“Some men are Baptist, others Catholic; my father was an Oldsmobile man.”
The 1983 film A Christmas Story, by the great American writer and storyteller Jean Shepherd, has become a holiday classic. Ralphie Parker, growing up in 1940-ish Hammond, Indiana, schemes and struggles to put a Red Ryder BB gun under his Christmas tree. (“…with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.” ”You’ll shoot your eye out!”)
A Christmas Story is semi-autobiographical, mostly from episodes in Shep’s collections In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. The Parker family’s 1937 Oldsmobile Six four-door touring sedan is a prominent supporting character. Let’s make it today’s CC, a Christmas Classic parked at the curbside of our popular memory.
The Old Man’s great pride and daily frustration is his 1937 Oldsmobile Six. It sure was easy to tie a tree onto a car with detached headlights and taillights. In ’37 the Olds Six and Eight had completely different grilles. More about that in a minute. Check out that cylindrical feature below the grille over the axle area. It reminds me of a similar functional feature on the front-drive L-29 Cord.
Its spacious four-door Unisteel Body by Fisher has plenty of room for the Parker family, the Old Man, Mom, Ralphie and his kid brother Randy. “Smartly tailored cushions of the pillow type…excellent quality tan cloth or rich taupe mohair” says the gorgeous brochure. Looks like it’s tan cloth for the Parkers.
The Old Man’s bittersweet relationship with his car is clear, “That hot damn Olds has froze up again! That son of a bitch would freeze up in the middle of summer on the equator!” Antifreeze then was methanol, and cooling systems were not sealed, so it would quickly evaporate. We use ethylene glycol today, which is much less volatile. Carbide (now Union Carbide) built the first ethylene glycol factory in 1937, and their Prestone antifreeze had the market to itself until 1953. This overhead shot shows off the Oldsmobile’s large steel turret top and art deco streamlined trim.
On the way home with the tree they got a blowout. ”Actually my old man loved them. He always saw himself in the pits at the Indianapoils Speedway in the 500. My old man’s spare tires were actually only tires in the academic sense, They were round, they had once been made of rubber.” In fact rubber was scarce in those days. The Japanese quickly conquered the rubber-producing lands of Southeast Asia. Synthetic rubber tires didn’t even come out until 1937. Tire rationing started just a few days after Pearl Harbor, and gasoline rationing was motivated as much by the need to save rubber as oil. His mom sent Ralphie out to help with the tire change, his first time ever! That’ll be a memorable experience.
Let’s go out to the present-day street to get a good clear look at the 1937 Oldsmobile Six four door touring sedan. You can just see the trunk in back which distinguishes the touring sedan from the regular four-doors. Built on a 117 inch wheelbase, with 16 inch wheels, the biggest Six weighs in at 3400 pounds. Olds built 138,000 Sixes for ’37, after 160,000 in ’36. They wouldn’t reach that peak again until 1950.
Now back to this distinctive grille, new for ’37 and only on the Six. Prior Olds grilles, and the ’37 Eight, sported the more usual thin vertical bars, on both Six and Eight. Thick horizontal bars with spaces between was a new look and a big hit, that Oldsmobile carried across the line in 1938.
This ’37 Six’s grille design became a brand trademark that said Oldsmobile for decades afterwards. See how it evolved, from 1940′s partly full-width grille, to 1948′s arches, to 1953′s bold massive bars. As the Fifties modern look came in, Olds went to the usual meshes and such. But they went back to the Olds horizontal bars from time to time after that, as in the first Toronado, 1966.
Under that long hood we find Oldsmobile’s perennial F-series inline six cylinder flathead, used from 1928 thru 1950. New for ’37 it’s bored out to 230 cubic inches, with full-length cooling jackets, and a stronger crank, camshaft, lifters and “electro-hardened aluminum pistons”, resulting in 95 horsepower at 3400 rpm.
Take a good look at this chassis. Looks pretty familiar doesn’t it? Front engine, rear drive. X-reinforced steel frame, with coil spring independent (“Knee-Action”) front suspension, leaf springs and solid rear axle. Aside from moving the shift from floor to column, and lowering the carb and air cleaner, this archetypal American car chassis ran from the Thirties through the late Fifties, when the majors started going to unitized construction. The bodies changed radically over that time, while the chassis underneath stayed remarkably the same.
Separate body-on-frame construction allowed Olds and all the others to offer a remarkable variety of body styles, two and four doors, coupes and sedans and convertibles, with rumble seats, bigger or smaller trunks. Before your eyes pop out at those prices, bear in mind the average price of a new house in 1937 America was $4100, average annual income $1780, and a gallon of gas cost 10 cents.
Thanks to their neighbors, the Bumpuses, the Parker family had a sudden change of plans, and drove their ’37 Olds to this exotic fancy restaurant for Christmas dinner. They had a warm and memorable Christmas all the same. This year as always, the TBS cable channel is running A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight, starting tonight, Christmas Eve!
Here’s wishing you and yours a very warm and wonderful Yuletide season, and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.