Visualize, it’s 1964, you’re around ten years old, and have just disembarked from the school bus, when a station wagon drives slowly by. At first glance it appears like an average model, but continuing to look, while the front part of the car is familiar, from the B pillar rearward, it is like nothing you have ever seen. And it is jaw-dropping gorgeous.
It’s being driven by a neighbor, smiling, who normally owns the ritziest car on your block. However, on this day she is not in her Sedan de Ville. How has this Oldsmobile lured her from the prestigious brand? Could it be the aura emanating from the car, it’s matching bottle green exterior and silver-trimmed roof glass, it’s swagger, like that of a one-off custom?
Over the course of four decades, many General Motors sky roof station wagons would come into and pass out of my life. Curbside Classic has previously covered the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and Buick Sport Wagon sky roofs, both of which shared the exact same greenhouse configuration. The intents of this post are to illustrate how prevalent these wagons were through personal reflections, to examine the ground-breaking structural design of both generations, study a couple of interesting examples, and, maybe, inspire you to comment about a sky roof in your life. So, buckle up… let’s go for a ride.
Sixty-year-old Design Has Passed the Test of Time
Two Generations of Sky Roofs
Sky Roof Body Structure
Generation One. Left: Viewed from the rear, the tailgate window has a wide frame; moving around to view the side of the car, it becomes evident that the frame is too thin to support the roof. Right: And viewing the side of the car, which seems to lack a normal D pillar, what is supporting the roof? The bright-edged, champhered structural pillar, indiscernible behind the cargo window, which extends to the trailing edge of the greenhouse, where a traditional D pillar would normally reside.
(Generation one, continued) Interior’s stainless roll bar around the rear window. Each stainless-edged D pillar rises up from the base, then curves to join and support the roof at the trailing edge of the lateral skylight, thinning along the elevated roof, which appears to float, and widens as it connects to the other side. Six decades ago, did the dawn of the space age inspire the creation of a vehicle from which humans could observe the heavens while exploring the surface of planet Earth? Highly original and totally cool, damn the modern rollover standards.
Generation Two. Left: Beam between cargo window and lateral skylight is visible on the interior. Right: Beam is invisible on the exterior, where only a strip of stainless divides the two pieces of flush-fitting glass, visually wrapping the side window up onto the roof.
Sky Roof Visors
Generation one shown above; all sky roofs had middle row sun visors. The visors were full sized, padded with upholstery to match the rest of the interior, and flapped down to block the sun above, or pivot to the side and flap to block rays from the left or right side. The visors may have appeareared superfluous, but they were fully functional to shade passengers and help minimize solar gain.
Following: are the sky roofs that passed in and out of my life. All images, except of my 1967 Sport Wagon, are from the internet, selected to represent featured cars as closely as possible. A few examples of model years and/or timeline of interaction may vary slightly.
Left: 1964 Vista Cruiser (1964-1965): Our neighbors’ car that started it all, their ’59 six-window had been traded in on two new cars, the Oldsmobile for the Misses, and a Corvair for the Colonel. As their nest emptied, they reverted to the Cadillac, Lincoln and Thunderbird nameplates. Nice while it lasted… Right: 1968 Vista Cruiser (1968-1969): Often seen around town, the family car of a classmate, their extra-large dog riding in the back. Research for this post told of a prospective sky roof buyer auditioning the rear compartment’s elevated ceiling height to ensure that their large dog could stand up, not possible in traditional station wagons. What were the chances… the same dog?
Left: 1968 Sport Wagon (1968-1969): While out for a test ride in my best friend’s new family car, and when there was a vibration noise coming from the roof rack, his Mom, who liked to play word games by transposing the first letters of two-word phrases, had to catch herself before fully converting Humming Roar. Right: 1966 Vista Cruiser (1969-1973): The next-door neighbors owned this sky roof. Attending drivers’ education with their daughter and acquiring our learners’ permits together, after getting my license, two months the elder, I was the mandated front seat occupant for running daily errands and going on adventuress, and drove the car on many occasions. The time of growing up around this car and it’s family will always be remembered.
Left: 1971 Vista Cruiser (1971-1977): For years in our neighborhood, this always-spanking-clean Olds was admired, as was the perfectly maintained home and manicured yard. The owner ended up as the letter carrier for my college era place of employment. When visiting, after becoming friends, this sharp car was able to be appreciated in person and up close. Right: 1968 Sport Wagon (1985-2004): Belonging to a close friend, a lifetime collector of all things Buick, this wagon was modified into a GS Sport Wagon. Many sky roof owners have enthusiastically transformed their work-a-day wagons into versions of their hell-raising, bad-ass GS and 4-4-2 siblings. A memory of the Red Wagon is of going out to dinner one night, sitting in the middle row, looking up at the stars.
Cross Country Cruiser on Borrowed Time
1972 Vista Cruiser (spring of 1979, and again from around 1982-1984): While not an automobile owner, in order to move to the west coast, a contract was drawn with a drive-away company, whose customer needed for their car to be transported across country. After first being offered a VW window van, which seemed ideal for moving my belongings until discovering heavy, commercial sewing machines wedged underneath the seats, an inquiry was made about a woody Vista Cruiser found on the lot. Derelict and dirty, after a receiving a fresh battery and intensive cleaning, the 350-Rocket car with factory air and AM/FM stereo, stuffed to the gunnels, was just right for heading off to a new life.
Along the way, visiting the former next door neighbors who owned the ’66, arriving in another Vista Cruiser and admiring the pair in the driveway was serendipitous. In the passing lane, while ascending into mile-high Denver, then going back down seeing flashing red lights in the rear view mirror, the price of the ticket was worth the joy ride in the powerful Olds. The car was delivered and released to the company’s branch in Los Angeles. A few years later, this very same car appeared in my life again, parked regularly at a local place of business in the southwestern US, a visual souvenir of the great cross-country expedition.
Sky Roof, at Home, at Last
1967 Buick Sport Wagon (1991-1997): The Buick-magnet friend discovered and purchased it, and then sold it to me; at long last, a sky roof of my own. High mileage, in excellent condition, the car came with it’s entire service history, a two-inch thick tome. Residing most of it’s life in the San Francisco area and owned by a married couple, records indicated the Buick led a purposeful existence while being impeccably maintained. On more than one instance, it had been taken in for service at different times by each spouse for the same repairs. After purchase, the factory ivory paint, showing surface rust, was refinished to it’s original condition.
The previous owners had replaced apparently worn sections of the front seats with leather, matching the original vinyl’s burnished gold color and tuck ’n roll pattern. The interior featured hand-tooled embossing on the doors and seats, illustrated in the Buick sales literature above left. While in my stewardship and normally driven on weekends, for business trade shows, the wagon was recruited for duty transporting our bulky display booth, promotional giveaways and boxes of books. Also, the wagon effortlessly hauled full loads of heavy cartons when delivering completed orders, and materials going to or coming from our vendors.
A standout memory is of one July 4th, parking the car early in the day along the coast, in front of the pier from which the fireworks were always launched, the Buick containing a cooler with a picnic dinner. Later that afternoon, walking with my date toward the pier, now mobbed with thongs of revelers with nary a parking spot to be had for miles, surprised to discover the set-up. We climbed into the center row, lowered the windows, and enjoyed the fried chicken and ice cream; and then, through the sky roof, watched the show celebrating America’s freedom. A night to remember.
Specifications: 340 4bbl, 260 hp @ 4200, Torque 365 @ 2800; automatic SuperTurbine. length 214.3, width 75.4, height 58.8, wheelbase 120 (inches).
Well-appointed Buick Roadmaster Estate and Packard Super Eight woodies, upscale hardtops from Mercury, Chrysler, Dodge, Rambler, Oldsmobile and Buick… the conceptually advanced Studebaker Wagonaire and dreamy Chevrolet Nomads and Pontiac Safaris… and, the subjects of our story, the Vista Cruiser and Sport Wagon, among many other station wagons, were utilitarian thoroughbreds that looked best when running hardest.
GM, when faced with the problem of third row headroom, utilized an intelligent, creative design that far exceeded any ordinary solution. The challenge provided an opportunity to achieve true success with these popular mid-century wagons, many of which left a lasting impression in my life.
Thanks to our intrepid moderator for his invaluable insight and assistance, which made writing this story possible.