This Buick Century wagon could be the automotive embodiment of my late grandfather. Like the FWD A-Body Century that lasted a whopping fifteen model years from between 1982 and ’96, my grandpa also endured, living well into his 80s. Also, like this Century, Grandpa would always be dressed to the nines for church on Sunday morning. Grandma was also beautifully dressed, often with matching accessories, jewelry, and the finest perfume and cosmetics that Avon had to offer. My grandparents, their farmstead, and their church were in a very small, rural farm community in northwestern Ohio, and it always impressed me that it wasn’t just us “city folks” (i.e. back home in Flint, Michigan) who got polished up for the right occasions.
My grandfather would wear a hat, suspenders, and often a pocket square, if I recall correctly. His manner of Sunday attire was very old school and “correct”, as his age demographic probably lent itself to. (He would have been close to a century old in present day.) By the mid-’90s, wood applique on station wagons was nothing if not a throwback. (Can the readership verify the very last year, make and model of passenger car that offered the wood-tone effect on their sides? I’m aware of the Chrysler minivans and Jeeps that featured this.) Grandpa’s hat could be likened to this Century’s roof-rack, and his suspenders to the vinyl wood. I also seem to recall that Grandpa also had more than a few suits in the neutral, beige-y color of this car’s paint.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an example of one of these Century wagons, which feels somewhat odd, given that this generation of Century lasted in production for what seemed like a century. The only other car from this era that seemed to have been manufactured as long (and with as many periodic facelifts) is the third-generation Ford Mustang – a car I had previously written about having grown up with. I’m guessing as to the model year of our featured car, as changes were far apart and few between toward the end of their run – through which the wagon body style lasted, after having been belatedly introduced for ’84.
A respectable 6,800 Century wagons were sold for end-of-the-line ’96, in addition to another 86,000 sedans. By ’96, my grandparents had moved on to Ford Panthers (with which they would stick until they both passed away), but this Century wagon was a pleasant reminder of a time when it was okay (expected) to look nice in certain places. Amen.
Wrigleyville, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, February 5, 2012.
The longevity of this design has always surprised me. The Fox-Body Mustang made some sense, as it was fairly popular and was under constant improvement. However, now I’m always happy to see them, whereas I’m usually jaded when I see a Fox-Body.
There is an element of classic simplicity about its lines, almost like an American Volvo 240. And like the Volvo, it didn’t need changing. By the end of production it was getting a bit dated as curvier shapes were in vogue, but still this wagon was not so offensively square as to look obsolete.
I’ll grant you that it’s got very classic lines and I like it very much, but I’m still taken back by just how long it lasted. It’s such an ordinary car that just kept going. Not that I’m complaining. These are splendid cars that always bring a smile to my face.
My mother-in-law had the 1989 version of this wagon – same fake wood grain trim and a very similar color. It was an eight passenger version powered by the ubiquitous Buick 3.8 liter V6 engine. She had an antique business and bought her Century because it was good for moving a lot of small stuff or a little bit of medium sized stuff.
I was generally a sight unseen critique of these wagons until I started driving her’s when I would visit from out of town. Truth of the matter is, I actually liked the car. As in so many instances, I wouldn’t have wanted to own it but I enjoyed driving it and its functionality was not to be denied. As I recall, it was pretty trouble free too. I think she traded it on a ’95 Roadmaster, a car my wife derisively referred to as the “Road Cochon” (french for pig).
Even with the advent of the 1984 Chrysler minivan, station wagons seemed to hang in there for quite a while. Even today, one could say that the spiritual successor to the Century wagon is the Buick TourX.
The real station wagon killer might not have been the minivan, at all, but the surge in popularity of the SUV/CUV (mainly Ford Explorer), which are essentially station wagons on stilts.
I often referred to my ’91 S10 Blazer as an ugly station wagon.
> Can the readership verify the very last year, make and model of passenger car that offered the wood-tone effect on their sides?
2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser?
According to Chrysler and the EPA, the PT was a “light truck.” Ha
For the EPA it was, but for NHTSA the PT was a car.
I was just thinking about that the other day, I believe the pt cruiser touring was the last car sold in the us with woodgrain.
In my area there are still well-kept PT Cruiser Woodies in daily use. There are also a few aftermarket PT Woodies, or Gen 2, 2006-up PTs with factory woodie appliques installed.
Thanks, all! I think we have a winning answer.
The last cars to offer factory wood grained sides… you’re probably right that this was one of them.
The Century and Roadmaster were both done in 1996, and both had available wood grained sides.
The Chrysler Town & Country lost the wood grained sides after the new aero vans came out in 1996.
So I think that you are right that this is one of the last. Which means that, as far as I know, wood sides disappeared after OBD-II.
“…as far as I know, wood sides disappeared after OBD-II.”
I doubt there was any correlation. 🙂
If you ask me, these were very similar to the Volvo 240. They’re about the same size, similar in specifications overall with probably similar power and room, available as both sedan and wagon, built for about as long as the Hundred Years War lasted, and dramatically improved in quality around the middle of their life cycles. By the time production for the A body and the Volvo ended, they were bought by the same kind of people, slightly stodgy, practical people who didn’t care about modern looks or styling but wanted something that would run forever and be cheap to maintain and repair infrequently. I’m betting the same people who bought an ’82 Century came back for the ’96 and the same people who bought a ’78 Volvo came back for the 240.
I bought a ’96 Ciera new in college cos I was sick of fixing beaters and it was cheaper to make a car payment on that particular new car than sink money into old beaters. One of these days I’ll have to do a full write up on it, but for something like $13K you got a four speed automatic, four door sedan, tilt, cruise, a/c, which was reasonably plushy, comfortable, roomy, and would be cheap and easy to fix if something went wrong, which it wouldn’t. These things were more reliable than Camcords and in casual driving, didn’t drive that much differently than a Camry. A civic/corolla stickered for around $15-16K back then and Honda and toyota dealers got it. This was a LOT of car for the money back when and you really had to get down into Hyundai or Escort territory to get something less expensive, which wasn’t as plushy, roomy, or well built.
Ma still has the Ciera. These things were very solidly built, and didn’t suffer the inevitable GM cost cutting which led to a lot of cheap plastic parts. This has real metal door handles and real metal window regulators and a lot of real metal parts which have definitely held up.
SavageATL, I’m glad to read an account of a great experience with one of these latter-day A-Bodies, and I’ll agree with all of your assessments. These were a lot of car for the money by final-year ’96.
My parents had bought a lightly-used ’92 “Cutlass Ciera” (as they were still called in ’92), and that was a roomy, comfortable, reliable, responsive car. Yes, it was dated, but it was exactly what our family needed, and it never let us down. I liked riding in it. I even came to like the bench seats and column shifter for the throwback factor.
I think the PT cruiser was the last car to be woodgrained! Up until 2005 from the factory.
I like these but they make me a little sad. In this car, GM was making Valiants and Darts. The company that had built the Buick Riviera in 1963 and the Cadillac Eldorado in 1967 was building modern Valiants and Darts. Meaning cars that were pretty solid and reliable but out of date and none too luxurious.
But you have to love a wood-sided wagon. For me it would be a toss-up between the Oldsmobile and the Buick.
My thoughts exactly.
A co-worker drove a mid-1990s Oldsmobile Ciera sedan in the early 2000s. I remember riding in it and marveling at the poor fit-and-finish of the dashboard. The car struck me as a vehicle that had hung around well past its “sell-by” date.
I don’t find anything intrinsically sad about building modern Valiants and Darts – there will always be a market for a basic, cheap, but reliable and proven car. The Toyota Corolla base models with the behind-the-times 4 speed auto filled that role more recently. But cars like these should NEVER have been Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Their continued presence made trying to update their image with the cars like the Aurora far more difficult, especially since the Ciera was Olds’ best seller right to the end. That Buick and Olds rather than Chevrolet or at least Pontiac sold the late A bodies was due to happenstance rather than planning – those sold better, so they stayed after the Celebrity and 6000 were dropped. All the more amazing is that this was the period when GM hired all those ex-P&G tooth paste people to be “brand managers”, yet selling 1982-vintage Buicks and Oldsmobiles in 1996 was an utter failure of brand management principles. GM couldn’t resist the profits these long-ago-amortized cars brought in and didn’t figure into the equation how much damage these antiques were doing to their upscale marques’ image, and that, well, was sad.
JP, I see your point. The company that had once been the style leader was still building ancient (though effective) designs by the mid-’90s. By the late ’80s, and as a kid, I had already started to lament the lack of annual model year changes I had just started getting used to as I learned to identify years, makes and models of cars.
By the time the last ’96 Buick Centurys and Olds Cieras had arrived, the basic ’89 restyle for both (granted, with some minor detail changes) was in its *eighth* year. That’s a long time.
But yes, Valiants and Darts – though I consider that a good quality. At least, do one thing well, and these cars did provide reliable, comfortable transportation for a lot people, even if their styling didn’t exactly set anyone’s heart on fire by the end.
Great find Joe. Indeed, this Century is flattered by the faux woodgrain. I quickly glanced at your lead photo, and then the title, and for a moment thought it said ‘1985’. It might as well, given how long these lasted in production with limited updates.
Your topic got me thinking. Was a woodgrained Celebrity wagon ever offered? If so, they must’ve been somewhat rare, as I barely recall seeing them. I checked and an ‘Estate’ package Celebrity was offered starting in 1985. Seems strange seeing woodgrain on the Celebrity. But it works!
Thanks, Daniel. Until you had mentioned it and shown pictures, I can’t recall having seen but very few Celebrity wagons with the woodgrain trim on the sides. I think it looks good.
It seems appropriate that the stained glass window in the background looks very mid-century as well.
I was trying to come up with a “century” pun there, but in all seriousness this station wagon with the fake wood applique feels more like a throwback to the era when that style of architecture was in vogue as opposed to something from the 1990s.
@ Daniel M, yes, there was a woodgrain option on the Celebrity (and 6000) but the lion’s share of the Celebrities, particulary the wagon, were Eurosports. Eurosport meant no woodgrain. Additionally, the Celebrity was preferred by fleets back when it was being made so the fleets didn’t order woodgrain. The vast bulk of the woodgrained A wagons were, as they had been in their RWD predecessors, the Buick versions with quite a few Olds versions. Very few Celebrity/6000 wagons were woodgrained, although they existed.
Thank you! I think where the woodgrain started to look out-of-place was when GM applied it to the Buick Skyhawk and Olds Firenza wagons. To make the effect more subtle, the woodgrain surround trim is almost flush with the body work. It still looks better IMO than it did on Escort and Lynx wagons. It almost appears ‘owner-applied’ on this Firenza.
A great way to debase a brand name, by calling it the Firenza ‘Cruiser’. 🙂
Flashback overload!!! That is the EXACT same model and color combo of my dad’s ’87 Firenza that he owned when I was in high school. I haven’t even seen a similar one in over 20 years. Took my driving exam in the same car. I agree 100% on the goofy looks. At the time (early 90s) I considered the pale yellow/woodgrain/wire wheels combo pack to be nauseatingly uncool…and still do, for that matter. The car was a hand-me-down from my grandfather, who was a diehard Olds man his entire life. Truth be told it was actually a pretty trouble-free car, although it was underpowered and buzzy in typical J car fashion. Great find.
A teacher of mine in high school also had one like that (almost 20 years ago) I also haven’t seen one since then.
It was fairly common for the import wagons to offer woodgrain with a gold-tone pinstripe as a “surround molding” for port-of-entry or dealer installation.
I thought the K-car wagons, at least the ’81-84 Dodge and Plymouth, pulled the look off better than the GM J and Escort, since they kept the wood effect above the regular body-side molding (which, in a blond-wood pattern, formed the lower woodgrain surround); unfortunately the effect was cheapened with the ’85 facelift, in order to use the same black side molding as the non-woodys they changed the other surround moldings to black rubber with chrome strip.
I was (forcibly) given an ’86 Century Estate Wagon. The full zoot: Wood trim, fake wire wheel covers, burgundy outside and matching velour interior, nine passenger. Hated the car, but it was the best automobile I owned up thru that time.
My barber back in CA between ’04 and ’06 had one of these, I remember always being impressed at how perfect the condition of it was. But that was about it as our family once had an ’85 or ’87 Celebrity Wagon in the tan/yellowish color with tan vinyl interior and a roof rack. And some rust. In California. So, no, not really a fan but a good find nonetheless!
Jim, I actually kind of *like* that tan/yellowish color! I think earth-toney paint colors complement the color of the fake wood better than other, say, primary colors.
I used to get a ride to middle school from the mom of a friend who owned a c. 84 Chevy Celebrity wagon. So many things about that car – the way the power door locks clicked shut, the nobby feel of the cloth interior, the way the dashboard glowed, the way maybe four (five in a pinch) of us kids could fit. I’ve got love for the A-Body wagons, for sure.
I find it interesting that you rarely come across these wagons… here in Northern Virginia they’re still relatively common (along with Olds Cieras). Most surviving examples that I see are mid-’90s models like this featured car, well-kempt, and owned by older folks. It’s almost like there was a mad rush at Buick dealers to grab the last wood-bodied mid-size wagon before they went away for ever, and then the lucky purchasers coddled their cars for the next two decades.
On the other hand, find any A-body car from earlier than 1990 is quite unusual.
Eric, I’ll agree that the fact that these latter-day GM A-Bodies are still around on the roads in 2019 is a testament to their durability. By the end, stylish they weren’t but solid cars that served well. I think our featured car looks good, decades removed from when it was new (and probably looked passe at the time).
I’m in Pueblo, CO. At the time of this comment, I know of one faded red ’87 Ciera Sedan that puts around still. The early Cieras always stand out to me because I liked them more than the ’89 facelift versions. The rear quarter window was more attractive than that black out panel they added later.
Comparisons of these cars to Valiants and Darts make my beard stand on end: no, those were unusually durable; these were pretty much disposable (and unusually nothing). A more apt comparison might be to Falcons or Chevy IIs: transport appliances that did the basic job adequately and did nothing especially well.
Anyhow, here’s one with side repeaters and real rear turn signals:
Good find and article! I notice the photo is 7 years old. I would bet you take more than one photo of cars you find now. That car cries out for more attention these days!
On the woodgrain question, along with others above, I was thinking PT Cruiser, too. That’s surely correct, but I would put an asterisk on it. *low volume special model of Retro-themed car containing woodgrain decals as throwback amplifier only.
The 96 GM cars are the last in the continous line of wood decaled cars that started in the 50’s with Ford and proliferated to all American brands in the 60’s. So I consider those the last true ones.
A few months ago I was researching Oldsmobile wagons for a still upcoming article and I believe I concluded that the Olds Ciera surprisingly did not offer wood in its last year of 1996. I don’t know offhand about the Buick if it is the same.
Thanks, Jon! What’s funny about this picture was that back in 2012, it was my usual practice to get multiple shots of interesting cars. On this particular Sunday, though, I was late for my own church service a city block from this church, so I had to snap and hustle.
So the Olds A-body dropped both the “Cutlass” moniker (being called just the “Ciera”) and woodgrain trim for ’96? Very interesting. I look forward to that piece!
Yep, they also dropped the Cutlass name from Ciera. Troubled times at Oldsmobile!
Does anyone know how long these wood grain appliques looked good, before they started to fade and peel?
My father was a GM guy from the 1960s to the 1990s, and he always said “don’t buy either of two things – fake wood or vinyl tops.” His reason was that he tried to keep cars ten years (although an X-body Buick Skylark didn’t make 5) and in his opinion, you couldn’t keep vinyl or fake wood looking good that long.
I had a 1989 Century wagon with the 3300 v6. the car could scoot with that engine. Yes the car was outdated by the time the 1990’s rolled around but they were comfortable to ride in. In fact the car seemed to give you the tradition American big car ride in a smaller package. This was a car that gave a person so much for the price. In fact i think the Olds Ciera and Buick Century helped to depress sales of GM’s W Body cars. Those that would have bought a Buick Regal/Olds Cutlass Supreme W Body ether saved money and bought a Ciera or Century or spent a bit more and bought a Lesabre or Olds 88
I love all your work here, but this particular article hit me in ‘the feels’. My Grandfather’s last car was a Celebrity sedan. Similar to yours, he was a man of routine and decorum, evermoreso after serving in WWII (I am told). He was also a man who could not hold his emotional reticence in the face of his grandchildren. His passing had a big impact on me, as I’m sure you also experienced.
Thanks as always!