Curbside Classic: 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser – GM’s Greatest Hit No. 8

(first posted 5/14/2014)     Olds Vista Cruisers and their corresponding twin, the Buick Sportwagons hold a special place in the history of the American station wagon. It was a highly unusual concept (for America): take an intermediate wagon, and enlarge it specifically for station wagon purposes, including a forward-facing third row seat and of course the “Scenicruiser” glass. Was GM trying to make up for the failure of the Greenbrier? And although it was eminently more orthodox than the Greenbrier, the Vista Cruiser’s life span wasn’t much longer. Can’t poor GM catch a break?

I’m enthralled with the view back there

The glassy twins arrived in 1964, which was a bit odd, since both Olds and Buick were also still offering wagons on the traditional full size chassis too; with optional rear-facing third seat. Have it your way….

Obviously, it was a one year head start into a period when Buick and Olds did drop their full-size wagons, starting in 1965, leaving it to the super-mid wagons to be their top offering. A curious strategy; I’m assuming GM knew something about the station wagon market that others didn’t. Even at the time, as a kid, I was a bit perplexed, if deeply enthralled.

3000 miles later, I’m still so enthralled with the view back there that I’m still in the exact same posture

If we couldn’t have a Greenbrier, a Vista Cruiser or Sport Wagon was the Niedermeyer-mobile most desired. To get out of the cramped ’62 Fairlane sedan into the third seat of one of these, especially on our trips to Colorado, was imminently desirable, never mind a genuine “Rocket V8” under the hood. But no; it was a GM product, and my father wouldn’t (then) have given it a thought.  So here again are the Not-Niedermeyers on their legendary (and all-too real) family vacation to NYC in 1964, spread out in air-conditioned comfort. Oooh; the views.

The key to these wagons was a full five-inch stretch in their wheelbase, from 115 to 120 inches, all of it in the rear, where it counted.  That allowed for the first really properly engineered front-facing third seat, as there was a (modest) footwell just ahead of the rear axle. Combined with the elevated roof, it did make adult seating there theoretically possible, if not in practice. And it still left some decent cargo room behind the last seat, unlike the case in the typical rear-facing third seat wagons. The angle of the second and third seat backs left a nigh-useless and inaccessible cleft between them. Luggage racks were mandatory; as my brother and I remember all too well, being in charge of installing and loading the one on our Coronet wagon in an icy Colorado hail/rainstorm while my father sat in the driver’s seat pretending to study the road map.

Now it wasn’t exactly an original idea; Peugeot had been doing the same thing since 1948 with their series of stretch wagons (full story here), but cribbing is perfectly okay, as long as it’s done for a good reason. And the Peugeot didn’t have the Vista Roof, sadly. That would have been even more useful in scenic Europe.

In 1968, the Vista Cruiser and Sport Wagon went into their second generation, now riding on a 121″ wheelbase. But I strongly suspect that much of the rear area hardware and maybe even the roof glass were carry-overs. Anybody know?

In any case, Buick bailed on the genuine Sportwagon after 1969, moving back to a full-sized wagon. Another GM experiment that didn’t pan out?

But Olds stuck with the Vista through 1972, which meant that for two years Olds had the unique distinction of having two front-facing third-seat wagons, since the all-new 1971 Olds Mega Battleship Cruiser used many of the same ideas: elongated wheelbase, etc. It even has a slight bump in the rear roof section, but no Vista glass. For what it’s worth, I never even bothered to raise any hope for one of these in the Not-Niedermeyer garage. It wouldn’t have fit, for one, and my father wouldn’t even consider full-size cars, five kids or not. But the Vista Cruiser is an intermediate, Dad! (Just remembered the real reason; three of us kids were gone by 1971). Just as well; this was a vehicle to admire from afar; real far, even. You could see it a mile away.

The Vista Cruiser may have had a short life span, but perhaps GM did learn one lesson: the intermediate platform is a versatile one. Instead of lengthening the rear of the frame, GM started stretching it at the front, and created mega-hits with their super-intermediate coupes. Learn, and adapt. Families were getting smaller, and who cares if they have a view from the rear anyway? It was the beginning of the cocooning era.

Oregon’s climate may not provoke rust, but it does play havoc with leaky roofs. There’s lots of evidence of heavy-handed caulking having been done around all those windows.

This is quite obviously a one-owner Vista Cruiser, and I suspect that’s her, in the passenger seat, in a white hat and hunched over rather strongly. That explains why there’s no interior shots. I caught this at the Bi-Mart Pharmacy; what was obviously her middle-aged daughter who got out of the driver’s seat to pick up a prescription (and a tube of caulk), and left old Mom to ruminate on happy Vista Wagon memories at the Oregon Coast. I’m sure there were many.

Related reading: 1969 Buick Special DeLuxe Wagon – Not Very Special In 19691978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser