The Buick Roadmaster may be antiquated in style and substance, but it feels visionary after decades of taller SUVs and higher fatalities.
Jan 11, 2024 at 2:30pm ET
The late 90s and early 00s had an intense preoccupation with nostalgia. Perhaps the dawn of the information age overwhelmed us, and we missed the safe familiarity of bygone decades. More likely, perhaps Baby Boomers had some extra cash now that the kids were grown, and they wanted to relive their American Graffiti days. No matter the underlying reason, the past had become the future, and automakers got the memo.
You can probably recall the most memorable of the retro machines: the deuce-coupe-motif Plymouth Prowler, the sock-hop-style Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet’s strange take on postwar trucks with the HHR and SSR, and of course, Dodge’s long-lived revival of the 60s Challenger. Seemingly every American manufacturer was dashing headfirst into cashing in on their glory days, to varying success. But one automaker beat them all to the retrofuturism game by over half a decade — with a wildly different ethos — and yet their efforts have been almost entirely forgotten.
This is a Buick Roadmaster, and a week behind the wheel made me realize in our rush to escape the past, we’ve lost the plot on the vehicles of the future. In this classic is the roadmap to a more-relaxed — and safer — future.
Grandma’s Wagon With A Mid-Decade Refresh
This specific example is a 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate. The “Roadmaster” nameplate had disappeared from the Buick lineup in 1958; in 1991, Buick introduced a massive new sedan and wagon to be its revival. The “Estate” means this example is a wagon; those had also been out of favor since shortly after ‘58, too, as minivans and then SUVs became the vehicles de jour of the American soccer mom. The Roadmaster — if it wasn’t obvious from its faux-woodgrain-sides and lumbering proportions — was unlike its retro-minded contemporaries in that it wasn’t a sexy coupe or convertible meant to relive the glory days of the past; it just was a machine ripped straight from the past.
The Roadmaster uses old-school body-on-frame construction, and the chassis design — referred to internally at GM as the “B-Body” — was completely unchanged from 1977 and only mildly tweaked since its initial introduction in 1965. The interior of the Buick matches the sixties underpinnings; every one of the three rows of bench seats (one rear-facing!) is upholstered and cushioned like a La-Z-Boy. Under the hood of all Roadmasters was a V8; this late-year example hosts a 5.7-liter sequential-point fuel-injection LT1 — the same motor then used in the Corvette — detuned to a still-plenty-sufficient 260 horsepower and a very respectable 330 lb-ft of torque. Power was routed exclusively through a kid-gloves-gentle four-speed automatic.
The wood paneling, of course, was standard.
Old Loaner For A New Apartment
I recently moved into a new apartment in the heart of Seattle, in the historic neighborhood of Capitol Hill. I’ve been essentially restarting my life from scratch, which means I need to buy furniture (and unfortunately, I don’t currently own a working car). My friend gave me this — his daily-driver on most days — to borrow for a bit until my apartment looked less like the backrooms and more like a home.
Thanks to the endlessly rotating loaner cars provided by my career, I’ve used a lot of vehicles to haul stuff. This Buick is better at carrying furniture than almost anything else I’ve ever used; with both rear rows folded flat, it has 92.0 cubic feet of cargo capacity. That’s more room than virtually any mid-size SUV on the market today. It’s also a very deep 92.0 cubic feet, as the Roadmaster is 217.5 inches long from nose to tail; for comparison, that’s seven inches longer than a brand-new Tahoe. When I had to throw a thrifted 6-foot-6-inch bookshelf in the back, the rear gate closed with room to spare.
The Roadmaster seats eight people with ease, too. Headroom clocks in at almost 40 inches for both forward-facing rows — a respectable number for a midsize SUV today — despite being just 60.3 inches tall overall. And shoulder room is unrivaled; at 63.5 inches for both the first and second rows, it’s roughly five inches wider for each passenger than a new Blazer EV. It accomplishes this by being 79.9 inches wide (without mirrors), or one-tenth of an inch short of requiring cab marker lamps.
This wagon is huge.
I Like Big B-Bodies…
It should not come as a shock, then, that I found the Roadmaster a supremely pleasant place to be. It made my 6-foot-1-inch frame feel normal-sized for the first time in years; I was dwarfed by this wagon. And not only is it cavernous, it’s plush. The seats are upholstered with a virtually extinct crushed velour that was once ubiquitous in Midwestern grandparents’ homes; it is still as comfortable as I remember it. The armrest is actually large enough for both front occupants to use simultaneously.
In motion, it’s even more comfortable. The suspension delivers a massive shot of novocaine through the frame to the body; it doesn’t lead to the most direct driving experience, but you could rip across the surface of the Moon at sixty miles an hour and not spill your coffee. Body roll is measured in tens of degrees, and power steering is boosted to the point it took me two fingers to pull a U-turn. The Roadmaster weighs 4,572 pounds, and if you’re driving, you aren’t going to forget that curb weight, but you will be comfortable.
If you’re not driving? I fell asleep the one time I sat in the second row.
…And I Cannot Lie
While I’ve made it sound like the Roadmaster is automotive Ambien, one stomp of the gas will dispel that notion. It’s no Porsche Cayenne, of course, but contemporary testers found the Buick behemoth would light up tires in the right conditions; in my limited testing, I found I could hit 60 MPH right around 7 seconds — close to a new Civic Si, a car that’s plenty exciting. What’s more, flooring it feels like an occasion in the Roadmaster. Every ounce of that 4,572 pounds is still clearly there; the LT1 just pushes onward anyway. The tri-shield hood ornament heaves skyward as the rear squats, and the person next to you at the red light in a late-model Subaru Ascent looks on in confusion as Grandma’s chariot pulls away like, well, a C4 Corvette.
It was no canyon carver, but I still had my fun. What’s more, as I drove through the tightly packed streets of Capitol Hill, I found the Roadmaster eminently livable. Its car-sized ride height meant pedestrians were easy to spot at the many four-way stops of Capitol Hill. It had a not-bad 39-foot-diameter turning circle, and its massive greenhouse and low ride height made parallel parking a cinch despite the fact it was eleven inches longer than a new GMC Hummer EV. Most of the cars I’ve borrowed to help move furniture felt comedically out of place in the tight confines of downtown Seattle, but the Roadmaster — shockingly — handled it with grace.
The single downside of the Roadmaster, in my extended test drive? The EPA rated it at 18 overall MPG. I saw a real-world 14 MPG, thanks to a lot of stop-and-go conditions. If I had to fill its 23-gallon tank with any regularity, I’d need to start an OnlyFans to satiate its thirst.
Death Of A Wagon
Despite its gas-guzzling nature, the Roadmaster actually sold quite handsomely. Over 200,000 models in total were sold, 50,000 of which were wagons just like the one I drove. GM, however, was unimpressed with these numbers; the Roadmaster was discontinued in 1996, just five years after its introduction. With its demise, the company stopped building body-on-frame passenger cars entirely in favor of higher-margin and then-novel SUVs. Within a year, the wagon body style disappeared entirely from every American manufacturer’s lineups for nearly a decade.
And so while the Prowler and Challenger and Thunderbird were retro aesthetics tacked onto modern cars, the Roadmaster was clearly the last survivor of a retro mindset that managed to survive deep into the 90s. And since it sold strongly on its merits — rather than its looks — I believe the Roadmaster proved that its philosophy could be adapted easily to the modern automotive market.
We are returning to an era where the skateboard chassis of battery-electric vehicles allows for a similar degree of creative freedom as the body-on-frame chassis of the past. GM has managed to build both the opulent Cadillac Celestiq hatchback and everyday Chevy Blazer crossover on the same BEV3 platform already; there’s no reason that a wagon couldn’t be next. Slap a halfway-decent EV drivetrain into a Roadmaster and you’d solve the main issue with it, which was its inefficiency; a modern version with the same maneuverability, comfort, and visibility would immediately become one of my favorite EVs.
An EV wagon could help solve two crises at once, as well. The obvious reason for widespread EV adoption is to help slow CO2 emissions, but a parallel crisis has been taking place on American streets as the Earth has warmed. In 2022, 7,508 American pedestrians died. This is more than any year since 1981; it comes after over a decade of steadily-increasing pedestrian fatalities on U.S. streets. According to the IIHS, this is largely thanks to the popularity of squared-off, tall SUVs that are vastly more dangerous to pedestrians than sedans… or wagons. Bringing back the low-slung wagon wouldn’t just lead to easier-to-drive cars; it might make American streets as a whole a safer place to be.
Rebirth Of The Wagon
There are a few automakers reconsidering bringing back the wagon body style. Kia’s EV6 is by far the closest EV to wagon proportions. It feels like a car in motion, thanks to its low center of gravity, and at 60.8 inches overall, it’s only a half inch taller than the Roadmaster. The base model hits 60 in roughly 6.7 seconds, which is plenty quick. Unfortunately, its futuristic fastback packaging severely limits space with just 54 total cubic feet of storage space, and its interior feels vastly less spacious. It’s also stiffly sprung and bucket-seated, which means I’m never falling asleep in the back of one. A look around the EV market shows this isn’t a unique mindset — there’s a lot of 0-60 times prominently bragged about, but not much mention of bench seats and pillow-soft spring rates.
By far the most promising example of a low-slung, spacious wagon ethos in the EV era is Honda’s newest Vision 0 Saloon, introduced this week at CES. While that vehicle is still a concept, Honda says a production vehicle based on it will be hitting American roads in 2026, and it seems closest to embodying the Roadmaster ethos thanks to its interior-room-first design philosophy and low-slung, high-visibility design. If I were an engineer at Honda, I’d throw some soft springs on it, give it light steering, dust off the crushed velour, and let drivers relax a little. It might be a throwback, but the Roadmaster proved to me that some classics deserve to be replayed.