The 1971-76 GM full-size station wagons were the largest wagons the company ever made. Each division had their own fancy version, usually with vinyl wood appliques on the sides – the Chevrolet Caprice Estate, Pontiac Grand Safari, Olds Custom Cruiser and Buick Estate Wagon. The Buick was the fairest of them all, an Electra wagon for all intents and purposes.
Buick had only just resumed the production of full-size wagons. Starting in 1965, the Sport Wagon, a long wheelbase version of the Skylark wagon (a body shared with its more famous sibling, the vaunted Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser) with windows over the second row seat, became the top Buick hauler-last year for the fully full-size Estate Wagon was 1964. This remained the case until 1970, when a new full-size Estate Wagon debuted on the LeSabre chassis, which itself had been redesigned for the 1969 model year.
I’m not sure why GM bothered with a dedicated all-new ’70 full-size wagon, as all-new big Buicks were coming out for 1971. They must have really felt the need to get back in the full-size wagon market, to tool a wagon body that was only used for a single year.
Interiors were extremely nice for a station wagon, with upholstery that would not have looked out of place on an Electra. The Estate Wagon essentially was an Electra, sporting the very same front end and the requisite four portholes on the hood.
1971 Estate Wagons came with a standard 455 CID V8 and a three speed column-shifted manual (most likely only a handful were equipped with it) or optional THM 400 automatic. The usual woodgrained vinyl applique was available, but you could get painted sides if you wanted it. Two-seat, six passenger or three-seat, eight passenger models were available. One nice feature of the 1971-76 GM wagons was the third seat faced forward. One third of the curbside seat folded forward for access. In an interesting throwback, the 1971-76 GM wagons had a leaf-sprung rear suspension. It was the only way the third row seat could face forward and have sufficient space.
But that was not the Estate Wagon’s greatest trick. GM, perhaps in a fit of pique after seeing Ford’s revolutionary Magic Doorgate, decided that they could build a better mousetrap. The result was the ‘clamshell’ tailgate. By inserting your key into the slot (there was also a switch on the instrument panel) and turning it right, the rear window would retract into the roof . Turning the key twice would make the tailgate roll below the cargo area. It was a pretty cool trick, if perhaps more complicated and less robust than Ford’s solution. Also, since the tailgate did not fold down, you didn’t have additional space for longer items if need be.
The Estate Wagon carried on in Bristol fashion, following the updates of its sedan, coupe and convertible brethren.
And as with every single US car, in 1973 it received the ‘park bench’ 5 mph front bumpers, and received a matching rear bumper the following year.
I saw our featured car, a 1974 model, in traffic back in 2012. We had had simply wonderful weather around here at that time, but I was still shocked to see this Estate Wagon in traffic. The last time I saw one of these was at the Scott County Fair at the demolition derby probably twenty years ago. Let us share a moment of silence for all those fine clamshell wagons that were purchased for $500 in 1990 and smashed into oblivion.
Anyway, I had to see if the driver was stopping someplace nearby. Luckily, he was. I love this wagon! The American Racing rims, white letter tires and slight rake give it a great look. 1974 was the last year the Estate Wagon got the Electra trim, and it may well be the best looking of the ’71-76s despite the big bumpers. I think it looks great without the wood trim too. This red ’74 has an attitude, but nothing that couldn’t easily be put back to stock.
Another big plus for these wagons: glass area! With the wraparound quarter glass, there is basically no D pillar. Great when you’re merging onto the freeway or backing out of the driveway.
Do you remember red interiors? I do, and miss them. I also miss the white, dark blue and dark green interiors. Black, gray or tan is getting a little old after being the only choices for the last fifteen years in most cars.
The owner clearly takes care of this wagon, as he parked in the ‘back 40’ of the mall. Got to avoid those door dings, you know. It also has 1974 Illinois plates, a neat touch. I really like the 1974 front end, with the subdued grille and ‘floating’ headlights.
The Estate Wagon carried on in much the same form for 1975 and ’76, but for some reason, the LeSabre front end replaced the ’74s Electra nose, and it was down to three portholes per side. It still had the colossal space and 455 V8 power though.
1975s also received a new instrument panel. The 1975-76 Buick IP is my favorite, with the drop-down glovebox and silver gauges. Very linear and modern for the ’70s. Don’t forget the woodgrain trim, after all, this is a Buick!
Interestingly, I later on was able to get in contact with the car’s owner, Randy Swanson, and saw it in person at the annual Cambridge, IL car show in August 2012. But before the second sighting, he contacted me via email and told me the car’s story:
“Good Morning Tom, loved the article. My car has a pretty short history. The original owner owned a Buick dealership and bought the wagon for his family to use as a vacation car. The man passed away and his niece saw the car at the estate auction and had to have it. That was back in 1996. She never drove it and I saw it 13 years ago at a repair facility close to where I live. I tracked her down and asked if it was for sale, which it was not. She said she would never sell it. I saw the car a few more times at the repair shop over the next couple years and then it was gone. I figured it was sold to a demo guy and long gone. Last November I was cruising craigslist and there it was! I called on it right away. The guy had taken it in on trade for some repair work he had done on the elderly lady’s house. He had told her he needed a car for his 16 year old daughter. The guy told his daughter that her new car was outside, the young teenage girl ran out the door and ran right back in and told her dad she would just walk to school. Anyway, I bought the car sight unseen as I knew it was the same car.”
“I picked it up later that night and to my surprise, since 1996 the car had traveled a total of 212 miles. It was all original down to the hubcaps, but extremely faded and dirty. It had been stored in a garage where cats had been laying on it and using it for a bed. The interior was musty smelling from sitting, but undamaged. The car ran rough and would not pull itself. After a new distributor, rebuilt carb and plugs and wires I have put over 2,000 miles on it. I left everything original except for the exhaust and aftermarket rims and tires. I did add a CD player to it but added it under the dash with a homemade console, ran all new wiring and even a separate antennae. I made my own speaker boxes that slide under the seat and out of sight for car shows. I did not want to cut, splice or mutilate anything in the car.”
“The console I made has a quick disconnect at the back so it can be removed, slide the speakers under the seat and it looks completely original again. I still have the stock wheels and hubcaps, and also a set of the deluxe hubcaps for it. The car has never been smoked in, ashtray nor cigarette lighter ever used. Currently the only issues the car has is the A/C compressor locked up and the clock does not work. These issues will be addressed this winter. The car retains 99% of the original paint. When I bought it the rear bumper fillers were gone. I located a good used set from the guys on wecrash.com and repainted and installed them. About a month ago I tracked down Carol (original owner’s niece) and talked to her.”
“She said she never wanted to sell the car but finally decided she had no need for it and could not take proper care of it. She remembered me and said she tried to contact me but the number on my card was no longer in service. I had changed jobs and my old company kept my cell number. She was glad to see pictures of it all “prettied” up but didn’t like the fancy wheels. I told her one afternoon I would like to pick her up and take her out for lunch in it if should would go. She agreed on one condition, “Only if I get to drive it” she said. Anyway, I think the car found its rightful home with me. I would have never guessed after 15-16 years I would end up with this car.”
I’m not sure if he still has the car today, he has a lot of cars and does a lot of trading and buying and selling. But I am sure even if this nice ruby red Estate Wagon is gone, he has some excellent example of 1971-76 GM land yacht. The following year he had this ’73 Caprice Estate at the Cambridge show.
As for Flint’s finest longroof, the 1976s received quad rectangular headlights and a new grille, again shared with the LeSabre, but were otherwise little-changed. All new B-body Buicks were on the horizon, and they would also be great, but for different reasons. Let us raise a glass to the big Buick wagons; their kind will not pass by again!
Oh, and in an interesting little coda to this, Randy is ALSO is a friend of my pal Jason Bagge in Spokane, the “Brougham Whisperer!” You can read about some of Jason’s cars here, here, here and here. Small world!