By on August 9, 2013

15 - 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinExamples of the first-generation GM “Dustbuster” minivan abound at self-service wrecking yards these days, even as they disappear from the street, and every time I pass a Trans Sport or Lumina APV on my way to shoot something older and/or more interesting I say to myself, “I really need to do a Dustbuster Junkyard Find one of these days.” Well, that day has come!
10 - 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThese vans were startlingly weird-looking when they first showed up in 1990, but then we became jaded and the Dustbuster just looked ugly.
06 - 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinWe keep hoping to see one of GM’s long-snouted minivans in a 24 Hours of LeMons race, but so far we’ve had just a single post-Dustbuster Montana in a race.
08 - 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThe dash surface of these things was deep enough that you could lose items if they rolled all the way forward to the windshield. I’ve heard that an extra-large pizza box will fit well here.
13 - 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinMany members of the GM V6 family (both 60° and 90° types) were installed here.


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77 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette...”

  • avatar

    I always wanted my parents to get one back in the day (at the time I believe I wanted them to get the TRANSSPORT version because as a child it was fun to read.) My mom said, “Oh they look like a mouse or something!” and that was the end of that.

    I didn’t realize they made them for so long though. And can’t believe they used different emblems on the vehicle versus the manual. That’s poor!

  • avatar

    Drove a 91 Chevy version for work ages ago. It had a replacement engine but it ran well and never broke down. I didn’t care for the look but overall, it drove well and did its job with little to no hassle.

  • avatar

    The Cadillac of minivans!

  • avatar

    As I recall, the Silhouette debuted with the 3.8 liter engine rather than the 3.1 or 3.4. That’s a huge difference. The original 3.1 engine only made 120 horsepower, which was actually more than what the Chrysler vans were working with at the time, but the 3.8 produced 170 horsepower. The original Chevrolet Lumina APV only weighed about 3600 lbs. empty. That’s roughly the same as a 2012 Chevrolet Malibu V-6, and it’s about a thousand pounds lighter than the curreng generation of well-equipped minivans.

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    Having Leonard Nimoy as a pitchman was appropriate. The Dustbuster vans looked just like one of the Shuttlecraft on Star Trek.

  • avatar

    “I’ve heard that an extra-large pizza box will fit well here.”

    It’s true. My dad nicknamed ours the Pizzawagon. It was a ’93 model that he picked up used in ’95 primarily for work. Same color scheme as today’s junkyard find, too. Besides radio station remotes, it doubled as the family vacation car when my sister and I were younger. Kids today would deem it archaic, but we plugged in a TV/VCR combo to watch movies since it didn’t have one built in. In fact, I think the Silhoutte’s biggest luxury was that my sister and I could each have our own row of seats.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I really don’t see these as any more offensive to look at than a Prius. They were designed to give the impression that they were ultra aerodynamic. Sort of to one-up Ford for the bar of soap Taurus.

    One thing I never understood was the wrap-around tape stripes on EVERY Olds I ever saw. Did Olds have a total design budget of $10 when they got ahold of them?

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      GM tried to make the Chevy, Pontiac and Olds versions of the Dustbusters look as unique as possible. One way they did this was by giving the Silhouette these tape stripes. The Trans Port had lower body cladding which gave it a pinched-in, wasp waist appearance.

  • avatar

    Yep. My parents bought one of those new… a 1994 model in “Malachite Metallic.” At first my Mom was creeped out about trying to park it due to the weird visibility the way the nose dropped off. But once she got used to it, she loved it. It was in the family for close to 10 years. No major mechanical problems that I can recall. It had the venerable 3800 V6 and got along quite well.

  • avatar

    That bordello red interior looks practically showroom new. Didn’t know whore house red, a popular interior color in the 80’s, made it to 1996.

    I’m going to guess Dexcool got the gaskets and led to the somewhat untimely death.

    I still see these on the road – shockingly a lot – and most appear to have held up well.

    • 0 avatar

      This van looks exceptionally well-kept. The mechanicals must have been totally trashed for it to end up here. I drove a company Lumina with the, um, leisurely 3.1 that was replaced after about 90k. At 110k, that might have been what killed this “classic”, since the engine replacement expense alone would be more than the value of the vehicle anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      My first thought as well. Those seats need to live on somewhere. If this was the 80’s, they’d be in a bright-blue neon-striped ‘deuce already, under a wood Le Carra.

    • 0 avatar
      Felix Hoenikker

      These vans used the same ABS side panel and space frames as saturns on thier vertical panels. They will never rust. Only frame rot will do them in.

      • 0 avatar

        Or a crash. They weren’t well rated in offset tests, and that might be part of the reason a decent condition vehicle ended up in the crusher’s waiting room.

        • 0 avatar

          IIRC, in both the “dustbuster” 1st-Gen and the more conventional-looking 2nd-Gen variants of these vans, the crash test dummy’s foot had to be “amputated” to be able to extricate it, after the IIHS offset frontal tests.

          IOW, ya didn’t want your feet anywhere near the front of the footwell, even as a passenger! The few times I rode in one of these, I always kept my feet crossed at the front of the seat, just in case! (After seeing the 1st-Gen IIHS test, you couldn’t have PAID me to drive one!)

          • 0 avatar

            I couldn’t pull up a first-gen IIHS test on YouTube, but the second gen was pitiful (confirm: dummy leg amputation and snapping of the ankle in two separate tests). Around 1997 Dateline NBC did a comparison of the popular minivans of the time (documenting IIHS tests of the Ford Winstar, Ford Aerostar, Nissan Quest, GMC Safari/Chevy Astro, Toyota Previa and Chryco, and the newly marketed 2nd gen Pontiac Transport). Ford came out on top, as the Windstar demonstrated a vast improvement in crashworthiness over its Aerostar predecessor. Not sure what the GM execs were smoking at the time…

  • avatar

    If memory serves me correctly. the 3.1 and 3 speed auto was the sole drivetrain up until 1992 when the 3800 and 4speed auto were an option. The 3.4 replaced em both the last year of production. The 3.1 was actually a relatively bulletproof engine, unlike the 3.4 which spits out intake gaskets like toothpicks.

    • 0 avatar

      Now as far as 60 degree v6s go, I’m stuck in the TBI age, but I doubt this is.

      I know a problem with the TBI was intake was the way it was part of the valve cover surface, being that it was aluminum while the heads were iron, it expanded and detracted at differing rates, but as long as you put a dab of RTV where the head and iron meet to form the gasket surface, then you never had a problem.

      I’m not sure what differences the 3.1 intake had with the 3.4 when t came to MFI.

      I have a 3.4 crate in an s10 that has the original 2.8 intake bored over to accept the 4.3 Throttle body I have on it.

  • avatar

    Ark II.

    Born in the USA ca. late 1960s? You must remember that, eh? I’d love to see that old sled roll across the block at Barrett-Jackson.

  • avatar

    I actually had a van just like this follow me last night and was trying to think when the last time I saw a running dustbuster was. Here in the northeast most of them have rotted by now.

    One of my parents friends bought the very first Lumina APV our local Chevy dealer got in stock and they drove it forever, then each of their 3 kids drove it. I can’t recall it ever having any major issues. One time we had so many people in it that we even had a girl sprawled out on the dashboard. Probably the one time the big dash came in handy, except for pizza boxes.

  • avatar

    Ok now I kinda want a 3800 Olds Dustbuster…

  • avatar

    Always loved the built-in child-seats. And seem to remember a TTAC conversation a long, long while ago in regards to that creepy Gorilla in the Pontiac commercial.

  • avatar

    You forgot to capture the rest of that decal. I believe the full script is “Expect The Best, Settle For This”

  • avatar

    Roger was at odds with management.

    Clayton approached Roger in the wash bay. “Roger, the door handle is broken again on Unit 6. We all had to climb in through the front.” Roger put down his pressure washer gun and turned off the machine. “Again?”, he asked. Clayton corrected the rotund technician, “No, the one on the sliding door.” Roger retorted with “Yes. Again?”

    Roger finished washing the lawnmower, and went to his computer to check the service records on van #6. He clicked on the file: “VAN #6 White Sillhouet”. Sure enough, the exterior handle had lasted about 2000 miles of service. He leaned back in his office chair, and said “Ham-fisted morons.” He chomped a doughnut and sipped his coffee, making a mental note to get the repair done. He then checked his email. He had something from the school board in the inbox. What he read would come as a shock.

    “Attn: Roger Sterling (maintenance)
    Roger, it has come to our attention that the Oldsmobile van in our fleet is showing it’s age. We would like to dispose of this vehicle at auction. I would appreciate it if you could clean the van up for auction. Remove all of our stickers and any equipment.
    Steve Deere (Superintendent)”

    Roger was highly perturbed. Not only had he not been consulted at all on this matter, some blabbermouth had obviously gone over his head. He walked back to the garage building. His bald head had become so heated, he may have been able to cook breakfast on it. He opened the door and flicked on the six light switches. On the left was a row of white vehicles. All of GM’s finest were here. Five trusty C/K pickups of different generations, all sported plow hookups. Three perfectly preserved Beauvilles. Five Astro vans. The shuttlecraft-esqe Oldsmobile’s nose jutted out towards the end. Then, there were the misfits. A very dusty Caravan that nobody would dare slip behind the wheel of, and a heavily-used Honda Odyssey. These two vans were the bane of Roger’s existence as head of maintenance at the school district. The worst choice since the Toro 455D with it’s Peugeot-engined hell.

    He walked past the Olds, and admired the two bastards. “POS”, he called the Dodge, remembering the spectacular water pump failure. “Box of lies.”, he called the Honda. It was on it’s second transmission, and had now started making the same ominous sound as the first one. He grabbed the driver’s door handle of the Silhouette. It had a high contrast of new-ness. He sat there behind the wheel for a moment. He reflected on how new management had come in. They sometimes grimaced at the thought of taking one of the beautiful Beauvilles for an inspection tour of the schools. They looked upon the Silhouette with abject horror. Quickly, Roger’s department was saddled with the two turds, hand picked by these whiz-kids. He twisted the key in the ignition and said to himself, “I guess I’m just a dumb ass mek-i-nick. I don’t know nothin!” He looked at the curled dash pad, and accepted it’s invitation for him to push down upon it to attempt to correct the anomaly.

    He pulled the U-body out of it’s spot. He passed the row of shiny, low-mileage Beauvilles whose number would assuredly be up soon. He drove out the open bay door and towards the service shop. “To hell with this.” He suddenly swerved, and made haste to the main road. It was time for one last operational check. He took the ole girl on the highway, set the cruise, and relaxed during the pointless drive. Of all the vans in the fleet, it was the most enjoyable to be inside. No vinyl. The deep red interior livened up what would otherwise have been plebian, like the Honda. He turned on the A/C. He admired his work on the one major repair that this vehicle required. The system was ice cold.

    He returned to the shop, and stripped the decals from the exterior. He paused before removing the “Expect the Best” portion. It had intruded into the stripe anyway thanks to the dim bulb who applied it when the van was new. It seemed to fit to him anyway.

    A few days later, Roger walked past the empty parking space on the way to adjust a machine. He looked at the void sadly while enjoying a doughnut.
    “Here lies unit#6. Died by doorhandle failure, and indifference.”

    • 0 avatar

      I think this is the best yet. I’m pretty sure I’ve run into Rodger in my travels.

      • 0 avatar

        Having 11 years in the same school district (13 years in education) and having gone from the classroom to the administrative office, allow me to say: I’ve worked with Ron.

        Thankfully Ron and I get along OK because I’m the guy who will call him up and say things like: Give me the Silhouette, at least its more comfortable and interesting than the newer carp you’ve got around there.

    • 0 avatar

      What the heck is a Toro 455D?

      And I guess this is a public works fleet…but why would a public works fleet have minivans?

      • 0 avatar

        If you look at the door, it says:
        “___RON County Schools”
        “Expect The Best”

        And the 455 is a particularly troublesome grounds mower. It was fitted with the PSA XUD9 diesel. This was a fantastic engine to have in a Suzuki Samurai or Peugeot wagon, but it didn’t work well in a piece of turf equipment. If it overheated from debris in the radiator (pretty much a fact of life with a machine like this), it would crack a head or blow the head gasket. The engine was nestled deep in the machine. Any work done to it, including the frequent timing BELT service, required hours of tedious work to remove the radiator and other parts. There were other issues with the rest of the machine, such as failing deck lifts that were difficult to replace, that I have repressed from memory until now.

        As you might gather from this, I have worked with fleet operations for awhile. We often talk about the “malaise period” with cars. There was a similar period in the turf industry from 1996-2003, when designs that had worked fine for decades were tampered with. Many machines turned into overly-complicated, under-engineered beasts that were too big for their own good. The 455D was the poster child.

        As long as I’m getting super off-topic, let me give you an analogy: Take an HT4100 Cadillac. Run it off road in the dirt at full throttle for 8 hours a day in the hot sun. Welcome to my world.

        • 0 avatar

          A school vehicle fleet, eh?

          The work staff for the local school district still bomb around in a 1980s Grumman Kurbmaster van. And I should have known you meant a school district with the Beauvilles, because our school district still has at least one Beauville in the fleet too.

        • 0 avatar

          Ever think about expanding into a short story with your prose?

  • avatar

    The paint and body held up very well. I recall seeing this new “Plastic Minivan” on the cover of Popular Science

  • avatar

    My favorite “feature” of this car was the curved door frame. If you stood in the normal spot and opened the door the upper edge of the door would clip you in the head since it curved towards the rear of the car. I guess people were so prone to giving themselves gashes in the forehead that GM stuck a sticker on the inside of the door jamb warning you of impending concussion. But by the time you could read the sticker it was too late.

  • avatar

    Didn’t the windshield cost something around $5,000 for these behemoths? I remember someone experiencing that sort of sticker shock.

  • avatar

    For some reason Honda copied the absurdly huge dashboard for the 2005-2011 Civic…you can definitely rest a large pizza on that behemoth.

  • avatar

    I want a 3.8 Trans Sport real bad. There’s one in my neighborhood, dark green and tan cladding with matching wheels…can hear the 3.8 from a quarter mile away. The guy is always hauling shit around with it.

    GM always failed with selling minivans. Chrysler always had that market and for better or worse, SUV’s were always GM’s game, and the minivan is almost dead.

    I just like all the plastic in the styling of these…I even have a 1/64th scale toy from childhood…

  • avatar

    We bought a 1990 TranSport in white when they first came out. In fact, we got the first one on the dealer lot. 6 bucket seats (2/2/2) that were easy to remove, air pump for all those basket/soccer balls, 3.1 with the 3 speed tranny. Not the fastest thing ever made, but not a total slug either. The handling was actually pretty decent. My wife would sometimes place an item on the dashboard while in the passenger seat, and if I stopped too quickly it was a definite PITA to retrieve said lost item. GM actually put some kind of special foil in the windshield to repel much of the heat (we were in Texas at the time) and it seemed to work since the A/C worked great. We did have to replace the windshield in 1995, and it cost the insurance company around $1100 bucks. That’s the way it is when you have a windshield the size of a mid 60’s Barracuda’s rear glass.

    We kept that thing for 11 years and the only problem we ever had was a sticking release on the sliding door. About every two years we had to take it in for an adjustment …. they must have missed some tolerance at the factory since ours was an “early production” model. Other than regular maintenance, that was it. My wife actually hated to see it go. To this day, she says she wishes we still had it. With the SMC body, it looked as good the day we traded it as when we bought it. I wish we still had it too!!!!

    • 0 avatar

      Wow. We had the same exact van. Also in TX (Corpus Christi). We also bought the first one on the lot. I remember the stares to this day. Most attention I have ever seen when in a vehicle (and I’ve been in some wild stuff).

      We all loved that thing. Only problem I recall is the air buffeted severely if the windows were “out of tune” with each other. We had to sell it when we went to Japan.

      I want one again bad. This example is perfect. The interior is in amazingly sharp condition. Headliner doesn’t even sag. Slide in a 3800SC and some custom exterior tweaks, and it would rule hard. (In my mind)

      • 0 avatar

        Small world … we were up in Orange (i.e. “Golden Triangle”). Everytime we pulled into a parking lot it drew a small crowd — people asked all kinds of questions. I’ve never had a car since that attracted so much attention.

        Yep, if you cracked the front windows at just the right point, you would get that horrible “whomp, whomp” pressure thing going on. The interesting thing is, I can get the same thing going on with our Rainier by partially lowering the back seat windows. Weird……

  • avatar

    Weren’t the GM dustbuster vans the only vehicles ever sold with the CHMSL located *below* the standard tail lamps? I read that somewhere once and certainly can’t think of another vehicle with that configuration.

  • avatar

    Oh, yes, the dustbusters! I was always amazed at how off-putting the dustbuster reference was. It must have had an impact on sales.

    But I always wanted one, sort of a guilty pleasure. Back in ’07 I bought a ’94 Lumina, as we in Canada could not get the silhouettes until the next generation of GM minivans. Dark red, with the bordello red velour interior. It had the revised front clip with the headlights from Pontiac’s Bonneville (bizarre idea). The single removable seats were great. But GM added some bits to compensate for the silly design. Like adding a ridge midway across the dash, to make it less unsettling. And yes, I did hit myself in the head with the door corner a few times.

    My biggest beef with the vehicle was the lack of driving pleasure. It just felt like you were driving some old rattling farm wagon. It didn’t match the futuristic essence of the thing. We still have lots around here on the west coast, especially the Pontiac Trans Sport (Ugg). They look down right ridiculous now. Gives me a chuckle.

  • avatar

    Windshield is 158 bucks on Rockauto.
    The price must have come down a lot since your data.

  • avatar

    I remember these being EVERYWHERE back in the day, and now you NEVER see them on the roads, at least in my area.

    It must be one of those vehicles that’s not repair friendly, because the streets are still littered with older Chrysler minivans.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    When these came out I thought they were influenced by the Renault Espace. These were manufactured not in Detroit or the mid-west but in Tarrytown NY, along the Hudson just north of NYC. This GM plant was around for a lot of years where Nova’s, X-Cars and A-Body’s were built until it’s final vehicle; the dust buster van.

    It also pre-dated the Saturns plastic panel on space frame construction, surprised Saturn did not get a version. A shame versatrak AWD was not offered until the redesign, which was one of the less than stellar mini van offerings.

  • avatar

    My uncle travels constantly for work and back in about 1996 he picked up what I believe to be a 1994 Lumina APV. It was driven hard, many miles a week usually loaded to the gills with cargo (all rear seats removed). He finally decided to part with it in 2003 and at that point it had 313,000 miles on it. The second transmission had just lost reverse at that point, but I think the engine was still original. At least the bottom end was.

    My neighbor has a dustbuster in red. I think it’s a Chevy model but I never looked too closely at it. It usually sits, parked on the street, and there is a rusty stain that starts under the front of it and extends forward down the road in front of it for about 4 feet. I know it drives because it moves every now and then, but it’s looking a bit rough.

  • avatar

    Once was at a bar and DJ goes “Will the owner of a Silhouette move your car! … What the heck is a Silhouette!?”

    I’d say the van was running and traded in. Dealer sent it to auction and only sold to a recycler/scrapper.

    The Owners Manual has the ‘new’ Olds logo, but they didn’t spend the cash to add them until the U body, Chevy Venture clone.

  • avatar

    Our 96 Grand Voyager was much better-looking than this cartoonish car, but it didn’t last much longer, mileage-wise.

  • avatar

    I always liked those cars.

    Very simple, clean but futuristic lines.

    IMHO, the design has actually held up quite well over the years.

    Weren´t these things actually styled by Italdesign / Giugiaro?

  • avatar

    These things came with warning stickers on the doors to be careful opening the door because the top corner would smack you in the temple if you didn’t pay attention.

  • avatar

    This Van reminds me of Knight Rider 2000 and Predator 2 when they used these vans as cop cars to represent the future. I should really go back and watch these movies again to see how futuristic it is now.

  • avatar

    The thing I remember most about my family’s was the steering wheel was not centered in front of the driver. I think it was off to the right a few inches! Did anyone else who owned one notice this? I have always wondered if there was some design limitation where they had to do that, or that maybe the leather Oldsmobile seats were thicker and required slightly more outboard mounting than maybe thinner Chevy and Pontiac seats? Does anyone know?

    Our 1994 model had the then new power sliding door. It was incredibly slow and the motors made this weird “weee-wooo-weeee-woooo” low hum that almost sounded like some kind of warning indicator. Ours was plagued by an electrical demon for nearly the entire time we had it, most assumed it had to do with the power door but no one could ever solve it.

    The windshield required massive wiper blades too. They swung outward and when it was raining would totally drench toll booth attendants.

  • avatar

    ya me too, damm

  • avatar

    This was my first car. I bought a 91 transsport back in 2002. White. I coated the windows myself, which made it look like a spaceship. A friend of mine fixed a few things on it, it was running on 5 cil and sounded rough. It was the 3.1 with the 3speed. And this, mind you, in the Netherlands, EU. I loved it, as it was roomy, sounded great compared to golfs and corollas you see mostly here, and as it was a us import it had the red blinkers and tiny size license plates. I drove it for four years, the only major thing was the back suspension after 3 years. Air never worked, but all the side windows open on my way to Bordeaux did the trick fine, we had a lot of family vacations in this thing, we truly loved it. Years later we bought a 99 trans sport, and this time we had air and the power sliding door on one side. We had as much fun in that one as in the first one. Man, did we drive a lot in those. The latter ate a gasket, which made me sell it as fast as I could. Great vans. We don’t do as many trips anymore as in those days, so I wouldn’t buy one again.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    This version of the Olds Silhouette was also marketed by Opel in Europe as a Pontiac Transport. It was equipped with an HO Quad4 and 5 speed manual transmission. I have no idea how many were produced. The 3800 was certainly more pleasant, though the Quad could run with it if you kept the revs up.

  • avatar

    I can recall when these vans debut back in late 89 as a 90 model. As a little boy they were actually exciting to see however, my parents refused to look at them as my mother loved the Aerostar and my father was sold on Astro :(.

  • avatar

    Truly dreadful. If you ever rode in one, sitting in the middle row of seats there was a droning and ear buffeting sound that was very uncomfortable – it was non-stop and grew worse the longer you rode in the garbage can. I’ve ridden in station wagons and other minivans and never had such an experience.

    I’m glad these failed.

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