The Silhouette (and its sibling models) was General Motors' second attempt at producing a minivan to compete with the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.
The first attempt was the rear wheel drive, truck-based Chevrolet Astro and its twin, the GMC Safari. They had failed to make a noticeable dent in Chrysler's near monopoly on the minivan market in the 80's.
While Silhouette (and its siblings) were more successful than the Astro/Safari in terms of market share, the unconventional "dustbuster" styling limited its appeal and sales. The bulletproof GM V6 and hydramatic transmissions however, kept these vehicles on the road for a long time.
The original concept of the Silhouette came from the Pontiac Trans Sport. First shown to the public in 1986, the Pontiac Trans Sport concept car was well received. It featured futuristic styling, individually removable bucket seats with built-in stereo speakers, a gull-wing rear passenger door and extensive use of glass including a glass-paneled roof as well as many other "dream car" features. Much of the styling and features showcased on the concept did not make it to the mass-produced edition. The gullwing door was deemed too expensive to produce, and the glass roof was too heavy and expensive, so the resultant production vehicle made-do with high-gloss black painted panels for the roof to suggest the glass canopy of the concept.
While the Chevrolet (Lumina APV) verison of the van covered value oriented design, Pontiac (Trans Sport) focused on sport and style, the Silhouette would be the premium luxury version. Production of the Silhouette began in December 1989 as 1990 models.
The styling of these minivans were controversial. At the time that the Oldsmobile Silhouette and its siblings were conceived, no one had tried to market a stylish or sporty minivan. But GM felt that there was a potentially large market. They styled these minivans to be lower and sleeker than the competing brands. The large, long and sloped windshield and the resultant long distance to the base of the windshield when sitting in the drivers seat made for a disconcerting driving experience. And took time for the driver to adjust to the "different" proportions. Automotive magazines christened the new minivans "dustbusters".
The first engine in these vans was a meager 3.1 L V6, that produced only 120 hp, which was not up to the task of hauling these fairly heavy vehicles. In 1992, the Silhouette and its siblings received the 170 hp 3.8 L 3800 V6 as an option, which provided better torque and acceleration, making them the most powerful as well as best handling minivans then in production.
Interestingly, Europeans accustomed to sleek minivans thanks to the Renault Espace did not object to the futuristic "dustbuster" styling. Sales were respectable, so the decision was made to retain the original styling on the European-version. From the 1994 model year onwards, the Oldsmobile Silhouette was transformed into a Pontiac Trans Sport by the addition of Pontiac badging and wheels. Consequently, the Silhouette did not receive the nose-shortening restyle of its stablemates. Sales in Europe were good for an American import, but did not represent enough volume to make a fourth, distinct model economically feasible.
Production of first generation Silhouettes and stablemates ended in 1996, at which time the Tarrytown, NY plant which produced them and which had been in operation since 1900, was shuttered and scheduled for demolition. The final 1st generation U-body Oldsmobile Silhouette rolled off the assembly line on May 17, 1996.
Above: Tarrytown, NY plant in the 1980's, closed in 1996- demolished in 1998. Originally opened by the Stanley Steam Car Company in 1896. Portions of the complex acquired by Chevrolet in 1914 and 1915, brought into the GM family in 1918. The last vehicles produced were GM's first generation minivans, referred to as "dustbusters" due to their shape. These were the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Pontiac TranSport, and Oldsmobile Silhouette.
The redesigned 1997 Silhouette was built at Doraville Assembly. The first 1997 Silhouette rolled off the assembly line on August 6, 1996. Canadian sales began as a 1998 model. Unlike the Chevrolet (Venture) and Pontiac (Trans Sport/Montana), the roof rack was standard on all Silhouettes. The base model (only offered for 1997) was the only model to offer short-wheelbase and a driver side sliding door being only optional. While all the other trim levels of the Silhouette were in long-wheelbase and offered a standard driver side sliding door.
The redesign was intended as another attempt to capture a significant portion of the domestic minivan market, building on the lessons learned from its previous mis-steps. As if to steer clear away as possible from negative styling comments, the vehicle styling would be as conservative as possible. Made with a steel unibody, this new range of models would be narrower to accomodate smaller European roads- slightly smaller than was the norm for the United States, in order to produce a single range of minivans that GM hoped would fill the needs of both the North American and European markets.
In development of this 2nd generation of the U-body minivan, General Motors benchmarked the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager. And in the case of the Silhouette in particular, the Chrysler Town and Country. The resultant vehicles were more closely matched to the successful trio of Chrysler minivans, which still accounted for over 50% of domestic minivan sales.
Silhouettes, in keeping with their luxury positioning, offered many features as standard that were optional on competing makes and on its platform mates. In 1998, it became one of the first vehicles on the market to offer a VCR with overhead retractable LCD screen for back seat viewing, which has since become a "must-have" option for families with children.
The second generation Silhouette and its platform mates achieved slightly better sales than their avant-garde predecessors, but also failed to capture a significant share of the market. The Silhouette was a close competitor in many of the categories deemed of importance, but was a winner in no categories, the minivan market had become more crowded with competing products that proved to be more desirable and throughout its production it was widely considered a second-tier competitor, competent but not a stand-out.
In 2001 the Silhouette received a number of improvements wrought to keep it competitive with rivals from Honda and DaimlerChrysler. Most noticeable was the flat-folding third seat. Stowable third seats added tremendous functionality as they didn't have to be taken out and stored in the garage when maximum hauling capacity was needed.
The Silhouette remained in production until the 2004 model year with minimal changes. The Oldsmobile division of General Motors was shut down and no Oldsmobiles were produced after the 2004 model year. The final Oldsmobile Silhouette rolled off the assembly line on March 31, 2004.
The spiritual successor to the Oldsmobile Silhouette within the General Motors lineup is the Buick Terraza (2005-2007), which was built on an updated version of the U platform and occupied the luxury minivan slot previously occupied by the Silhouette.
Had the Oldsmobile division not been discontinued it would be likely that the Silhouette would have been kept for the third generation of the GM minivans.
Above: 2004 Silhouette Final 500 Edition
1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
All new model - The Silhouette in keeping with its positioning as GM's luxury minivan offering is available with optional leather seating, a feature not available on its platform mates and available only on the Chrysler Town and Country among competing manufacturer's models. Unique in the marketplace, due to plastic composite exterior body panels, and futuristic styling.
1991 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Complaints regarding glare reflected on the interior of the windshield from the massive expanse of dash board lead to the addition of black carpeting in lieu of the more reflective plastic used in the previous year.
1992 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Newly available for 1992 was GM's 3800 V6 engine coupled with a Hydra-Matic 4T60-E 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission. The cowl-mounted fixed radio antenna was eliminated, and an integrated roof antenna was installed, sandwiched between the roof and the headliner. Side view mirrors were changed to the folding type, and were enlarged to provide better rear visibility. Brakes were enlarged and anti-lock brakes (ABS) were added as standard equipment. A pop-up sunroof was added to the options list. Steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo system were added as an option.
1993 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
The Silhouette's exterior is facelifted, sporting wrap-around turnsignal/parking lamps in front, along with standard foglamps. Tail lights' design is changed from a grid to a solid red color with black "dissolves" around the edges, a style that had been used exclusively on the Pontiac Trans Sport previously. A remote controlled power sliding side door was announced for 1993, but failed to actually make it into production. The optional 3800 engine returned producing even more horsepower.
1994 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
In an effort to lessen the perceived distance to the base of the windshield, a ridge was added to the interior dash finishing panel. A remote-controlled power sliding door became available as an option. Built-in child seats for the second row became available as an option. A traction control system became available as an option. Rear deep-tinted windows now featured a darker tint than previously used. A driver's side airbag became standard equipment. A roof rack became standard on all Silhouettes and their subsequent model years, but remained optional on the Chevrolet and Pontiac..
1995 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Automatic power door locks that engaged/disengaged with the transmission shifting into or out of "park" added as a standard feature of the power door lock option package. The previously standard 3.1 engine was discontinued making the 3800 the only engine choice. The change also made the 4-speed automatic standard.
1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
After becoming standard only the previous year, the 3800 engine was dropped. The new engine was the 3.4L V6. This was the last year for the original plastic bodied generation.
1997 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Silhouette was all new from the ground up for '97. It now featured more conventional styling and all steel body panels instead of the composite plastic on previous models. For the first time, there was a choice of the regular length or a new extended version. Inside, there was finally room for three across seating in the third seat thanks to redesigned shock absorbers. There was now a rear sliding door available for the driver's side.
1998 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Dual sliding doors were added to the standard wheelbase Silhouette. Front airbags were now second generation and side airbags were added for front occupants. Second row captians chairs became an option on all models, except the GLS where they were already standard. A gold trim package becomes available mid-year.
1999 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Silhouette recieved an extra five horsepower for a total of 185 as well as added torque to the 3.4 engine. Outside, there were five new colors: Silver Mist, Sky, Cypress, Mocha and Ruby. Inside, Teal cloth was not longer available but you could still opt for the Teal leather. New standards were heated outside mirrors and PASSKey III security system. There were also new flip forward second-row captians chairs. The top of the line Premiere model became the first minivan to offer an on-board entertainment center including a VCR with a flip down monitor for rear passengers. .
2000 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
The Silhouette recieved only minor updates for 2000. Retained accessory power was added. Heated front seats became available. An Oldsmobile exclusive two-tone interior became available. The combination was the newly available Sable as the upper instrument panel color with beige leather.
2001 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Exterior styling was freshened with a new chrome grille and redesigned bumper. Wheels and tires were upgraded to 16" on the GLS and Premier. New 15" wheels were offered on the GL. GLS and Premier featured a new fold flat third row seat. Premiere got a larger LCD screen and wireless headphones. Onstar and a driver's side head airbag became standard. Sky and Cypress exterior colors were discontinued while Black was added. There was also an acoustics package for theatre quiet interior.
2002 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Despite the fact that the Silhouette is headed to the graveyard with the rest of Oldsmobile's lineup, there are still minor changes on tap for the 2002 model. The Versatrak AWD system will now be available on GLS and Premiere models coupled with special 16-inch aluminum wheels. The standard front airbags are now dual-stage units that deploy according to the severity of the crash, and Premiere models equipped with the onboard video system get a DVD player in place of a standard VCR.
2003 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
For 2003, traction control and 16-inch wheels are now standard on two-wheel-drive models.
2004 Oldsmobile Silhouette:
Largely unchanged for 2004, the Silhouette now offers standard keyless entry on all trim levels and optional luggage roof rails. The Final 500 Silhouettes go into production but actually only 360 are made. The plant had run out of production capacity due to fleet orders for vans on the same assembly line.