If you like postwar American cars, there are probably at least a few Oldsmobiles that you like. Since the division has been gone over ten years now, it’s easy to forget just how prevalent, and at times dominant, they were in the North American market. In the three January Scottsdale, Arizona classic car auctions I attended, they were not the most prevalent, but they were well represented and seem to have brought good prices from the many Olds fans looking for their next sweet ride. Thanks to CarrieonSapharie for the top photo.
Most of these cars are from the ’60’s and early ’70’s. I read the CC posts recently on articles about the downfall of the U.S. auto industry (including here and here and a 2013 rerun on Tuesday here). They were interesting and revealing, especially a Brock Yates one (and the Yates English Country Inn article was great too concerning the U.K. makers). I was thinking about that when putting this post together and how one might view these cars as a product of that dysfunctionally-managed industry profiled in the Yates article. In all the articles discussing cars of the era in the abstract, one could get the idea that they were selling Trabants or some equally shoddy and uninspiring vehicles. It was actually quite the opposite. They were selling dream machines, building and marketing cars primarily to appeal to people on the basis of style or image or power, often all three. They did so up until the late 60’s unimpeded, without any regulatory interference or significant foreign competition. We classic car lovers like these old cars because they are so different from what is sold today, and the pre-regulatory models will always be the most popular and valuable because they are so uncompromised.
Not to get into the weeds, but we know there was good reason for regulation and for the success of imports. Often people wanted practical, dependable transportation more than dreams. Still, the point can be lost that U.S. auto companies did a lot right in their hay day. Like all manufacturers, they were primarily in the business of trying to build things that people wanted, and would pay good money for. Oldsmobile had more success in that than many other companies. Their cars were consistently (relatively) well built, well engineered and (mostly) tastefully styled. They weren’t generally the flashiest, rather they were aimed at adults and they inspired a lot of brand loyalty through quality.
Of course, auction cars tend to be flashy examples, so these are perhaps not the most representative of the essence of the brand. Still, looking through this sample of 20 Oldsmobiles will remind you why these were popular when new, and have a strong collector following today even though the brand has sadly passed.
Taking the prize for the oldest vehicle I saw in Scottsdale is a 1917 Oldsmobile Model 45 Roadster. I am pretty ignorant on these extremely old cars and I was really surprised that Oldmobile had a V8 at this time. It struck me as maybe being the original Cutlass. In size and mechanical configuration, not that much different from Olds’ future bread and butter cars, just much taller and less refined. It was a no sale, which is unfortunate as I would be curious what such an unusual vehicle might be worth. Perhaps Russo and Steele, the “muscle car, hot rod and sports car” auction was not the best venue for a car like this?
Oldsmobile is famous for making the Curved Dash Olds starting in 1901, though the company began selling cars in 1897, making it the oldest American automobile-selling company to survive into the modern era. The Curved Dash was a light, two cylinder runabout. Olds gradually introduced larger cars, putting out their first six cylinder car in 1908, the same year it was bought by General Motors. This startlingly large engine would hit 707 cubic inches displacement in 1911 (advertised at 60hp, a lot at the time). The V8 model was introduced in late 1915, being the first popularly priced V8 in the market and the first Oldsmobile available with closed bodywork (hard roof and glass windows). These cars were a hit and helped Oldsmobile double their sales in 1917, with over 13k eights sold that year.
The L-head V8 used 247cid to put out 58hp. Relatively advanced, it had a generator and distributor rather than the conventional magneto. The V8 was only offered through 1923, when Olds went to exclusively six cylinder cars until the straight eight was introduced for 1932. V8’s would Rocket back for 1949.
The trademark Barrett-Jackson glamour was in full force around this 1953 Fiesta convertible. Immaculately restored, placed in the most high profile indoor tent position and sold for $247,500.
It was sold individually as one of a set of four cars that were introduced at the 1953 GM Motorama, all running through the auction back-to-back (as CarrieonSapharie witnessed and commented on at my last article).
The Fiesta was a one-year special variant on the 98, introduced late in the ’53 model year to showcase the upcoming styling changes, mainly its panoramic wraparound windshield. It also had lowered side window sills, special two tone paint treatment and leather upholstery, unique hubcaps, exclusive more powerful engine (170 vs 165hp) and every option in the catalog standard except new-for-1953 air conditioning. The price for a Fiesta was $5,715, a $2,752 premium over a standard 98 convertible.
If you were bidding at B-J and didn’t want to spend that much money, you could have gotten a beautiful 1953 98 convertible for $110,000. Still expensive, but the eye-watering Fiesta price made it look like a bargain. All Oldsmobiles had V8 power since 1951 and 12 volt electrical systems starting in 1953.
Silver had a 1964 Starfire convertible, Olds’ highest priced car that year. VinceC (Bill Mitchell) wrote an article last fall on a 1964 Dynamic 88 convertible that was much commented on, with many folks expressing an interest in this era Olds. This Starfire at Silver did not appear to be as sharp as that car, but still nice if you can get over the wheels. The description didn’t say if the original wheels and hubcaps came with the car, something I would be very keen on knowing before I’d bid on such a vehicle. Silver never made their full auction results available online, so I don’t know if it found a new home or not.
Lurking at the edge of the tents at Russo and Steele, just in front of the field for vehicles not deemed tent-worthy, was a 1965 Starfire hardtop, the first Oldsmobile I encountered in Scottsdale that really pushed my buttons. Not immaculate, it still looked solid and was billed as a one owner car. The seller was short on specifics about what had been done to the car, but I’d speculate it had newer paint over an original interior. It sold for $11,750. This car has regular 88 hubcaps, but I think the Starfire came standard with special hubcaps it shared with the Jetstar I.
I’m a big fan of big cars, especially big performance cars. I like them because they’re big, and so different, and bigger, from what is available today (except for the Chrysler 300/Charger/Challenger, those are pretty big and faster than any ’60’s full sizers). Did I mention I like them big?
The Starfire came standard with a 370hp 425-cid V8 and Turbo Hydramatic transmission. It shared its engine and body with the Jetstar I, but not its standard leather upholstery, automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, special side trim and side exiting exhaust (a 1965-only feature).
The proportions on the ’65-’66 full sized Olds’ seem to me so exaggerated. The front-axle-to-cowl and rear overhang lengths look almost absurdly long, more so than even other B bodies. The 98 had an even longer wheelbase and length than the Starfire. Small 14 inch wheels no doubt help make the body look bigger.
When I was a kid watching Batman reruns, I imagined that the Batmobile was built off one of these cars. The proportions are kind of similar, and these were new when the show was new. I was wrong, of course, learning later that it was based on the Lincoln Futura show car. Were that all the great ’50’s showcars had such a glorious afterlife!
Holy Rocket Power Batman! Squint hard and you can kind of see a Starfire under there!
The Starfire interiors were great. Dashboards were very unique and substantial looking. Acres of stainless on the doors. Leather bucket seats and console were standard, power windows and seats standard on convertible only. The carpet is partially covering it here, but Oldsmobile had some of the largest gas pedals in the business at the time. I don’t know why that matters to me, but it does. Big car, big engine, big gas pedal, so cool. Air conditioning on this car is aftermarket. The speedometer surround looks rather bat-like, or am I crazy?
Let’s say you are a big fan of early Toronados, but you don’t want to be like all those other guys who drive to the cruise-in in a ’66. You might want to bid on this 1967 Toronado, in apparently excellent condition bringing the gavel down at $11,000.
Starting in 1967, Olds began moving the Toronado more towards the traditional luxury market, giving it a softer suspension and available full wheel covers. The five horizontal slat grille was ditched in favor of an eggcrate pattern and the headlight covers were made flush to the body. With the new grille and wheel covers, the subtle tributes to the Cord 810/812 were gone.
Something a little fishy seems to be going on with this car: it has the ’66 grille and headlight doors. Aesthetic choice or the result of a front end accident? The seller description didn’t mention it. I found the salesman’s guide on OldCarBrochures.org and I noticed a little trivia to call out how car options have changed in the last 50 years. It’s not surprising that A/C was optional even on a luxury car, but the heater/defroster could be deleted for credit!
Any story of Oldsmobiles in the ’60’s and ’70’s will include lots of Cutlasses, and this one is no different. We’ll start with a 1966 Cutlass 4-4-2 convertible at Barrett-Jackson. It’s a restored car that sold for $35,200. 4-4-2 was an option package available on any two door F-85 or Cutlass and came standard with a 350hp 400cid engine. A 1966-only tri-power (3 2-barrel carbs) 400 good for 360hp was optional, which this car acquired when restored, backed by the standard four speed manual. It also acquired the iconic red plastic fender liners, which were originally only seen on the rare-in-1966 W30 cold air performance package.
Basic muscle car interior, simple and attractive. Mid-size dashboards were intentionally less substantial looking than their big brothers’.
Another nice convertible, Russo and Steele had a 1967 Cutlass 4-4-2 which sold for $40,000. the 4-4-2 package could now only be bought on the Cutlass Supreme. Standard engine continued to be a 350hp 4-barrel 400. This car has optional Turbo Hydramatic. Does that make it a 4-3-2? No, because unlike the original car’s 4-barrel, 4-speed, dual exhaust explanation, Oldsmobile now said it stood for 400 cubic inches, 4-barrel, dual exhaust. And Olds guys will correct you if you say “Four Forty Two”. It’s “Four Four Two”, thank you very much!
Changes for 1967 were pretty minimal, with a new grille and taillights. Redline tires were standard on 4-4-2’s. GM outlawed triple carburetors on A-bodies, so the tri-power engine was no longer available, but one could get the W-30 package on the 4-barrel engine. W-30 was not as rare with 502 sold, vs. 54 in 1966. The W-30 would become a more popular option over the next few years, but full production numbers after 1967 have eluded me.
The ’66-’67 Oldsmobile mid-sizers are interesting because I can’t think of any other period car maker that matched the styling of their full size and mid size cars so closely, achieving a very mini-me effect.
GM intermediate cars were redesigned for 1968, creating one of the most beloved generation of cars for each of the General’s nameplates (except Cadillac, of course). Oldsmobile’s handsome new line was represented well at Russo and Steele by a 1968 4-4-2 convertible. This one is a genuine W-30 car and sold for $60,000.
Since the second 4 no longer stood for 4-speed, Oldsmobile only provided a 3-speed manual standard for 1968. Interestingly, you could order the Turnpike Cruising option on the 4-4-2, which put a 2-barrel carburetor on the 400cid engine to gave you 290hp plus a very tall 2.56:1 rear axle ratio.
Interiors were pretty pleasant, with a interesting looking dashboard design used for the first two years of the generation. Center console was unusually short.
The W-30 package got you dual cold air intakes, a factory blueprinted 360hp 400cid engine, 4-speed, limited slip 4.33:1 differential, and red plastic fender liners for lighter weight (because red is lighter than black).
As in 1967, ’68 4-4-2’s continued to come standard with the 350hp 400. Though the output and displacement was the same, Olds actually changed to bore and stroke on this engine.
I love the way cars from the ’50’s to the ’70’s had colorful engines. Oldsmobiles were generally gold, copper, or light blue. I don’t know if there was a system to which got which color. Maybe one of you does.
W-30 air intakes are below the bumper. Were there any other retail muscle cars that did this?
The famous Hurst/Olds made an appearance at Barrett-Jackson, not surprisingly. In fact, there were two: this 1969 Hurst/Olds went for $75,900 while another 1969 sold for $49,500. The ’68-’69 Hurst package is most famous for having a m0dified Toronado 380hp 455cid engine, at a time when GM wouldn’t allow any engines larger than 400cid to be sold in midsize cars. Since it was technically assembled and sold by Hurst Performance Products, it was a loophole used by Olds to get their name on some of the hottest cars on the street and strip. Only 914 were built in 1969, though many more orders were received. While the ’68 version was silver and black, the ’69 was available only in white and gold. In case you missed it, Jason Shafer had an excellent article last month on the 1970 Chrysler 300H and a history of Hurst.
Here is another beautiful white and gold Olds that is not a Hurst. It’s a 1970 4-4-2, restored and upgraded to W-30 specs. All 4-4-2’s now had the Rocket 455 V8. This one has the 4-speed transmission, with Hurst shifter naturally. An awesome car that unfortunately did not find a new owner.
It you like interiors with color, this is the place for you. King Midas appears to have been the original owner of the car.
It looks like a 4-4-2, but it’s really a 1970 Cutlass Supreme convertible selling at Barrett-Jackson for $26,400. A stock 4-4-2 W-30 actually paced the Indianapolis 500, but the pace car appearance package (Y74) was available on either the 4-4-2 or Cutlass convertibles. It has the 310hp 350, standard on Cutlass Supremes with optional automatic.
This is the top of the heap for Olds muscle cars: the 1970 442 W-30 convertible. For 1970, the W-30 intakes moved to the hood, which was a special fiberglass one. The W-30 put out 370hp and 500lb/ft of torque.
It was a no sale, probably because the owner wisely kept a high reserve. Only 96 4-speed W-30 convertibles were made. Similar cars at B-J, perhaps a tad more immaculate but not W-30’s, sold for $139k and $110k. B-J also had a super low mile W-30 post coupe sell for $137k.
I’ll say this about the W-30’s: 4-4-2 collectors consider it a big deal, but as far as power ratings go, the W-30 only added 5-10hp every year, and in 1970 it added 5hp and zero torque. I suspect Oldsmobile might have underrated their engines at times.
After a two year absence, the Hurst Olds returned for 1972. Here is a 1972 Hurst/Olds that sold for $32,450 at Barrett-Jackson. Hurst and Olds provided the Indianapolis 500 pace car this year. The ’72 Hurst/Olds was available as a convertible for the only time (though two 1969 convertibles were reportedly built), selling a whopping 130. The Hurst no longer had its own engine, sharing the W-30 4-4-2’s 300hp (net) 455. Some sources I found said that 629 Hurst/Olds were built, while others say 629 pace car replicas were built. Were all H/O’s also technically pace cars replicas, even if many don’t have the decals? Perhaps someone reading out there knows the details on this.
I don’t think the half vinyl roof does anything for this car. It does not have a sunroof. Either go with a full vinyl, or no vinyl, but half on a performance car? Yikes.
J P Cavanaugh had an article last year on Indy Pace Cars including the two featured above.
Here, finally, we have a mainstreamer model. It’s not a 4-4-2 or Hurst or anything muscular, just a very pretty 1972 Cutlass Supreme. It’s a restored car and sold for $18,700 at Barrett-Jackson.
In a similar color, a convertible version was available with this 1971 Cutlass Supreme at Russo and Steele. It sold for $24,750, worth every dollar, in my opinion. The car hails from Utah and is claimed to be a one family, mostly original car with new paint.
Attractive and comfortable interior showcases what Oldsmobile did right in these years.
During these years, Cutlass Supremes came with a 4-barrel 350, while the standard Cutlasses got a 2-barrel, to make buyers feel they were getting a more supreme conveyance. With decreasing compression ratios, power fell some for 1971 to 260 and for 1972 to 180. Compression held at 8.5:1 from ’71 to ’72, but ratings switched from gross to net, so presumably actual power was similar. In Oldsmobile’s attempts to cater to every conceivable customer in those days, the 2-barrel 350 was available for a $33 credit.
Oldsmobile promoted the W-30 engines as being factory blueprinted, but from what I’ve read, all Oldsmobile V8’s from the Rocket era into the mid ’70’s were essentially blueprinted. Connecting rods, bearings, pistons and cylinder bores were measured and matched for optimum fit and crankshafts centrifugally balanced, a practice not commonly followed in the industry apart from in Oldsmobile’s Lansing, MI engine plant. Consequently, Olds’ had very smooth running engines. Oldsmobile was also well known for having a high nickel content in their engine blocks, for greater strength and durability. These are the sorts of things that inspired satisfaction and loyalty in Oldmobile owners for decades.
I found this 1972 Toronado at Silver, so I don’t know if it sold. This is the destination the Toronado had been heading towards since 1967: a fairly conventional luxury coupe with no particular sporting aspirations. Olds may have dropped any pretense of performance, but they still made it a unique looking car.
The ’71-’72 design is actually my second favorite Toronado, behind the ’66-’67. The front end particularly is very unusual. I have not heard any comment on it that I can recall, but I see an even bigger tribute to the Cord 810/812 than on the ’66.
I imagine the Cord’s coffin nose laid into the Toronado’s hood and extending down the front end.
The rear is also pretty unique, with the trunk shape echoing the front end and auxiliary high brake lights under the rear window. As with most early ’70’s cars, the Toronado looks best before the bumpers grew in 1973, and while it was still a hardtop before 1974.
The sides of the car are a little washed out on my photos. A factory promo picture shows the character lines on the fenders better, they are an important part of the design. This also shows the rear end treatment fully.
The interior is very typical ’70’s. Comfortable, with driver focused styling, increased use of plastics and decreased use of chrome. Happily, this car predates the pillow top and funky upholstery years of the ’70’s. This dash doesn’t compare to its Buick platform mate, in my opinion.
So, were Oldsmobiles in the postwar decades a product of dysfuntional management? You might conclude that based solely on the fact the company suffered the ultimate failure: annihilation. Still, for their first 90 years or so, they did an excellent job of selling what the market demanded and being rewarded with solid sales, working their way up to number two in U.S. sales in 1985, then sadly falling off a cliff shortly after.
I hope you enjoyed this walk through Olds’ past, feel free to let me know and discuss what your favorite Oldsmobiles are.
Follow up article on 1966 Olds model range
Other articles in my 2018 Scottsdale auction series: