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Roadmaster hit a road block in '90s

GM's gamble with the station wagon didn't pay off in the 1990s with the rising popularity of SUVs and minivans.

The 1991 Roadmaster Estate Wagon carried the traditional
trademark of luxury station wagons: faux woodwork on the
sides and tailgate. Many people thought the car looked too
whale-like. Wagon interiors (left) were luxurious with lots
of leather and amenities. But, for such a large car, the
second seat was a bit short on legroom.
After the fuel shortages and fuel price increases of the 1970s, figuring out what size cars to build became a big challenge for American car builders. Led by General Motors, big cars were downsized starting in 1977. The GM downsizing turned out to be very successful on some of these cars, most notably the Chevrolet Caprice, which remained in production until 1990 for a 14-year-run.

But then came the next generation of the largest-sized cars in each GM line, starting in 1985. GM product planners decided that major downsizing should continue. The result was that familiar luxury cars, such as Cadillac DeVilles and Olds 98s, became chopped-off caricatures of their former selves. V-8 engines virtually disappeared and almost everything became front-drive, except for a few models in each marque.

The trouble was, the buying public turned out to be not much interested in further shrinkages of their comfortable American boats. People had gotten used to the higher fuel prices. No further emergency fuel shortages or major price run-ups had occurred in the 1980s. As a result, buyers were turning away from shrinking-but-economical cars and looking to SUVs and pickups, which were becoming more luxurious and car-like every year, though they were not very economical. Sales of the formerly large, but now severely downsized, luxury cars, such as Cadillac and Olds 98, were dropping. Familiar luxury models, such as Toronado, disappeared completely. But the large, rear-drive V-8-powered sedans and wagons had been kept in the product line and continued to be popular.

Faced with these sales trends, GM brass decided to do an about-face for the next redesign of their largest, most prestigious models for a 1991 introduction. This would include the Chevy Caprice, Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, Oldsmobile Cruiser and the return of the Buick Roadmaster. GM’s finest cars would return to being really large, V-8-powered, rear-drive automobiles.

The Buick version of this new GM body was introduced in 1991 only as a station wagon. It marked the return of a familiar Buick series name, the Roadmaster, last used in 1957. Before that, Roadmaster had been the name of Buick’s largest, most powerful and most luxurious models. This new wagon also used Buick’s traditional name for that body type: the Estate Wagon. Advertising for this new Roadmaster evoked memories of the big, powerful Roadmasters of the past.

This new car was rear-wheel drive and V-8 powered with all of the power assists and luxury equipment that most Americans had come to like. At almost 218 inches in length, it was nearly as big as the last rear-drive Buick Electra in 1984. Width was a hefty 79.9 inches, just 1/10 inch inside the legal limit for car size. Wheelbase was 116 inches. The new car was big all right, but it looked even bigger. Inspired by the aerodynamic and popular Ford Taurus, the new Roadmaster adopted a rounded, full shape, especially in the rear quarters. For some people, it was just too much. Many felt it looked too hefty or downright fat. The engine the first year was a 5.0-litre V-8 producing 170 bhp driving through a four-speed automatic transmission.

The new wagon was very luxurious and loaded with features. There was a two-way tailgate with unique lift-up rear window glass. Leather seating was available, and a third row seat was standard, giving eight-passenger capacity. The roof had a glass panel over the second row seat that resembled the skylights in the Buick Sport Wagons of the 1960s. There was also a built-in roof rack.

A four-door sedan version of the new Roadmaster was announced in 1991, but put into production as a 1992 model. The sedan was handsome, but also suffered from a very stout waistline in the rear quarters. It was two inches shorter than the wagon. Engine size for 1992 was boosted to 5.7 liters and 180 bhp in both models.

Sales started off well, with more than 17,000 wagons and almost 60,000 sedans built in the 1991-1992 model years. Then sales began to fall off. In 1993, sedan production dropped to 26,000 cars and wagons to 9,500. So for 1994, buyers received a big surprise. The standard engine in both models became the Corvette-derived LT1 5.7-liter, which pumped out 260 bhp!

Unfortunately, the new engine did not boost sales. By the end of the 1995 model year, wagon sales had dropped to 5,522 cars and sedan sales to 22,942. Production ceased in 1996 after a total of less than 22,000 cars of both styles had been built for the model year. GM needed the Arlington, Texas, plant where Roadmasters were built to produce more SUVs!

Why did this large and lavish return to the style of earlier Buicks not have better success? Perhaps people were getting used to smaller, more space-efficient cars after all. Or, maybe folks were finding SUVs, such as the Chevy Suburban, better suited to their cargo- and people-hauling needs than a station wagon. Minivans had arrived on the scene in 1984 and offered greater cargo capacity with equivalent passenger capacity for much less money than a Roadmaster Estate Wagon.

There were some design and production issues, as well. For as large a car as the Roadmaster was, rear seat leg room was disappointing. A good friend of mine owned two Roadmaster Estate Wagons from new — a 1995 and a 1996. He received 8 miles per gallon for gas mileage. The build quality on his 1995 was so bad that Buick took it back and gave him a new ’96 model. The second one turned out to be an excellent car.

Or, maybe buyers just didn’t like the style. The corpulent hindquarters on these two Buicks took some getting used to. The other cars that used the same bodies were the Chevy Caprice, the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and the Olds Cruiser wagon. They all looked porky and they all had mediocre sales. They were dropped by 1996, the Olds by 1993.

Yet, Ford came out with a redesigned Crown Victoria at the same time in 1991 that sold well and is still in production today. It is just as big as the GM rear-drivers were, but looks slimmer and better proportioned. It is a clear example of how important styling popularity can be. Until the 1991 Caprice was introduced, Chevy dominated the taxi market and was a strong competitor in the police car market. Today, Chevy has no rear-drive product to sell in these two important markets, and Ford dominates sales.

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