The full-sized Buick’s valedictorian act.
We can all recall the time honoured film storyline by rote: ageing sportsman/ criminal/ gunslinger, 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
 It’s almost always a man.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Over 225,000 Roadmasters were built from 1991 to December 1996.