong with it.” The Roadmaster was scheduled to run at another auction in Atlanta, but the car never made it to the barn. Whenever this happen the car in question is automatically moved to another auction so that dealers can’t sabotage cars before the sale and buy them for cheap. Fuse pullers and other ‘witch doctors’ are endemic in this business and this minimizes their gains. I talk to another guy who is the equivalent of a lot manager and he re-confirms the need to hammer the starter repeatedly.

I’ve bought perhaps a dozen inops from Carmax over the years and every one of them worked out. So did this one. I ‘held’ the bid at $500 while two other dealers were flashing 2 and 3 fingers to the auctioneer. Whispering the bid to the auctioneer before the sale and hanging out a good distance enabled this to work.

Carmax doesn’t allow you to work on site due to insurance purposes. So I get it towed for $50 to my place and order a $30 starter. 24 hours later the car sounds, symphonic. I start the car after installing the starter and giving the Diehard a slow trickle charge. Perfect. No smoke. No worries. The car glides down the road. Everything works… except the odometer which seems to be recording one mile for every five driven. Oh well. I bring it back to the lot and within a few hours one of my longtime customers is already yearning for a full-sized car after his refund check comes in. He will be one of many I will talk to between now and tax time.

In the meantime it will be rented out. $105 a week and it may very well be paid off before it finally leaves the lot for good. Am I tempting fate by doing this? Always, but every smart operator has a calculated risk. A car whose siblings used to be cop cars and taxi cabs will usually ‘make the note’ and give you minimal . Even if it is an old brute.

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22 Comments on “Hammer Time: Unwrapping Presents...”

  • avatar

    It seems that Buick made a real effort to improve the quality of their larger cars (B, C, H-bodies) during the 1990s. Sure, GM quality could be spotty even then and some bad cars made it to dealers. However, I think that most of the turkeys have been junked by now leaving the good ones to run forever. I’ve got a low-mileage ’94 LeSabre and it’s a fine, reliable cruiser now that the bugs and cobwebs from sitting nearly undriven for a dozen years have been dealt with. No question that the B-platform and 5.7 are sturdy items. Barring some occasional glitch (after all, the car is 15+ years old), I’d bet this Roadmaster has a lot of life in it.

  • avatar

    Big rear wheel drive cars were the one thing that the General did really well.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 but don’t forget pickups and BOF SUVs (especially the Suburban) too.
      In 1996, I convinced my parents to buy a 92 Roadmaster Limited sedan for my mom as a summer car.  I told my dad, “This is the last chance you’ll ever have to buy a REAL car.”  The RM sedan is much better looking IMO than either its Chevy Caprice or Caddy siblings too.  The same cannot be said for the wagons, which look awful unless ordered without the woodgrain trim, in which case they look like a Caprice wagon with an extra chrome strip on the side.
      My mom’s RM has a very floaty ride, but my brother later picked-up a 92 RM with the towing package that included HD antisway bars.  It handles much better.

  • avatar

    Are you familiar with Optispark? If not, you will be soon. Get that sorted out, and you’ll have a cool floater.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark out West

      The trick is to keep an eye on your gear-driven water pump (unique to the LT-1).  There’s a weep hole on the bottom – when the pump seal weakens, the weep hole drips coolant directly onto the top of the Optispark unit.  Some folks epoxy a 90 degree hose bib into the weep hole and attach a small hose to direct the coolant around from the Optispark.

      My son’s gone off to college with the hand-me-down 125K Roadmaster wagon.  Claims it’s a babe magnet without peer.  Looks and runs flawlessly.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Actually given what I’ve heard on this site from the owners of Panthers, B&D-bodies, and LX cars; it seems that RWD is the only thing that Ford, GM, & Chrysler respectively have been able to do consistently well.  Perhaps they are the same kind of enthusiasts that we are?
    Love live the Roadmaster.  I have to stop and look every time I see one regardless of the condition.  After GM bestowed the detuned LT1 upon the car my father took to calling them “Roadblasters” I’m still amazed he bought a similar vintage Suburban over tracking down a Roadmaster wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      I just finished replacing the thermostat in my ’96 wagon (easy way to tell when it’s wonky on an LT1: your heater goes kaput); while I have been mulling over replacing the big wagon with a loaded Flex Limited, the suddenly revitalized heater made me realize “naaah: I still love this beast”. This thing turns COS to PHX into a commute and hops into UT or north to friends in Fort Collins always see me arriving refreshed after the cozy cruise.
      Mmm, I must remember to reserve seats at Coopersmith’s for the new year gathering this coming weekend; the year end tradition has been going strong for 15 years now and we’re never entirely certain who’s going to show up for the festivities.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Kudos for being the first to use the word “Colecovision” on TTAC. :-)

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Probably the most reliable way to fix the Optispark is to adapt a Northstar’s waste-spark setup or an LS1 coil pack and PCM. Notice I didn’t say cheapest. If it’s not “new” enough to have an LT1, forget I said anything.
    That car is just pure awesome.

  • avatar

    I can sort of see the appeal of the Roadmaster, but it was the worst car rental experience ever for me. Was on an outside winter photo shoot about 10 years ago when the boss’s 200k mile Benz 300TE decided to spit out its neutral safety switch (no start, no parts in town). So off to the local rental lot I go, I have two choices to stow eight huge suitcase size bags full of cameras, lighting gear, etc. and shuttle the client around: a Nissan Altima and a Roadmaster sedan. One look at that boat told me to go huge, so I slapped down the Visa and drove back to the hotel in the Buick to get the gear.
    When it was time to load up, I was flabbergasted. The huge spare in the center of the trunk rendered the vehicle almost useless for hauling gear (had to leave some gear behind and still had to make two trips from location to location).
    Working outside in 15 degree weather, I figured the smart thing to do was to leave the car running so we could stay sort of thawed out. I was standing outside the car while waiting to see what I needed for the next shot when I heard a loud CLICK and was introduced to the GM automatic locking system. After a call to the rental lot to get the spare key, and an hour wait in the cold with the car running (in a tow-zone, of course, but I wasn’t THAT lucky) I was reunited with the gear and kept a window rolled down. Not a good day.
    I suppose Bubbles do well for hauling Grandma and Grandpa down to the early-bird buffet, but what a disappointment as a pack mule.

  • avatar

    Last October I bought a 140K mile ’92 Roadmaster wagon for $1000 delivered – all it needed was brake hoses and a good cleaning but the owner had died and his family didn’t want such a big silly car in the driveway so they were willing to sell it cheap.  No LT1, but the workhorse 5.7 makes adequate power and is among the most reliable and easiest to fix engines ever put in an automobile.
    I originally purchased it as a joke, basically, and figured it would just be a big stupid beater I could use it for hauling car parts, taking groups of friends out drinking, hitting shopping carts, jumping curbs with impunity, and various other sorts of antisocial behavior.
    It does a fine job of all these things, but also turned out to be a great car rather than just a sideshow like I expected.  It is in some ways deeply flawed, but is also reliable, comfortable, functional, and easy to work on.  The Roadmaster has become both my daily driver and my road trip car, two roles it fills very handily.  Just last weekend I took it on a 1,500 mile round trip to Michigan, taking along two friends, three pets, and all our normal stuff plus Christmas presents.  The car made the trip without event, getting 22-23 mpg the whole way.  Through terrible snow and heavy traffic it performed very well, and we all arrived relaxed and comfortable.  Not bad at all for a car that’s old enough to vote.
    RWD V8 highway cars are something the domestics always did pretty well, especially the wagon versions.  It’s a shame they abandoned this type of vehicle almost entirely.  A 2010 Zeta platform (300HP) Caprice or (400HP) Roadmaster wagon would be a hell of a car.

  • avatar

    Still no factory-mounted curb feelers.
    No wonder the USA is in the condition it is in.

  • avatar

    The tragedy is that big RWD cars were indeed what Detroit did well, yet instead of going forth and doing battle with Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi (and others) with a proper flagship sedan, Cadillac is basing the XTS on a FWD platform and Lincoln does the same with the MKS.
    BTW, I noticed that my neighbor and friend Rabbi Shapiro recently picked up a pretty clean Roadmaster wagon. You can still find bubble wagons schlepping large families around in the orthodox Jewish community.

  • avatar

    Sorry fully don’t understand the allure of this old beast – oh no I mean that’s another Buick story.

    The price of gas is heading north again..

    Take this ironclad and your costco card down to the local Ford shop and do a deal. Its the 21st century – on no there goes another Buick story…

    • 0 avatar

      As with many things, you either “get it” or you don’t… and you don’t get it in this case.  I would take this car over anything that Ford sells today.
      I wouldn’t be surprised if this Roadmaster gets comparable fuel economy to new vehicles that have comparable tow ratings.

    • 0 avatar

      After checking the Christmas weather, my wife decided we’d take my ’91 Caprice wagon instead of her ’05 Outback on our annual holiday soiree from Pittsburgh to Syracuse. 400-miles each way. 75-80 MPH the whole way. 20-plus MPG the whole way. The payments I’m not making on a newer vehicle – you know, ‘cuz it’s the 21st century and we’re driving a 20-year-old car – more than paid for our Christmas presents.

  • avatar

    My father has a ’94 (LT1), the cleaner, non-Limited base model with simpler wheel covers, less fussy seats (still leather) and no vinyl top.

    He had always wanted an Impala SS but I convinced him that this was its close cousin, minus the inflated used prices at the time and high theft risk. (By the late ’90s, they’d become an “urban treasure” thanks to rappers liking them, and many an SS was found stripped of its parts in theft recovery, coincidentally with Caprices running around with Impala SS parts on them.)

     He absolutely loves it and it just runs like a tank. He manages over 20 mpg, and it has the tow package with the external transmission cooler and lower axle ratio. He claims he can’t find proper whitewall tires in the dated 235/70R-15 size, so it now comically wears meats with “FIRESTONE FIREHAWK” white letters on the sides.

    I’ll never forget the photo Car and Driver did of that same car when the LT1 engine debuted in the full-size cars: a Roadmaster at a drag strip with a “little old lady” behind the wheel doing a smokey burnout, though I doubt Dad has ever lit the tires up.

    Sadly, the reason the Roadmaster, the Chevy Caprice and Impala, and the Cadillac Fleetwood were discontinued was so that GM could convert its Texas assembly plant to build more Suburbans, Yukons and Tahoes. As Dr. Phil would ask, “And how’s that workin’ out for you?”

  • avatar

    You must own quite a car to rent this beauty out. Good luck on it anyway. It’s the best GM product of the 90’s and yes, they did care about these cars more than the rest of the fleet. They were also assembled in Arlington, TX, which is the best GM factory. My LT-1 Brougham is going strong at 137k and it has ruined me for any other car. It has the perfect combination of power, gas mileage for the size and ride. The Panther Fords are nearly unbearable after driving one of these GM B or D bodies. I don’t know about the Roadmaster, but my Fleetwood has the “Mark of Excellence” emblazoned on the (metal!) seat belt buckles. These are the last cars to deserve this qualifier and I am glad that GM stopped using it after ditching them.

  • avatar

    Beyond the aforementioned optispark issue, does anyone know of any other vehicle-specific issues to be aware of when checking one of these out?

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Try a B-body forum, just like I would check a Panther forum before buying one, or a Subaru forum before buying one or a …

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for reminding the clueless of the obvious. Perhaps I was being a bit ageist, but I assumed there was no way a Buick of that vintage would have interwebs devoted to it. How wrong I was…

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