The last of its kind. An end of an era. The final chapter. These may be clichés, but are nevertheless appropriate when describing the 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon. As American as apple pie, the traditional full-size station wagon, as we know it, graced the driveways of millions of American homes from the end of the WWII through the early 1990s. But like sands through the hourglass, so are the cars of our lives. After years of steadily declining popularity, the great American station wagon quietly faded away. The 1996 Buick Roadmaster Estate and Chevrolet Caprice twins were the last American full-size, V8, body-on-frame station wagons available to mankind.
The 1991-1996 Roadmaster Estate was the last in a long line of Buick Estate Wagons. Buick had been using the “Estate” name on their station wagons (or “estates”, as they are called elsewhere in the world) as early as the 1940s, but the iconic Di-Noc wood-paneled Buick Estate Wagon first hit the scene in 1970.
A fully redesigned “clamshell” Estate Wagon arrived the following year. Tipping the scales at over 5,000 lbs, these Estates were likely the biggest station wagons of all time. In the midst of the Estate’s “fat years” came the first oil crisis. Sales of these 2 1/2 ton behemoths greatly suffered, signaling the big wagon’s vulnerability. As gas prices subsided, sales rebounded, though never to historic highs.
The Estate Wagon was downsized along with all B-bodies for 1977. These were some of the best looking station wagons ever, in my opinion. Their styling was clean, elegant, and dare I say graceful. This generation would continue largely unchanged for an unusually long 14 model years, even surviving the downsizing and switch to front-wheel drive of its Electra and LeSabre siblings. Between 1980 and 1989, the Estate Wagon was also given “LeSabre” and “Electra” prefixes to differentiate trim levels.
The B-bodies were significantly overhauled for 1991, receiving all-new “aero” sheet metal. The resulting look drew lukewarm reception, with critics’ “beached whale” and “upside down bathtub” nicknames evoking thoughts of late-’40s Packards and Hudsons.
I have to agree with these less-than admirable feelings towards the 1991 B-body wagons. While certainly elderly, in their 14th year wearing the same basic styling, the 1990 wagons were at least tastefully styled, if not ultra-conservative. The ’91s were too aero for a car of their girth. Despite nearly identical dimensions, they somehow managed to look bigger and more bloated by considerable amounts.
Buick’s sole 1991 RWD offering was once again the Estate Wagon. However, in a nostalgic twist, the car’s official name was “Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon”, marking the first use of Buick’s historic flagship nameplate since 1958. A Roadmaster sedan would arrive the following year, though curiously wearing unique front sheet metal.
Among highlights of the new Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the fixed 2nd row “Vista Roof” (a feature shared with its Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser sibling), and a detuned version of the Corvette’s LT1 V8 from 1994-1996.
The final B-bodies weren’t renown for their material quality, but I’m sure interiors offered everything their traditional buyers were used to. Large analogue gauges, wide door pull straps, acres of tacked-on fake wood, and living room cushy bench seats (although more in the style of a Sharper Image massage chair than Nana’s button-tufted parlor chair).
Judging by the mess of the interior, it’s safe to say that the owner of this one is no Martha Stewart. I chose not to photograph the rear seats, which were folded down and covered over by a tarp and other assorted junk.
Notice the club on the steering wheel? I have to appreciate the owner’s concern that someone would actually want to steal his or her ’96 Roadmaster in a parking lot full of newer Acuras, Audis, and BMWs.
Especially from the rear view, these wagons were WIDE! Somehow GM designers were always good at making a big car look even bigger.
It looks like the body is spilling over the chassis. This angle makes the beached whale nickname quite appropriate.
On the positive side, if there was any ’91-’96 B-body that made the sheet metal work best, it was the Roadmaster Estate. It’s classic waterfall grille and stand-up hood ornament helped prepared you for the sheer size of the car.
The Di-Noc woodgrain applique, in “light colonial oak”, was one of the most attractive Di-Noc woodgrains in the history of station wagons. Along with the extra-wide (albeit, rather cheap-looking) tacked-on brightwork, it brought some much needed visual contrast to the expansive side sheet metal.
Indeed the styling of these wagons was subjective, but I don’t think it had a huge impact on sales. The fate of the Great American Station Wagon was set in stone by the time they made their debut. All full-size station wagons had seen sales sharply decline over the course of the 1980s. I could list a number of individual reasons for this, and I’m sure you can too. Simply put, station wagons were out. Consumers were more interested in gobbling up minivans and SUVs.
GM made a nod over 29,000 full-size station wagons (13,400 Caprices, 11,491 Roadmasters, and 4,347 Custom Cruisers) in 1992. That same year, Chrysler produced some 250,000 Plymouth Voyagers alone.
Although the Caprice sold well enough in fleet sales, GM wanted to grab an even bigger piece of the full-size SUV market. It was decided that the factory where B-body production took place would be retooled to make these more profitable SUVs. 1996 would be the end of the line. Symbolic of this final year, all Roadmasters were badged as “Collector’s Editions”. While SUVs, minivans, and even crossovers have certainly matched their size and carrying capacity, nothing can quite compare to the presence of the full-size, wood-grained station wagon.