My Curbside Classics: 1996 Impala SS, 1996 Buick Roadmaster Woody, 1995 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham – The LT1 Holy Trinity

(first posted 3/3/2012)   Automotive passions are unpredictable, and once unleashed, can lead to unexpected outcomes. In 1995 I was driving a 1992 Saturn SL1.  Great mileage, but not that great for passing on the Mississippi highways I often found myself on. And not so great a fit for my six-plus-foot frame. But every journey has to have a beginning, and that’s where my mine started. From the title and picture above, you already know where it’s ended (so far). Now it’s time to fill in the parts in between; three big ones.

My thoughts for a post-Saturnian life had narrowed down to either a Monte Carlo, or to wait for the ’97 Grand Prix to begin production. I had seen early photos of them and they looked pretty good to me. I had also seen an Impala at the local dealer, but it came off a bit too redneck, with the black paint and big wheels. But as time went on, my car-expert brother recommended the Impala SS.

I decided to take another closer looked at the Impala. I had always loved how comfortable the Roadmaster high-back seatbacks looked in them. I also read up on the performance figures of the LT1 engine (260 effortless hp). I also found that by 1995, my favorite color, burgundy, was available.

In December of 1995 I mentioned to my buddy that I thought I might want one. He was buying loans for a bank in Tennessee at that time. He promptly contacted a dealer friend of his, and a few days later found me the car. He called one evening, gave me their price and said his bank would finance it. I was really not planning to jump this quick but with a little prodding I went ahead. On January 10, 1996 I took delivery of my new Impala.

I remember vividly the first time I saw it. A younger guy brought it around with the seat raked all the way back, saying “man, you got you a fine car”. I did the paper work and headed back to Mississippi in it. Suddenly everything in my body felt two inches bigger except my belly which now felt two inches smaller. I was already in love with this car: big and comfortable, but with decent gas mileage. Kind of reminded me of my old ’73 Impala, with lots more buttons and whistles. It handled much better, and would blow the doors off of anything I had back then.

As time went on I couldn’t help but start wondering how the other versions of this car would be. In 1998 I swapped out my old 1977 Lincoln Town Car for a S10 pickup. I really missed the Deep Ride of that car. A friend of mine had recently bought a used 1986 Fleetwood. I was in love with it.  After a few failed attempts at nailing down a proper square-body, I began mulling on having one with the same engine as the SS. I found a 1995 model in Birmingham in my favorite color (Garnet Red Metallic) and drove over to see it. I was in love.

However, the seller and I could not get together on price. On my way home I spotted one close to identical to it, sitting by the side of the road with a for sale sign on it. After a little haggling the seller and I came together on price. So in November of 2003 I became the owner of a 1996 Fleetwood Brougham. I now had a new Deep Ride. Compared to the old Lincoln it handled much better and was much more powerful with the LT1. It also only gave up a mile or two per gallon compared to the SS. The Fleetwood gets 22-24 highway where the old Lincoln with a 460 was lucky to get 15 on a downhill slope and a stiff tail wind.

In 2005 I was getting the car itch again, and thought to myself:  “I love the SS and the Fleetwood, as they always put a smile on my face when I pour on the coals”. So I set my sights on a Roadmaster Wagon. Being fond of Burgundy, I started web-searching for a Dark Cherry Metallic Wagon that I thought would compliment the Impala nicely. As I studied them I decided I wanted the Limited Package also. It would give me the power adjustments and Lumbar/heat of the Fleetwood with the High Back seats which I always thought looked so good in the SS, which Chevy had borrowed from Buick.

I found one to my specs on ebay and drove 150 miles to look it over. It was a ’96 in Burgundy with Wood Delete, the trailering and Limited package. I was actually high bidder but at the time did not understand how ebay worked and did not get the car. Somebody in Canada ended up with the car for $700 less than I was willing to pay for it. My search continued and that included Autotrader as well. One day on a whim I spotted one and called. It was Burgundy with wood for over $2000 less than what I bid on the ebay car. I wasn’t sure I wanted wood, but admitted that it does rather suit it.

I also remember my mom when I was a kid saying if all her dreams came true she would want to go on summer vacations with a Buick Station Wagon and an Airstream trailer. Unfortunately all my folks could afford at the time was a ’63 Plymouth Savoy Coupe and a Nimrod pop-up camper. Anyway the seller on Autotrader was really a great guy and sent me tons of pictures of the car. I was really nervous about buying a car sight unseen that was over 500 miles from me. I finally came up with a plan. I told the seller I would send him a check for $200 if he would meet me half way. I would drive down in another vehicle with a certified check for the balance. If I drove it and still wanted the car, we would complete the deal; if not he could keep the $200 for his trouble.

We met up as arranged and everything worked great.  When I settled behind the wheel heading home I quickly discovered this was really the best driving of the bunch. It was equipped with the trailer package which gave it a tighter suspension than the Fleetwood but not quite as harsh as the Impala SS. It also had many of the comfort features of the Fleetwood. When I got home I really began to realize what a great car I had gotten. I even had a copy of the original window sticker, which to my surprise was for a car delivered in Florida, since it was equipped with the block heater.  Most states south of Tennessee rely on God’s method of snow removal. I now had the best of each of the cars made in Arlington at that time.

As I got to knew these cars better, I became amazed at how GM operated at the time. Though the engine bay looks rather identical on all three cars and many of the parts are interchangeable, the stuff you see and feel in each is unique. The SS which changed each year with the ’96 getting the floor shifter, analog speedometer and tachometer. Each has its own different steering wheel, radio, climate controls, window and seat controls and the Fleetwood even has the turn signal stalk canted upwards for easier operation.

The Fleetwood also has the Lamp Monitors and a proper Cadillac horn which for some reason Cadillac does not install anymore. The only oddball thing I do not understand is why the Buick wagon stayed with the Caprice front cap after the sedan was introduced in 1992 with its unique one.

At least in 1994 when Buick did a small upgrade the Buick got the interior door panels befitting of its place and not the borrowed ones from the Caprice. One other thing I like about these cars is that the switch gear for the windows and seats are chrome. Nowadays even on a high number Mercedes or Lexus they are Gray, Black or colored plastic.

Comparing the three cars it is amazing how they attract different demographics. The Impala definitely has a following of younger Black males. I do not know how many times I have been asked if I want to sell it. One time I remember a young man walking with an attractive young women practically tripping on her elevator shoes; his whole demeanor changed when he spotted my car.

The Buick on the other hand is favored by older white women. One lady who is in her eighties asked me to will her that car in the unlikely event I would die before her.

The Cadillac gets comments from across the board by folks who love that type of car. Once while going to get something at the Quick Mart a younger women came out and told me that car is just Beautiful! and then went on to tell me it’s a Baby Girl repeatedly then to finally say No, That Is A Momma!

After an extended 1996 run, GM suddenly forgot how to make a real car, as did Ford also just recently. The Arlington, TX plant  was converted to make truck station wagons, as I used to call them before the word SUV was coined. Blame it on CAFE, poor marketing, or just changing tastes. My cars, though in good shape, get regular use. I usually rotate them to take trips to see family and friends. I prefer to drive them over my 2008 Sierra Pickup,with better ride and gas mileage.

As time goes by they are getting less common in the wild. There is a local used car dealer that seems to specialize in clean Detroit iron. His lot used to be packed with various B-Bodies. Now it seems there may be an occasional one but it is now occupied with Panther and W bodies. Of course the Cash for Clunkers consumed more than a few. Maybe one day GM and Ford will remember like Chrysler recently has, how to make a proper American Car.