One for the Road

The full-sized Buick’s valedictorian act.

Buick Roadmaster. Favcars

We can all recall the time honoured film storyline by rote: ageing sportsman/ criminal/ gunslinger[1], against better judgement, returns to the stump for one last payday. Inevitably, tragedy and (if the plotline allows) redemption ensues; at the very least, important life-lessons are learned. Today’s study cleaves to that most hackneyed of American movie narratives, because the 1991-96 Buick Roadmaster, while part of a long and illustrious line would ultimately represent its final lap of honour.

Since the late 1950s, the Electra had represented Buick’s sedan flagship, a traditional full-size rear-wheel drive, body on frame design. Downsizing arrived along with all GM divisions in 1977, but newer, harsher realities ensued for the 1986 model year with the advent of the more compacted all-new front-wheel drive unitary C-body. To say it was received with a certain disquiet would be something of an understatement, a matter highlighted by a one-style-fits-all, set-square design theme.

Consumer Guide Auto

Despite some resistance from GM’s more traditional customers, the C-body Electra sold well, but towards the latter part of the decade, with the economy on the rise again and fuel prices stable, GM’s product planners clearly saw an opportune moment to give the full-sized RWD Buick sedan one more shot. While it is unlikely that the full-size Buick was green-lighted without some reasonably robust customer data, there was also a sense that bets were being hedged – Buick also having sanctioned the front-driven full-sized Park Avenue model for 1991 – previously a more upmarket trim line on Electra models.

Despite downsizing efforts, Buick continued to offer a full-sized rear-drive station wagon, derived from the Chevrolet division’s Caprice model line. However, by the close of the decade, both it and its Bow-Tie counterpart appeared as fossils from another age. Since the Caprice was to be rebodied and significantly re-engineered for 1991, this B-body platform would also form the basis for the upcoming Buick flagship.[2]

Introduced the same year as the new-generation Caprice, Buick’s renewed station wagon – once more very much an ennobled Caprice – could be identified by the signature Buick grille upon its facade, copious square footage of Di-Noc faux-woodwork upon its ample flanks, and a more sybaritic interior ambience. However, the main talking point (visuals aside) was the badge upon the tailgate – one hailing from the distant past.

Paintref

The Roadmaster nameplate can be traced back to the 1930s and would until its retirement in 1958, represent the ultimate in Tri-Shield offerings. Certainly, the 1991 Buick Roadmaster Estate was (like its Capricious counterpart), a very large automobile indeed, so at least the choice of name seemed apt.

Buick’s studios were headed by Bill Porter and Wayne Kady[3] respectively, and it would be Kady’s team who would devise the 1992 B-bodied Buick sedan. Retaining the already ample Caprice body structure and external centre section, the Roadmaster sedan would necessarily cleave to the Caprice’s aero-influenced styling, even if it was in detail, more of a retro reflection of past masters.

A distinctly formal looking motor car, team-Kady’s design employed new sheet metal forward of the A-pillar, culminating in a deep waterfall grille and wrap-around headlamp/ turn signal units. Aft, a new, more upright and broader C-pillar flowed into a long, tapered tail, encompassing sizeable wrap-around rear lamp units. One notable difference despite the use of carry-over Caprice doors was the inclusion of a seemingly unnecessary rear quarter window, which the Chevrolet managed to do without.[4]

Auto-Database

The ensuing Roadmaster was a car of dignity and some considerable bearing – a contemporary take on a seemingly extinct species, but not one which was universally hailed as a styling classic – then or now. Like the Caprice which inspired it, some observers felt it was overbodied[5], and that the curvaceous aero-influenced surfacing did not harmonise with the classical design theme or the Roadmaster’s scale.

Having said this, the press and PR photos paint a more positive picture – certainly, from these one observes a rather elegant, nicely executed, if very traditional looking American motor car.

Auto-Database

Powering the sedan was a 180 hp 5.7 litre (the immortal small block) V8 engine, which supplanted the 170 hp 5.0 litre unit which was original equipment in the Roadmaster Wagon. For the 1994 model year, Roadmasters came with a modified and detuned 260 hp version of the LT1 V8 engine used in the Corvette, mated to a new electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.

Specifying the towing package got you a firmer suspension set-up, with rear self-levelling, which aided road behaviour, as the standard car was set up primarily to provide supreme ride comfort and isolation above chassis dynamics. The Roadmaster could be surprisingly frugal on the open road, with testers averaging 24-25 mpg on the highway, however this could drop alarmingly in urban settings, or if it was driven in a spirited manner.

Sales began healthily, but quickly fell prey to, amongst other factors, the success of the handier sized, and more frugal V6 engined Park Avenue model. Despite being more expensive than the larger Roadmaster, the latter’s Bill Porter-helmed styling was also notably better received. The market had spoken and what customers were telling GM was that the Park Avenue was really all the full-sized luxury Buick they required.

in-house rival. 1991 Buick Park Avenue. Image: Favcars

What they certainly didn’t seem to either need or require any more was a full-sized station wagon, the format falling decisively out of fashion by mid-90s, as the upmarket SUV gained traction with traditional wagon buyers, especially those of the female persuasion. From a height of over 85,000 in 1992, Roadmaster sales fell to only a quarter of that four years later. The final act came in 1996 when the GM assembly plant in Arlington, Texas which built the B-bodies was repurposed for SUV production. The Roadmaster ran out of road that year – an illustrious era had come to a close.[6]

Favcars

One finds it difficult to escape the sense that the Roadmaster (and its distantly related Cadillac Fleetwood siblings), were attempts by General Motors’ management and stylists to hark back to their 1960s glory days. What seems to have escaped the product planners however, was the fact that the market had moved on, and while there was a residue of nostalgia for past times, especially amid the baby-boom generation, both timing and product were out of step.

However, this doesn’t alter the fact that these were vehicles of a somewhat romantic nature, so if they came freighted with a slightly elegiac bent; well, that seemed somewhat appropriate as matters unfolded.

The roadmasters of today are not so much the luxury SUVs that now proliferate, both in the US and elsewhere, but (in the US market at least), the high-end pick-up truck – the latterday Buick customer now as likely to be piloting a fully-loaded double cab GMC Sierra Denali – if not its Yukon equivalent. The land yachts didn’t die out with the end of Roadmaster production, they simply evolved.

The archetypical movie script-arc usually calls for a younger character – the pretender-antagonist – one who pushes the older hero of the story towards the inevitable and necessary ordeal-denouement, before ultimately supplanting him.

So it goes. All roads have to end somewhere.

 

[1] It’s almost always a man.

[2] The Roadmaster may have been a flagship in size and scale, but not in price. The most expensive Buick sedan being the more compact Park Avenue launched the previous year.

[3] During his first stint at Buick, Wayne Cady was (partly) responsible for the styling of the much-derided 1974 Riviera model. Following an intermediate stint at the Cadillac division – where he worked on the much-reviled 1980 Seville model amongst others – he returned to the Tri Shield.

[4] It’s likely that while this quarterlight was not strictly necessary from a functional perspective, it was what buyers of these cars would have expected.

[5] The styling theme of the Roadmaster calls to mind Jaguar’s 1961 Mark Ten saloon in that the barrel-sided flanks appear to overwhelm the vehicle track widths. Neither however, lack gravitas – or visual drama for that matter.

[5] Over 225,000 Roadmasters were built from 1991 to December 1996.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “One for the Road”

  1. Good morning Eóin. I have to admit to feeling a certain affection for both the Roadmaster and its Caprice Classic sibling. Like the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis, they were, as you say, the last hurrah for the quintessentially American traditional body-on-frame sedans and station wagons.

    Regarding the Roadmaster, I’m struggling to make up my mind about the C-pillar treatment. I like the idea of the broad pillar, but wonder if the trailing edge of the rear door window isn’t just too severely upright? A longer rear door and slightly more inclined trailing edge might look more ‘natural’. I suppose this treatment was chosen to distinguish the Roadmaster strongly from otherwise similar six-light Caprice Classic:

  2. Ah, the Roadmaster, the final Buick expression of the grand General Motors car. I well recall seeing ‘spy’ photographs of them in the enthusiast press, and being filled with a giddy excitement that another generation of ‘proper’ full-size American cars would be at last be available. I recall equally well my deep despair when it was announced production would end, knowing full well that we would never see their like again. The sedan was truly magnificent to my eyes, overbodied or not, and the fascination of its styling has never paled. The superb Estate Wagon, along with its sisters, the Caprice wagon and the now forgotten Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, was the very last true American station wagon, a once ubiquitous whitewalled and woodgrained breed. It conjured, for me, idealised images of American suburbia, the sort of car that Jimmy Stewart might have driven. Thank you for this bittersweet article. It is good to know the Roadmaster has not been completely forgotten.

  3. Good morning, Eóin. Buick Roadmaster, there’s something about the name alone that I love. Roadmaster, it somehow commands respect. I like the Roadmaster, but, like Daniel, I am struggling with the C-pillar as well. Somehow I like the Chevrolet Caprice better. The Caprice was not a big seller here, but some taxi companies used it and the wagons were used as hearses. I’ve only seen a roadmaster once or twice here in the Netherlands.

    Ususally I’m an advocate for lightweight cars and engineering, but I’ve always loved the full size body on frame cars from the States. They’re gone now. I’ve never driven one, but I still want to.

    1. Hi Freerk. I argee about the ‘Roadmaster’ name. More generally, American cars have had some terrific, evocative names over the years, although it’s hard to determine in each case whether the names sound great in isolation, or by association with the car. ‘Thunderbird’ sounds fantastic, even without ever seeing the cars to which it applied (and some were woeful). ‘Electra’ and ‘Caprice’, maybe not so much?

  4. There’s a certain fascinating quality to these old school American land-yachts, isn’t there? I have a real fondness for the Lincoln Town Car, one of only a couple of examples of the breed I have actually been driven in.

    My eyes widened at a certain point in this article: 180 hp from 5.7 litres. How did they manage it?

    1. The engine was very unstressed. Iron heads, single point fuel injection, a very mild camshaft and a restrictive exhaust, as well as being tuned to run on 87 octane (US standard, would be equivalent to 91-92 octane) fuel.

  5. In 2002 this Australian visited friends in Canada, and spent time being driven around in a white Roadmaster wagon with wood grain trim, just like the one pictured in the article.

    I loved it instantly, for its calm comfortable nature and well-resolved styling. Of course it’s a silly great whale of a thing, but I’d have one even though it’s too big for my garage and makes no sense at all. Don’t ask me why, but I have a real soft spot for them.

  6. I thought I’d play with the Roadmaster sedan’s rear door and C-pillar area, to see if I could make it look better balanced. I’ve lengthened the door and made the trailing edge of the window more inclined. Now the fixed quarter-window is required, so that the movable glass can clear the rear wheel arch when down.

    Original first for comparison:

    1. This looks nice, but less “authoritative” and characterful than the original and it makes me think of either the 1991 Olds 98 (which I like a lot) or the Chevy Corsica (which is rather not good at all and any association with it should be avoided!).

    2. Ah, that’s a good point, Megasigma. Here’s the Oldsmobile 98:

      At first glance, I assumed it was another derivative of the Caprice / Roadmaster RWD platform but, amazingly, it’s actually transverse-engined and FWD! In any event ‘my’ Roadmaster is probably too similar looking, superficially at least, to the 98 for either Buick or Oldsmobile’s liking.

    3. Wow, I bet you didn’t see that one coming, Daniel 😉 I didn’t know about this Olds 98 either. As I’ve never seen one. Still a job well done, Daniel.

    4. The Olds 98 could be had in Regency Elite form and as such was a very, very nice vehicle. The trouble as ever with GM was that there was no meaningful difference between this and a comparably priced Buick. When the brands had their own engines and factories it might have made sense to pick and choose. Naturally GM wanted all their cars to have the same quality and to share as many parts as possible – so where did that leave Oldsmobile in relation to Buick? The idea towards the end was that Buick would be for traditionalists (and so was forced into the same box as Rover was) and Olds would be re-purposed to fight the Honda/Toyota crowd but that was no kind of a difference and alienated Olds own set of traditionalists. And the Honda, Nissan and Toyota buyers were never going back to Olds. The move simply gave Olds buyers a reason to leave: if you have to have an import-type car why not buy the real thing? On the Buick side, Cadillac also had traditionalist customers but a diminishing number; so Cadillac had an Art & Science make-over (did that work?). By the end of the 00s every single group of GM customers had been unsettled, barring perhaps Chevrolet. No wonder their customers went off and bought trucks (where the brandscape is quite meaningless).

    5. Thanks for sharing, Richard. The 98 really was rather impressive. I’m thinking now of one of my dad’s friends who had an Oldsmobile Aurora back in the days. These were never officially imported in the Netherlands and I think only 3 were ever sold here. Sadly, I never got a chance to see it.

    6. It would’ve looked “cheaper” to the older, traditional-minded target customer but been more expensive to build than the production model. Notice that the rear doors are identical and interchangeable between the Roadmaster and Caprice sedans (and also the Cadillac Brougham version) along with the wagon body.

    7. I´ve never seen many Oldsmobiles in Europe other than the Alero which was sold as a Chevrolet for a while. You mostly see Cadillacs, some Buicks and the odd Pontiac. For some reason very few imported Oldsmobiles, even in the areas in Germany where there were American military bases. I once saw a Buick Roadmaster saloon in Dublin. I fancy it was imported for a holiday and went home again soon after. It must have been hard to navigate the country lanes.

  7. Very nice. Here’s a (very soothing) promotional video. The 5,000 lb / 2.3 tonne towing capacity was impressive, as was the ability of the estate to seat eight. Now, where did I put those Werther’s Originals.

    1. I am not sure why this car requires Werther´s Originals. When I had a lot of family stuff to lug I used an XM which is a bit like a Caprice wagon; were I in the US I´d have used a Caprice wagon instead – it´s a family car not a retirement car. You could say that a two-door saloon is a retirement car (assuming there are no grandkids to ferry about). If the Caprice is a Werther´s car it´s because people who bought them aged 40-50 kept them until they were 70.

    2. Hello Richard, the Roadmaster film seemed, to me, to have the same cosy vibe as an extended Werther’s Original commercial – its warm lighting, slow pace, imagery and style of voiceover.

      Roadmasters do seem to have been archetypal “grandparents’ cars”. A few years ago, the average Buick buyer’s age was 60, second only to Lincoln (61). I would think the introduction of SUVs has probably reduced this, now.

      One US magazine played on the Roadmaster’s senior image when the LT1 performance version was launched.

  8. I understand the nickname for this car was the Roadmonster, which is also fantastic.

    This generation IMO was too conservative/’traditional’ in approach, also even allowing for the change of market away from the normal sedan even 30 years ago it is hard to justify continuing to make so many models that were so close in size due to the growth of the smaller model ie Park Avenue. The same is now responsible for the demise of the Toyota Avalon for instance as well as basically any manufacturers’ largest sedan that gets dropped.

    The saying “you can sell a young person’s car to an old person, but you can’t sell an old person’s car to a young person” also applies – see the Scion range or Honda Element as examples of the former.

  9. Russell Bulgin wrote a glorious piece for CAR magazine (back in its heyday) proclaiming this era Chevy Caprice as the best car in the world. Deliberately provocative and ridiculous of course, but if you had to transport people and luggage 400 miles in a day, cruising through the land of cheap gas at around 60mph, what else would you choose? His argument was that, in fitness for purpose, the Caprice was supreme. A Roadmaster would do even better.

    Truly the end of an era: goodbye to the great American sedan and station wagon. Mercedes design boss Gorden Wagener apparently thinks the three box sedan will become extinct… a real shame.

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