Oldsmobile Silhouette

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 1986 Concept

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.
1986 Pontiac Trans Sport Concept
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.

Other versions and 'dustbuster' styling

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.

1st Gen and Tarrytown NY Plant

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.
Tarrytown, NY plant in the 1980's
1997 Silhouette Redesign

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.

Silhouette Luxury

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.

2001 Improvements

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.

Final year and successors

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.

Silhouette Gallery

  • 1st Gen Silhouette
  • 1994 Silhouette Interior
  • 1990 Silhouette Ad
  • 1994 Silhouette
  • 1991 Silhouette
  • 1994 Silhouette Rear
  • 1994 Silhouette engine bay
  • 1990 Pontiac cutaway view
  • Silhouette movie capture - Get Shorty 'Cadillac of Minivans'
  • Silhouette movie capture - Get Shorty set
  • Custom made Star Trek Silhouette shuttlecraft
  • OSV Concept Silhouette in Green
  • OSV Concept Silhouette in Red
  • OSV Concept Silhouette in Red (side detail)
  • 1999 Silhouette
  • 2001 Silhouette Interior
  • 2001 Silhouette Premier
  • 2001 Silhouette Premier double doors
  • 2001 Silhouette Advertisement
  • 2002 Silhouette Premier
  • 2002 Silhouette Premier

Production: 1990-2004
Generations: 2
Platform: U-body/GMT199
Related Cars: Trans Sport, Lumina APV, Montana, Venture, Opel Sintra, Vauxhall Sintra, Pontiac Aztec, Buick Rendezvous

Predecessor: Chevrolet Astro, GMC Safari
Successor: Buick Terraza

Silhouette Yearbook

1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette1990

1991 Oldsmobile Silhouette1991

1993 Oldsmobile Silhouette1993

1994 Oldsmobile Silhouette1994

1995 Oldsmobile Silhouette1995

1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette Interior1996

1997 Oldsmobile Silhouette1997

1998 Oldsmobile Silhouette1998

1999 Oldsmobile Silhouette1999

1999 Oldsmobile Silhouette Interior1999

2001 Oldsmobile Silhouette2001

2004 Oldsmobile Silhouette Final 5002004 Final 500

1986 Trans Sport Concept1986 Trans Sport