1974 Buick Estate Wagon: Flint’s Finest-And Largest-Longroof

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.

In 1971, the new Estate Wagon came out with new sheetmetal and interiors. This was the biggest wagon GM would offer, and the Buick was arguably the finest. Luxury wagons were not a crowded segment. The only other comparable wagons were the Chrysler Town & Country, Mercury Colony Park and maybe the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. Need to haul? No problem, as these wagons had 105.7 cubic feet of cargo space and a 127-inch wheelbase. Plenty of room for cargo and people.

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 schoolAnyway, 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.

1976 Estate Wagon owned by my friend Chuck Houston. Snazzy!

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!

24 Replies to “1974 Buick Estate Wagon: Flint’s Finest-And Largest-Longroof”

  1. AvatarAvtronman

    We had a 74 Custom Cruiser (My dad was an Oldsmobile guy). It was the car that I learned how to drive in my teenage years. It had a Delta 88 front dash but the car was pretty loaded with options. Power seat, AM/FM stereo, power antenna (how the heck did you replace that after it stopped working?), tilt/cruise, rear window defogger (one of GM’s options that was not thought out very well due to the rear window movement) and probably other options lost in my memory. It was a beast of a wagon and very reliable in the engine (Rocket 455!) but it was a malaise car due to emissions. It didn’t have the power compared to the older GM wagons. These GM wagons were all over Midwest suburbia whether it was a Chevy, Buick, Olds or Pontiac in the mid 70’s. Ours was strictly a people hauler (we had a truck) so mom drove it a lot. It started to get up in mileage and the tinworm began to make itself known so dad traded it in for a Delta 88 diesel (his worst car buy EVER). A few months after the trade, dad got a call from a guy in Alabama who had bought the wagon (he found some paperwork with his name) and asked about the mileage. Yep – the odometer had been rolled back.

    Reply
  2. AvatarGeorge Denzinger

    You brought this over from the other site, yes? I thought I’d seen it somewhere before. Not many Buick wagons end up with a full set of mag wheels on purpose. Great rerun…

    Reply
  3. AvatarBill

    Rode in the back seat of a Vista Cruiser as a kid. Looked great from the outside, but I was disappointed that there was not much vista from inside. The roof glass probably did brighten the interior, but that was lost on a 9 year old.

    Reply
  4. Avatarbluebarchetta

    The logical side of me knows there’s not a damn thing a 1971 Kingswood Estate or Country Squire does better than a 3rd-gen Honda Odyssey. Yet for some reason I love a full-size American station wagon. Even during my childhood in the 70s, these were pretty rare, though the midsize wagons were common, especially the Cutlass wagons.

    How reliable was the clamshell mechanism? GM tried to bring back a version with the Envoy XUV. It was about as popular as a Baby Ruth in the punch bowl.

    Reply
    • AvatarCarmine

      How much can an Odyssey tow? Because these can tow up to 7000 or so properly equipped. I’ve had 2 and the mechanism has never given me any trouble, and one car was a pretty rusty worn example.

      Reply
      • Avatarbluebarchetta

        You’re right, Carmine. The Ody can tow only 3500 lbs, and you’d better not try it with a pre-07 model unless you want to buy a transmission.

        I just thought of two more things the old wagons did better:

        1) I think some of them were rated to carry nine passengers. The Ody can carry only eight.
        2) If I were surrounded by “zombies” (wink, wink) who wanted to kill me and my family, I’d rather bull my way out in a full-size American wagon, too. It wouldn’t take much of a frontal impact to damage the Ody’s radiator/trans cooler, and if it gets high-centered on corpses and one of the drive wheels leaves the ground, you’re dead.

        Reply
    • AvatarJ. Fleetwood Whiffenpoof

      bluebarchetta, my parents owned a ’72 Custom Cruiser from 1976-80. The car was a pretty pampered example Dad bought from the elderly father of a co-worker. The 455 was a smooth runner and the car had good looking and comfortable vinyl interior. The finicky clamshell tailgate ruined the experience.

      For most of the time we owned it one or both of the electric mechanisms were broken. On one particularly bad day, Dad manhandled the busted tailgate in a fit of pique and ended up breaking the rear window. Toward the end of its time with us the outside key switch went to Valhalla, requiring Mom to start the car and pray the interior switch would at least open the window so we could at least load the groceries in the back. For some reason using the the interior gate switch with the ignition lock in Accessory or Run drew enough juice to kill the battery after 1 1/2 cycles, which we learned the first time we tried to do it.

      When my dad was finally persuaded to splash out for a new car (I believe the threat of divorce was used, ay least implicitly) the Olds was replaced by a ’77 Buick Estate Wagon with a service replacement 350. That car was a complete 180 degree turn away from the Olds, and was probably the best used car my folks ever owned.

      Reply
  5. AvatarJohn C.

    I really liked the 1970 catalog shot of the one year only Estate with the 9 person intact family done up in their Sunday best. Nice to see it as an ideal rather than a freakshow for tv.

    A neighbor down the street from me growing up had the same wagon. She was divorced and only one daughter. We all fall short of the Glory but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.

    Reply
  6. AvatarCJinSD

    I’ve seen the Ford Country Squire described as a luxury station wagon. They were often included in comparison tests with the mentioned models, and they could certainly be optioned up into the pricing realm of Buicks and Chryslers. They were also well received by the landed gentry, at least in central Virginia. I think their time of breaking through social barriers ended before the ’70s did, but the models from the late ’60 and early ’70s were often seen places that Ford sedans were not.

    I never liked the clamshells because they weren’t good for tailgating. The best station wagons provided both a comfortable seat and bit of rain shelter with a rear window that swung up and a tailgate that swung down. Next would be a properly designed hatchback with a smooth opening that needed no more than a folded blanket to provide a comfortable seat under the cover of the hatch. Then there were the retractable window, folding tailgate models that provided good seating but no shelter. Next worst would be a swinging door that didn’t have a dual-hinge to fold down. Worst of all possible worlds was the GM clamshell. The retracting window meant that even the interior of the car got hosed in light rain, while the retracting tailgate left the least comfortable and least stable place to sit devised. What’s the point of a luxury wagon that can’t tailgate? Where else are you going to show off that you spent Sedan DeVille money on a depot hack?

    Reply
    • AvatarCarmine

      Well, you can open the tailgate with a trailer attached, so theres that. I’ve had 2 of these, one Pontiac and currently a Buick one, the door rolls down enough into the body that there is an area to sit on comfortably.

      Ford had its own other luxury wagon, the Mercury Colony Park, but it was pretty much a Country Squire with another name, had one of those as well.

      Reply
      • AvatarCJinSD

        In my opinion, the Mercury Colony Park was to the Ford Country Squire what the Lexus LX570 is to the Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s a fancier brand with a few artfully selected extra gee-gaws, but it doesn’t have the same cache as the franchise product of the company with the founder’s name on the badge.

        The trailer application of the clamshell is certainly a valid point. Generally wagons and trailers were a bad combination, especially for people who sail. Another asset of the clamshells was that they were one of the few wagons that could carry three rows of passengers and some luggage at the same time.

        I spent most of my youth in Albemarle County, Virginia. We had some great mountain roads available, and I almost always bought cars that were fun to drive around turns instead of cars that could carry seven people in any sort of comfort, or drive on a sand dune without getting stuck. When I did think about acquiring something with utility that I didn’t need, the ability to throw a great tailgate party at the Foxfield Races or a UVA game was always a priority. Today, the last thing I’d want to do is party in a public place near my own car. It’s hard to even relate to the teenager who was friends with a fraternity president because he had a 1965 Cadillac hearse that was to Foxfield tailgating what a Mustang is to running over bystanders while leaving Cars and Coffee.

        Reply
        • AvatarCarmine

          I’ll add the 3rd row is actually usable, its probably a little roomier than an F-body from the same era, and everyone faces forward. By comparison the “pullman” style seat on the Ford wagons like my 1976 Colony Park was completely useless for adults, it was for children only. As you said, the Colony and Squire were pretty much the same, the Mercury gave you a few Lincoln-esque styling touches on the outside, but thats it.

          A hearse would make a great party wagon, some of them even had movable casket platforms that could slide out the rear or side.

          Reply
          • AvatarJMcG

            When I made my first parachute jump, I was taken aback to find a gleaming black hearse drawn up near the entrance to the mobile home that was used as the club headquarters.
            It turned out to be the personal ride of one of the instructors. Who gave me a stern lecture on the hazards of motorcycle riding.

  7. AvatarJMcG

    I love that painting of the yellow Estate Wagon with the Bell Jet Ranger sitting behind it. Evidently the father from The Wonder Years was married to Dean Wormer’s wife and they lived on a ranch big enough to require a flying machine.
    Now look at us. Being harangued by our finger-wagging inferiors while we hope to be allowed out of the house this summer.

    Reply
  8. AvatarDavid Stanley

    I know this isn’t about the full size GM wagon featured above, but my parents bought a ’76 Olds Vista Cruiser wagon (Cutlass based) in May 1976 when I was 10 years old from Royal Oldsmobile, Decatur, GA, just up the street on Ponce de Leon Ave from the fake car dealership portrayed in the movie Driving Miss Daisy. My mom kept it until the Summer of 1986. This was the car I did my driver’s license test in 1982 when I turned 16. It had an Olds 350, 4BBL, TH 350, and a tall rear-end, although I forget the ratio, so it was slow to accelerate in stop and go driving. As a kid, I liked the rear facing third row seat. My mom just drove and treated it like an appliance. It did it’s job for our family for 10 years, then was traded in for a 1986 Dodge Omni (because it was such a “good deal” compared to a Corolla or Civic).

    That car got me around for ten years of my life, and for better or worse, I will always remember it. Thank you Oldsmobile.

    Reply
  9. AvatarDarel Eastling

    How can I get in touch with Jason? I have no social media, so email or phone would be ideal. I would love to connect with him for one of his cars.

    Reply
  10. Avatargalactagog

    really good article!

    and great looking cars. Does anyone know the origin of the term “station wagon”?

    was it initially a horse & buggy phrase?

    thx

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      I think, but can’t say for certain, that it was a vehicle driven to and from a train station.

      The British said “estate car” because it was typically driven to and from country estates.

      Reply
      • AvatarCarmine

        I’ve seen the term “Depot Hack” used for early wagons, I imagine at some point it may have been refined to “Station Wagon”.

        Reply
  11. Avatargalactagog

    “Have you seen the new Oldsmobile Depot Hack?”

    certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it 🙂 must have been a marketing thing

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn C.

      We can kid ourselves that that these were depot hacks as seen on “Dallas”: with ranch hands driving Miss Ellie. In reality they were fore upper middle moms and so the photos showing it in a mall are more real. Imagine the first wife/first owner operating the clamshell next to the fellow suburban mom with her 1968 Rebel and then begin to understand.

      Reply
  12. AvatarPatrick King

    Great article Tom, likewise’s the owner’s story. Say, were the big Chryslers unibody at the time? I always loved the Town & Country my Uncle Freddie drove (along with his Sedan de Ville) and it seemed like every mother at St. Sebastian’s drove a Mercury Colony Park.

    Reply

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