When the future was luminous, transport vehicles had a Dustbuster silhouette
Station wagons went from butt of jokes to legit collector cars that fetch big bucks in modern society. I personally remember listening to people rant about the rear-facing seats in these modified family sedans, and I was one such detractor. As a kid, my first time in a minivan was filled with pure joy. No longer was my third-grade body stuffed into a tiny hole, as the minivan democratized the notion of a three-row seater—one that treated everyone with respect, while sipping fuel and effortlessly slipping inside your average garage.
The concept has such long legs that minivans now thrive as limousines in many parts of Asia. The rarified air of vehicles like the Buick GL8 prove that the minivan’s superior engineering and universal appeal is real. We should the love and respect GM’s GMT-199 platform, as it became a global brand ambassador for the Buick brand.
If anything, the minivan design allowed middle-row passengers a superior experience to front-seat occupants. To wit, how on earth can you deny the luxury available to center-row passengers in the latest GL8 from Buick? Station wagons lived in our hearts and minds for several decades, but the minivan’s tenure in the limelight was marred by the advent of car-based crossovers: reskinned minivans that destroyed their ergonomic space efficiency to replicate the success of the SUV. Which is a damn shame, because the most space-efficient vehicle deserves more than its current market share in these United States. Considering all the effort that went into their creation, minivans are ripe for a revival worthy of a woody wagon.
That said, we should probably give credit where it’s due: the Renault Espace took inspiration from the defunct Matra P18 and continues to sell in acceptable quantities to this day. Its front-engine, front-wheel-drive configuration mirrored the template of American interpretations. Sadly, the first yank-tank (i.e. Chrysler Minivan) was designed by the same folks that gave us the boring 1981 Dodge Aries K, so the advanced design was hidden by traditional notions of a large chrome grille, hood ornament, and a thoroughly normal A-pillar. Not so with General Motors, as it went full Espace (and partially Aerostar) when making the all-new Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Chevrolet Lumina APV for the 1990 model year. It was first seen in concept-vehicle form back in 1986, as a Pontiac Trans Sport styling exercise.
I propose that the first minivan to cross the threshold from rolling scrap to collectable artwork shouldn’t be the original Chrysler design, but rather all derivatives of the GMT-199, as they were the best design for hauling a large family on America’s high speed interstate system in comfort and bullet train-worthy style.
Even if the styling doesn’t set your heart aflutter, the number of interior configurations afforded by its unique seating modules were like nothing else on the market. Heck, the GMT-199’s long-term versatility is likely one reason why it is still a not uncommon sight in China.
Be it the Chevy, Pontiac, or Oldsmobile, the GMT-199 was the product of the same concept of the Renault Espace. Acres of flush-mount glass were mandatory, while the floating A-pillar provided a panoramic view forward. The GMT-199 sported a the bullet nose that extended the A-pillars’ dramatic slope downward into a modest bumper (a stark contrast to modern day SUVs that grow more upright with every product cycle). Unlike the French MPV, this design earned it the “Dustbuster” moniker: a sad comment considering just how much time and money GM’s prodigious R&D department burned to create a revolutionary minivan with plastic body panels hung on a spaceframe.
Perhaps its a moonshot, but there was commitment to the theme thanks to GM’s investment in the standalone Saturn brand. The engineering goes back to the Pontiac Fiero, but both were ironically hamstrung by the mediocre powertrain performance in early iterations. The vans had mandatory 3-speed automatics (in North America) with only 120 horses and throttle body fuel injection from GM’s 3.1-liter, 60-degree V6. Motorweek tested the first “Dustbuster” and 12.3 second runs to 60mph were acceptable, but will be concerning when carrying a full load of passengers and cargo. Not a dealbreaker by any means, only proof that perfection lies in future refinements: the sheer volume of functionality in both interior and exterior design cannot be overstated, and Motorweek did an admirable job promoting the whole package.
The fine folks at Motorweek tested the Dustbuster for model year 1992, when GM dropped-in the venerable 3.8-liter, 90-degree V-6 with port fuel injection and a four-speed automatic. The dash to 60 dropped to 9.6 seconds, but there was no fuel economy penalty in the testing. So not only do the GM Dustbusters prove that there’s no replacement for displacement, but there’s clearly no drawbacks when calling for a cubic upsizing?
While later versions of the GMT-199 platform (now called U-body) were wholly mediocre and ultimately unsatisfying to General Motors’ beancounters, at least one such example lived to see an aftermarket LS-4 swap. Rest assured, doing the same to a proper Dustbuster of GM’s original intent shall create the best minivan of all time. More to the point, LS-4 swap the original Oldsmobile Silhouette …
How could you go wrong with the Cadillac of Minivans after it receives a mid-2000s powertrain upgrade with LS4-FTW? The answer is obvious: There is no wrong that a V-8 restomod a Silhouette can right with the click of a button or a stomping of the accelerator.