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Here’s the Story of My Day With the Oldsmobile Silhouette

I recently had the chance to review a 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. A few days ago, I published a video of the Silhouette, showing all of its quirks and features, but I wanted to explain a bit more about my time with the icon.

First, let’s clarify "icon." This is an icon to me in the sense that this is the final model year of the first luxury minivan, and also it’s one of the strangest-looking vans of all time. And it has some really weird features like a built-in child seat, a power-sliding door that plays a song when it closes and a dashboard that’s so big you could easily fit an entire pizza box on it. And sides. And a couple of family members.

To most people, however, it’s not an icon. It’s just an old van we never see anymore. And yet I was tremendously excited to film a video with it.

The primary reason is, quite simply, nostalgia. Growing up in Colorado in the 1990s, most families around me had SUVs due to winter weather, as minivans hadn’t yet adopted all-wheel drive as an available feature. As a result, I never really knew anyone with a Silhouette or even any of the other General Motors "dustbuster" vans, the Pontiac Trans Sport or the Chevy Lumina APV. But as a kid, I had always wondered about them.

Since starting my career as a car reviewer, I’ve always made a point to work in videos about weird, quirky or interesting cars I remember from my childhood along with modern stuff and exotics. That’s how we got the Cadillac Brougham, the 1998 Lincoln Navigator, the 1990s Ford Bronco, the Buick Grand National and many more. But the Silhouette was always near the top of my want list: a luxury van. The FIRST luxury van. The first van to have a power sliding door. With styling that resembled a Dustbuster.

Unfortunately, nobody preserved any Silhouette models, especially out here on the West Coast, where shoppers were more likely to buy imported cars than domestic. But then I got an email.

I actually got the email back in October, but I’ve been very delayed on responding to emails lately, so I didn’t really GET the email until January. It came from a local guy here in San Diego who sent pictures of his collection, which included a Buick Reatta and a pristine Oldsmobile Silhouette. Immediately, I e-mailed him, and the next week, I was reviewing his cars.

Unfortunately, there was a bit of an issue during three months in between when the owner emailed me and when I actually showed up. The Silhouette, being a 1990s General Motors vehicle, had blown a head gasket, and it was on its last legs. When I arrived, it wouldn’t start. We jumped it, but the low coolant light came on and smoke billowed from the exhaust. I decided to drive it first, just in case it wouldn’t survive beyond that.

The drive was, well, unsuccessful to say the least. Every time I accelerated, smoke shot out the back. The low coolant light remained permanently on and the engine temperature shot up. But I really, really wanted to review this car, so I toughed it out. After all, a Silhouette with a blown head gasket probably doesn’t drive that differently from a brand-new one. So I drove the car, and I experienced its 1990s van-ness, and then I found a place to stop and shoot my segment on the van’s quirks and features.

And what a glorious review it was. I got through the entire video, all the quirks and features, and it took hours to film — much longer than normal, mainly due to the fact that I had to constantly move around the camera to focus on new things rather than just discussing the infotainment system and the interior from the front seat. I’m rarely this excited when I’m shooting a video, but in this case I was, and it was truly wondrous to experience the luxury Dustbuster van in its full glory.

As I write this, weeks after filming, the van is probably already junked. The owner wasn’t planning on doing the relatively costly and time-consuming head gasket job, as the van probably isn’t worth enough to justify it. The video is doing shockingly well, as other people are surely enjoying reliving their Dustbuster van experience. And I’m just happy I got to experience one of my most-wanted vehicles. Find an Oldsmobile Silhouette for sale

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Artem, thanks for sharing your van.  Glad to hear that you are not going to junk it.  As a owner of a 90 Trans Sport, I was really looking forward to Doug’s video.  Thank you again!

  2. Hey Doug. Am the owner of that Silhouette. Video is doing really well. I read through all the comments, it’s a lot of fun. You did your best in hiding the white smoke but real car folks noticed. And you did not miss the rear tire inflator and self leveling suspension – the 1996 did not offer those items, only earlier years did. I promise van will not be junked, it is simply too rare now. Will keep looking for matching grey leather seats and repair the engine or install a better one. May be should meet again in 20 years and refilm, ha!

  3. I totally thought i saw white smoke blow out the tailpipe through the back window when you were driving it and thought it must have a blown head gasket, but then again it’s been cold down here in San Diego so I wasn’t sure. 

  4. Doug, I was just as excited as you when I saw the review posted on youtube.  I also love these cars!  My wife and I almost bought a new Pontiac Transport back in the day, but instead went with a Ford Windstar as our family vehicle.  But that Transport was very cool, and I still think about what might have been had we bought it (the Ford turned out to be a lemon, which only adds to my nostalgia for the Pontiac).  If I remember correctly, the Lumina and Transport designs were supposed to be futuristic, like a spaceship.  And I certainly thought they were – inside and out.  The Pontiac shared the same body panels as the Lumina and the Oldsmobile, but it had different body cladding so it didn’t appear as slab-slided as the others.  I don’t think I’ve see a Pontiac Transport in over 20 years. BUt if I found a good one for sale, I think I’d have to buy it!  Keep reviewing those quirky cars, Doug!

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