Every now and then, cosmic forces beyond our control come into play. When Laurence Jones and I were simultaneously pounding out our takes on the ’58 Olds while completely unaware of the other’s efforts, we had to recognize that not even Curbside Classic is beyond the reach of these forces. So we decided to just roll with it and celebrate the 1958 Oldsmobile today. Oldsmobility for everyone!
The 1958 Oldsmobile. Just to say it evokes moans, giggles or rolling eyes. One of the most over-styled cars of the 1950s (if not of all time), it has become more of a punch line than a car. Just what, exactly, is there to say about this car. As Jack Benny famously replied to the gunman who demanded his money or his life, I’m thinking, I’m thinking . . . . . .
Sometimes, a car is just a car. It is easy to bring up a ’53 Bel Air, or a ’68 Newport and not have the discussion stray beyond the vehicle itself. The 1958 Oldsmobile is not such a car. This car, like few others, is almost a hostage of its times and circumstances.
The basic story is well known. Harley Earl, longtime GM styling chief, oversaw an entirely new line of GM cars for 1958, which were bigger and better in every way for growing postwar America that was getting used to the good life. Earl had led GM styling since the 1920s, and his 1958 line was to be the capstone to a singularly successful career.
There was one problem. Across town, a guy named Virgil Exner had another idea. Instead of the bold, massive look that had been a GM hallmark for decades, Exner penned lines that were lithe, trim and athletic. Chrysler called it the Forward look, and it hit the showrooms a full year before the first 1958 Olds came off the truck. The Forward Look Mopars changed the rules about what a modern American car should look like. GM panicked, ashcanned the entire new 1958 line a year before the cars were even introduced, and initiated the crash program that would result in all-new 1959 models.
Let’s start with the styling. It is, after all, the easiest target. This car did bold and massive like nothing before. This car evokes the feel of the previous Baron of Bold, the 1942 “B-44″ Oldsmobile. And as a concept, this car is about as far as you can get from the original 88 of 1949, which made its name with a lot of power in a lightweight car. For 1958, it would be a lot of power in a really, really big car.
Harley Earl liked chrome, and found a lot of places to put it on this car. Late 1957 would have been time to buy stock in Detroit-area plating companies, because there was a lot of their product on these Oldsmobiles, both inside and out. I have always wondered if J.C. Whitney sold chrome musical notes to attach between the lines on the rear quarters. Just think – you could put the first couple of bars of your favorite song on the flanks of your car! We should also note that this is the base level Dynamic 88, which has the least chrome trim of any Olds model that year.
With the possible exception of the 1958 Buick, this may have been one of the most “in your face” cars ever made. This car makes the ’58 Edsel look positively graceful. If you want subtle, please look elsewhere. Subtlety was not what OLDSmobility was all about. In the words of my eighteen year old son John, it’s not attractive, but it leaves an impression.
I would have really liked to sit in on the meetings that addressed how these cars were to be marketed and sold. “Here’s the thing, Phil. You have got to plug the crap out of these, because DeSoto Edsel and Mercury are trying to eat our lunch. But you’ve got to do it in a way that will not have every last one of our buyers furious at us when they see the ’59s that make their new cars obsolete. Any questions?” Maybe this is why the brochure opened with “Here is your special introduction to the pleasure, the excitement, and the lasting satisfaction in store for you, as the owner of a 1958 Oldsmobile.” Put another way, “hey, we said ‘lasting satisfaction’, we just figured that a year would be long-lasting enough.”
Did you know that four-beam headlights came from “the wonder world of modern electronics”? Well neither did I. In fact, the entire brochure is written like this. The marketing guys were in full song and dance mode trying to keep buyers out of competitors’ showrooms. It has been a long time since I found a brochure so fun to read. The entire piece can be found here.
1958 was notable for another GM innovation – air suspension. Oldsmobile really touted “New-Matic Ride”. The system involved air bladders in place of springs and was an extra-cost option. Unfortunately, the air suspension was another 1950s idea that came in advance of the 1980s technology required to make it work well.
The New-Matic equipped cars added little in ride comfort, nothing in handling and a lot of headache. Dealers did a brisk business retrofitting New-Matic cars with steel springs.
Now that we have made it past the looks, the competition, the concept and the failed innovations, what kind of car was the ’58 Olds? A pretty good one, as it turned out. By 1958, the famous Rocket V8 was up to 371 cubic inches, and had nothing to be ashamed of. The base engine in this Dynamic 88 was a 2 barrel carb version that proved to be surprisingly economical in everyday driving, and which actually won its class in that years’ Mobilgas Economy Run. Moving up to the Super 88 got you a 4 barrel carb or, if you were really ready to party, check the J-2 option for the triple two barrel setup, good for 312 horsepower.
The Jetaway HydraMatic was the same unit as used in the Cadillac, and was a very durable and trouble-free (although expensive to build) unit. The extra low first gear of the four speed Hydro made for some very impressive acceleration back in the day. All of this motive force was affixed to a very stout frame with both full-length side rails and X bracing, which avoided the weaknesses of the new X frame (see the X frame history here) used in most other 1958 GM cars.
The conventional wisdom is that the ’58 steel-sprung Olds was not much of a handler, but it was actually not bad for the era. Although it could not keep pace with the Torsion-Aire Mopars, the folks at Hot Rod Magazine insisted that the car was a decently stiff set of shocks away from being a very good road car, even with its two ton weight. Curiously, Oldsmobile continued to use rear leaf springs instead of the coils found in all of the sister divisions.
I took a recent trip to northwest Indiana. One of my favorite things about traveling an unfamiliar area is the possibility of stumbling across a great old car. On my way home, I was driving through stop and go traffic in Kokomo, Indiana when I saw this car minding its own business in a used car lot. When surrounded by otherwise ordinary Town Cars, Durangos and the like, this one really stood out.
I had a pleasant chat with Bill Tandy of Sims Auto. Kokomo is a car town, and still has major factories for GM (Delco) and Chrysler. Bill says that this big, brash Oldsmobile has brought out a lot of nostalgia among the old timers, many of whom are probably GM retirees.
This is an original low-mile car that Bill found in Indianapolis. He had the wheels repainted to match the roof (as original), but otherwise, the car is just as it was found. He is presently in negotiations with someone who wants to ship it to Europe. If you think this car stands out here, imagine it somewhere in Scandinavia.
By the time the smoke had cleared at the end of the 1958 model year, a funny thing had happened. The ’58 Olds was popular enough to finish the year at fourth place in sales, behind Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. As such, it was the most popular mid-priced car in the country. Not bad for a car that was out of style before it was even introduced and in a year in which the medium priced market began to implode.
True, Oldsmobile got some lucky breaks. The Edsel self-immolated. The newly up-market Mercury failed to catch on in its new segment. DeSoto was hoist on its own petard by the terrible quality of its bodies and interiors. But beyond its competitors’ failings, Oldsmobile did a pretty good job in the basic blocking and tackling required to build a good medium priced car.
When I first saw this example, I was all ready to pile on over its all-too-obvious shortcomings. But after mulling things over, I developed some respect for the ’58 Olds. It may not have been as great as the promotional materials led us to believe, but it turned out to be a pretty good car. Our mothers were right: true beauty is more than skin deep. I never thought I’d say it, but if you can get past the car’s polarizing appearance (which is not an easy thing to do) and look down deep inside, the 1958 Oldsmobile is actually a pretty attractive car. But on the surface, it is a car that only Harley Earl’s mother could love.