Image: eBay
Image: eBay

We all know what Chrysler’s coolest minivan is: the turbo, manual first-gen Dodge Caravan. We all know Ford’s coolest minivan: the rear-wheel drive, manual transmission Ford Aerostar. And we all know that GM’s most interesting people-movers were the “Dustbuster” minivans. Except the Holy Grail variant of those was never sold stateside.

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GM doesn’t have a great history when it comes to minivans, if we’re being honest. But on the company’s van resume, one line item sticks out: The “Dustbusters,” thusly named for their styling similarities to the popular cordless vacuum cleaner from the late 1970s.

The Dustbuster cars, also known as “the Spaceship of minivans,” included the Oldsmobile Silhouette, Chevrolet Lumina APV, and the Pontiac Trans Sport. All of these vehicles launched for the 1990 model year, and shared the same GM “U-body” unibody platform and plastic body panels, among many other features (as is typical of GM “badge engineering”).

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Let Doug DeMuro walk you through some of the cool features of a U.S.-market Oldsmobile Silhouette—the luxurious van of the three positioned above the Pontiac and well above the Chevy:

The Silhouette and its two siblings look like nothing else made by an American automaker, and they have become, at least in the car enthusiast community, thoroughly cool.

Image: Pontiac
Image: Pontiac

And that wasn’t always a given, since in some ways, the “Dustbuster”—which made its debut as the Pontiac Trans Sport concept in 1986—was a bit of a letdown. In fact, my colleague Raphael Orlove wrote an entire piece titled “Was This GM Minivan The Greatest Letdown In Automotive History?

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A big part of that disappointment had to do with the concept car shown above, which had awesome gull-wing doors, a glass roof, and an integrated Nintendo system—none of which made it to the production car. But GM’s concept car tease wasn’t the only issue; Allow Raphael to expound upon what made the production Trans Sport so sad:

GM letting its customers down was pretty typical, and just as bad was its insistence on badge engineering. Rather than let Pontiac get to blitz into showrooms with something unique and interesting, GM decided that Chevy and Oldsmobile needed a piece of the action...

And while it wasn’t that great that the Trans Sport’s image was hurt, the vehicle itself was a disappointment, too.

[...]

Every time anybody writes about one of these ‘dustbuster’ minivans as they got nicknamed, people start coming out of the woodwork to remember everything that went wrong on these cars. Read the comments on this old post to see what I mean. The oil stains left on driveways, the chewed-up ball joints, the endless rattles from the all-plastic interior, the busted windshield wipers needing new fluid every fifteen minutes.

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Still, while the van may have been a disappointment to some, especially in terms of build quality and especially compared to the awesome 1986 concept, Orlove admits that the styling is striking, and that the car offered good handling, plenty of space for passengers, and decent engine options.

Image: eBay
Image: eBay
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So the Pontiac Trans Sport was a bit of a mixed bag. Despite that, 30 years later, there’s no doubt that this quirky looking van is the coolest GM minivan ever. Not the best—that honor goes to the Chevy Astro—but the coolest. But what many don’t realize is that the absolute Holy Grail version of the Trans Sport was offered only in Europe.

This photo will tell you part of the reason why:

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Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. That’s a five-speed manual transmission in the spaceship minivan! This was only available in Europe-market vans, as far as I know, and so was the engine under the hood: a 2.3-liter Quad 4.

As I wrote in my story “Here’s Why the Quad 4 Was One of GM’s Most Important Engines Ever,” the Quad 4 wasn’t a perfect engine. It was unrefined and hardly revolutionary by the time it made its debut in the late 1980s. But the dual overhead cam inline four was damn powerful for a naturally aspirated engine of its size, and it was also quite efficient.

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Just look at the Dustbusters’ other engine offerings at the time. The vans debuted for the 1990 model year with a 3.1-liter V6 that made a paltry 120 horsepower. It wasn’t until two years later, for the 1992 model year, that GM offered an optional 170 HP 3.8-liter V6—that’s the legendary, unkillable 3800 Buick V6, in case you were wondering.

At the same time that the U.S. had only those two engine options, with the base one mated to a three-speed slushbox, and the V6 hooked to a four-speed auto, Germans could get the far more advanced Quad 4, which made a solid 145 HP and was hooked to a five-speed manual.

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Image: eBay
Image: eBay

The Euro version of the coolest looking GM minivan didn’t just get a more advanced, decently powerful engine mated to a five-sped manual, it also received those awesome integrated rear foglights, amber rear turn signals, turn signal repeaters on the front fenders, and the front fascia off the U.S.-spec Oldsmobile Silhouette, not the U.S.-spec Pontiac Trans Sport. (The U.S. spec Trans Sport, you may recall, had the telltale Pontiac nostrils in the front):

Image: Pontiac via auto-brochures.com
Image: Pontiac via auto-brochures.com
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You can find these manual, Quad 4-powered Pontiacs for sale in Germany every now and then, and they’re quite cheap. I even found a German Pontiac Transport online forum, which is a thing I never imaged could possibly exist.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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