Car of the Week: 1971 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser

That's so '70s! One man is still living the vibe of the glorious 1970s with his '71 Olds Vista Cruiser.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Anybody who doesn’t have fond memories of the 1970s needs to spend a little time with Jim Maher.

For Maher, a resident of Appleton, Wis., almost every day is an episode right out of “That ‘70s Show,” the iconic series that made Fez, Kelso, Donna, and the Formans all household names. Maher has a groovy little collection of ‘70s vehicles, including a time capsule 1971 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagon that has made him a bit of a local celebrity.

“It’s a really pretty car, and everywhere we go, people love it,” Maher chuckles. “I go to McDonald’s and the girl in the drive-thru goes, ‘Oh you have the ‘Hello WI’ plate, you are the coolest guy in the Valley!’ And I’m driving this. I’m driving a Vista around and she thinks I’m cool!’”

Maher's Vista Cruiser sports the base 350 two-barrel that was rated at 240 hp

Maher's Vista Cruiser sports the base 350 two-barrel that was rated at 240 hp

Having any 50-year-old car as finely preserved as Maher’s Vista is probably cause for celebration. Having a family hauler — and a very fancy one at that — that somehow survived in such pristine condition borders on miraculous. 

“I’ve had muscle cars and stuff, but this car attracts more people than any of them …because I think it’s just an ‘Everyman’ car,” Maher offers. “You grew up with these sitting in the back seat. It’s really approachable. It’s just a wagon and everybody remembers them. Of course, people recognize the plate. And then again the Vista wasn’t just a cheap wagon. Even the base Vista was probably $300 more than the Chevy, and that was a lot of money back then. These were just a little different.”

Maher first started entertaining the idea of buying an old station wagon back around 2000, but he wasn’t after a Vista Cruiser. His mind changed in a hurry when he saw this one in the flesh, however. 

“I really wanted a ‘clam shell,’ the big ’71-’76 GMs. I really wanted one of those!” he laughs. “I had gone all over the country and then I’d show up and they weren’t quite how they were described. Then this one popped up on 442.com right down in Naperville, Ill. It was so close I figured I better go look and it only had 43,000 miles on it! … [The seller] was like, ‘I don’t know why no one is looking at this car. Everyone is just glossing over it, but this is the car everybody wants.’ When I saw it I was like, ‘Wow, I will never find another Vista Cruiser like this.’ It’s so solid. It’s unrestored. I took it to Olds Nationals in Minneapolis in ’03, and I got 950 out of 1,000 points in the Unrestored Class. They dinged me like 20 points for a scratch in the window and some belts and little stuff.”

And as far as being known as Appleton’s Red Forman? Well, Maher would like to set the record straight.

“Everybody calls me Red! No, I grew up in the ‘70s, so I feel more like Eric. I might look more like Red, act like Red. I’ve got a couple kids and sometimes I want to put my foot in their a-- … but inside I’m just Eric [laughs].”

OLDSMOBILE’S WONDER WAGON

For the first time in the United States, 18-year-olds were eligible to vote in 1971. Disney World opened in Florida, Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, postage stamps were 8 cents, and Archie, Edith and the Meathead propelled “All in the Family” to the top of the Nielsen ratings.

It was also the first time since 1965 that the Vista Cruiser was not the largest Olds wagon. That honor went to the new Custom Cruiser. Size certainly wasn’t the most memorable thing about the fabulous Vista Cruisers, however. They were more known for their calling card second-row skylights and glass side panels, step-up roof profiles and “dual action” tailgates. (The full-size Custom Cruiser wagons on the Olds 98 chassis still had the memorable “clam shell” with the disappearing tailgate)

No denying the appeal of the Vista Cruiser with the nod to "That's '70s Show."

No denying the appeal of the Vista Cruiser with the nod to "That's '70s Show."

The Vista Cruisers were fixtures of the Oldsmobile lineup through three generations from 1964-1977, serving as top-of-the-line transportation for the thousands of families in the pre-minivan/pre-SUV ’60s and ’70s. The second-gen Vista Cruiser bowed in 1968 and ran through ’72, filling the middle slot in the Olds wagon line as a two- or three-seat model. Standard equipment included: woodgrain trim, cigarette lighter, V-8 engine, carpeting, moldings, windshield radio antenna, seat belts with shoulder harnesses, raised vista roof and chrome hubcaps. Upholstery was vinyl or cloth. Standard tire size was H78-14.

Maher chose to upgrade the 14" wheels to the 15" wheel option.

Maher chose to upgrade the 14" wheels to the 15" wheel option.

The options list was lengthy and included the 455-cid two- and four-barrel V-8s in addition to the base 350 two-barrel that was rated at 240 hp. Although they were considered intermediates in size, the Vistas utilized 121-inch wheelbases with doors and fames that were cut-and-stretched 5 inches longer than the Cutlass models. This gave the Vista Cruiser a cavernous 105.2 cubic feet of cargo room, which was actually almost 12 cubic feet more than the Cutlass Cruiser. At more than 218.3 inches and more than 4,200 lbs., the Vistas still took up a lot of room in the garage.

The two-row versions were not as popular with the buying public as the three-row, nine-passenger versions. For 1971, 9,317 of the two-row models like Maher’s were built at a base price of $3,865. A total of 20,566 nine-passenger wagons were built for the model year with a hefty $4,007 base price tag.

Roof Rack and iconic Vista Cruiser sky light treatment.

Roof Rack and iconic Vista Cruiser sky light treatment.

BABIED FROM THE BEGINNING

As far as Maher knows, he is the third owner of his Olds wagon, and he certainly appreciates the care the first two owners gave the car. The original owner was a woman from the Reading, Pa., area, who purchased it from Bayliss Oldsmobile back in 1971. “I don’t know much about it … I’ve love to know more of the car’s history from back then. I would be great if somebody from the Reading area knew about the car or remembered it,” Maher says. “Evidently, she had it until she went into assisted living at around the turn of the century and that’s when Jim Martino bought it. He is a hot-rodder and he was planning to make it into a drag car — a drag wagon — but then he decided it was too nice for that. So I bought it from Jim.

“It was obviously kept inside. These things hold water, with all the channels on top and everything. They are beautiful to look at … but if it sits outside water just sits in there and rots through. And the floors rot. This car was obviously taken very good care of.”

Maher went with the four-spoke Sport steering wheel which would have been a factory upgrade option back in the day.

Maher went with the four-spoke Sport steering wheel which would have been a factory upgrade option back in the day.

As much as he’d like to leave the wagon untouched, Maher has had to do some maintenance and cosmetic tweaks over the years to keep the Vista Cruiser in show-stealing condition. He added 15-inch SS1 rims in place of the 14-inch base wheels the car came with, and he swapped in a four-spoke Sport steering wheel. Both would have been optional factory upgrades from Oldsmobile in 1971. He has also re-done the brakes, brake booster and master cylinder, shocks and exhaust to keep the wagon running and sounding as good as it looks. For the most part, the stock 350-cid, two-barrel GM power plant remains untouched. 

“That’s just the basic engine, and I like survivors so I don’t mess with it too much,” Maher says. “I just keep it running and if it needs something I give it to it.”

A look a the black interior and the unique "Vista" pattern.

A look a the black interior and the unique "Vista" pattern.

Perhaps the biggest project Maher has tackled so far is re-covering the front and rear seats.

“The cool thing about this one is it’s a base Vista. This is the way the Vistas came I think, with air conditioning and Dinoc (wood grain vinyl), the roof rack. I think the air dam in back was a dealer-installed option. But the goofy thing about this car is the black interior. Most of these had brown or blue or green. Very few had black interiors. I think it looks good, it’s kind of sporty."

“When I got it, the seats were beautiful, but they were dry and cracking. I took it to Tri-Power Upholstery in Fremont [Wi.], and she did a beautiful job. She took the seats and made a pattern, because it’s a unique pattern for the Vista… and cut these just the same way, and I love it. The seats still looked good, but they had just dried out. That’s what happens to those cars. But it’s perfect now!”

“It’s got the original headrests. The door panels, carpet, headliner, that’s all original. The paint is probably 99 percent original. Up on top it’s checking with age, and there is a couple little areas where you can look close and [see] it’s been sprayed… but I talked to people who said that might have actually been done on the assembly line. They would fire up a compressor and just shoot it going down the line.”

Even at 21 years and counting, there is such delight in Maher’s voice when he talks about his station wagon, the question of what he plans to do with doesn’t even need to be asked. There is no chance he’s ever parting with his fabulous monument to the ’70s. Just the thought of anyone else owning it hurts worse than a shag carpet burn.

Utility is the name of the game.

Utility is the name of the game.

“This is my baby and I’m never getting rid of it and everybody knows it. My kids like it, which is cool. I think they’ll keep it rolling…. Other ones come and go, but this one is staying for sure,” he says. “I don’t want to restore it, I don’t want to paint it. I want it to stay like this forever. I told my wife [Andrea] that she can bury me in it.”

Maher, self-proclaimed "Eric" enjoying his slice of '70s joy.

Maher, self-proclaimed "Eric" enjoying his slice of '70s joy.

SHOW US YOUR WHEELS!

If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at oldcars@aimmedia.com

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