1986–1992 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser: All 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.
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, V-6-only and unit-bodied. What was a full-sized car lover to do? Buy the wagon! Yes, the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser was the last big Olds standing with Rocket V-8 power. As good as the 3800 V-6 in the new 88s and 98s were, the Oldsmobile Rocket V-8 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.
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-vintage 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.
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 steel “aero” wheel discs that debuted in 1980.
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 V-8, 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, V-6 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.
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 the featured 1988 example in what I believe is Dark Garnet Red 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.
Just to give an example, over the past 10 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?
This wagon was a local from new. 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 very 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 worst of it was a cracked passenger side reflector/side marker light and crumbling bumper rub strips.
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, V-8 domestic station wagons, and thus were nearly in perfect form.
True, they only had 140 horsepower, but it was still a V-8 dagnabit, 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 the burgundy ’88 was a one-owner car. The window sticker was still present and on display! It was rated at 17 mpg city and 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 an 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 3890 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.
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’s existence in 1996. Too bad, the Olds was my favorite.
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 as an even then Brougham-obsessed 11 year old. At any rate, the big traditional wagon has now been gone for twenty-six 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.
One final word: Special thanks to pal Jayson Coombes for photographing the showroom new 1986 Custom Cruiser featured alongside the black cherry ’88. It was resplendent in Light Chestnut Metallic at the recent Oldsmobile Club of America meet in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on July 8th. His pictures made for a much better cover photo than those I took of the other car on a rainy weekend. Thank you, sir!