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.
Amazing cars and a great write up.
A Vista Cruiser is on my short list of cars I want to own and first on my list of my favorite station wagons, followed closely by the GM clamshell tailgate wagons. There’s a loaded ’71 VC with a 455 locally that I can get if I want it but its just too rough, there’s a lot of rust around the windows.
LT Dan, thank you. Good luck finding the right Vista Cruiser. You’ve had an amazing stable of cars, and your posts have been thoroughly enjoyed. I’m going to picture you in one baad 455 Vista Cruiser (or clamshell).
As a young kid, the neighbor had a ’70 or ’71 Olds Vista Cruiser with the vinyl siding. I felt it represented upper middle class status at the time.
Today, a SUV or CUV determines one’s status in the USA.
What’s funny to me is that I never really noticed these as out of the ordinary when I was young. I was surrounded by Olds Cutlasses in my life, so this was just a Cutlass wagon as far as I was concerned. I only rode in a couple of them, a 65 VC owned by some neighbors and a 66 or 67 VC owned by an aunt and uncle who lived far enough away that we only saw them every 2 or 3 years. I now remember another, a 70 VC owned by an assistant scoutmaster.
Now I see these for what they are, which is one of the coolest wagons of their era. That Buick Sportwagon you owned may be one of the most attractive of the whole series.
Thanks JPC. Sounds like you had several sky roofs in your life, too. Always partial to Oldsmobiles, my top favorite would be a ’67 Vista Cruiser. There was a white one with wood used for advertising that really looked clean. What do you think, with red or saddle interior? Before spending time on this post, I never really noticed how the 2nd generation’s cargo window abutted lateral skylight, concealing the horizontal structural beam, wrapping the whole assembly up onto the roof, cool. The 1st generation concealed the D pillar. Each unique and well-designed.
Can the ’90s GM full size wagons be considered Generation Three? Or not enough glass?
These sky-lounge wagons always reminded me more of buses and trains than cars.
Hey la673: good question. There was a third generation Vista Cruiser introduced on the 1973 colonnade body style, that had a small glass hatch window above the front seat. No raised roof section, no cross-roof center skylight(s), no lateral skylights. Then there was the introduction of the 1991 whale-bodied Custom Cruisers, which featured a good-sized cross-body glass panel above the center row of seats, as did Buick’s Roadmaster Estate Wagon. I like your comparison, of a sky roof station wagon, to a bus or train, each of which had their own terrific dome liner bodies.
I definitely wouldn’t include the colonnade Vista Cruiser which was just a routine station wagon with a sunroof – a Vista Cruiser in name only. The downsized ’78s were renamed Cutlass Cruiser which was more apt.
There have been some other non-GM vehicles with a somewhat similar treatment – the first few generations of Land Rover Discovery, last-gen Nissan Quest with the five sunroofs, etc.
la673; agreed. You are right. When the ’73 colonnades were introduced and upon viewing the new “Vista Cruiser” it was disappointing that this model’s name would be used on what was just the average GM intermediate wagon with only a small glass hatch. Not all all in same class as the original and genuine sky roofs.
And beyond the ’90s bubble wagons, the long-wheelbase mid-size Trailblazer EXT and Envoy XL can be considered the spiritual successor to these, as they also had a slightly raised roof over the third row (concealed by standard roof rails). No glass, though.
European readers may remember the East German interpretation – the Wartburg 311 Camping. It seems to have the raised roof and does have the upper level side glass but no front facing skylight. Nothing to match an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser but actually it preceded the GM wagons.
Fantastic; Googling photos of the Wartburg 311 Camping, you are absolutely right. The wagon’s lateral skylight, abutting the cargo window, looks virtually identical to the design on the 2nd generation sky roofs. Thanks, constellation. (Bet you’ll also remember the mid 90’s Land Rover Discovery, that had cool lateral skylights at the back section of the roof.)
I was thinking of the Wartburg too, but for me it always gave off more of a Bronco II vibe than Vista Cruiser. I knew of the wrap-over skylights, but had no idea there was an accordion sunroof between them. Also knew nothing of the side-hinged rear door/tailgate.
Ah, memories!!!!!! My first car was a 1965 Buick Sportwagon! It was Mom’s car, and when she could no longer drive due to her multiple sclerosis the car was passed down to me. I drove it from age 16 to age 21, when I got $1,000 from Dad for my first “real” car and bought a 1967 Datsun 1600 sports car. The Sportwagon then passed along to my brother, who eventually ruined it by not paying attention to things like fluids and oil changes.
Mine was a two-seater version without the third row of seats. I’d put the rear seat down and fantasize I was driving a two-seater sports car instead of a klunky Mom-mobile. It had the small V-8 and a horrid two-speed automatic, and when fully loaded with the family and our gear on a road trip it would barely get out of its own way. (I read in Motor Trend that Buick originally was going to offer the SportWagon with a V-6, which would have been truly awful. The decided not to at the last minute).
As a young, stupid college kid I hated having that wagon. All my buddies had COOL cars like Mustangs and Javelins and Camaros and T-birds. I had what we called “The Green Slug”. The only time it was cool was when it was midnight and we could stuff 8 fraternity brothers into that wagon on a run to the local burger joint.
Now, of course, I’d LOVE to have that car again!!!!
I’m attaching a pic of the same year and same model wagon in the same color found via Google.
Thanks for the great comment, Steve. Sorry to hear of your Mom’s MS. Bet you had some nice drives in her ’65 Sport Wagon; what a pretty car. Datsun 1600; great choice. You probably wouldn’t mind having that one back now, either. No 8-man frat runs for burgers in the little roadster, though. Keep your dream alive; there are beautiful Sport Wagons and Vista Cruisers still out there. Maybe one day… good luck.
When in grade school in the mid ’70s, the parents of a friend of mine had one, a 1965 Sport Wagon. I rode in it many times, and they really are totally cool. Still love them today.
Thanks for an informative, well-researched post!
There was only one of these among my family and friends, a 1968 Olds Vista Cruiser that served my aunt and uncle well until it was replaced by a 1976 Mercury Colony Park. The Olds was “Mom’s car” except when Uncle’s Jaguar XJ6 broke down, which was not infrequent. Summertime drives were always in the Olds, since the Jag’s air conditioning never worked from brand new. GM air conditioning was famous for its prodigious power.
G. Poon; you are most welcome. Thank you for your response. Your family sure had cool cars. Bet you have great memories of summertime drives in your Mom’s Olds. When I flew to Missouri to visit my friends, after they moved away, they still had the ’66 Vista Cruiser. It was the middle of summer. There were seven of us on board for a road trip to St. Louis. I was in the very back (no 3rd row seat) with my best buddy, playing games. I swear, I can still feel the cool breeze from that factory A/C all the way in the back of the car. You’re right. GM knew how to do A/C.
Loved these as a kid, and still do. Your white one was perhaps the nicest looking of the bunch.
Thanks, Paul. My good friend who sold it to me generously included a set of Buick road wheels from his collection. Those were some of the most beautifully styled wheels of their time, in my opinion, and really improved the appearance of the car.
The longer wheelbase of these wagons improved the great proportions these GM A bodies already possessed.
My memory of the VistaCruiser name is so strong, I associate the style 100% with Oldsmobile. They weren’t just Olds wagons, they were “VistaCruisers”. I think of other wagons, only the Wagonaire and of course Nomad had specific brand names that non-car people used regularly. Well, maybe Country Squire, but certainly not Kammback. But I don’t recall knowing anyone who had one, let alone riding in one. And I had forgotten all about the Buick versions.
Thanks for the great article! My first automotive ‘puppy love’ was a 1973 Chevrolet Caprice estate that my father got as a fleet car in Texas. It was the ultimate ‘epitome’ car for me (according to my seven-year-old inner child).
I read somewhere that many of those gargantuan estates had been repurposed as the demolition derby cars due to their built-like-tank bodies and were destroyed in the process. Perhaps that’s why they are very difficult to come by today.
OliverTwist; seeing demo derbies using the amazing GM clamshell wagons was torture. With all the special, heavy bodywork at the tail end, they were battling rams, driven in reverse, used to smash the competition. Equally as bad as the National Lampoon’s Family Vacation movie when the family’s Olds Vista Cruiser got crushed (thanks, everyone, for not posting that image). Your Dad’s big Chevy Caprice Estate sounded like a very nice car, understandably, making a lifelong impression on you.
My uncle on my mother’s side of the family was a Buick man. Although he did buy a ’59 Chevy wagon, right after my dad, he fell in love with the ’64 Sport Wagon and paid over sticker to get one. It was the first air conditioned car I rode in and I am glad, with all that glass overhead.