Curbside Classic: 1974 Buick Estate Wagon – Hold The Fake Wood, Please

(first posted 3/31/2012)     The 1971-76 GM full-size station wagons were the largest wagons the company ever made. Each division had their own fancy version, usually with vinyl wood appliques on the sides – the Chevrolet Caprice Estate, Pontiac Grand Safari, Olds Custom Cruiser and Buick Estate Wagon. The Buick was the fairest of them all, an Electra wagon for all intents and purposes.

Buick had only just resumed the production of full-size wagons. Starting in 1964, the Sport Wagon, a long wheelbase version of the Skylark wagon with windows over the second row seat (shared with the Olds Vista Cruiser), became the top Buick hauler. This remained the case until 1970, when a new full-size Estate Wagon debuted on the LeSabre chassis, which had been redesigned for the 1969 model year.

I’m not sure why GM bothered with the ’70, as all-new big Buicks were coming out for 1971. They must have really felt the need to get back in the full-size wagon market, to tool a wagon body that was only used for one year.

In 1971, the new Estate Wagon came out with new sheetmetal and interiors. This was the biggest wagon GM would offer, and the Buick was arguably the finest. Luxury wagons were not a crowded segment. The only other comparable wagons were the Chrysler Town & Country, Mercury Colony Park and maybe the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. Need to haul? No problem, as these wagons had 105.7 cubic feet of cargo space and a 127-inch wheelbase. Plenty of room for cargo and people.

Interiors were extremely nice for a station wagon, with upholstery that would not have looked out of place on an Electra. The Estate Wagon essentially was an Electra, sporting the very same front end and the requisite four portholes on the hood.

1971 Estate Wagons came with a standard 455 CID V8 and a three speed column-shifted manual (most likely only a handful were equipped with it) or optional THM 400 automatic. The usual woodgrained vinyl applique was available, but you could get painted sides if you wanted it. Two-seat, six passenger or three-seat, eight passenger models were available. One nice feature of the 1971-76 GM wagons was the third seat faced forward. One third of the curbside seat folded forward for access. In an interesting throwback, the 1971-76 GM wagons had a leaf-sprung rear suspension. It was the only was the third row seat could face forward and have sufficient space.

But that was not the Estate Wagon’s greatest trick. GM, perhaps in a fit of pique after seeing Ford’s revolutionary Magic Doorgate, decided that they could build a better mousetrap. The result was the ‘clamshell’ tailgate. By inserting your key into the slot (there was also a switch on the instrument panel) and turning it right, the rear window would retract into the roof . Turning the key twice would make the tailgate roll below the cargo area. It was a pretty cool trick, if perhaps more complicated and less robust than Ford’s solution. Also, since the tailgate did not fold down, you didn’t have additional space for longer items if need be.

The Estate Wagon carried on in Bristol fashion, following the updates of its sedan, coupe and convertible brethren. As with every single US car, in 1973 it received the ‘park bench’ 5 mph front bumpers, and received a matching rear bumper the following year.

I saw our featured car, a 1974 model, in traffic. We have had wonderful weather around here the last couple of weeks, but I was still happily amazed to see this Estate Wagon in traffic. The last time I saw one of these was at the Scott County Fair at the demolition derby probably twenty years ago. Let us share a moment of silence for all those fine clamshell wagons that were purchased for $500 in 1990 and smashed into oblivion.

Anyway, I had to see if the driver was stopping someplace nearby. Luckily, he was. I love this wagon! The American Racing rims, white letter tires and slight rake give it a great look. 1974 was the last year the Estate Wagon got the Electra trim, and it may well be the best looking of the ’71-76s despite the big bumpers. I think it looks great without the wood trim too. This red ’74 has an attitude, but nothing that couldn’t easily be put back to stock.

Another big plus for these wagons: glass area! With the wraparound quarter glass, there is basically no D pillar. Great when you’re merging onto the freeway or backing out of the driveway.

Do you remember red interiors? I do, and miss them. I also miss the white, dark blue and dark green interiors. Black, gray or tan is getting a little old after being the only choices for the last fifteen years in most cars.

The owner clearly takes care of this wagon, as he parked in the ‘back 40’ of the mall. Got to avoid those door dings, you know. It also has 1974 Illinois plates, a neat touch. I really like the 1974 front end, with the subdued grille and ‘floating’ headlights.

The Estate Wagon carried on in much the same form for 1975 and ’76, but for some reason, the LeSabre front end replaced the ’74s Electra nose, and it was down to three portholes per side. It still had the colossal space and 455 V8 power though.

1975s also received a new instrument panel. The 1975-76 Buick IP is my favorite, with the drop-down glovebox and silver gauges. Very linear and modern for the ’70s. Don’t forget the woodgrain trim, after all, this is a Buick! The 1976s received quad rectangular headlights and a new grille, again shared with the LeSabre, but were otherwise little-changed. All new B-body Buicks were on the horizon, and they would also be great, but for different reasons. Let us raise a glass to the big Buick wagons; their kind will not pass by again!