By on January 24, 2020

A special day has arrived here at Rare Rides. Our subject is modern, sleek, and the Cadillac of Minivans. That’s right, it’s Van Time with the Oldsmobile Silhouette.

General Motors debuted its new U-body vans for the 1990 model year. The Silhouette, Chevrolet Lumina APV, and Pontiac Trans Sport were a batch of aerodynamic and consumer-friendly replacements for the enormous rear-drive station wagons most people hated. The trio were also a follow-up to the Astro and Safari rear-drive vans, as those boxes didn’t appeal to the hundreds of thousands of households who went across the street to buy a Chrysler van instead. GM’s cutting-edge design debuted in 1986 as the Pontiac Trans Sport, and the finalized product went into production at the end of 1989.

With three doors and seating for seven, all U-bodies had plastic body panels like a Saturn to shrug off family use and rust. The Silhouette was the luxury van option from General Motors, as displayed via its refined tape stripes, deep tinted windows, and lace alloys. A high-spec interior included leather seating for seven which was removable and reconfigurable; every seat was a captain’s chair. The driver’s seat was powered, and most convenience features were electric. Rear air was also included — a feature that was far from prevalent in vans of the early Nineties.

Powering the Silhouette were three different engines dependent upon trim level. There were six-cylinders in 3.1, 3.4, or 3800 guise. Transmissions were all automatic, having either three or four forward speeds. An optional ride package added rear air shocks to level the Silhouette no matter the weight of people and cargo inside. A novel feature included with this package was an on-board air compressor.

Changes through the first-generation Silhouette were significant and included the addition of 3800 power, larger brakes with ABS, and a sunroof for 1992. A facelift occurred in 1993 that smoothed the front end and brought Trans Sport lamps to the rear. A power sliding door was added in 1994, along with built-in child seats, traction control, and a driver’s airbag.

The original Silhouette lasted through the 1996 model year, and as its successor was prepared the model’s offerings were simplified. In ’96 traction control went away, and only the 3.4-liter was available under hood. The General had learned its lesson about controversial van designs, and the Dustbusters made way for much more mainstream-looking vans in 1997. The U-body lived on in North America until 2007, when GM decided it wouldn’t sell minivans in its home market any longer. A revised U-body continues today in China, underneath the luxury Buick GL8.

Today’s 194,000-mile Silhouette 3800 is creating a buzz on Bring a Trailer at the moment, and is auctioned out of Oregon. There’s no reserve, and as of writing it’s bid to $1,302. Interested?

[Images: seller]

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47 Comments on “Rare Rides: The Stunning 1992 Oldsmobile Silhouette, in Teal...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    The Cadillac of minivans!

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    If the transmission is reliable and no LIM issue on the 3800 (I doubt), it should easily sell for at least that much.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      This was Series I, no Orange Death yet (Dexcool).

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Orange Death isn’t all that deadly, as long as you address it *before* the car bricks itself. Pop in a new head gasket (about $500), and you’re good for another 100,000 or so miles. It’s best to just build it into your ownership costs, which are going to be very low on this car anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        redgolf

        I flushed all of the “orange death” out of my 97 Grand Prix 3.8 several years back, original owner 179+ k miles still running great!

  • avatar
    thornmark

    the prototypes were stunning

    the execution was not

    same w/ the Aztec

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I’m of two minds here.

    Mind One: No. Fu*king. Way. But thanks for the laugh!

    Mind Two: It’s a rolling aberration, but it has the blessed 3800 and would probably run ad infinitum. You could probably drive it for a couple of years dirt-cheap. Plus, anyone who decides to diss it by beating on it will be SORELY dissapointed. Might be interesting. And it had a starring role in “Get Shorty,” which was a terrific movie.

    Mind One won.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    A vehicle that was unfairly dismissed in its time. An excellent powertrain (when equipped with the 3800), rust proof/ding resistant body panels, and the best seating configuration in the industry (with the exception of the stow & go which arrived much later). Those individual seats were easy to take in/out or move around in whatever configuration you required. The on-board air compressor often came in handy.

    Sure it might creak, but maintained adequately these vehicles should outlast (and probably outperform) their competition by a considerable length of time.

    • 0 avatar
      quaquaqua

      I also think it had some great ideas and love the seating. But you better believe it would creak. My friend’s mom’s 2007 Uplander sounded like it was gonna fall apart every time you went over a big bump within 5 years.

      I don’t get the hate, I think they look great. Even though that front nose made parking a nightmare.

      • 0 avatar
        C5 is Alive

        The nose isn’t THAT bad. When the dustbuster vans first came out in 1990, GM auto show reps pointed out the distance from the front bumper to the driver’s seat was the same as a Cavalier.

        BTW, Corey erred with “three different engines dependent upon trim level.” The 3.1L V6 was the only engine available for 1990-1991, with the 3800 added as an option for 1992-1995 (though it soon became the de facto standard engine for the Silhouette.) Both engines were then replaced with the LA1 3400 for 1996.

  • avatar
    Thomas Kreutzer

    These and the Transsports were really neat vans. Certainly as good as any of the pseudo-mini vans being built by the big three at the time. I understand that they had horrible crash tests though.

  • avatar
    jawolk

    YES!!!!!!!!

    My parents owned one… a ’94 I believe… LOVED IT!!

    Same exact color as this example…. I believe the GM name for the color was Malachite Metallic (someone please correct me if wrong on this).

    @FreedMike – AWESOME on the Get Shorty reference.. that’s why it’s the Cadillac of minivans… that’s what it was called in the movie.

    As far as my parents’ ownership… it was very reliable and comfortable with lots of utility. You decide on the looks…. but looks are (yep, all caps here): SUBJECTIVE.

    This post seriously made my day!

  • avatar
    Russycle

    For a vehicle with nearly 200K on the clock, it looks amazing. Still, no thanks.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    This is a similar color, has similar mileage, and is in similar condition (except the thrashed driver’s seat) to my ’95 Acura Legend.

    But I’d rather have the Acura after an accident than have this as is.

  • avatar
    NoID

    I just watched Predator 2 for the first time ever (I know…) and the Chevy Lumina APV version of this vehicle was EVERYWHERE.

  • avatar
    ravenuer

    Oh that reminds me, I gotta get the dustbuster out and vacuum out the car later.

  • avatar
    Dan

    A guy at my gym drives one. He put a big bull bar on it.

    And now I know why.

  • avatar
    Stanley Steamer

    I’m sold on the GL8!

  • avatar
    gtem

    My brother for whatever reason rescued a 212k mile Silhoutte from the scrapyard, a customer donated it to him with a slipping transmission and a misfire. He’s a big 3800 V6 fan and is a bit of a hoarder so he spent last year slowly fixing it up (and using it for content on his youtube channel). The transmission was fixed with some fresh fluid and some driving. The misfire was something fairly trivial as well. He did a number of fixes on it, nothing was expensive in terms of the parts but when he did a final tally including his own time, it was something like $3200 invested. Sold it to an acquaintance for $1700, a fair deal considering just how thoroughly it had been gone through.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m sure the ad revenue made up for the difference!

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        Yeah that was basically the justification for putting as much time into it as he did: fun easy content for the channel. Although he really does have a thing for reviving forlorn older “quality” things that others have discarded. He has a lot of not-so-kind words for a lot of the cost cutting and fuel saving tech in newer cars, but he loves this stuff from the 90s, old GM iron and Toyotas especiall.y

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Plastic body panels, Series I 3800 NA, 4-speed auto.

    This will last through the apocalypse with continued regular maintenance.

    The sad fact is this will almost certainly become someone’s daily, parked on the street, abused, and all forms of regular maintenance completely ignored.

    Murilee will be featuring this in 18 months…

    • 0 avatar
      quaquaqua

      None of that matters much when the underside rusts through. My ’94 Cavalier was toast after ten Chicago winters.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        Yeah that’s the thing with older Saturns, the APVs,etc. Might look great and rust free, but the subframes are as susceptible as anything else. I’ll bet that 75%+ of older GMs in a northeastern/midestern scrapyard have a perfectly running 3800 and rotted subframe/subframe mounts (or got wrecked).

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    These were built in the Tarrytown NY plant not far from where I grew up. For years they built Novas, then through the 80’s and 90’s A-body Century’s and Celebrity’s. From what I understand the product quality was quite from there.
    They retooled for the Dustbuster in the early 90’s though 1996. Slow sales led GM to shutter the plant and the land was sold off to developers. It’s now an attractive walkable mixed use apartment and townhouse complex on the banks of the Hudson River.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    These were on sale in Europe in the early 1990s but were obviously not very successful.

    They were badged either as Chevrolet or Oldsmobile or even as a Pontiac Trans Sport, that is if my memory has not let me down. Could it be that GM actually stuck with the Pontiac name for Europe instead of the usual Chevrolet/Oldsmobile badging? I am probably wrong on the names, but I distinctively remember these were on sale here. To my knowledge they were only available in white.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GM_U_platform

      “The Pontiac Trans Sport was sold in Europe as a rebadged Oldsmobile Silhouette with European safety specifications.” (first-gen)

      Bonus: Here is the tip of the iceberg of the business disaster which resulted from the attempt to sell the second-gen U body in Europe:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opel_Sintra

    • 0 avatar

      I saw them also in Russia, most likely imported used from US or Germany. Looked futuristic. Engine was kind of ancient already since everyone else had DOHC engines. The problem with them was that anything over 2.0L was taxed to the death. Regular folks normally avoided V6. Interior quality was similar to Opels which I did not admire to say the least.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    This vehicle (1990-1996MY GMT199) failed because it went too far in prioritizing styling over usability/utility.

    [Mazda are you listening?]

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    I would buy the hell out of that for $1300. It even has a crash-avoidance system: the driver’s terrified realization that his vehicle has about the same safety score as a 1963 VW Microbus or UAZ-452.

    The funny thing about the “Cadillac of Minivans” trope in “Get Shorty” is that IIRC it isn’t actually the same U-body all the way through–they’re all black and they’re all supposed to be the same Oldsmobile Silhouette, but I distinctly remember realizing in a scene or two “waitaminit, that’s a ___(some other brand black U-body).”

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Speaking of UAZ, fun bit of trivia: in the early 90s, an American importer was seriously trying to get the 469 (military Jeep looking one) to the states as a retro Jeep competitor. The plan was to replace the trusty but low power Volga 2.45L I4 with a GM 3800 V6. I think that’s a brilliant pairing to be honest. Just need to make sure whatever transmission and axles its hooked up to can handle all the added torque!

      I learned all this from a re-uploaded throwback Motorweek episode:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFJ-3evD2XM

  • avatar
    Michael S6

    GM copied the Dustbuster design.

  • avatar
    agroal

    An abortion that lived!

  • avatar
    PentastarPride

    My aunt Terry had a 1990 Silhouette van, purchased new. I wasn’t born before then, but discovered it while flipping through some photo albums one time and asked her about it. She told me that she had two major problems with it — first, the column shifter wouldn’t go into Park all of the sudden, no matter how hard she tried (I don’t know if it had something to do with the shift linkage, the column assembly or the transmission, because she doesn’t recall the dealer telling her anything about the reason why it did what it decided to do — they just took it in for a few days and returned it back to her, fixed). Secondly, the driver window assembly apparently decided to give way and fell down into the door, shattering in the process. That was a warranty repair too, but she decided to get out while the getting was good. That was when she traded it for a loaded, dark purple 1994 Chrysler Concorde with a tan interior — a car I fell in love with from the beginning.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    She is a pretty 10 footer. Tires are mismatched which is a bit of a red flag on what else has been ignored or [email protected]$$ed

  • avatar
    Right_Click_Refresh

    Man, I remember being all excited to see these debut because they were so darn futuristic. I also firmly remember the amount of laughing my Dad did @ GM for the lack of quality. Man he wasnt wrong, GM JUNK through and through.

  • avatar
    JREwing

    This thing is pretty damn pristine for the age and mileage!

    Besides styling and typical GM interior quality, the major failing with the Dustbuster vans were the 3.1L V6 with the THREE speed auto. The 3-speed was terrible in my Corsica, which is easily 1000 lbs lighter; that lighter weight allowed the V6 to overcome it. No hope in the Dustbuster.

    The 3800 and 4-speed auto totally transform this vehicle – more torque, better mileage, and a more relaxed feel. The poor 3.1 was simply overtaxed in this application, and you heard it a LOT.

    I would totally take this over the 1992 Grand Caravan’s 3.3L V6 and UltraDrive 4-speed auto that ate itself at 60,000 miles after 6 years of pampered elderly ownership (and about 6 months of similarly tame driving in our hands).

    It’s an utter shame this Olds is in Oregon and I’m out of time off at work. It’s seriously tempting to fly out there and roadtrip this back.

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