By on January 11, 2016

1996 Buick Roadmaster

It’s an election year. In theory, media outlets should be doing everything in their power to ensure equal time for all candidates, lest a bias influence voters on the public airwaves.

Well, I’ve come to expose a bias here at TTAC, and to demand equal time for a car not getting equal airtime to a beloved competitor. That candidate is the General Motors B-Body. TTAC certainly loves the Panther, but to completely ignore the big GM platform simply isn’t fair.

I certainly could have tracked down an Impala SS for this feature, but I love wagons and so do you. I’m also planning an autumn road trip to visit a mouse, so the extra cargo room would be welcome.

About seven years ago, a second dependent took up residence in the living area attached to my garage, forcing the sale of my beloved Sentra SE-R for something with an accommodating back seat. The Ford dealer down the street had a clone of this 1996 Buick Roadmaster on the lot, taunting me daily on my commute. It sold the day before my Sentra did.

As I’ve trolled the web searching for cars, it seems a disproportionate number of these big wagons have remarkably low miles. For example, this one only shows 67,000 miles, which is quite low for a 20-year-old Buick. It’s not quite concours quality, but it looks stunning.

Is the dreaded Optispark distributor to blame for its lack of moment for years? At this point, I don’t think the unreliable dizzy is a problem, as the aftermarket has developed fixes. This looks like a great, if thirsty, family cruiser. $10,750 is more than I’d comfortably spend, but this is clean enough to justify the price.

If only Ford had restyled the Panther-based wagon in the ’90s …

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86 Comments on “Digestible Collectible: 1996 Buick Roadmaster...”


  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    Wow…I have always secretly admired this wagon.
    Simply a design beauty.

    And wish Roadmaster would come back….

    • 0 avatar
      Speed3

      I’ve always felt that the Opel Insignia Sports Tourer would make a great Roadmaster. But that’s not the world we live in so, Encore.

    • 0 avatar

      These were among the best styling of the ’90s, styling that (unlike most styling of the ’90s, and virtually everything since the millennium) are in a class with the ’50s and ’60s. I didn’t like them at first, and I remember when people referred to the Caprices as “whales” and a wonderfully mocking review of the first ones in Car and Driver. (The writer ends the story recounting how one morning he comes out to find someone has left an imprint of their derriere on the window. “Have a nice day, officer!”

      There was a period when I was tempted to buy an old police Caprice, but I just didn’t want to drive a slushbox.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I really prefer them in any color but white! Seems like the majority of the ’96 models around today are white, though. I like how the listing points out how the Collectors Edition badging was applied to ALL ’96 models. You do see them for sale where someone thinks they have something special on their hands because of those badges.

    Given the relative availability of these, $10,750 is too high. I’d be more comfortable with $7,750.

    Has anyone driven one? Are they just a floppy mess? I know the Roadmaster Limited sedan got a more controlled suspension than either the Caprice or the Fleetwood.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      $4500 is all it’s worth. Interesting, though.

      • 0 avatar
        Detroit-Iron

        All of the Roadmaster wagons I have seen have been $7k+ and I have been looking for a while. I think among a certain niche of maniacs they have really become quite popular.

        See:
        https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/09/fixed-abode-stick-em/

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      I drove one frequently in 2001 (a lot manager’s personal car that I was tasked with fueling with dealer gas). I can’t compare it to the Fleetwood, but it was not at all similar to the SS. I loved the powertrain, but it was floaty and the throttle was insanely aggressive after the first 1″ of pedal travel.

    • 0 avatar
      NoID

      There’s a dealer in Chicago that had a few of these for sale at well over 10 grand ($15,995 for one pristine example), and they were adamant that the market would bear that asking price when I scoffed. I told them there was a sucker born every day and that I wasn’t interested, and proceeded to watch the cars for another year before one of them sold. I guess if they were happy to keep it on the lot that long, more power to them. They found a sucker.

      Good examples really are attaining collector status, in the same mind-boggling manner of the Grand Wagoneer. Which sucks, because I’d love to have one.

    • 0 avatar

      LT1 wagons with under 100k miles go for big $. I have seen one sell for over $7k at a wholesale auction.

      Higher mileage examples go for a lot less.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      Locally theres a rare Oldsmobile version of the roadmaster for $800, its in okay shape other than a missing hood, tis a theft recovery.

      Id never pay more than $2k for a whale B body, they rust, they’re plain, theyre good cheap cars but unremarkable to me.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      I haven’t driven a whale, but the previous boxy versions were most definitely a floppy, nausea-inducing mess, at least on the frost-heaved roads of Eastern Maine. My college had a bunch of them in the motor pool, and I was one of the designated drivers for various club trips.

      I think the whales are hideous, but the last of the boxy ones could be quite handsome cars.

    • 0 avatar
      S1L1SC

      I have a ’91 – there definitely is a lot of body roll through corners.
      The ’95-96 ones are holding their value very well (LT1 engine), the earlier cars are much cheaper.

  • avatar
    kefkafloyd

    These wagons are super popular as people transporters for those who don’t like minivans, which is why you still keep seeing them around. The low ground clearance compared to a Suburban is key. I know a local religious group that has five meticulously maintained copies.

    B-Bodies were really the last of a breed, and since they and F-bodies of the same era share a lot of parts, they are easy to soup up and fix.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    We had the 91 Olds wagon for 21 years. My son has a blue 96 Roadmaster wagon. At 100 K miles he rebuilt the engine ,stroker crank = 396 ci, camshaft, roller rockers,ect. Now at 200K the engine has a slight ticking noise, so it just sits until he finds time to look at it.

  • avatar
    Bresnan-Distributor

    Don’t forget the unloved and rare Oldsmobile B Body for 1991 and 1992.

  • avatar
    Marone

    My entire life growning up, this car was a punchline.

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    Visiting a mouse? Orlando resident here. TTAC meetup in Orlando! I did love these suckers. The gas mileage was a killer though. with me now driving 20k miles a year, I’m glad I never got one.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Hard to believe “wood” paneling and hood ornaments were still being put on cars in 1996. Well for GM cars anyway.
    I know Mercs kept them a live for more than 10 years after production of this thing wound down.

  • avatar
    pbr

    Best GM car, ever, IMO. Practical, durable, (relatively) economical in an unassuming package. It’s an appliance, to be certain, from an appliance manufacturer. I still want one, would rather have one than anything GM are selling today.

    • 0 avatar
      S1L1SC

      Having owned one for the last 9 years, they are needy – lots of small stuff that wears out and breaks. The plastics in them are crap and there are lots of squeaks. But they are practical and can be durable with proper care – But be prepared to spend about $1,000/year on repairs and maintenance. Mine is at 250,000 miles now…

  • avatar
    86er

    Very much enjoying my ’92 sedan I picked up a few months back.

  • avatar
    NoID

    I’ve lusted after one of these, specifically the ’94 to ’96 model, for years since my mother’s was totaled in a rear end collision while she was parked at a stoplight.

    The extra weight over the rear axle really helped it on take-off, and after an exhaust leak manifested my father took the opportunity to put Flowmasters on it. I’m not sure what kind he put on, but it sounded absolutely wicked, and turned heads whenever and wherever it was heard. Great sleeper, and yes it is the ultimate alternative to an SUV or minivan. Seats 7, tows 7,000 lbs, and returns mid to high 20s MPG on the highway. Closest thing to it on the road today is the E-class wagon, which is a whole different animal but it does tick the power, seating, and utility boxes. Though I doubt it is rated for 7,000 lbs towing.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      That’s not what sleeper means.

      • 0 avatar
        NoID

        Like a Q-ship with sleeping quarters, this car satisfies dual definitions of the word “sleeper”

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Because it’s super fast on opposite day?

          • 0 avatar
            NoID

            For a vehicle of its size and shape it ran a respectable (for its time) 15.0 quarter mile. For something with fake wood paneling and two kids peering out the liftgate of rear-facing third row I’d call that a sleeper, especially considering the performance potential that is available in the aftermarket for that engine and platform. I learned to drive in it, and caught many a Mustang or Camaro surprised at stoplights.

            15.0 isn’t impressive now, but 20 years ago from a woody it wasn’t something to snub your nose at.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            A “sleeper” is any car that is faster than it looks or than the “brand” it belongs to has a reputation for. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeper_(car)

            Back when the Lincoln Mark VIII was released (1993) Hot Rod Magazine warned it’s readers not to be caught in stoplight drag race with one warning of its 15 sec 1/4 mile time.

            I easily trounced a kid in a 1995(ish) Mustang GT a few days ago in my Highlander. Superior traction (AWD), more driving experience, and 260+ hp will do that.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            It’s easy to win against people who aren’t racing you. :)

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            @CoreyDL – hey give dear old Dad some credit… :-P

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            hahaha

    • 0 avatar
      wumpus

      By 1994 you could get nearly modern power out of a 4-cylinder. You must be thinking of 1984 (and pretty much anytime post 1973). They would come with a 350 V8 that produced (at most) 150hp (presumably not that hard to mod, but few wagon buyers were hotrodders).

      I had a chevy malibu wagon with a 305 4 barrel carb. Don’t expect the rest of the car (brakes, suspension, steering) to be able to handle the car after 15 seconds of full acceleration.

      • 0 avatar
        S1L1SC

        150 is a bit low for the 350 in these…

        1991-92 305 V8 had around 170 hp,
        1992-94 350 V8 had around 220 hp,
        1994-96 350 LT1 V8 had around 260 hp

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          I’d love to have a Cadillac Fleetwood with he old truck based 350 in it. It is more important to me to be able to go 100,000s of thousands of miles than to have the extra hp of the slightly detuned LT1.

    • 0 avatar
      jrhmobile

      Actually, I still giggle when I think of Car & Driver’s test of the Roadmaster sedan.

      The lead shot of somebody dressed in little old lady’s garb, brake-torquing the rear tires away while mugging for the camera and casually holding “her” Bedazzle-encrusted handbag out the driver’s side window is indelibly burned into my mind.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    I love it about 50-60% of that asking price.

    How hard would it be to upgrade the suspension to Impala SS spec? Those rode and handled surprisingly well given their siblings’ floaty nature.

    I never drove the wagon but a coworker had a Roadmaster sedan. It was quiet and comfortable but that dashboard was one of the most blatantly terribly examples of GM’s cost cutting in that era. Describing it as Rubbermaid-like is an insult to Rubbermaid.

    My first car was a 1978 Buick Electra Estate Wagon (yeah, the family-truckster hand-me-down). It was tan/wood with dark tan crushed velour interior.

    It was such a brilliant design to that tailgate. The rear window could be lowered and the tailgate could swing to the side or down depending on one’s need at the time. It appears this tailgate can open both ways but one can’t drive with the window open. Oh well, I guess the improved aerodynamics and ubiquity of air conditioning made that a rarely used option by the 1990s.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      The front center storage arm rest is exactly the same as the one in my Cadillac.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      All the B-Body performance bits will fit, and while it’s nowhere near as widely supported as the later LSx series, the final iteration of the SBC enjoys a large number of go-fast goodies, including several 500hp rebuild kits and free flowing exhaust systems. The wagon subgroup of the B-Body fan group seems even more enamored of the platform than the sedan devotees, which along with their relative scarcity explains a higher transaction price when a good example hits the market.

  • avatar
    callmeishmael

    FWIW, I just did an internet search for Buick Roadmaster and it seems that the 1996’s are priced noticeably higher than prior years. Is there anything special about the 1996?

  • avatar

    At one time had an Impala SS, then a Fleetwood both with the 350 and both were great cars for their time, and in their own way. Unfortunately never found a Buick wagon at a reasonable condition and price.

    Current prices are high, the size is huge, and in most cases the condition of the cars do not justify the price.

    GM cars of that vintage were acceptable 10 years ago, with a cool factor back then. Today the cool factor has worn off, the size is “bigger” (in relation to current offerings) than it was 10 years ago.

    In 2016 a 1996 Suburban has a cooler factor, and a lower price than a Buick wagon.

    The fun of these older GM vehicles is the “cool factor” at a reasonable price, that permits a few modifications to increase the “cool”.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    All hail the Family Truckster.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    To Chris’s comment that this GM platform is generally underappreciated next to the Panther:

    I talked to a lot of Chicago cabbies who’d moved involuntarily to Crown Vics shortly after the Caprice’s demise. They agreed. Virtually every one said the Panther steered and handled better, but the Caprice took abuse better and its parts were cheaper — several said the Ford had some electronics that were costly to replace.

    I can also attest from personal experience that if you weren’t dealing with the stretched-wheelbase version, the Crown Vic really didn’t have much rear seat room for its size, and I’m talking not much as in “not a bit more than a Camry.”

    All that said, Marone is indeed correct that the clamshell-wagon version was regarded as an abortion and a joke when it was new. The previous squared-back wagon that launched in ’77 was both more attractive and more efficient.

  • avatar
    its me Dave

    IIRC, those things could swallow a 4×8 sheet of plywood, or a least fit the width between the wheel wells.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Having never experienced any problems with the Optispark system, I’ll chalk that up to simple maintenance neglect. The problem area I didn’t enjoy was the bidirectional thermostat: when it failed, the engine ran slightly warmer but the heating system wouldn’t function at all. I first discovered this behavior during a drive south from Ft Collins in subzero weather; a half hour later the air blowing into the footwell was only slightly less frigid than the ambient temperature. Fortunately the fix was quick and easy.

    Not quick or easy were the window track sliders; those damn polymer bushings would fail with alarming regularity in cold weather, and there were no replacement parts available, GM having decided the only fix for a busted window regulator was replacement of the entire $700 assembly. I’ve never encountered any long term fixes for the window regulator assembly, although by now you’d think someone would come up with a better solution than those easily fractured polymer sliders.

    The wagon never complained when confronted with hills and mountain passes: its ability to cruise up I-70 west of Denver as well as the roads to Woodland Park and west of Walsenburg towards Alamosa was never in question, and its suspension lent itself ideally to long distance western commutes, rather like a rolling easy chair. A modern Roadmaster wagon with Magneride dampers would be on my short list of must-drives.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I always preferred the Roadmaster sedan.

    And really, I’m more of a box B-body guy…

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      I never understood why the Roadmaster sedan and Estate didn’t share a front clip after the sedan came out.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        Me either, but I prefer the sedan front clip.

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          As do I. It’s much more attractive than a Caprice front with a different grille. The Olds Custom Cruiser should’ve also had its own front clip, although I understand why GM wouldn’t have wanted to spend any money on it at the time.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          I must concur, as the Estate does not -look- like a Buick. It looks like a Caprice driven through a lumber factory.

          The sedan one has the same basic brand face as the rest. Of course the Riviera didn’t match either.

          • 0 avatar
            NoGoYo

            The Riviera looked great though!

            And I always liked the Riviera fancy R emblem. Wonder how long Buick used it, I know the 86-91 and 95-99 models had it.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            The first FWD generation for 80(?) had the R as well, including one as hood ornament. My neighbors two doors down growing up had a final gen Riviera. Black with red leather. When they parked it outside I always thought “Oh MAN that’s expensive.”

            They crashed it on a vacation to Canada. The husband was killed instantly and the woman confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life – which was about 8 years or so as she got cancer as well.

            So there’s my happy Riviera story. I put a link above for a 90-93 model in two-tone, pristine condition!

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            The circle-R was on every Riviera from 63-99, IIRC.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Also, look at the E&G solution for the Roadmaster.

    http://imganuncios.mitula.net/1995_buick_roadmaster_4dr_sedan_limited_florida_6920055421803806596.jpg

    It’s UTTERLY rurint.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    The early opti spark system were prone to collecting moisture, and then failure. The later ones had some sort of air circulation devise. The reverse cooling flow was also probably not a good idea. GM experimenting on the customers dime.

  • avatar
    Wagen

    Tires with actual sidewalls! A greenhouse with glass that extends below shoulder level! Those were the days…

  • avatar
    Whatnext

    Put me down as a fan. A credible attempt to combine a traditional style with the Nineties aero-chic. I always found the wagon more attractive than the sedan with its awkward C pillar.

    Why shouldn’t they be priced high? They’re not just the last of their line at GM but everywhere. As much a dodo as the full size convertible. Add in all the boomers and Gen Xers who spent their childhood salad days riding around in full sized wagons and the ability to hall a 4×8 plywood sheet and I’d say it makes a pretty good candidate as a collectible.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    Dang, look at that futuristic-looking gauge cluster. I could see something like that being put into brand-new Cadillacs!

  • avatar
    relton

    The Roadmaster wagon didn’t share the sedan’s front clip because it wasn’t originally intended to be a Roadmaster. I worked on this program right from the beginning. The station wagon was originally an Estate Wagon. The Roadmaster sedan was originally a Park Avenue Ultra. But marketing found that the Roadmaster name was far more powerful than any of the other Buick names, so at the last minute they became Roadmasters. This was decided just a yer before the station wagon launched in ’91. Sdecurity made me take down the picture opf the 56 Roadmaster emblem I had in my office, ’cause the Roadmaster name change was top secret.

    The sedan was launched a year later. This program was delayed because Buick didn’t want a sedan that looked like a Caprice. That’s whjy it has a different front clip, and different roof and rear quarters, and a number of other things. The sedan also has the hydraulic body mounts, a nice touch.

    The earlier cars, pre LT1, are by far the most reliable. not only did they have a bulletproof engine and electrical system, they were made in Willow Run, MI. The 93-95 LT1 engines had a version of Optispark that simply didn’t always work. The electronic module that drove the ignition coil would have intermittent failures, or fail completely. No diagnostic codes would be set with this failure. Replacement parts often had the same, or sores, failure problems. Maintenance had nothing to do with it. The 96 models changed Optispark internal logic, and used a better module. Higher quality modules are now available from the aftermarket for the 96s, but not the earlier cars.

    Bob

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Thanks for the detailed post.

    • 0 avatar

      Great insights. The Opti on our 94 RMW is going strong. But if it dies can it be replaced with the 96 system, or will it not work with the 94 wiring?

      While the wagon might need shocks and springs 2x stiffer than stock, and have door panels that are self destruction, the engine still has all its go and on a recent 1000 mile trip towing a 5500 lb vintage trailer it didn’t burn any oil. I’m a fan of the LT1.

  • avatar
    relton

    The Roadmaster wagon had a raised roof over the 3rd row seat as standard, while it was optional on the Chevy & the Olds. In my opinion, the smooth roof of the Chevy looks better.

    The Olds versions were extremely low production, and very rare today.

    The whole B-body program for the 91 model cars was really a disaster. I could write a book about these cars.

    Bob

  • avatar
    JDG1980

    The ’96 Roadmaster Estate Wagon was rated at 17 MPG for city driving and 26 MPG for highway. Not bad for a vehicle that could carry seven passengers (well, technically 8, but you wouldn’t want to be the middle guy in the front seat), haul full 4×8 sheet goods with the seats down, or tow up to 7,000 pounds depending on the options package.

    The only reason this didn’t survive is the stupid US prejudice against station wagons. For the vast majority of people who bought Ford Explorers or Chevy Suburbans in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the Roadmaster Estate Wagon would have been a superior choice.

    I bet that if they brought the design up to date (modern safety/convenience features, no wood paneling, etc), jacked it up a couple inches, added all-wheel drive, and called it a crossover, it would sell like hotcakes.

    • 0 avatar
      kefkafloyd

      The death of the B-body is even more tragic than that. They were still selling pretty well back then, but repurposing the factory to make Suburbans would greatly inflate GM’s margins at little cost to their bottom line, so they discontinued a decently selling program to build even more Suburbans that were, generally, worse at their jobs for average folk than these wagons.

  • avatar
    relton

    The 96 cars had an OBD II engine control system. 93-95 had an OBD I system. The logic inside the computer for the ignition system is different. The later, more reliable module will not work with the earlier systems.

    Just for fun, when they went to OBD II, in 96, they also completely rearranged most of the service manuals. In other words, if you could find things in the manuals for 91 through 95, you had to start over in 96. This is especially noticeable in the electrical diagnosis sections.

    Some Optispark problems were also caused when the water pump wore, and started leaking. It is arranged so that the weep hole in the water pump will direct the leaking coolant right to the most vulnerable spot in the Optispark.

    One of the reasons that GM trucks didn’t use the LT series engines is because truck engineering would not accept the weak Optispark ignition. Seems that the failures were well known inside GM, even if nothing was done to fix them.

    Bob

    • 0 avatar
      kefkafloyd

      “Some Optispark problems were also caused when the water pump wore, and started leaking. It is arranged so that the weep hole in the water pump will direct the leaking coolant right to the most vulnerable spot in the Optispark.”

      Us F-body owners know that one all too well.

      Imagine these cars with an LS1, they would have been beasts.

  • avatar
    Frylock350

    I had a Chevy Caprice B-body wagon and I’d give anything to have a new one. I’d buy this if I had the cash lying around. I loved that wagon!

    An E-class wagon is NOT a replacement for this it can’t hold a candle to offering the utility this wagon did. The only true modern replacement is a Suburban.

  • avatar
    MyoNen

    Ok where to start. My Granny had the 1996 version it’s one of the greatest cars ever made…
    Exhibit (1) season 1 episode 5 top gear America “beater boot camp”

    It will swallow 4×8 sheets of plywood like they are nothing

    The rearward facing 3rd row rules, and it can tow a boat without complaint.

    The sedan version is actually a different platform which is why they look so different

    Now to the downsides

    Speed limited to 110mph total BS.

    Self leveling air ride suspension fails early and often but is easily swapped out for the leaf springs from the Caprice or Impala.

    Shit for fuel economy.

    I would love to see GM buy Wrightspeed and apply their power train to this car and bring it back to the modern era

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