Vintage Motor Trend Review: 1964 Buick Skylark Sport Wagon (And Olds Vista Cruiser) – GM Builds A Better Station Wagon

(Update: this was a pre-production car; the actual production Sport Wagon came standard with the 210 hp 300 CID V8. These wagons had a mid-year introduction)   The first years of the 1960s were GM’s experimental-creative period. Corvair, “Rope-drive” Tempest, aluminum V8 and compact V6, IFS on medium and even big trucks, among others. Most were dead ends and soon replaced by more conventional solutions. One of the main ones were the Y-Body compacts (Tempest, Special and F-85), which were replaced in 1964 by the very conventional BOF A-Bodies.

But GM wasn’t totally out of the Motorama era; they decided to reinvent the station wagon, which had of course become a massively popular family hauler segment, and one that Ford was particularly successful with. GM decided to replace the B-Body Buick and Olds wagons, which had never really sold that well and replace them with an A-Body wagon that was stretched in two directions: backwards and upwards. The results made for one of the more intriguing and compelling packages; a roomy family hauler with three forward-facing seats and a bubble-top roof, which had both stylistic and practical benefits.

Was it another GM experimental dead-end?

Back then M/T made a point of generally not commenting on the styling of the cars they tested; they felt it was too subjective. But in the case of the Buick Sportwagon and F-85 Vista Cruiser, they had no choice, as the bubbletop roof was such a key element. They noted that it was likely to be successful just because it was different, although that didn’t really turn out to be the case. And they noted the two practical benefits: enhanced visibility for the passengers in rows 2 and 3, especially when on vacations and in the mountains.

But what was the real motivation to stretch the 115″ wb A-Body platform to 120″ and then add the glassy raised roof? Well, the obvious one was to make room for a forward facing third seat, which had two significant benefits: it of course allowed those sitting back there a view of where Dad was taking them on vacation instead of from where they were leaving from. And it enabled a not insignificant of not exactly large inside luggage compartment behind that third seat. That was the big bugaboo about all the other wagons with rear (or side) facing rear-most seats: there was literally no interior luggage space, as the Niedermeyers found out with their ’65 Coronet wagon: it all had to go into a roof-top luggage “bag” strapped to the roof rails.

But why didn’t GM do this to their B-Body wagons? Well, it would have required lengthening their wheelbases too, as GM eventually did with their 1971 “clamshell” wagons. I think GM was hedging their bets, and wanted to try this approach first. And there’s another factor: the Buick and Olds B-Body wagons had their bodies built by an outside supplier, the Iona Body Company. That likely crimped volumes and profitability, so Buick and Olds saw a relatively expedient way to build a “full-size” wagon on their new A-Body for less money, and by giving it the bubbletop roof and forward facing third seat, a presumed advantage against the competition.

We’ll check in on how that turned out at the end and let’s get back to the review itself.

It should be pointed out that the tested wagon was a two-seat version, but nevertheless, it had 6.4 cubic feet more total storage capacity than the B-Body LeSabre wagon. The argument for the two-seat wagon was a bit weaker, since a cheaper 115″ Special wagon was also available, but for those that were taken by the glassed-in roof, presumably it had some appeal. Sales were roughly split 50/50 for the two versions.

A pre-production Sport Wagon was tested at GM’s Arizona paving grounds, which included a number of back-country roads in scenic terrain, and the testers did appreciate the views afforded by the extra glass. Thanks to the deep tint, the Arizona sun didn’t bake the occupants, despite the lack of a/c; presumably this was not in the peak of summer? Or folks were hardier back then.

The tester was equipped with the standard 155 hp 225 CID Buick V6 teamed with the Super Turbine 300 transmission, a nominally two-speed unit. Not surprisingly, performance was quite leisurely; 0-60 came in 16.5 seconds. That was with two passengers; one can only speculate what it would have been with a full load. The optional 300 CID V8, either in 210 or 250 hp version was highly recommended for most uses.

Given that the V6 had to be driven flat-out much of the time, any fuel economy advantage was likely little to none over the V8s; possibly the opposite, actually. The Olds Vista Cruiser came standard with a 330 CID V8.

The drum brakes were just adequate, but not really up to hauling heavy loads in the mountains due to rapid fade. The suspension was a strong suit, with a somewhat firm ride that yielded better than average handling. Understeer was very light, not surprisingly given that wagons, especially this one with all that extra heavy glass, tend to have a much more balanced F/R weight distribution.

Quality was up to Buick standards. Seating position and steering wheel location were good. The second seat could carry three in “reasonable comfort” and the third seat could hold three in a pinch, but was much more suited to two. But head and leg room were deemed adequate in both of the rear positions. This was really the key element here, as comfort in rear-facing third seats was generally iffy. But did it matter, since realistically it was going to be kids most if not all of the time back there? And might not having the kids face to the rear have possible benefits, as in not hearing their arguments and such?

M/T concludes with noting that these lwb intermediate wagons “creates an odd situation for both…this puts them up in the standard sized class, where they’ll be competing against their larger brothers (from Buick and Olds) as well as Ford, Plymouth, Chevrolet and Dodge”.

A quick look at the sales numbers for 1964 shows that Olds buyers clearly preferred the 88 wagon over the Vista Cruisers, 17,346 to 3,394. Buick did better with its Sport Wagon vs. the LeSabre wagon, 13,653 to 10,520. Of course the B-Body wagons went away in 1965, and sales did improve some for the A-Long wagons, but they never did catch on significantly and failed to make a dent in the huge success of Ford’s large wagons and the others in that field. Another mostly-failed GM experiment.

But as far as I’m concerned, the combination of the trimmer A-Body with the three forward facing seats and remaining luggage area made them the best package of the genre. I really wanted my dad to get one in 1965 instead of the Coronet wagon, especially since we went to the Rockies every summer, but no such luck. It’s not like he ever listened to me anyway…


M/T also took a quick look and drive in the Olds Vista Wagon, so both are listed here in the stats, and there’s a short piece on it below:


Nothing really new or different, except that M/T did say that these two wagons were essentially identical except for styling details and power trains. I’ve never heard them say that about other GM (or Ford or Chrysler) product cars that were also “essentially identical”. It seemed to be a taboo back then.


My more detailed writeup of a Vista Wagon is here:
Curbside Classic: 1966 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser – The Kiddie Wagon