Curbside Classic: 1991 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – Last Act For A Long Roof

The GM B-body has been one of the perennial favorites here at CC. There have been full Curbside Classic profiles and shorter articles on lots of them, especially the 77-96’s in much of their variety. Surprisingly, though, we have only had one full CC on the final generation of wagons (a.k.a. whales). That was a 96 Buick, which represented the end of the line. We’ve not ever paid much due to the start of that generation or to Oldsmobile’s short-lived version. When I saw this well-preserved example at a used car lot, I realized this would be a good opportunity to have a closer look at a rarely seen gem. Click through to take a deep dive into this last chapter in the long story of Oldsmobile station wagons.

Oldsmobile has made some of the neatest station wagons throughout the history of that body style. I’ve personally been a lover of wagons since before I could drive and Oldsmobiles were always some of my favorites. Let’s check out the highlights before getting to the car at hand.

What an idyllic scene! Was it intended to be California or Florida?

Oldsmobile was present at the dawn of the Station Wagon, in the prewar woody period, with a wagon first showing up in their catalog in 1940. They were actually kind of late to the party, though, as Ford first offered its factory woody in 1929, while other makes slowly joined in over the course of the 30’s.

True woodies from most companies were dropped around 1949 with the first all-new postwar designs, clearing the way for high-volume steel models ready to haul the growing baby boomer families through Detroit’s golden years of the 50’s and 60’s. Olds strangely dropped wagons from 1951-56 but jumped back into the game with one of the most stylish of all time: the 1957-58 88 Fiesta hardtop wagons.

Another model that has to be mentioned with Olds wagons is the 1964-72 Vista Cruiser (recent CC here). Shared with Buick, these extended wheelbase mid-size wagons had forward facing third rows and the super-cool elevated rear roof with glass panels. The roof was reminiscent of the iconic 1954 GM Scenicruiser buses and the Vista Dome trains as seen in the background above, both still in use during that period. Oldsmobile (and Buick) must have felt the Vista Cruiser was plenty of wagon for most buyers as they took another hiatus from offering full-sized B-body station wagons from 1965-70. The 120 inch wheelbase of the Vista Cruiser is actually 4 inches longer than that on our subject car. Woodgrain applique made its first appearance in 1967.

Returning to full-size wagons in a big way, the first Custom Cruiser model came in 1971. Built on GM’s newly enlarged B platform, it was GM at its best and worst. Not merely a Delta 88 with some wagon body work, it had its own 3 inch longer wheelbase (127), unique leaf spring rear suspension, a forward facing third seat and that fantastical clamshell rear tailgate.

In conjunction with the release of the new Custom Cruiser model, Olds began in 1971 calling all of their wagons Cruisers. They had the Cutlass Cruiser, Vista Cruiser and Custom Cruiser. The tradition lasted through 1995, the penultimate year for an Oldsmobile station wagon.

As cool as the Clamshell wagons were, GM recovered its sanity and offered a much more practical full-sized wagon for 1977 (a.k.a. boxy generation. CC article here). The 77 B/C body cars are recognized on Curbside Classic and everywhere as one of GM’s greatest hits. GM used all its resources and accumulated wisdom to create a car line that was well-designed, well-built and exactly what people wanted at that time. It was rational but still had enough flair, luxury and size to fire aspirational buyers’ imaginations. They sold like hotcakes, too. Yearly Custom Cruiser sales in the late 70’s were the best ever for their full-sized wagons and about double what the clamshell had averaged.

The 1977 wagons returned to a rear facing third seat and acquired a 3-way tailgate similar to Ford’s “Magic Doorgate” they had used since 1966. One could argue that the 71-76 clamshell was a product of GM’s pride, when they felt the need to do something unique and bold to prove their technological wizardry and leadership. In 1977, GM was at least humble enough to tacitly admit that Ford’s tailgate was the optimum design for a station wagon.

The 1977 design was so successful, that apart from an attractive 1980 facelift, it continued with little change for 14 years with GM keeping the B-body wagons for Buick/Olds/Pontiac even after their respective sedans went out of production in 85/86. 1987 model shown above.

Though not selling in near the numbers that they had in the late 70’s, volume was still sufficient that GM felt it was worth doing a major makeover to modernize the B-body line for the 1990’s.

Pontiac dropped their Parisienne wagon for good after 1989, but Chevrolet, Buick and Oldsmobile all got the new versions for 1991. Chevrolet’s Caprice sedan came out in spring 1990 as an early 91, with all divisions’ wagon versions coming in the fall. Oldsmobile never offered a sedan. Cadillac got their Fleetwood version (D-body) for 1993, but of course never in a wagon.

Motor Trend gave the 1991 Caprice LTZ their Car of the Year award. The Custom Cruiser came in second, beating out the Buick Park Avenue, second-gen Chrysler minivans (heavy refinement of original k-based van) and second-gen Ford Escort GT (not a bad little car for the time), among others. The LTZ was the enhanced handling model for 91-93, the 1994 Impala SS replacing it with much of the same cop car (9C1) mechanicals but adding bigger tires, dropped ride height and a sinister look. MT at that time still did a separate Import Car of the Year, but if you go by their point system, the 1991 Caprice would have beat out the Mitsubishi 3000GT and the Cruiser would have been third. The only other import tested that we CC readers would probably consider a potential classic was the second gen Toyota MR2, which came in fourth. Anybody remember the Isuzu Stylus? It came in last.

You’d have to go back to at least the 60’s to find GM’s last example of such thoroughly changed styling on a carryover chassis. The B-body went from being the boxiest car on the road to having a very aerodynamic, modern look (for the time), doubtless influenced by Ford’s massive hit Taurus.

The nose is lower, the windshield much more raked, side windows more curved and backlight sloped. All fixed glass is flush-mounted. Bumpers became integrated with plastic covers as virtually every other car had by that point. The sedan’s drag coefficient went from .42 to .33, but gained 300lb. To the doubtless delight of many CC readers, glass area and visibility were tremendous.

The 1991 B-bodies were also notable for being GM’s first new or thoroughly revamped car line since the early 70’s that wasn’t downsized in the process (the Buick Park Avenue and Olds 98 that year would also fall in that category).

Motor Trend really raved about the Caprice LTZ’s handling, not so much the Custom Cruiser’s. I’ve owned a couple police package Caprices and can testify that they ride and handle great for such a large, archaic car. Despite being a carryover chassis, GM was good at massaging the best traits out of it with the right combination of tires, springs, shocks and sway bars. The handling-optimized LTZ sedans (RPO 7B3) still didn’t have a harsh ride, in fact many people would probably consider the ride better than the standard model. GM kept the Custom Cruiser more traditionally softer riding, even with the heavy duty suspension (RPO F40) which the wagons all came with.

Motor Trend didn’t care at all for the handling of the Cruiser, whose cause was probably not helped by the writers stepping out of an LTZ right before driving it.

All the B-body wagons shared the exact same body panels, the only differences were in the grille and the trim. The Buick and Olds shared their standard rear seat sunroof. The sunroof wasn’t available on the Caprice, which therefore had a longer roof rack of a slightly different design. The only other difference is that the Buick and Olds had C-pillar trim panels and the rear side window had a curve on its leading lower edge which the Chevy lacks. Isn’t GM funny? How many people noticed that the Chevy and Buick/Olds have different wagon windows? I didn’t even notice it for years, and I was always a fan of these cars and owned a 1994 Caprice wagon for a few years before that was brought to my attention. Was it worth making two different windows? At any rate, Olds adopted the Caprice window for 1992 as seen on the blue car in the brochure picture above, but Buick kept the unique window design.

The Oldsmobile was the most controversial of the three because they did not offer woodgrain siding, even as an option. It was optional on the Caprice and standard on the Roadmaster (with optional delete), but not available on the Custom Cruiser, the majority of which up to 1990 had been sold with wood for probably its entire run back to 1971.

Unlike the Chevy and Buick, wire wheel hubcaps weren’t available either, just the standard hubcap or a very contemporary looking aluminum wheel. The Cruiser also differed from its platform mates by having gray plastic cladding on the lower body instead of the others’ conventional metal rocker trim.

As an aside, though the Custom Cruiser wasn’t available with wood decaling, a loyal Olds customer with an itch for the traditional look could still opt for the Cutlass Ciera Cruiser with optional wood through 1994. The Ciera wagon would be made through 96, but the wood was dropped for 1995 when it became the Ciera Cruiser, finally freed from being a Cutlass. In 1996, it became the Ciera Wagon when one of the coolest automotive names died, the car apparently no longer meant for Cruising. Such is the way with a division losing its identity.

Interiors were also all new, with the only recognizable carryover components being the steering column, shape of the floor pan and, on wagons, the rear floor and third seat. The front seats were particularly improved, with better support and fully adjustable seat backs for driver and passenger on all models. Leather was available on the Cruiser for the first time.

Though nice looking, comfortable and roomy, the interiors are notoriously plastiky and could be considered the Achilles heel of the whale B-bodies. The lower door panels and entire dash are hard plastic. The dashes hold up well enough, but the door panels are known for cracking with hard use. This one is in pretty decent shape, but I’ve never before seen the cracking and discoloration on the window switch panel that this one has.

Back seats are reasonably roomy, but not as much leg room as you might expect from a large car. 116 inches is not an especially long wheelbase by the standards of the 60’s or 70’s. As mentioned above, the mid-size 1969-72 Vista Cruiser had 121 inches axle-to-axle, 5 inches longer, while the clamshell 70’s models had an 11 inch longer axle spread. Waviness on the edge of the lower seat cushion is common on these due to sunlight from the roof glass. Leather seats particularly tend to get dried out in back.

These wagons had a number of nice features, such as a few seen below.

I’d never realized before that the Custom Cruiser has a small pocket on the dash. I had always assumed it was just a padded panel but it is hinged and spring loaded on the bottom with velcro at the top. My only question is: What would you want to keep in there?

The tailgate is an evolution of the original Ford “Magic Doorgate” concept. It can be opened like a door (with the outboard handle) or lowered as a gate (with the inboard handle). The boxy B wagons also had this feature and in fact the mechanism and hinges were carried over without change. However, the boxies had the glass electrically roll down into the door, which was required when using it in gate mode. The roll down window was not a bad system, but not workable with GM’s new aero styling and steeply sloped rear window. The two-way gate with flip up window was a clever revision of the existing B-body tailgate, and a very practical design, I can say from experience.

As an aside, GM’s midsize wagons since 1973 used different tailgate approaches. The Colonnade wagons had a one-piece top-hinged hatch, with vent triangles in the side window similar to our subject car’s. The 1978-83 downsized A-body had no third row available and used a one-way bottom-hinged tailgate with flip-up glass. The FWD 84-96 models returned to having a third seat option and used a top-hinged hatch with a flip-up window (a very nice design). 

Another odd GM divisional distinction was that Chevy and Buick versions had the third seat only in vinyl while the Olds used cloth. Who knows why…

Full instrumentation was standard, with a very spacious and legible instrument cluster. That’s 103k miles on the odometer.

Signature feature for the Oldsmobile and Buick was the non-opening sunroof over the rear seats. Sunshades were optional on the Cruiser and standard on the Roadmaster.

Paul suggested in a short 2011 article he wrote on the Custom Cruiser that Oldsmobile lost an obvious opportunity to call this car a Vista Cruiser, harking back to the iconic roof-windowed wagons of 64-72. I agree that it would have been a great name, but I think they probably made the right choice. After all, Custom Cruiser is itself on the short list of coolest car names of all time. Let it roll off your tongue CustomCruiser

The previous B-body wagons through 1990 had the distinction of being the last automobiles still sold in the U.S. with carbureted engines (edit: commenters have pointed out that “honor” apparently belongs to the 1991 Subaru Justy). They gratefully lost that distinction with the 1991 addition of throttle body fuel injection, probably the most significant mechanical change made to the car in the redesign. For the first year, the Chevrolet 5.0L (305 c.i.) making 170hp and 255 lb/ft was the only choice. B-body enthusiasts prefer 1992 models because the Chevy 5.7L (350 c.i.) was optional, making 180hp and 300 lb/ft.

In 1994, GM consolidated the drivetrains in all their RWD cars and gave the B-bodies the LT1 5.7L V8 shared with the Corvette and F-body Camaro/Firebird. The Gen II small block’s 260hp was very healthy for the time and is the reason the last three years of the B-body tend to be the cult favorite for those still driving these. There are some folks, though, who prefer the earlier TBI cars since the engines are pretty bulletproof, easy to work on when they do need repair and parts are plentiful and cheap.

Grilles bear a strong family resemblance the new 1991 Olds 98 and 1992 88. All B-wagons had hood ornaments.

Sales the first year were 7663, less than half of the Caprice wagon and just above the pricier Roadmaster. However, 1992 sales fell to 4347 when Chevy maintained their sales and Buick had a healthy increase.  So, Oldsmobile handed their cool-named veteran a blindfold and cigarette and it did not return for 1993. The Cruiser missed out on the brief future of wagons and GM sending their B-body out with a bang in the short-lived LT1 era.

Given the minimal differentiation and scant expense of having the third model of wagon, the question is why would GM bother to kill the Custom Cruiser after only two years?

I believe the answer is tied in with their curious decision not to offer woodgrain siding. Oldsmobile in the late 80’s/90’s was dealing with generally falling sales and responding to that put them in a bit of an identity crisis. They knew they had to break from their traditional image, which was not appealing to the younger part of the market. This was the era of “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”, the infamous self-esteem-deficient slogan that managed to be both very well known and unsuccessful.

So, I think Oldsmobile’s approach to the redesigned B-wagon was an unenthusiastic hedging of their bets. They didn’t want to leave sales on the table by not participating with the new wagons, but they also didn’t want a stodgy car dragging down their attempts to make the divisional image more modern and youthful. In trying to make their wagon more contemporary, they were willing to alienate a lot of long time customers by not giving them what they really wanted in their most traditional model and when sales were lackluster, they didn’t hesitate to kill it. The presence of the Silhouette minivan and the Bravada SUV in their showrooms probably also played a role.

The Custom Cruiser may have died prematurely, but all the remaining wagons were clearly living on borrowed time. With the exception of Saturns, GM in the U.S. would be out of the wagon business after 1996. Ford, the first American company to build an official production wagon, was also the last to leave the market, with the Taurus being the only American car having a claim at being a traditional station wagon when it was put out of its misery in 2004.

Station wagons may have died from neglect, but the current market’s dominance by SUV’s vindicates the wagon. Most SUV’s sold now are of the crossover variety, which as we all know are just tall station wagons with optional all-wheel-drive. In that light, wagons are more dominant than they have ever been. But they don’t make them like this last-act Oldsmobile anymore, that’s for sure.

photographed 5/27/19 in Houston, TX

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1996 Buick Roadmaster Collector’s Edition – “B” There ‘Til The End

The GM B-Body: A Love Song In B Major

Curbside Classic: 1995 Chevrolet Caprice Classic – Engineers’ Choice