Twilight of the Giants: Buick Roadmaster

After planning for permanently high fuel prices in the early eighties, GM watched as oil prices cratered just as its new front-drive full-sizers were introduced in 1984-85. Following a very strong 1983, Buick sold over 940,000 cars and finished third in North American sales in 1984. That was a high water mark for the division until the modern era of Chinese sales.

It didn’t last, however. By 1988, sales had fallen to around 500,000. Still a huge number, but enough to concern Buick GM Ed Mertz, who had taken the helm at the division in 1986. Mertz was 49 and a 30-year GM veteran at the time. He’d started at a summer job with Chevy in 1956.

Mertz’s mission, per GM’s 14th Floor, was to reaffirm Buick’s identity.

Buick and Olds had been drifting closer together since rationalization began in the 1970s and by 1984 they were formally part of the Buick-Olds-Cadillac group under Robert Stempel. Although the sharing of technology and production made for better economies of scale and leaner production, it also made for less distinct differences between the brands.

That was especially true of the new front-drive large cars which, from a distance, were hard to distinguish from one another. Mertz could also see that abandoning rear-drive had cost Buick customers. The front-drive LeSabre and Electra were quality cars, but some buyers wanted V8s and rear drive – and they bought Lincoln Town Cars or Mercury Grand Marquis instead of Buicks.

GM did not abandon traditional rear-drive sedans entirely – Pontiac’s Parisienne continued into late 1986, and Chevy and Cadillac – at isolated ends of the marketing spectrum and therefore given more autonomy – kept their circa-1977 rear drive cars. Buick and Olds (and Pontiac after 1987) got only the old B-body wagons.

The success of Ford’s Panther cars in the mid-to-late eighties and renewed interest in the Caprice and Cadillac Fleetwood meant the B/C car would be restyled one more time in the early 1990s, and a big Buick rear-drive Buick would return as a result. The new car, to revive the old Roadmaster name, was the capstone of Mertz’s plan to make buick stand for “Premium American Motorcars.”

The Roadmaster name had been introduced in 1936, a time when it was second only to Buick’s limousine, the Limited. It had been the division’s flagship in the golden postwar years but shelved after 1958.

Although Buick was often unfairly tarred as an old person’s car in the 1980s (you don’t sell nearly a million units to retirees only), Mertz’s vision was heavy with heritage, and the Roadmaster fit right into that. Looking through a Roadmaster owner’s manual, you’d find at least a half dozen pictures of old-school Buicks dating back to the time of David Dunbar Buick.

If the era of downsizing, part II, had produced relatively lookalike cars, the Roadmaster would be very distinctive, just as the rest of the lineup was becoming better differentiated from Olds starting with the 1988 GM-10 Regal.

The Roadmaster Arrives

The first Roadmaster to appear was the wagon for model year 1991. It was not much more than a reworked Chevy Caprice wagon (also new that year) with a big skylight in the roof, a-la the 1960s Vista Cruiser and Buick Sportwagon, and unique interior pieces. An Olds variant, the Custom Cruiser, was also offered.

The Roadmaster sedan debuted a few months later as a 1992 model.

The car was styled under the direction of GM veteran Wayne Kady, who also oversaw another Buick introduced that year – the 1992 Skylark. Both cars were heavy with retro cues – the polarizing “beaky” Skylark had a grill inspired by the 1939 Buicks, but otherwise quite modern lines. The Roadmaster used many traditional Buick cues but was much less radical – it looked like what it was, an updated, modernized version of a 1970s large Buick.

On the sail panel was a Roadmaster badge that echoed the “ventiports” of old Buicks. The Buick team at that time didn’t think putting them on the front of the car would be in keeping with a modern design and they were probably right – the subtle hint on the sail panel was enough.

The car was priced between the front-drive LeSabre and Park Avenue. Both of those cars had also been targeted for revisions that would make them more distinctive, too. An enlarged and thoroughly restyled Park Avenue appeared in 1991, and a similarly updated LeSabre appeared in 1992.

These bigger, more distinctive cars were styled under Dave Holls and Bill Porter.

Both cars debuted to very positive reviews – they were tighter to drive, faster, and better looking than before. Plus, during the Mertz era, Buick had quietly asserted more control over production on its larger vehicles. The Park Avenue and the LeSabre were the highest-quality American cars you could buy in the early 1990s, and the LeSabre won a string of accolades from Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, and Family circle.

They new front-drivers consequently did better than their predecessors, but also chipped away a little at the raison d’etre of the Roadmaster. Mainly, that mission was regaining buyers who wanted bigger, more distinctive Buicks.

Autumn of the Roadmaster

The revived Roadmaster’s best year was it’s first as a full lineup of sedan and wagon. In 1992, over 85,000 were sold. By then, of course, SUVs and minivans were pushing out much of what remained of the big car universe. What had been casually called an “old person’s car” in the 1980s was now almost a de facto appellation and one played up by the automotive press every time the car was mentioned.

In 1991, the Roadmaster wagon had been powered by Chevy’s 5-liter L03 V8, supplanted in 1992 by a 5.7L L05 Small block with 180hp. Good, but not lightning quick. But for 1994, the ultimate Roadmaster arrived – the 260hp LT1 small block.

By then though, the car was selling only about 30-40,000 units a year and typical reviews might remark on how it was a floaty barge fit that could barely stay in its lane.

It’s true that it was meant to be soft and cosseting, and that it had feather-light steering for so large (215.8”, 5.5M) and heavy (4,100 lbs.) a car. However, unlike some reports suggested, it was not a terrible handler and relatively easy to control. Not much different, really, from the Caprice with which it shared almost all of its chassis components – though it was not as taut as a 9C1 police car.

The end came in 1996.

With no real replacement on the horizon and demand for GM’s trucks far outstripping demand for the big rear-drive sedans, the Arlington, Texas plant where the Roadmaster (and the related Caprice and Cadillac Fleetwood) was built was given over to truck production.

A final “collector’s edition” Roadmaster marked the farewell, using some of the very same badge tooling that had been used on the “Collector’s Edition” rear-drive LeSabre when it was retired in 1985.

Significantly, that year also marked the end of Mertz’s highly successful management of Buick. The brand did not return to the highs of 1984 but did have a long run of stable success in the mid-1990s via Mertz’s better definition of the products. It was also the year that several long-time managers at Mertz’s level – Oldsmobile’s John Rock and Cadillac’s John Grettenberger also retired early. All three were 59/60 at the time. 

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