3 colossal, classic GM wagons for under $20K

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We talk a lot about classic sports cars, exotics, and American muscle, and for good reason. In our hobby, most of what we see people buying and selling falls into one of those categories. If we actually went back to the 1960s and ’70s, though, we would see that plain-Jane sedans ruled the roads. On the highway, we’d see herds of station wagons. Not minivans or crossovers—good ol’ fashioned station wagons. (Or estate cars, or whatever you want to call them.)

Most domestic wagons are old enough to be classics, and many are still surprisingly affordable if you’re looking for a stylish cruiser with room for some friends and maybe a dog or two. You really are spoiled for choice in this category, so we narrowed down the options to three big estate cars, each from a different brand but all built by the General, that could be yours for less than $20K.

1968–72 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser

1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser front three-quarter
Flickr/Greg Gjerdingen

Median condition #2 (Excellent) value: $14,000

In age of robotic names like “XT4” or “M550i xDrive,” “Vista Cruiser” sounds refreshingly straightforward. This wagon is built for cruising and, thanks to all that glass, both drivers and passengers have maximum freedom to enjoy the view (or vista) along the way.

The first-generation Vista Cruiser debuted in 1964, wearing sheetmetal from the A-body Oldsmobile F-85 but riding on a longer, 120-inch wheelbase. Extra headroom and an elevated roof inset with smoked glass panels at the front and sides further distinguished the Vista Cruiser and its cousin the Buick Sport Wagon.

A second generation debuted in 1968 with a one-inch longer wheelbase and new bodywork, but it still featured the trademark sloped skylight roof. Oldsmobile touted the second-gen Vista Cruiser as the “all-family Escape Machine,” with over 100 cubic feet of storage and a sun-drenched space for rear passengers. Most second-gen Vista Cruisers came with a 350- or 400-cubic-inch versions of the Olds Rocket V-8, but a few came with a 455 that Car and Driver called “a veritable bear.” The 1969 model got a new front grille and an available “dual-action” tailgate, which could open either from the side like a door or from the bottom like a normal tailgate. The 1969 Vista Cruiser also gained a three-speed Turbo Hydramatic transmission, although there are a few Vista Cruisers out there with a three-speed console-mounted manual or with a four-speed, floor-shifter unit. Other options included a third row of seats and a roof rack.

The following year Buick dropped the Sport Wagon, but the Vista Cruiser kept going with a subtle but complete restyling, and Oldsmobile built it until 1972, the company’s 75th anniversary. There was a third-gen Vista Cruiser, but it was essentially just a fancy Cutlass wagon, and it didn’t have the glass canopy that made the original Vista Cruisers so cool. Oldsmobile sold over 166,000 Vista Cruisers from 1968–72, and it was such a popular family car that a ’70 Vista Cruiser fulfills that very duty in That ’70s Show.

Vista Cruisers did millions of school drop-offs, grocery store runs, and road trips, so there aren’t a ton of them left. It’s also rare to find one in pristine condition. People don’t pour money into restoring a Vista Cruiser like they would a 4-4-2 convertible. However, though condition #2 prices for these wagons are up 31 percent over the past three years, values for “Excellent” examples still come in at just $14,000. They’re also surprisingly popular among younger buyers, with millennials making up 30 percent of buyer interest for Vista Cruisers even though they represent just 23 percent of the market. This suggests that even though big American wagons are all but extinct, people will still want to cruise the vista for years to come.

1963–64 Pontiac Bonneville Safari

1963 Bonneville Safari front three-quarter
Flickr/Greg Gjerdingen

Median condition #2 (Excellent) value: $15,200

The Pontiac Safari was better for hunting souvenirs than for tracking African big game, but the name implies a spirit of adventure and Safaris became some of the most popular wagons among American families. Pontiac used the Safari badge from the 1950s all the way up to 1991 (during the 1960s it got slapped on the full-size Bonneville).

The third-generation Bonneville debuted in 1961, and although there was technically a Safari-badged wagon, the underpinnings hailed from the lower-tier Catalina. That changed in 1963, when the Bonneville got a facelift with Pontiac’s short-lived but sharp-looking vertically stacked quad headlights. The Safari wagon also shared parts and chassis with the Bonneville, Pontiac’s top-of-the-line full-size model.

The following year, 1964 Safaris saw their bodywork swell a bit behind the doors. Besides that minor style change, and different outputs from their engines, the 1963–64 cars didn’t differ much from their precedessors. They were available with either 389- or 421-cubic-inch V-8s, and Tri-Power carburetors were available on both. Power ranged from 303 hp in the base 389 from 1963 to 370 hp in the Tri-Power 421 from 1964, but all versions are priced within a few thousand dollars of each other. Plus, they’re priced rather cheaply for what you get. The most expensive 1963–64 Bonneville Safari comes in at $16,900 in #2 condition. In the past 10 years, that price has only changed by $200.

1994–96 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon

1996 Buick Roadmaster Wagon front three-quarter
Flickr/Greg Gjerdingen

Median condition #2 (Excellent) value: $14,500

Built at the dawn of the SUV era as wagons started to fall out of favor, these woodgrain wagons were old-fashioned on arrival. Today, they’re delightfully retro sleepers.

The eighth-generation Roadmaster was built from 1991–96 and was widely available as a sedan, but the 1994–96 Estate Wagons are the Roadmasters to have. In addition to the woodgrain, super-soft leather, and available self-leveling rear suspension, they also have an iron-head police-service version of the Corvette’s LT1 V-8. In the Buick it makes 260 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to get this hefty 4300-pound hauler to 60 mph in about eight seconds.

We noted growing interest in ’90s Roadmasters a few years ago. We even put them on our 2019 Bull Market list—and our selection proved accurate. These wagons’ average #2-condition value increased about 20 percent from September 2018 to September 2019, and since then the stat’s gone up another 10 percent. You still wouldn’t call Roadmasters expensive, though, and other than time-warp low-mile examples, they still trade for well under their original $26,400 MSRP (not adjusted for inflation).

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    I owned a 1994 Oldsmobile fat bodied Vista Cruiser complete with roof glass similar to the earlier version. The body was the same as the Buick featured here but with different trim and the Vista Cruiser glass. Looked good on 17in American Racing wheels and nice BF Goodrich tires.

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