Since it is station wagon week, I felt inspired to contribute my first article to Curbside Classic. Growing up in an Oldsmobile family, it was only natural for me to lust after wagons with Rocket power under the hood, and, beginning at age 16, many a Custom Cruiser graced our driveway. I would like to dedicate this article to my favorite longroof COAL.
It all began in 1995, when I was just eleven years old. Wandering into the old Seattle Public Library, I left the rest of my family to their mystery books and meandered off into the cars section, where I stumbled across a photographic history of Oldsmobiles. (I have never been able to find that book again, but it was similar to Dennis Casteele’s The Cars of Oldsmobile, albeit somewhat abridged. A copy of his book sits on my bookshelf to this day; it is a fantastic reference for the Olds fanatic). I was enthralled to have discovered such a piece covering everything from the pioneering curved dash models to the luxury barges of the 1970s.
As a child of the 90s, station wagons were still being used by parents at our Catholic school, but they were all at least ten years old, and very few examples from the seventies were still in daily use. I had been aware of the Kingswood Estate wagons, because one of them was parked under a tree a couple of miles from our house, and I knew of Pontiac Grand Safaris, because a neighbor’s relative drove one to their block party. But until I wandered into the library on that weekend in 1995, I had never before seen an Oldsmobile clamshell. When I found a black-and-white photo of a 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, I can’t explain how I felt.
It was a car whose design really spoke to me. A thing of beauty.The fender skirts made it so graceful; the trademark Oldsmobile skegs ran along the lower body, emphasizing the wheel wells and then terminating into smoothly tapered bumpers. Combined with the almost art deco lines of the clamshell tailgate, the look was truly sensational. I wouldn’t know it for another few years, but that first impression would not be dissuaded when I first got behind the wheel.
What ensued over the next ten years could fill several chapters of a book but in essence, I got to know a local character in our town of Snohomish who happened to derby these cars as a hobby. While that is not something I approve of, it still worked to my advantage: He was always willing to sell cars, and parts were readily available. I made it my goal to buy almost every Custom Cruiser he found before he had the chance to derby them and then find it a proper owner. This proved to be a very expensive and impractical hobby, running something akin to a station wagon adoption agency, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. It was awesome to get to know so many great cars, and even if they aren’t all still in existence, I can at least look back and say that I tried to keep them on the road a little longer.
This article is about my favorite of those cars. I owned it for four years beginning in 2004, when I was just 20. When I first stumbled upon it at the aforementioned junkyard, it looked like this:
She was not in that bad of shape for the circumstances, having been parked under a carport for a long time and its sides exposed to Seattle rain. My derby driving acquaintance made it a regular procedure to scour the countryside in his tow truck looking for cars like this, and he had picked this one up from the original owner’s son in north Seattle. His dad, who had lived along a golf course and parked it under his carport, was now in a nursing home and could no longer drive. He agreed to sell the car to the derby man for $400, with a promise that it would be fixed up, and off it went.
When told this story, I was saddened to hear that last part, knowing full well that his intention was never to fix up the car, but instead to strip it down, rattle-can the exterior and take it to the fairgrounds for a summer derby. I think I was visiting the junkyard to find parts for a Buick when the tail end of this thing appeared as I hiked through a long line of Cutlasses and Chevy Caprices. I knew right away it was the car of my childhood dreams as it had the vents in the rear tailgate, a 1971-only feature of flow-through ventilation.
Upon closer inspection, I found the interior like new. Strangely, this was only a six-passenger model, of which just 4,049 were produced that year. A rare wagon indeed! Gazing across the huge expanse of interior, I was in awe of the condition of the loop carpeting, and pleased to see that in 1971, the spare tire well and walling in the cargo area was covered in some kind of padded vinyl, not the cheap hard plastic that disintegrated in later models.
And those C-pillars! They were like the flying buttresses of a Gothic Cathedral, arching gracefully out of the rear and up into the roof.
It also had the huge chrome brake and gas pedals, as well as the fancy Oldsmobile Rocket emblem floor mats that simulated loop carpet in their texture.
Each door panel was finished with wood paneling that featured a stainless crest emblem in the center.
On the dash was a separate ash tray for the passenger, as well as an electric clock.
Outside, rust had bubbled in quarter-size spots over the B-pillars, indicating a more serious problem; otherwise, the car looked like it just needed a good detailing and some minor cosmetic work. Even the clamshell tailgate still worked without getting stuck! I’ve been in a few muscle cars (Dad had a ’73 Charger for a time, and Mama shuttled us kids around in a 1970 Cutlass when we lived in Cali), yet somehow this excited me more. Getting behind the wheel stirred the adrenaline. There was a quickening of the pulse, combined with a feeling of dreamy bliss, as though all was right and balanced in the universe–and all whilst sitting on the one hell of a wide living room couch that was the front seat. It was fantastic. I twisted the derby man’s arm and bought the car for $700.
It didn’t take long for me to start making her look proud again…
I replaced the parking signal lenses and front bumper. I buffed out the paint, and the nose got a fresh coat of Sandalwood beige. After I got new motor mounts, had the radiator re-cored, fixed the broken turn signal switch, added a period correct AM/FM Delco radio, I was off on what would become four of the best years of my life. I took the car to Everett Community College, where I was taking painting classes and getting math credits that were needed to attend a four-year university. On my days off from work and school, I took the car up some of the Cascade back roads for hiking and camping. That summer proved to be the year I went wild, in the sense of going to a lot of parties and dabbling in things. I worked at a campground with co-workers who loved to have a good time after hours. And this car was there for the ride! I was in love. This wagon was ostentatious and curvaceous, like Marilyn Monroe–unabashedly zaftig.
When it came time to head to Bellingham and study at WWU, I thought I needed a small beater car to use for commuting so that I could save the Custom Cruiser for weekends and fair weather. That proved to be a mistake. I bought an Olds Achieva, which was more like an Olds Upheaval, and put the wagon in storage a few miles from my apartment. Even though it came out once in a while, I think sitting for most of the winter for two years was not good for the motor.
One day, I took it into the garage to be serviced, and the mechanic told me that coolant was leaking into the oil and it needed an intake manifold gasket. OK, I thought, no problem. Get the timing chain done at the same time, yada yada. Well, the car comes out of the shop and suddenly the oil light comes on and stays on. I call them back and ask to have it checked at once. They looked it over and said they accidentally had the wire for the oil pressure sending unit grounding out on the block, causing the idiot light to glow. Nothing to worry about! The motor sounded good as always, that distinct Olds Rocket V-8 purr, and it showed no signs of trouble.
In retrospect, I have to wonder…this was before I knew a reputable mechanic, and while in college, I didn’t do much work on cars myself. That came later, when I moved to Eastern Washington and started to do more things myself. I really learned more about maintaining cars after this fiasco unraveled. Needless to say, the engine was now in tip top shape, or so I thought. It was time to take the old gal out on a proper road trip.
A week later I was driving to Moses Lake, about five hours away on the interstate. When I got there, the darned oil light came on again, but this time it kind of flickered on and off. Call it stupidity, naiveté, or what have you, but I just figured the wire came loose and was grounding out again, so I didn’t worry about it. Smoked some good chronic and continued with my plans, running errands into town, and driving with a friend the next day on a side trip to Grand Coulee Dam. The light was still coming on and going off the whole time, but what did we care? Just play some Grateful Dead and Ozzie and forget about it. We camped out under the stars in the Okanogan, and woke up the next morning unaware that our luck was about to change.
After a brief boat ride across Lake Roosevelt, we finally were climbing a steep canyon road out of Keller’s Ferry when the engine started sounding like the lifters were ticking really loudly. I thought it strange that I could hear the workings of the motor much more clearly than usual. So we went about 20 miles farther down the road and pulled off at a gas station in the little town of Wilbur. I decided to check the oil. Pulled the dipstick and it is bone dry. Holy Sh*t, I think to myself. Frantic, I raced into the gas station store and bought whatever oil I could find, Pennzoil 10W30 if I recall correctly. I added about four quarts before the dipstick read full. We drove maybe 70 miles back to Moses Lake, leaving a trail of blue smoke the whole way. Once there, I changed the oil and added a quart of Lucas. Drove all the way back to Bellingham, about 300 miles, adding a quart of oil in the process.
I don’t wish to dwell too much on my mistakes, but I have to finish the story–so I ended up moving to the east side of the state, and decided that the Olds was probably not going to make it for the long haul. I put it up for sale, and my old derby acquaintance called me up, wanting to buy it for cheap. I said no. A month passed, I was close to ending my apartment lease and had to move ASAP, when a Canadian called me up to look at the car. I agreed to meet him just this side of the border. Driving through a drizzly rain, a eulogy going through my head about all the great times I had in this car, I made my way up the Guide Meridian to meet the next owner of a vehicle that had become more than just a car to me over the four years I’d had it. He showed up with a huge flatbed tow truck, and my first thought was “demo derby”. Like the guy I bought it from back in Snohomish, he claimed he was going to restore it, but something about his gestures made me doubt his honesty. Guess I don’t really want to know…time was running out, and in a weak moment principle gave in to money. I watched it roll away, up the road into Canada, and waited for a taxi to take me back into town.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and this was not the end of the line for me when it came to “saving the whales,” as ASWOA puts it. In the past seven years, I’ve done a lot more work on my own cars. Still have an old American station wagon, most recently a Mopar, saved from the derby and the crusher to live another day. Regardless, I do miss the car that first stole my heart, first in the pages of a book in 1995, and then made an appearance in the flesh, visiting my garage if only for a short while. RIP, ’71 Olds!