1988 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – Hail The Traditional American Station Wagon!

Of all the GM wagons made in the final full-size, B-body station wagon years, I think I loved the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser the most. I mean, first of all, is that a cool name or what? “Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser.” Even if you didn’t even know what kind of a car was, you’d probably agree that is a most excellent name. And these final Olds wagons remained unerringly, unapologetically full sized to the very end in 1992. They even eclipsed their Eighty Eight brethren starting in 1986, establishing them as perhaps the Broughamiest Olds in the lineup.

1986 full-size Oldsmobiles: Ninety-Eight, Eighty-Eight and Custom Cruiser.

Yes, the second round of downsizing hit the Oldsmobile full-size line in the mid-’80s. The first round, for those of you just joining us, was in 1977, when the trim, smaller on the outside yet bigger on the inside B-body GM sedans, coupes and wagons appeared on the scene. Round two started in 1985 when the top of the line Ninety-Eight shrunk, along with its corporate cousins, the C-body Buick Electra and Cadillac de Ville/Fleetwood. They were also front wheel drive, and unit-bodied. Not a rare format in 1986, but completely new to the Olds flagship, which had been proudly gigantic and full-framed for decades.

The Eighty Eight got the same treatment in 1986. So now all of the big Oldses were front wheel drive, V6-only and unit-bodied. What was a full-sized car lover to do? Buy the wagon!

1986 Custom Cruiser. The sedans and coupes shrunk. The wagon most certainly did not.

Yes, the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser was the last big Olds standing with Rocket V8 power. As good as the 3800 V6 in the new 88s and 98s were, the Oldsmobile Rocket V8 was a lovely engine. Ever heard one run? They sound great! A soothing blub blub blub blub sound, not unlike a ’50s Chris-Craft speedboat.

1981 Oldsmobiles

From 1980 to 1985, the Custom Cruiser shared its grille with its Delta 88 brethren. Which made sense, as it was a part of the 88 line. But that was clearly impossible with the 1986 and up Delta 88s being a completely different body. So the 1981 Ninety-Eight grille (seen above) was dusted off and applied to ’86 Custom Cruisers to differentiate it from the ’85 models.

The same trick was pulled in 1987, only this time the Custom Cruiser got the 1982 Ninety-Eight grille. At this point GM decided it no longer needed to change the grille on its luxury wagon, so all 1987-90 Custom Cruisers retained the ’82 grille.

And so it was that the Custom Cruiser entered the 1988 model year, looking very much as it had since 1980, when the 1977-wintage B-bodies got an aerodynamic facelift for a better coefficient of drag and corresponding fuel economy.

As had been the case since 1980, ’88 Custom Cruisers, with internal model designation P35 and retailing for $15,655, rode upon a 115.9 inch wheelbase with a curb weight of 4,136 pounds.

Although the Custom Cruiser was prominently featured with the woodgrained vinyl applique on the sides, the wagon was also available without it. Although going from memory, most of these cars had the Di-Noc trim, whether Caprice, Parisienne, Custom Cruiser or Electra/LeSabre Estate Wagon.

1980 Custom Cruiser sans woodgrain

I do remember one clean-sided Custom Cruiser from my youth, however. Our next door neighbors back in the ’80s were the Ohlweilers. Their daughter and son-in-law were big fans of Oldsmobile. Jeannie, who was frequently over at the house, had a beige 1984 Cutlass Cruiser that I remember very well. But every once in a while they would arrive in their other car, which was a brown Custom Cruiser without the wood sides.

I do not recall the exact year of that wagon, but it was definitely a pre-1986 model. The grilles on these cars changed every year until 1988, but from my somewhat hazy memory, I believe it was a 1982. It also had those rather plain stainless wheel discs, as seen on the off-white 80 in the brochure picture above.

As I was approximately in first or second grade at the time, I don’t remember much else about it, other than the fact that it seemed a LOT bigger than Jeannie’s Cutlass wagon and my parents’ Volvo 240 wagons!

Total production for the Custom Cruiser in 1988 was 11,114 units. All were powered by the famous Oldsmobile Rocket V8, which by the 1980s displaced 307 cubic inches. It had a bore of 3.80, a stroke of 3.39, and produced 140 bhp in ’88.

That year only two Oldsmobiles were available with it, the Custom Cruiser of course, and optionally it was available in the RWD Cutlass Supreme Classic, in its final year. The ’88 Cutlass Supreme Classic was the former 1987 Cutlass Supreme, as the “regular” ’88 CS was all-new, V6 powered and front-wheel drive. But the earlier (and much classier, in my opinion) full-framed Cutlass coupe appeared alongside its replacement for one last bow.

1989 Custom Cruiser

Starting in 1989, the 307 was solely available in the big Olds wagon. The MSRP edged upward to $16,795. At the same time production went below 10,000 for the first time, to the tune of 8,929 wagons.

I spotted this 1988 example in black cherry back in July of 2016. It was sitting at a long-standing used car lot in downtown Davenport, where I frequently encounter interesting older models.

1975 Continental Town Car

Just to give an example, over the past 5-7 years I’ve seen a mint ’81 Silverado in two-tone blue and white, a metallic tan 1980 Sedan de Ville, a metallic mocha 1991 Cadillac Brougham and a fantastic triple jade green 1975 Lincoln Continental Town Car.

May I digress for just a moment? Those seats! WOW! Now, where was I?

And this car was a local! Campbell Oldsmobile used to be in downtown Rock Island, at least until the early 1990s. Later on it became the new home for Lundahl Volvo when they moved from Moline in 1995. I took my Volvos there for service regularly until Mike Lundahl sold the franchise and dealership to McLaughlin Cadillac circa 2006.

This wagon was identified as a one-owner car on the windshield, and I believed it. It was not mint, but quite nice. All the trim was there, it had the required whitewall tires and all four factory wire wheel covers, and even the hood ornament was still in residence.

The interior was equally nice, with unworn upholstery, decent carpet and the factory GM radio still installed.

This type of vehicle was all about comfort. Comfort and utility. While you were piloting your burgundy cloth Barcolounger around town, you could be carrying two weeks’ worth of groceries, anywhere from one to seven kids, an Airstream trailer, or your brand-new pontoon boat. These were the last of the full-frame, V8 domestic station wagons, and thus were nearly in perfect form.

True, they only had 140 horsepower, but it was still a V8 dammit, and that meant torque! Plenty of lovely, ever-present torque to haul whatever you wanted wherever you wanted! Buy a car like this, and you could BE Clark Griswold.

Here is more proof that this was a one-owner car. The window sticker was still present, and on display! It was rated at 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway. Same as my Town Car, now that I think of it. It was an overcast day and the sticker is not easy to read as a result, but some of the options on this car included a power antenna, pulse wipers, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, and a luggage rack with integrated air deflector.

Total price was $17,580. Not a bad deal in 1988. My father got a new company car that year, a Volvo 740 Turbo Sedan, and I recall the price on that one was in the neighborhood of $25,000.

The final year for this style of Custom Cruiser, with chrome wire wheel covers and sheer rectangular styling was in 1990. The price was up again, this time to $17,595. Sales were much lower, with only 3,890 built. But recall 1990 was when SUV mania really started ramping up, with the four-door S10 Blazer and S15 Jimmy being introduced, along with the four-door Bronco II, renamed Explorer, as you all know.

The minivans had been going great guns since the Caravan/Voyager duo came on the scene in 1984, but the SUVs made it a one-two punch that spelled the end of the traditional station wagon. In 1990 you could get a big wagon from Ford, Mercury, Chevy, Oldsmobile and Buick.

1991 Ford LTD Country Squire

The Country Squire and Colony Park disappeared in 1992 when the new Crown Vic and Grand Marquis was introduced-as sedans only.

1991 Custom Cruiser

GM gave it one last try, and along with its aero-styled Caprice and Roadmaster sedans, new, sleek wagons were also back in the lineup. Even the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser was back, against all odds, but only as a wagon; there was no corresponding Roadmaster-like Ninety-Eight Brougham sedan. But the Olds wagon was clearly lacking in the sales department, as it only lasted through 1992, while the Buick and Chevrolet wagons would make it to the end of the B-body in 1996. Too bad, the Olds was my favorite.

1992 Custom Cruiser-last of the line.

It may have been basically a Caprice Estate with different seats, wheels and grille, but for whatever reason, I still found it compelling. Maybe because I clearly remember eyeballing one at the 1991 Chicago Auto Show. At any rate, the big traditional wagon has now been gone for twenty-two years, thanks to people wanting to drive bar stool-height crossovers with looks that can stop a clock or crack a mirror. Oh well, life goes on, people change, tastes change, and technology advances. But I still love these Olds wagons!

17 Replies to “1988 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – Hail The Traditional American Station Wagon!”

  1. John C.

    I am sure the 307 would have made easy work of the normally aspirated 2.3 in the Volvo 740 wagon. Volvo offered the turbo though. It would have been nice if the FI Olds 350 had been brought back so that the Custom Cruiser could also have made easy work of the turbo Volvo, if only to show the flag.

    Thanks for bringing this to us Tom. $2500 seems a steal.

    Reply
  2. Jack BaruthJack Baruth

    The Custom Cruiser is my favorite of the Bubble wagons, visually speaking… I call it the “Oldsmobubble”. It had a Vista Roof for the second row but that roof was also shared with the Roadmaster.

    As a child in the Seventies I had a friend whose mother had a Vista Roof Custom Cruiser. To be an eight-year-old under the lightly-crazed transparent ceiling panels on a summer day’s trip to the pool and back was true felicity.

    Reply
  3. Arbuckle

    Oldsmobile made some very good engines, but I do not consider the 307 to be one of them.

    Its reliability seems about equal to the other (nonCadillac) divisions but regardless of what it was rated at, it feels weaker than even the TBI Chevy 4.3L, let alone the TBI 305. Honestly, it feels weaker than the Pontiac 301 too.

    Reply
    • stingray65

      That was part of the problem brought about by CAFE, the cars had to have weanie motors to get decent EPA MPG, but SUVs were “trucks” so had much easier CAFE mandates and so they could still get the bigger V-8s, and power sells big cars.

      Reply
  4. stingray65

    Maybe your photography skills cover up a lot of sins, but that wagon as 50 cents a pound seems like a real bargain.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau Post author

      It was in pretty nice shape. The passenger side marker light was damaged, and the rubber bumper strip on the back bumper was disintegrating, but otherwise it looked good.

      Reply
  5. ArBee

    Pretty Olds. The clean, lean styling is complimented by the black cherry color. But wow, that Lincoln interior! I could live in that car.

    Reply
  6. One Leg at a Time

    Thank you for this. “Broughamiest” is my favorite word on this site, especially since I am not sure it is safe to google “serial fantasist”.

    I do love these old GM wagons. We had one for about a decade, when I was growing up (through high school).

    It wasn’t in the pictures, but did the Olds come with the backward facing seat in the “way back”?

    Reply
  7. -Nate

    What a beautiful Land Yacht .

    Just the thing to drove across America or to the Country Club .

    This will never go out of style to me .

    If this 307 is a corporate BOP engine, even though it’s no stormer it should be very robust and last nearly forever .

    -Nate

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau Post author

      The 307 was a true Oldsmobile engine, the very last. The last car to have a Rocket V8 power was the ’90 Custom Cruiser.

      Reply
  8. JustPassinThru

    Kind of sad, really. First, the colossal corporate missteps. Obviously, at some point they realized that FWD little-big new Oldses were not gonna carry the division well. Keeping the station wagon, alone, screams of last-minute desperation.

    Then, the death of the wagon. I grant it was not the most-practical vehicle out there; but what replaced it, the minivan, was in turn dumped like a hot rock, once it got the image of a Mommymobile. The ultimate victor, so far, the SUV, is impractical both for the price and for the hardware – and the intended use of most buyers. The customer’s right? Sure, I get it. But it offends my sense of rationality. AND those things are dangers in snow – to other drivers, as 4WD simply makes it easier for undisciplined drivers to out-drive their vision and brakes.

    Finally, the price. At $2500 that thing is an absolute steal – even with the Malaise gas mileage. I’m assuming the mileage is under six figures; and with no-lead gas and some TLC, it should be able to make 150k at least.

    And there it sits…forlorn, unloved…it’s proud original owner likely gone of old age…I’d rush out to rescue it, except I have NO place to keep the thing…

    Reply
    • Carmine

      All the divisions did it, except Chevrolet, Pontiac had the Parisienne sedan around for a few more years past 1985, til 87 or so, then it only sold the full size wagon as “Safari” through 1990, probably the rarest of the later B-wagos, and its not like Custom Cruiser was setting the world on fire either. The FWD H and C cars were well received, but there was a fall off with consumers, there was a going group of people that weren’t going to buy a domestic car, much less a GM car and even less, an Oldsmobile, no matter what wheels did the driving or how many valves the engine had.

      Reply
  9. Kevin W.

    Tom, what a great article. You’ve pulled at some heartstrings here. My dad was an Oldsmobile man. He bought his first new one in 66. A 4 door Dynamic 88. She would roll with that 430 V8. But that Custom Cruiser…family friends bought a new 1972 Cruiser with the clamshell tailgate and came to visit. It was the coolest car I had ever seen. And what a bomber…huge! In 1998 we moved to Virginia and I bought a White 1988 Cruiser complete with woodgrain and all the goodies. I never knew they still came with an actual Oldsmobile engine. Neat. This car had low miles and was in beautiful shape. I wish I still had it but alias, some guy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And my neighbors had a lot if fun with it. I was Clark Grizwald for the duration of ownership.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *