Both the 1964 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser and the 1964 Sports Wagon (as Buick called it in its first year) were introduced on February 4, 1964, about five months after the rest of their lines. While every other model of GM's four brands of midsize cars adopted a 115-inch wheelbase for '64, these new Buick and Olds wagons were mounted on a 120-inch chassis. As such, they were four to five inches longer, bumper to bumper, than the base Special and F-85 station wagons.
Glass panels in the roof would prove to be
popular -- even if they didn't work as advertised.
The raised roof section created a cargo area that was almost three inches taller than in the flat-roofed wagons, which, when combined with the longer wheelbase, added up to increased cargo room. Head room also increased. This allowed passengers to ride in second- and third-row seats without removing their hats near the end of an era when that still mattered.
"The new forward-facing third seat offers more room, and with a view, thanks to the new Vista-Roof," bragged Oldsmobile sales literature. On both the Sports Wagon and Vista-Cruiser, the raised section began at a point about in the middle of the car. The full length of the forward edge of the "attic" featured a divided window. Additional long, curved panes ran along the sides.
The glass filtered out heat and glare, and was as strong as a metal roof. Buick claimed that the specially developed tinted glass only transmitted 27 percent of the sun's heat, versus 60-70 percent for normal glass. (To cut down on glare even further, flip-down visors were available for the forward-facing roof windows.)
Also, the rear-quarter windows on Sports Wagons and Vista-Cruisers extended to the trailing edge of the body sides, instead of terminating at the wrapped D-pillars of the more-mainstream Special/F-85 wagons.
In Motor Trend's March 1964 cover-story test of the two new wagons, Technical Editor Jim Wright predicted the novelty of the raised-roof design would be a big selling point. "More important, though, is the fact that the bubble is more than just a styling and sales gimmick -- it's completely functional. The added glass area gives rear-seat (and to an extent front-seat) passengers a greater view of the surrounding countryside. ... The added head room has allowed the builder to turn the problematical third seat ... and face it forward," he wrote.
But there were dissenting voices. Consumer Reports, in its April 1964 review of the Vista-Cruiser, called the glass inserts "far from being picture windows," and said they "turn out to be narrow tinted-glass slits, mostly facing upward." Reporting on the Sports Wagon a couple of months later, the same publication wrote that "the strips admit heat as well as light, and are merely incidental to an increase in roof height to gain 'adequate' head room over the forward-facing third seat."
There were other special features that were shared by both brands of the dome-top station wagon. As Oldsmobile salesmen were told, "Entry is easy, too, through the extra-wide rear side door (4 inches wider than ordinary wagons), and the divided second seat folds easily for convenient entry."
The middle-row seat that was standard in three-seaters had a one-third/two-thirds split. The shorter section, installed on the right side, folded and pivoted to allow access to the cargo area or third-row seat. Even on three-seat models there was some room for luggage behind the rearmost row of seats, something contemporaries with rear-facing third seats couldn't offer.
Buick literature noted that there were only 23 inches from the ground to the tailgate, which was the "just-about-perfect height for loading most things -- and if it's a heavy object you're not likely to have to strain with unnecessary lifting."
Despite their apparently identical bodies, published cargo-hold capacities differed between the Sports Wagon and Vista-Cruiser. Buick said its high-roof haulers could accept up to 97.92 cubic feet of cargo. Capacity for the Vista-Cruiser was pegged at 98.5 cubic feet. In either event, that was a good 10 to 13 cubic feet more than what was claimed for Special and F-85 wagons.
A compartment under the cargo floor -- lock optional -- added 5.43 cubic feet of carrying space to two-seat models, or 3.76 cubic feet to three-seaters according to Buick's reckoning. Olds said the compartment amounted to 7.5 and 3.5 cubic feet, respectively. (In its catalogs, Oldsmobile was wont to add in the below-decks space for a stated 102-cubic-foot cargo total in three-seat models and 106 cubic feet in two-seat cars.)
Buick reported that with the tailgate closed, there was a 97.4-inch-long load floor from the back of the front seat, just enough for an eight-foot sheet of plywood. That 4x8 piece of plywood could have almost been laid flat between the wheel housings, too, since that dimension was 46.0 inches. It might have been a tighter fit in a Vista-Cruiser, though, where The Automotive Examiner, an Oldsmobile internal sales publication, reported the space between wheelhouses was 1.2 inches narrower.
Where the cars truly differed, of course, were in surface styling, interior trim, and powertrains. Buick Sports Wagons came standard with a 300-cubic-inch "Wildcat 310" V-8 that was new to the Buick lineup. It developed 210 horsepower at 4,600 rpm and 310 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 revs on regular fuel, with a two- barrel carburetor and 9.0:1 compression ratio.
A higher-compression "Wildcat 355" version of the same engine was optional, offering 250 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque. Its four-barrel carburetor dined on premium gasoline.
Apparently some thought had been given to offering the Sports Wagon with the new 225-cube variant of Buick's two-year-old 90-degree V-6; the Motor Trend test car had one. Motor Trend had nothing good to say about its sluggish performance in the Sports Wagon (0-60 mph in 16.5 seconds), so perhaps it was just as well left alone.
The standard transmission was a three-speed manual with synchromesh in all the forward gears and a column-mounted shifter. Optional was a Super Turbine 300 automatic featuring a torque-converter, variable-pitch stator, and single planetary gear set.
The entry-level engine in Vista-Cruisers was the new 230-horsepower Jetfire Rocket engine. This 330-cubic-inch powerplant offered 325 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm. The 9.0:1-compression engine ran regular fuel through a two-barrel carburetor. With it, Motor Trend ran its test Cruiser to 60 mph in 11.2 seconds.
The optional upgrade was a 290-horse, four-barrel 330. It had a 10.25:1 squeeze and developed 355 pound-feet of torque. A three-speed fully synchronized manual transmission with a column-mounted shifter was standard. Options included a four-speed fully synchronized manual with floor shift and a two-stage torque-converter automatic that Olds dubbed "Jetaway."
Each marque offered four versions of the dome-roof wagons: a choice of two or three seats in base or Custom trim. At Buick, the Sports Wagons essentially became the wagons for the Skylark series. (In fact, the cars were badged as Skylarks, not Sports Wagons, a name used only in print.)
At Oldsmobile, though, model numbers suggest the base Vista-Cruiser was a stretched companion to the low-line F-85 wagon, while the Custom-trim Cruiser provided a station wagon for the uppercrust Cutlass series.
Regardless of brand, Customs featured upgraded upholstery, an instrument-panel "crash pad," deluxe steering wheel, and full carpeting in the passenger and cargo compartments.
Vista-Cruisers enjoyed a slight starting-price advantage over Sports Wagons. Both began in the $2,900 range for a base two-seater and ran up near $3,300 for a three-seat Custom. Despite their late introductions, the high-roof wagons sold well. The Vista-Cruiser actually accounted for the vast majority of '64 F-85 station wagon production, and the Sports Wagon made up close to half of the orders for intermediate wagons at Buick.
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