Curbside Classic: 1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette–How Hard Can It Be To Make a Minivan? (Part 3)

After some delay, we present another chapter in our occasional series, How Hard Can It Be To Make a Minivan?  In it, we continue to explore the auto industry’s many misfires in its attempts to replicate Chrysler’s secret formula for minivan success.  This chapter follows Part 1 (the Chevrolet Astro) and Part 2 (the Ford Aerostar).

Although it was 1986 everywhere else on the planet, it was still 1955 at GM headquarters.  In 1955, only GM could have brought us the Motorama show cars that stopped traffic and opened wallets all over the country.  Under the styling leadership of the great Harley Earl, GM brought us longer, lower, wider and chrome-bedecked chariots that, if not able to make our dreams come true, at least looked like they could. However, it was 1986 in the rest of the United States, and Americans were gobbling up minivans –and in the minivan market, Chrysler was kicking GM in the slats.

The General’s first attempt at a minivan, the Astro/Safari, was a modest success.  The Astro was a workmanlike attempt to cash in on the newly discovered demand for minivans, and GM could be forgiven for initially believing a 5/8 scale Beauville made a proper minivan. Meanwhile, Chrysler was racking up huge sales numbers with vehicles that were more car-like than van-like. For GM, the Astro’s middling sales numbers simply weren’t good enough.

Can anyone doubt how the conversation went?  “Smithers, it looks like Chrysler may have stumbled onto something here.  Sometimes, desperation will find us something that a bazillion dollars worth of market research can’t.  If you quote me on this, I’ll deny every word and see that you’re fired.  But if the public wants a minivan that’s more like a car, then we’ll damn well give them one–only better.  I want all the stops pulled out on this.  We’ll make Lee Iacocca wish he’d never been born.  Any questions?”

Let us make no mistake – with the U-body triplets GM was swinging for the fences, with a bold design intended to wrestle minivan leadership away from Chrysler.  They were a reaction to ebbing Astro sales as well as complaints from Chevy and Pontiac dealers.  The U-bodies would not represent a simple, conservative reworking of a sedan; instead, GM was going to bring their A-game in both styling and engineering in an effort to redefine the template for a successful minivan.

GM’s styling choices shouldn’t have surprised anyone.  For generations, General Motors was synonymous with styling leadership: With rare exceptions, the General set the trends and the rest of the industry followed in line.  Now, once again, the GM stylists were hard at work.  Actually, the original concept of the Pontiac TranSport really should have been the sort of thing that made car guys drool.  After all, this was the ’80s, and after at least a decade of the conservative “sheer” look, it seemed that the world was hungry for some automotive adventure.  The ’80s represented the future, and GM was going to give it to us.

The U-bodies made another big break with tradition in their method of production. GM had decided that instead of a standard-issue unit structure, they’d utilize a galvanized space-frame (a la  Fiero and Saturn) clad in composite (plastic) outer-body panels.  In truth, this was quite a good idea for a minivan; after all, what other kind of passenger vehicle works harder than one serving a big, active family?  Something able to stand up to errant baseballs and shopping carts and bicycle handlebars would surely be a huge hit with soccer moms (and dads).

The U-bodies’ most conventional aspect was mechanicals. Their powertrains would come straight from GM’s massive parts bins, and there would be no puny four-cylinder engines.  The latter would prove to be a good call by GM when the market for four-banger minivans virtually evaporated as the ’90s progressed.  V6 power was where the minivan future lay, and GM was right on the spot.  Granted, the power of the 120 hp, 3.1-liter engine of the first couple of years didn’t overwhelm anyone, but in 1992 a 170 hp, 3.8-liter unit came to the rescue.  The combination of that engine and GM’s four-speed automatic transaxle would become what was perhaps the best feature of these vans, and was one of the few areas where GM could claim honest-to-goodness leadership over Chrysler.

GM chose to market the van through three divisions: The Chevrolet Lumina APV would be the practical version; Pontiac’s TranSport would cater to “We Build Excitement” fans; and, somewhat strangely, the luxury version would be sold at Oldsmobile rather than Buick dealerships.  Perhaps that decision involved a little political horse-trading along the lines of, “Buick gets the Reatta, so Oldsmobile gets the minivan.  Now get out of my office.”  If so, Oldsmobile apparently got the better of the deal.

This vehicle cannot be discussed without referring to the 1995 movie Get Shorty.  In the picture, John Travolta’s character is told by an airport rental agent that the Cadillac he had reserved is not available. Upset about being assigned a Silhouette, he’s told by the rental agent that “It’s the Cadillac of minivans.”  That phrase was a running gag throughout the movie, and remains inextricably attached to the Silhouette even today.

Unfortunately, the erstwhile Cadillac of minivans looked a whole lot (at least from the outside) like the Pontiac or even the Chevrolet of minivans.  Somehow, Oldsmobile simply wasn’t able to position the Silhouette as a high-end product, as Chrysler’s Town & Country (which debuted the same year as the Silhouette) promptly took and kept the lead in the luxury-minivan segment. Despite its nicely appointed leather interiors and significant power advantage, the Silhouette just couldn’t get much traction.

It didn’t help matters when, just one year into the Silhouette’s run, Chrysler introduced its second-generation minivans which, once again, topped the competition in virtually every aspect. In an ironic  reversal of roles, people perceived the Town & Country to be the real Cadillac of minivans, and the Silhouette as its Imperial-like counterpart.  Indeed, the Silhouette was selling, slowly but steadily, to traditional Oldsmobile buyers, but never really shared garage space with high-end vehicles from other manufacturers.

After racking up first-year sales of about 28,000 units, the Silhouette settled into a range of 10-18,000 U.S. sales per year; in its final year, however, sales totaled a scant 7,000 units.  Interestingly, Oldsmobile did enjoy several years of significant export sales, moving some 10,000 vans per year from 1993-1995.  To put these numbers into perspective, the early-’90s minivan market comprised about one million units annually, half of which was locked up by Chrysler Corporation.  GM’s selling roughly half of Chrysler’s volume required not only Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile versions of the U-body, but also the perennial Chevy Astro and GMC Safari.  With two separate platforms being sold through four of their six dealer networks, GM’s efforts wouldn’t have done even as well as they did had capacity constraints not kept Mopar’s minivan production well below demand.  Who could have imagined this turn of events in 1980 (or 1960, or 1940)?

Why weren’t the U-vans more popular? Surely, it had to be that unique shape. Polarizing looks aside,  other factors were working against them. First, they attempted to sell high style to a demographic more appreciative of high functionality.  Beautiful girls may rule the cocktail party circuit, but on a camping trip you want a girl who can carry a backpack and cook over an open fire.  What’s more, the shape dictated poor  chassis utilization.  The U-bodies gave up 10 inches of wheelbase to the Chryslers, but were still four inches longer than an extended-length Chrysler minivan. Unfortunately, all that extra space was rendered useless by the extreme slope of the windshield.  In fact, their usable passenger area  actually was closer to that of a short-wheelbase Caravan or Voyager.  Did all that make the Silhouette the 1985 Cadillac of minivans?

These vans did bring one lasting innovation (GM’s only one?) to the modern minivan: The power-operated sliding door.  Personally I hate the things, which are maddeningly slow and costly to repair.  That said, I am clearly in the minority, since my recent purchase of a low-trim-level minivan required the dealer to go practically two states away to locate one without that dreaded plague.  If you are one of the many who have offered their undying thanks for the convenience of electric sliders, you have the Dustbusters to thank.

About that name – some of our younger readers may not remember the Dustbuster, a uniquely-styled handheld vacuum made by Black & Decker that bore an uncanny resemblance to this vehicle’s, er, silhouette.  The name stuck, and today even the U-body’s biggest fans refer to it as the Dustbuster.

Unfortunately for GM, the Dustbuster triplets did not turn out to be the successful products the company envisioned. In the game of Minivan Battleship, GM had just scored its second straight miss.  The experience must have chastened the once-great General Motors, which has not made another significant play for leadership in the minivan market.  Although GM clearly had misread the market for a second time, their effort gave us minivans that were both mechanically competent and interesting.  Then again, GM has shown us on many occasions that interesting isn’t always a great selling feature.