(first posted 4/20/2015) The Vista Cruiser had “GM” written all over it. Nobody but General Motors had the kinds of huge engineering and development budgets that spawned cars like the Corvair, the Aluminum V8 Buick Special, the flex-drive-swing-axle slant-four Tempest, the FWD Toronado, the Vista Cruiser, and so many others. Before emission controls and fuel economy requirements put the hands of the GM engineers to the fire, they had the luxury to play. And play they did; if you were a kid hired by GM to develop a new station wagon concept, wouldn’t you have come up with the Vista Cruiser?
Yes, the glassy roof is what the Vista Cruiser (and the analog Buick Sportwagon) is known for, and that alone is a playful touch that nobody else tried on a wagon. But it’s much more than that which makes the VC so unusual, in the annals of American wagons and the traditional definitions of the station wagon market segments.
These wagons appeared in 1964, along with the rest of the new A-Body GM mid-size cars, which rode on a 115″ wheelbase. And Olds already had a full-sized wagon, the 123″ wb Dynamic 88, as did the other divisions, except for Cadillac. But for some inexplicable reason, Olds and Buick decided that they would stretch the F-85 wagon by adding 5″ to the wheelbase, all of it right behind the second seat, thus creating room for a third forward-facing seat row.
But it wasn’t all that simple; the stretch also meant new, longer rear doors, to make access to that third seat a wee bit less difficult, as well as raising the roof height, since that third seat was now directly over the rear axle differential. That raised glass roof was not just for fun after all.
Were these super-mid-sized wagons designed to fill the gap between the two-seat only F-85 wagon and the two or three seat Dynamic 88 wagon? It would seem so, except that Olds and Buick killed their full-sized wagons for 1965. Why would they do that?
Well, one could argue that the Vista Cruiser was a legitimate alternative to the full size wagon, and perhaps a somewhat more sane alternative at that, given that it was more compact in every way that counted positively, and had better space utilization than the full sizers. But still; it’s a bit odd, with Chevy and Pontiac selling full size wagons, and Buick and Olds selling these smaller ones, all the way through 1970 (Buick did bring their full size wagon back for 1970). The A-Body was a bit narrower, and three across seating was never going to be quite as comfortable as in the B-Body.
Yes, ‘Vista-Dome’ railroad cars had been around for some time already, as had the Greyhound Scenicruiser, so one can’t really make the argument that GM went this route specifically to cash in on the magic of glassy roof panels. That is, unless GM really was employing kids. I would have died to be able to ride in one of these in the way back on our annual vacation to Colorado instead of our cramped ’62 Fairlane sedan.
Our our famous torture/vacation drive to NYC in 1964. Look; I’m still in the exact same position back there, staring up into the sky, even though ‘Mom’ has moved a bit. Was it some new neurological drug to temporarily paralyze me that my father was trying out on me, or is it the magic of pre-digital Photoshop? Naw; the view out those Vista windows was just too compelling.
For you hard-core students of station wagon history, I should point out that forward-facing rear seats had pretty much died out some years earlier, with one notable exception.
At one time, that’s all there was; station wagons were extra tall, and the third seat was just bolted to the rear cargo area. Ford kept the forward-facing third seat going the longest, right through 1964. If these folded completely flat to the load area, I’m not sure, and it’s hard to find images of them. In 1965, Ford switched to the unique twin facing jump seats. Chrysler and GM had switched to rear facing third seats in about 1957-1958. This issue was one of those endless conundrums: which approach was better?
Clearly, they all had their pros and cons, but rear-facing third seats had two big disadvantages: they were anti-social (a benefit with some kids), and they left no interior luggage space whatsoever. There was still a modest but useable cargo area behind the forward-facing third seat.
Given that GM replaced the exceptional Vista Cruiser wagons with the ultimate wagons ever, the “clamshell” 1971-1976 mega-wagons (we’ll get to them later this week) with their forward facing third row seat and extended wheelbase, it would seem that GM really did think this was the right way to build the ultimate station wagon.
Of course, it’s not like they invented that concept; that’s the exact same formula Peugeot laid down in 1950 with its 203 wagon, and used for decades: a lengthened wheelbase with a specialized rear suspension, a raised roof, and a forward facing third seat. Just no vista windows, sadly.
So there’s the background; you can make up your own mind as to what prompted GM to build this unique wagon. The result was a compelling package, as it was more ‘right-sized’ than the ever-larger full sized wagons, and predicted the size of the down-sized wagons that GM unveiled in 1977, but with rear-facing seats again. By this time, GM’s ‘play’ budgets were eaten up by more serious concerns, although a stretched 120″ wb B-Body with forward facing third seats would have been a highly compelling package; once again. Anybody care to photoshop a 1977-up Vista Cruiser? It is Wagon Week.
So yes, the VC wasn’t quite as wide a a Dynamic 88, but the reality was this: everybody hated to sit three across; then and now. Which was the whole point of this wagon anyway: let Mom and Pop sit in front; grandparents in the second row, and Sissy and Junior in the way back.
If there was a number three, it could sit in the middle, somewhere. And when the grandfolks weren’t visiting; there was plenty of room to spread out, like in a split-level ranch house. Or a minivan or CUV today.
Sadly, this is a six passenger VC, which seems a bit odd. Why bother, when the F-85 wagon was cheaper, and had the same amount of rear load space? The only advantage was the extra leg room in the second row.
Well, the wonderful vista windows, of course! Let’s just hope Pops also sprung for the air conditioning, as those tinted windows still let in a lot of sunlight.
Under the hood thrummed a 330 CID version of Oldsmobile’s new Generation2 V8, rated at 250 hp. An optional four-barrel, high-compression version had a pretty heady 315 hp for only 330 cubic inches. Sadly, the 4-4-2 package was not available; that would have created a legend. Transmission choices included the usual three-on-the-tree, the two-speed Jetaway automatic, and a floor-shifted four-speed manual. Probably not too many left the lines with one of those four speeds, but that would have been my pick if I was buying the new Niedermeyer-mobile in 1964 or 1965.
Or maybe GM cribbed the Vista Cruiser roof from Rover, which had been using a raised roof with viewing windows on its Land Rover (and this Discovery) since almost forever. There’s nothing new under the sun, even if GM endlessly wanted us to think otherwise. But they had the money to play, and so they did. Why not; make hay while the sun shines.