COAL: 1957 Oldsmobile 88 – Chrome, Reflections, Rockets, and Dog Leg Windshields

COAL Instrument Panel

I had been driving my first car, a 1953 yellow Chrysler convertible, starting in high school and then in college for more than four years and it continued to work as well as could be expected. It had its flaws, (but don’t we all?) and a truly good and faithful driver would honor that automotive relationship and not let a splash of chrome, a big V8, or a seductive dashboard lure one to cheat.

Anthropomorphizing cars (and boats) is something many people do, especially young college juniors. But when we stray from the loyally serving car to a younger sleeker model, I doubt many people feel a sense of guilt.

I did feel guilty. However, I enjoyed every most many of the minutes of that indiscretion.

It’s not like I could afford to take on another lover vehicle. I was working pretty much full time as a broadloom carpet warehouse schlepper and had a growing student loan from the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn. Between classes (mostly scheduled in the A.M. hours), work, and studying, I was starting to develop a pattern of sleep deprivation that would stay with me throughout my working career. Money was tight; the student loan was scary to a young guy with no idea how he was going to pay it off, and our country’s involvement in Vietnam was starting to become more than a distant dustup being handled by American “advisors”.

1957 Oldsmobile 88 4 Door Sedan – Same body style as COAL 2 but mine was white.

So, it was with a sense of “life is fleeting” and “what the heck” that I said yes when a friend was selling his summer ride. It was a white over red 1957 Oldsmobile 88 sedan with a 371 cu inch 277 hp / 400 lb.-ft. of torque at 2800 rpm golden rocket V8 with a four barrel carburetor, Hydramatic transmission, and 14 inch wheels with full wheel covers. Oddly, it had no power steering and no power brakes, so it was a bear to park and rather hard to steer at low speeds.

Rockets on the fenders – What’s not to love!

It was everything my trusty 1953 Chrysler convertible was not. It was sleek, powerful, quite fast (for the time), had a glamorous chrome, red, and white dashboard, and a play-the-radio-all-you-want 12 volt electrical system. It even had rockets on the fenders – What’s not to love? It was also weather tight; no more snowdrifts on the front seat and wet rugs after a snow or rain storm.

I did not sell the Chrysler. I backed it into my parents spare garage stall ¾ of the way (lawn mowers and bikes were in the back), tacked a piece of carpet onto the bottom center of the garage door, and lowered it gently onto the hood. I then transferred the plates, registration, and insurance to the Olds. After all, the old yellow Chrysler convertible was my first COAL; I wasn’t totally heartless.

Starting around age 13, I was drawn to the fancy dashboards of late fifties GM cars, especially Oldsmobiles. The most elegant part of these dashboards was the long thin smooth chrome shift lever that angled down to the small PNDSLR display. Pure physical poetry.

1957 Oldsmobile Interior - Same colors as COAL 2.

While the dash looked like the complicated controls of a spaceship, it actually had only two gauges: a speedometer and directly underneath it, a gas gauge. A working gas gauge; what would they think of next?

 

1957 Oldsmobile Instrument Panel – Two instruments, lots of lights.

The Olds dash had lights for GEN and OIL (left side), HOT and COLD (right side). Yes, a COLD light; it was green. I had a buddy named Jim whose family bought a new Oldsmobile every other year and he would never drive these cars until the COLD light went out. We got used to it.

The heater, fan, and vent controls flanked the PNDSLR shift quadrant display.  They were really small controls compared to what we see today; using them when wearing gloves was problematic.

1957RocketEngine

Speaking of heat, the Olds had a bad thermostat stuck on open, so on cold days the green COLD light never went out and the car did not developed enough heat for normal engine operation nor for passenger comfort. The fix was to develop a series of folded cardboard panels to put in front of the radiator. Medium folded panels worked for cold days, bigger less-folded panels for very COLD days. I fantasized about a roller window radiator shade device operable from the driver’s seat but never got around to inventing it. Not sure why I never properly fixed it; it’s not like the thermostat was hard to reach. I was probably afraid I would strip a bolt or break something during the repair job disabling the car completely and then I would be stuck and it would really cost a lot to have a mechanic fix it. So I stayed with the safe albeit crude winter cardboard solution.

Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it.

1957 Oldsmobile dashboard valley of dust and debris return (photo of convertible to get the right angle).

The 1957 Oldsmobile had a dashboard with a rolled top that turned sharply down just before the windshield. During the summer a lot of dust, debris, and other “stuff” ended up falling into this hard to see and reach space. It all came back into my face when cold weather started and I turned on the defroster full blast to clear the inside of the windshield. In those days A/C was a rare option and this COAL was not rare.

1957 Oldsmobile dogleg A pillar.

And let’s not forget the dogleg windshield A pillar that was popular in the early 1950s up to about 1960. These designs were the result of extreme wraparound windshields and resulted in a dogleg A pillar that protruded into the front seat entry space. While daily drivers of these cars slipped under the dogleg with nary a thought, unfamiliar drivers and front seat riders were often introduce to them in bruising ways.  On the plus side the wraparound windshield gave the driver a good wide angle view forward, looked neat as hell, and made for interesting vent window shapes.   What are vent windows you ask?

The windshield wipers were vacuum controlled. At idle the engine had lots of vacuum and the wipers worked fine. At full throttle, engine manifold vacuum disappeared and the wipers first slowed and then stopped.  Completely.

Important safety reminder for cars with vacuum wipers: Do not floor the throttle in heavy precipitation conditions. Actually, that’s probably good advice even if you have electrically powered windshield wipers.

Another feature of vacuum controls was the sounds heard inside the car when switching from full heat to full defrost. There would be a series of lower doors closing (thump, thump) and then the creaking opening of the defroster vents (eeecccchhh).

1957 Oldsmobile three piece rear window.

The Olds had a three piece rear window and the fuel filler pipe was under the left rear (driver’s side) tail light. Just flip up the panel under the rear light with the big 88 on it and there it was. My calculations told me I got about 8 miles to the gallon, but I used those four barrels more than I should have.  Judicial accelerator use might have brought my mileage all the way up to double digits, perhaps 11, maybe even 12. In any case, I flipped up that tail light based fuel filler panel a lot.

A twin of Richie’s 1963 F85 215 cu in V8 with manual 3 speed column shift

The 88’s performance was striking to a guy whose prior ride took over 20 seconds to get to 60. My college friend Richie had a 1963 Olds F85 2 door coupe with a 215 cu in aluminum V8 and three on the tree. One evening coming home from a rare late hour lab (most of my classes were in the A.M.) Richie and I lined up at a light on a deserted section of Long Island’s Peninsula Boulevard. The light weight (2600 pounds) F85 jumped off the line and got a good ¾ length lead on me as the 88’s engine strained against the inertia of 4200 + pounds of glass, steel, iron, and dumb teenager. But as we all know, there’s no replacement for displacement and the 88 steadily reeled the F85 back in. By the time we reached the posted speed limit of 60 mph the event was over and we were about equal.

Public Policy Note: Accelerating like this in the 1960s was quite a bit slower, and far less dangerous, than it would be today. Accordingly, you the reader should never do this. We were dumb trained assholes professionals on an empty closed road.

By now I had a job working in a carpet warehouse unloading full rolls of carpet from trucks, measuring, and cutting those rolls, and then delivering the cut goods to the customer. It paid much better than the burger gig and changed me from a tall, skinny, weakling teenager to a tall skinny slightly less-weak teenager.

The warehouse manager Marty was never without a cigarette in his mouth and when he talked, the cigarette bounced up and down. My co-schleppers in the warehouse were John and Freddie. John was a big bear of a man who was married with kids and came to the job with a clear sober let’s get this done attitude. Freddie was much younger than John; he stood about 5’ 6” and was built like a prize fighter. He liked to shadow box in the warehouse with me as the shadow. Freddie also had to report to his parole officer once a month and had a much less serious view of life and love and work than John or I.

We’d be in the warehouse when an 18 wheeler pulled up in front. Marty, John, Freddie and I went out to the now open back of the trailer and saw it full of 12 and 18 foot wide rolls of broadloom carpet. Full carpet rolls can weight 300 to 600 pounds depending on quality, width, and length. Marty would compare the load with his paperwork, step down and say with cigarette bobbing “OK; unload”.

Freddie would ask “which ones?”.  John and I already knew the answer. “All of them”.

Freddie pushed the end from inside the trailer, John caught the roll about three feet from the leading edge and pulled, and I positioned myself under the roll about three feet from the end to catch it when it dropped off the truck. HEAVY. We would stagger into the warehouse where Marty pointed to a spot and we both threw the roll onto an existing pile of carpets. John’s end went up onto the pile; mine landed on the floor next to my feet.

John and Freddie called me “big buck”. I think they meant it ironically.

With my days full of sitting in college classes and lectures and my evenings sitting at a desk studying, the physical efforts of the carpet warehouse work were a blessing that I realized should be continued in one way or another as I got older to prevent middle-age lethargy and deterioration.  I think it has worked.  So far.

Things started moving a little more quickly in my senior year.  I had a girl friend who would become my first wife and was heading towards graduation while still unsure of my future direction. I had started as an advertising major but Adelphi College (later University) eliminated that track at the end of my freshman year so I was compelled to become a marketing major to keep my course prerequisites valid. One afternoon I was walking from the Olds to a class when I saw an exotic looking silver coupe that I could not identify. It idled past me in a unsteady lumpy manner and the driver parked it in the “Staff Only” section of the lot. I dawdled a bit and after the owner had gone I looked more closely.

Computer professor’s ride. It was just an old car then; now probably worth many millions.

F E R R A R I

I was in awe.  I had heard about these but never seen one in the metal.  It was dirty, needed a simoniz, and had two fresh puddles of oil under it after only being parked for a few minutes.  I asked about the professor who drove a Ferrari and was informed it belonged to the new computer programming instructor. I signed up for his course called FORTRAN.  Why?  Because he drove a Ferrari.  Was any other reason needed?  That decision changed my life forever. I was born to program computers.

If life was moving kind of quickly before, now it really got up on a fast plane.  I was planning to get married to a pretty petite blue-eyed blond named Annie who could not steer either of my two cars.  First car to go was my first COAL, the Chrysler convertible. I sold it to a carpet mechanic (installer) named Meyer, a big gruff cigar smoking fellow who was one of the best carpet installers in Nassau County, Long Island.

I once saw Meyer driving around with the top down and rolls of cut carpet and padding draped across the passenger side of the windshield down over the trunk. I do not recall seeing any ropes or tie downs. He had a cigar in his mouth, one hand on the wheel, and one hand on his cargo.

He probably didn’t want to wait for John and Freddie and me to make the delivery.

I started taking job interviews on campus.  I was interviewing for all available jobs but I was looking for computer programming jobs.  An early March interview with Allied Department Stores got me a part time management training gig in retail on a trial basis to see if we had a future together.  More on that later.

But, in late March of 1966 Shell Oil Company came on campus looking for computer programming trainees.  This is what I was looking for.  Shell offered me a job (pending successful graduation and continued good grades) to start in NYC at the Shell Oil Company New York Data Center in Rockefeller Center. Starting date would be 6/6/66 with a starting salary $6,600 a year.

A sign?

Note: 30 years later I would be issued a civilian contractor pass for NYC DOC’s Rikers Island with the number 6666.

Mother-In-Law’s 1959 Galaxie 500

Annie’s mother heard about the impossible-to-steer Oldsmobile and demanded offered that we take her 1959 Ford Galaxie 500 two door. She said she would sign it over to us Annie as soon as her new Fairlane came in.  Annie’s Mom was a Ford lady.

Rear view of the 1959 Galaxie 500 (paging Del Shannon) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQS16P2m2Lc

The night before our marriage I drove my bride-to-be into Manhattan so she could spend the night at her aunt ‘s apartment near the church. I was told it was bad luck for me to see the bride on our wedding day until we got to the church.

As I was heading towards the Queens Midtown tunnel to return to Long Island the Oldsmobile’s brake pedal sank to the floor. Remember, no cell phone, no AAA membership, little money, and getting married the next day. What to do but just drive home, a little slow for sure with lots of angry people honking and making obscene gestures. I used the transmission S and L cogs and the foot operated parking brake and its release lever to slow the car down at the toll basket, threw in the quarter (it’s now $8.00), and got home leaving the car at the mechanic’s shop with a note “DO NOT DRIVE – BRAKES GONE – PLEASE FIX.

I got to the church on time and things went much more smoothly than the day before. With the Galaxie in hand, I sold the now well-running Oldsmobile to my barber, found out the Galaxie ran poorly, and tuned it up with new plugs, points, condenser, rotor, distributor cap, and ignition wires. It had a 352 cu in V8 and a 2 speed Ford-o-Matic transmission and while the car had a loosey-goosey take-your-time feel to it (hard to explain), it drove smoothly with a nice V8 rumble.

I installed a pair of front lap seat belts in it.  I was a married man now; I had to think like a married man.

My mother-in-law never did sign it over to us and that was too bad because one night returning from a carpet customer who thought their new carpet was defective (it was) I T-boned a meat truck at an intersection totaling the well tuned Galaxie. My mother-in-law’s insurance company was really upset  She didn’t think too much of me either.  Who could blame her?

The newly installed seat belts probably saved my life.  Or at least prevented serious injury.  To this day I approach uncontrolled intersections as if a meat truck is speeding there with my name on it.

And no one has to tell me to buckle up.  Ever.

I was planning to start the adult portion of my life as a married computer programmer in June of 1966, but that was still a few months in the future and until then I needed to keep up my grades, graduate, keep paying bills, and, as I was now without a car, buy one immediately. That would be COAL 3.

Going back to the sunny day of our marriage, my friend and best man Richie drove Annie and me home from Manhattan in his F85 taking the scenic water view route of Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway. As my new bride and I sat in the cramped back seat staring at the ships in the bay and each thinking that life was moving kind of fast, maybe too fast, the F85’s radio played the Beach Boys’ Help me Rhonda.

Another sign?