Curbside Classic: 1996 Buick Roadmaster Collector’s Edition – “B” There ‘Til The End

IMG_2311(First published 9/12/2013; Updated with revisions and added images)

“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.

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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. As Cadillac did not produce any station wagons, the Estate Wagon was generally seen as General Motor’s most prestigious wagon, although price and equipment levels were often close to other GM brands’ most expensive wagons.

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Arriving in the final year of the bodystyle released in 1965, the first generation Estate Wagon would last only one year. A fully redesigned “clamshell” Estate Wagon arrived in 1971. 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 suffered greatly, signaling the big wagon’s vulnerability. As gas prices subsided, sales rebounded, though never to historic highs.

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The Estate Wagon was downsized along with all other B-bodies for 1977.  These were some of the best looking full-size station wagons ever, in my opinion. Their styling was clean, elegant–and dare I say, graceful.

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Apart from a new front clip in 1980, this generation would continue largely unchanged for an unusually long 14 model years, surviving even the downsizing and switch to front-wheel drive of its Electra and LeSabre siblings. Lighter tone Di-Noc woodgrain seemed to enhance its premium intentions. Between 1980 and 1989, the Estate Wagon was also given “LeSabre” and “Electra” prefixes to differentiate trim levels.

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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.

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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 considerably more bloated.

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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.

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Among highlights of the new Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the fixed second-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.

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The final B-bodies weren’t renowned for their material quality, but I’m sure interiors offered everything 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).

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As you can see, the state of the interior was rather messy. I chose not to photograph the rear seats, which were folded down and covered over by a tarp and other assorted junk.

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I remember laughing to myself when I came across the steering wheel club while I was photographing this car. I photographed it in the commuter rail parking lot in Hingham, MA–a very low-crime, upper-crust town where the median home price is $650,000 and ranks #10 on the list of Massachusetts’s towns with the most millionaires. Maybe there’s a black market for 20-year-old station wagons I’m not aware of?

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Especially from the rear view, these wagons were WIDE! Somehow GM designers were always good at making a big car look even bigger.

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Figuratively speaking, with a relatively short wheelbase and narrow track, the car’s body appeared to “spill” over its chassis. This characteristic was present in the sedan, but the Estate Wagon’s larger derrière accentuated it to a further degree. This angle especially gives light to the “beached whale” comparison.

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On a more positive side, if there was any ’91-’96 B-body that made the sheet metal work best, it was the Roadmaster Estate. Its classic waterfall grille and stand-up hood ornament announced its sheer size and presence in a traditional American way.

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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.

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Indeed, the styling of these final B-body wagons was subjective, but likely not the determining factor in their declining sales. Full-size station wagon sales had been waning since the mid-1980s, a result of the minivan and SUV’s flourishing popularity. Much in the way that minivans are commonly viewed today, by the early-1990s, station wagons were seen as uncool, outdated family haulers–the cars of our penny-pinching parents. Offering comparative levels of passenger capacity and cargo volume, and considerably more snob appeal, minivans, and to a much greater extent, SUVs, were the preferred family vehicle of late-Boomers and Gen Xers, who gladly opened their wallets for one.

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Largely because of this, it’s no mystery that full-size station wagon sales kept sliding while minivan and SUV sales grew exponentially. In 1992, GM made a nod over 29,000 full-size station wagons (13,400 Caprices, 11,491 Roadmasters, and 4,347 Custom Cruisers). That same year, Chrysler moved some 250,000 Plymouth Voyagers and Ford sold nearly 300,000 Explorers. GM was also highly successful with SUVs, owning some 50% of the full-size SUV market by the early-2000s. With their high demand, higher transaction prices, and less-stringent fuel economy standards, SUVs were a win-win for automakers at the time.

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Although the B-body (mainly Caprice sedans, however) sold well enough in fleet sales, GM wanted an even bigger piece of the lucrative 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 for these last true American station wagons. 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.