“Nominal” is a bland word that had a special meaning to people who followed the U.S. manned space program. Not heard from American astronauts since 2011, when the Space Shuttle program ended, it is a reassuring word that means that systems are working properly. Anything from the smallest system to the entire shuttle would be described in a monotone over the radio as nominal. Nominal is an appropriate word to use to describe the state of the 1986 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser that is doing lumber hauling/mobile locker room/moving etc. duty during the time before it boldly goes where no American station wagon has gone before, across the Atlantic and across the Sahara in the Banjul Challenge (original story here).
At 28 years of age, this classic is receiving the same care and attention that it and most of its sister ships received when new. It lives outside in the elements, hauls things that are often heavy, dirty, or smelly, and gets maintenance and repairs only when really necessary. Age and a complete lack of any special treatment have not prevented its 1980s GM systems from working about as well as they did when new.
The Olds 307 V-8 performs as gradually and phlegmatically as they all did; the THM200R4 automatic still shifts smoothly; three out of four power windows (four out of five if you count the tailgate window) work fine; and everything else works normally except for the rear window defroster (dead switch), air conditioner (needs a conversion to R134 and recharge), and cigarette lighter. The air conditioner is the only system that I intend to address, and it is a low enough priority that I have had all of the parts and materials for it for over a month and have not bothered to use them, with other non-car chores coming first. “All essential systems nominal” is what I would report to mission control.
The wagon’s performance has been sufficiently nominal for me to take it on its first long road trip in many years, perhaps ever, since its only previous owner was an elderly woman who rarely drove. Having several reasons to visit Atlanta, including hauling away some things that I had left with a friend there long ago, in early May I tossed an overnight bag into the back and set off on the 650 mile drive from northern Virginia to northern Georgia. I considered it a mild test of whether the vehicle can survive a long journey – if it could not handle this trip, it could not handle a trip across the Sahara – and a shakedown cruise (borrowing a nautical term) to see which systems were in good condition and which were ready to fail.
Having an entire weekend to make the trip, I made the 10 hour drive more interesting by taking the longer, off-I-95 route along the foothills of the Appalachians that I have never had any reason to use before and which has some interesting historic sites along the way. Almost the entire trip passed completely uneventfully, with the V-8 silently moving the wagon along (except when I had to floor the accelerator to maintain speed on any sort of uphill stretch – it is an Olds 307), no noise except for a slight wind leak from the misaligned driver’s window frame that I have not bothered to adjust, and overall the usual American land yacht experience.
This old-fashioned American wagon felt like the right vehicle to use to visit places like Appomattox Court House, the town in western Virginia where General Lee and his surrounded army surrendered to General Grant, ending the major hostilities of the Civil War. A new BMW or Lexus SUV may be a more modern and “better” vehicle filling the same purpose, but this 28 year old artifact of Americana made the trip competently and comfortably, just as these cars did back when they were new.
The only departure from nominal function occurred approximately 400 miles into the trip, in North Carolina near the North/South Carolina state line. On a highway, the “Charge” warning light lit up, shortly after I noticed a slight vibration from the engine. My immediate thought was that something had gone wrong with the alternator, which I had thought before the start of the trip might be making a slight noise but dismissed as a part of my pre-road trip imagination of possible problems. Concerned about running out of electricity on a highway, I moved to the right lane as quickly as possible and then took the first off-ramp.
Mid-off-ramp, the steering suddenly became very heavy, telling me that I had lost my power steering. The car was far less difficult to steer around the off-ramp without power assist than I expected, but I figured that I would have only one application of the brakes remaining, so when I spotted a repair shop near the end of the off-ramp I headed into its parking lot, heaved the wheel around one last time, and applied the brakes, coming to rest surprisingly gracefully at their front door. All gracefulness disappeared when a cloud of steam soon appeared from beneath the hood.
After a wait for the steam to die down and removing the fan shroud, the problem became obvious: the engine had lost all three of its belts. Pieces of them hung down from where they had come to rest off of their pulleys, and the mechanics at the garage told me that they had seen the broken belts dragging on the ground as I exited the off-ramp. Apparently the alternator had seized, the alternator belt had shredded and burned from friction with the pulley at the other end, and the broken alternator belt had whipped around and violently collided with the other belts, setting off a chain reaction of snapping belts.
Although quite a spectacular failure, it was also a testament to GM’s competence in putting together this car in 1986: the alternator was the original unit and 28 years old, so one can hardly begrudge it finally failing; the warning light functioned properly after 28 years, giving me adequate warning that the failure was occurring; and other than the alternator and belts, everything was fine.
Everything else, even the 28 year old A/C compressor, turned freely by hand. All that was necessary to get back on the road were new belts that were sitting on the shelf, a new alternator that was readily available at the nearest auto parts store (try that if your BMW or Lexus breaks down in a small rural town), and help from a friendly mechanic who had been working on these cars since he was a teenager four decades earlier.
After a couple of hours, one of which was the wait for the alternator to arrive, I was back on my way with a smooth running engine. The rest of the trip passed completely uneventfully aside from losing one of my wheel covers somewhere between North Carolina and Atlanta, which I noticed in the parking lot of The Varsity in Atlanta, where I had what was already the oldest and ugliest car even if all four wheel covers had been present.
Back to the nominal performance of the Custom Cruiser: its fuel consumption during the trip was a consistent 20 mpg, slightly below the 22 mpg highway rating when new. I am quite certain that this old wagon will equal or exceed 22 mpg in the right conditions, because the 20 mpg figure was obtained while driving up and down hills constantly during the southward leg down the Appalachian foothills and then through almost equally hilly country heading north on I-85 and I-95 through South Carolina and North Carolina.
These figures will surprise most people, who automatically assume that a large older American car like this one will be a gas-guzzler. They show that GM actually accomplished its design goals well when it re-configured these B-Body wagons for maximum fuel economy in the 1980s, although today even fans of these cars usually will criticize the small, mildly tuned 307 V-8 as gutless.
Back home in northern Virginia after its first adventure, the Custom Cruiser is back to its usual domestic hauling duties, like an old draft horse still clomping away. It occasionally gets to commune with its own kind, as seen in this photo with two classics that I consider these wagons to be a composite of: a B-Body sedan (a Caprice in this instance) with regard to chassis and driving dynamics, and a pickup truck in terms of utility.
In these meetings, I have learned that traditional American station wagon owners are an interesting subset of the car hobby. With the last of the breed produced in 1996, anyone who still has one usually is a diehard fan who either has owned theirs since new or sought one out as an unfashionable used car, so encountering a B-Body or Panther wagon on the street or in a Home Depot parking lot never fails to elicit an exchange of thumbs up, smiles and compliments.
I have come to think of these wagons as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of cars–not only because they are forgotten but because they are the bearers of a great deal of wisdom, like the reclusive desert hermit Ben Kenobi, and also because many of their owners are older men with white beards. I am optimistic that this one will not leave me stranded in the desert later this year.
Related reading: My Global CC: To The Gambia, In Your Grandmother’s Oldsmobile