Cohort Classic: 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser — Revisiting The Ultimate Station Wagons

Here’s another find that has appeared little at CC, a 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser uploaded by Hyperpack to the Cohort. These rather impressive machines were GM’s state-of-the-art take on the station wagon, and they arrived in 1971 ready to take over the upscale station wagon segment. Larger and with more cargo capacity than all competitors, stuffed with options, and carrying the sci-fi-like clamshell tailgate, they appeared ready to make an impression.

Along with its corporate sibling, the Buick Estate Wagon, these have only made infrequent appearances at CC. Their specs and story are more or less covered in a previous 1975 Buick Estate Wagon post, but a recap may be worth it for this rather outstanding surviving Custom Cruiser.

By sheer size alone, the claim has been made that these were the Ultimate Station Wagons. An idea I’m not about to dispute. These were clearly a bit of overkill in many respects, but that was GM’s modus operandi by then. And in the case of these wagons, all part of the company’s quest to upstage and take over the market by sheer corporate force.

To recap, Oldsmobile (and Buick) had been out of the full-size wagon segment since 1964. At the time, the novel Vista Cruiser (and the Buick Sport Wagon) appeared with a new proposal. Riding on an extended A-Body platform, the “mid-size” wagons offered three-forward-facing seats, great cargo space, and a neat glassy raised roof. Memorable and neat looking, they did decent numbers but not the outstanding business GM always expected of their children. It was time for a new plan.

So it was back to the full-size action for Olds and Buick. The new models arrived for the 1971 model year carrying all the bells and whistles GM could throw at them. The full-sizers rode on an extended B-platform –all to 127″– providing 3-forward-facing seat rows. Cargo capacity was 109 cubic inches total and the standard engine was a Rocket 455 CID V-8 with 2 bbl. carburation. Other standard features included Power Windows, Power Steering, Power Front Disc Brakes, Flo-Thru ventilation, and plenty of wood-grain trim.

(Elsewhere, the Vista Cruiser would gain a less distinctive shape for ’73)

The model’s main attraction was its “disappearing tailgate!”, or Glide-Away. A rather sophisticated and convoluted bit of technology that was impressive in a “Car Show” sort of mode. While I could go on about its working methods, it’s best to see it in action in the video above.

Did you see it? Very neat! The system hides away the whole tailgate for unimpeded cargo access. The video shows the fully automated option (a manually operated tailgate was available too), with the tailgate dropping onto the wagon’s floor and the back window rising into the roof. Take that, Ford’s Magic Door!

Of course, Ford’s double-hinged Magic Door was a more practical and nifty solution. With a bit of practice one could open and set up the door as desired; either pushing it to the side or leaving a nice base onto the loading area. No wonder it was the favorite setup of any self-respecting cowboy.

GM’s clamshell was quite a sight, true. But it did require some methodology to get it all going. Let’s see if I got this straight (and I’ll leave it to clamshell experts to correct me):

The dashboard controls the glass motion; set the system in auxiliary and activate the switch. Watch the window go up and hide away into the roof! For the tailgate, step out, insert and turn the key to get the tailgate motors going. Watch the tailgate magically disappear! That is unless there’s a bit of vacuum and the process needs some manual assistance.

Sounds like more steps than I expected… Computer! Why won’t you just open the gate on my voice command?

Should you care to see it, it’s all better shown in the following video (on a Pontiac Grand Safari):

In any case, as it was going to be GM’s wont in the near future, one wonders how they reached their decisions. While the Custom Cruiser and Buick Estate offered, one could say, easily measured goods –cargo capacity, upscale ambiance, etc.– the clamshell was too techy. Neat, for sure. But, one could argue that it was more of an effort to impress competitors rather than truly please users.

Still, the company was going all in on the tech, with all their full-size wagons offering it. Here’s the ’71 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate, looking rather swanky and pleased with itself. Keep in mind that against the Chevy (and Pontiac), Olds and Buick’s offered 2″ of additional wheelbase, a few more inches of overall length, and 3 cubic feet of additional cargo. Plus brand cachet, you know?

Early tech woes and sibling competition aside, these were rather nice-looking wagons. So let’s not miss this chance to take a look around this surviving one.

As usual, the Buick carried more restrained styling. The Olds, on the other hand, wore a more extroverted exterior; a mix of the formality for which the brand was known, plus the rocket-themed cues that were part of its tradition.

In the case of the Custom Cruiser, the rear tail lights do a good impression of jet exhausts, and the winglets on the rear fender top add to the theme. Meanwhile, the curvy greenhouse is certainly very space-pod-like (a quality shared with all the clamshells).

Regarding the front, that’s truly early ’70s Oldsmobile.  There’s much to see on this face, with lots of sculpting and tri-dimensional work.

Looks like the interior is awfully well-preserved, and quite the time capsule. Now, we may have said that GM was aiming for the stars with these, but even so, cost-cutting was showing all across the board. And Olds was no exception. The Rubbermaid plastic door panels were far from pleasing, and the plasti-wood bits do scream early ’70s. Plus, space-age references aside, these interiors were not very ergonomic and had quite a few oddly placed controls.

Then again, I’ve never been to the future. Maybe they don’t care about ergonomics in the 22nd century?

Still, what we have with us today is a rather extraordinary early survivor, from its first year nonetheless. That first production year the model sold about 13K units, with the Buick doing somewhat better with 24K units. Numbers would improve some in the next few years, but once again, not reaching GM’s expectations. By the time the Custom Cruiser was downsized for ’77 with the rest of GM’s lineup, the Glide-Away was gone for good. Instead, the ’77 model made do with a very Magic-Door-like tailgate arrangement.

But for a short few years, there was nothing quite like the clamshell, or Glide-Away. And the concept may sound funny and contrived now, even of overkill. But when it works, it still has that “Wow” effect on the child that lives within me. Now, the adult in me…


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1975 Buick Estate Wagon – The Ultimate American Station Wagon

COAL: 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – The Ultimate Wagon Of A Lifetime