COAL: 1997 Oldsmobile Aurora – To The Rescue!


“97 Aurora for sale. Dealer maintained since new. Just moved here from Kansas, no rust. New tires 6mo ago. Runs great, when it starts (mechanic says it needs new starter). $700 firm. Call Lisa, anytime after 5pm.”

Needless to say, I had the trailer hooked up in less time than it took you to read this sentence.


Whenever I go out chasing a possible new-to-me vehicle, I always bring a trailer. You never know whether the object of your conquest will be roadworthy or not… and often times, immobile cars (even those whose problems are very minor) end up going cheap.

For towing disabled vehicles, I generally insist on using a 3/4 ton or larger vehicle. It just makes the job that much easier. Things like this…


…and this…


…and this…


…are pretty much painless when you’ve got an appropriately sized truck and trailer.

In the case of this Aurora, I might not have needed the trailer. The owner told me on the phone that it did indeed crank slowly, but that once running it would stay running, with the voltmeter reading a respectable fourteen volts, and the battery having just passed a load test with flying colors.

Still, the car was a good eighty miles away. Could I really trust it to make the trip? Maybe, maybe not. So as always, I decided to burn the extra gas and bring the trailer.


Upon arrival, I found the car to be everything the owner said it was. “Lisa” (whose name I’ve changed, mostly because I don’t remember her real name) was a woman in her thirties who’d moved to Minneapolis for work. Her family owned a GM dealership back in Kansas, and had set her up with this car several years ago.

Seems the original owner had bought it new at the dealership and kept it for a decade or so, driving it sparingly and always bringing it in for service per the recommended schedule. When the time came to trade up, the original owner got a fancy new something-or-other, and Lisa got to hang onto this well-kept Olds.

But with the family dealership now hundreds of miles away, keeping the car maintained was more of a hassle–and considerably more expensive. So when Lisa’s new mechanic quoted her $500 to replace the Aurora’s starter, she decided to call it quits. Some Camcord-type thing now sat in her driveway, brand new and still wearing dealer tags. Meanwhile the Olds sat beside the curb, collecting leaves and looking forgotten.


I gave it a thorough once-over. For a car with 170K miles, it was unbelievably clean and straight. There was nary a flaw in the body to be found. The interior was likewise nice; though the leather was clearly broken in, and the carpet looked like it could benefit from a good shampooing, it was in pretty good shape overall.

The starter was barely able to turn the engine over, but amazingly, it did manage to get it started. Once running, the engine sounded good. Of course I was nervous about taking on anything with a late ’90s Northstar engine (and equally apprehensive about finding a buyer for one down the road), but all signs pointed to “yes.”

When Lisa said “$700 firm” in the ad, she meant it. I had to try haggling, of course–my rule of thumb on craigslist cars is that one should always be able to get the price down by at least ten percent–but she wasn’t budging. I couldn’t blame her for standing firm, and I told her so. It had been kept in good shape, and if all worked out, it’d be a great deal for me.

With the transaction completed, I winched the car onto the trailer and headed home.


On the way back up north, I stopped at the U-Pull and bought a starter. This was the first time I’d ever had to remove an intake manifold to get at a starter–a strange arrangement, to be sure. I also picked up what few other pieces it needed, such as a driver’s window switch assembly (one of the switches was finicky) and a plastic wheel cap (one of the four was missing).


I wasted no time getting my latest acquisition into the garage for repairs. After spending some time under the hood, it wasn’t difficult to see what had caused the starter’s failure: it had been bathing in an oil-like substance, which I eventually determined was power steering fluid.

Turns out a leaking power steering hose fitting had been squirting fluid near the plastic upper intake manifold, where it had been collecting in the valley below. Over time, the fluid had built up, finally rising to a level where it was able to drown the starter.


Determining the source of the leak took several rounds of soaking up the fluid, reassembling the manifold, running the engine, then disassembling again and looking for evidence. But eventually I found the offending fitting, and was able to stop the leak.


I also got to hone my skills in quickly assembling and disassembling Northstar intakes. By the third time or so, I could have held my own against any flat-rate mechanic.


After the starter issue was solved, the car ran like a dream. I was still nervous about owning a Northstar, but I could certainly see their appeal–plenty of torque, nice and smooth, just an all-around pleasant driving experience.


The car itself wasn’t anything to sneeze at, either. The paint shined like new with minimal effort, and the interior cleaned up decently as well. It was comfortable, it had plenty of options, and the frameless windows were a refreshing change of pace for a FWD GM product.

But even with the Olds in tip-top shape, I wasn’t putting all that many miles on it. Most of my driving was work-related, and for that I needed a work truck. The Aurora, nice as it was, really wasn’t the tool for the job when it came to hauling parts.

As many of you already know, my work truck is a 1/2 ton Chevy. It has a 4.3 V6 and a 4L60E transmission. As a result, I try to avoid towing with it. That job usually falls to one of the larger vehicles, as seen above. But sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you’d like them to.

So after too much of this…


That Firebird was so low, I had to take the wheels off the dolly in order to load it!

…and this…


The new flatbed, pre-restoration

…and this…


At least this was light enough to be a non-issue

…my work truck’s tranny finally said uncle. Everything was going great, and then “ping, zing!”–no more reverse.

I searched high and low for a reasonably-priced replacement transmission. The best one I could find was located about 100 miles away, kind of a long haul for one of the gas guzzling 1-tons. So I popped the trunk on the Aurora, laid down a piece of plywood and several pieces of old carpet, and headed out. A few hours later, the Oldsmobile and I returned with the new transmission–mission accomplished!


Though I had enjoyed driving the Aurora, I couldn’t quite find the same level of enjoyment when looking at its profile. Besides, I’d bought it with resale in mind. So now that I’d sorted out its problems and had a little fun, it was time to sell it.

The first person who saw it, bought it. He was an older gentleman who’d been specifically seeking a first-generation Aurora, and could find no reason to reject mine. Just like before, no haggling took place–we exchanged cash for title, and both parties walked away happy.

So, there you have it: one more car successfully placed in a loving home.