I don’t hunt. It’s not that I have anything against hunting, it’s just not my thing. What I do enjoy though is the thrill of the hunt. Looking for signs, following trails, maybe even laying out a bit of bait. My quarry isn’t four-legged though, but it is a lumbering beast of the American highways. In this case a Buick Roadmaster Estate.
As a “Car Guy” one of the most common questions I get is “what car should I buy?” In this case I had a request for a modern unicorn: something that can haul a lot of people/stuff inside the car while being able to tow a decent sizer trailer AND deliver decent gas mileage (well, relatively decent at least). Oh, and no SUVs or minivans. The person I was helping had finally euthanized his 318 V8 powered 1992 Dodge Dakota Extra Cab which delivered a whopping 12mpg city/14 mpg highway. With the baseline set (low) I pitched my solution to his problem: a 1994-1996 Buick Buick Roadmaster Estate.
At this point it was 2015, meaning that even if I found one it would be almost 20 years old. But it ticked all the right boxes: seating for eight, a massive internal cargo capacity (a 4’x8′ sheet of plywood fits INSIDE the car), a truck like 5,000 pound towing rating, and gas mileage in the high teens/low 20s depending on the weight of the driver’s foot.
When you look at the Buick it is basically a low profile Suburban. It has the same drive train as a Suburban (5.7L LT1 V8 engine, 4L60E automatic transmission) and body-on-frame construction. Curb weight is well over 4,000 pounds for each, but the Buick brings an EPA mpg estimate of 15 city/24 highway while the Suburban musters 12/17. That’s a big difference for two vehicles that can perform almost same duties. As a bonus the drive train was common as dirt, so parts can be had for a pittance.
Making things a little tougher was a price point of less than $3,000. I can buy a lot of car for that kind of money, but I was now locked into one specific car with a year range of only three years (1994-1996). Buick sold roughly 22k wagons in those years, but I needed to find one local in decent shape at a decent price. These cars have developed a cult following over the years. Prime examples can fetch several thousand dollars above whatever number KBB pulls out of the air. Owners tend to drive their cars for years before buying a replacement lower mileage clone. Rinse, repeat. Luckily that same cult following means that online forums brim with information about quirks, common problems, and DIY repair tricks.
After a few weeks of searching I came across a Buick wagon enthusiast. He had three Buick Roadmaster Estate wagons already and a pile of spare parts in the shed. I liked him already. The car was far from perfect, but at that price point we couldn’t be too choosy. A quick look at the RPO codes (located by the rear door) revealed this to be a towing package car. Bingo! In this case the towing package include goodies such as an external transmission cooler, mechanical cooling fan, posi-traction, dual exhaust, and deeper rear axle gears. The kind of stuff you want on a work horse.
After some back & forth a deal was struck within the price range specified. The new owner was thrilled with the car and has already made several cross country trips and more than a few trips to Home Depot. Mission accomplished.
It may seem strange to recommend a nearly two decade old car as a daily driver, but there just isn’t anything on the market today that can compete. It was made clear to the perspective buyer that this would be an older car and it would not be perfect, nor would parts always be available (anyone have a spare driver’s side door panel?) But if you are willing to be flexible in a few areas an older car can be just the ticket.