Welcome to the first part of what I expect to be a three or more part series about the second life of the car shown above: a 1986 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. This vehicle came under my ownership in February 2013, 27 years after leaving the assembly line in Lansing, Michigan. From the “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” era, it was indeed not your father’s Oldsmobile – it was someone’s grandmother’s, having spent its first life as the last car of an elderly woman in northern Virginia. I bought this time-worn but still very solid vehicle with an unusual plan for its future, and while I work to put it into effect, it serves so well in multiple roles that I am starting to wonder about how great the sense of loss will be after it is gone.
My story with this car began the way that many great stories begin: with a completely coincidental meeting. For months I had been looking occasionally on Craigslist and eBay for a full-size station wagon from the 1980s or 1990s, for a specific purpose that I will describe later. A Caprice, Roadmaster, or other full-size station wagon from those eras would have a combination of attributes that would ideally suit my intended purpose: comfort during long days of driving, decent highway gas mileage (city mileage of a V8 powered full size wagon would be low but irrelevant), massive interior cargo capacity, and simple and familiar mechanical systems that could be repaired by any barely competent mechanic, including myself. Before I started looking seriously, I happened to see this Custom Cruiser parked at a gas station while driving an indirect route home that I normally would not use, which I happened to take on a whim.
A mechanic at the gas station, one of the increasingly rare service stations with real mechanics who will work on anything, happily explained the wagon’s history to me. It had been the last car of an elderly local woman who had recently passed away, rarely driven and then sitting outside unused for many years after she stopped driving. The previous owner’s heirs had towed the non-running wagon to the service station and asked them to do whatever they wanted with it – scrap it, sell it, or keep it and use it. The mechanic took on the task of reviving it, and after cleaning out the gas tank, working on the carburetor, replacing the battery and fluids, and tracking down some electrical issues, the long-dormant 307 V8 fired up again.
The result was a 1986 Olds Custom Cruiser with faded refrigerator-white paint, superficial body damage consistent with senior citizen usage (major gouge on the passenger side rear door and fender, shoved-in rear bumper), and some surface rust, but with only 77,000 miles, interior condition consistent with low mileage, a smooth running engine, smooth shifting transmission, and all systems functioning – power windows, power locks, power seats, heating and ventilation, exterior lights, interior lights, etc. – except for the A/C and cruise control. No fake wood siding, and no Broughaminess inside, just plain vinyl upholstery; it is as if someone had created a distillation of simple American full size wagon virtues, then put it to sleep like Rip Van Winkle, becoming rough around the edges but still quite healthy. It was perfect for my intended purpose if it was as good as it seemed, and with a three figure asking price, even if it turned out to be more mechanically decrepit than it looked, it would be a useful cheap cargo hauler for local use. It was an opportunity too good to pass up. Money from a not very large ATM withdrawal changed hands, and the Olds was mine.
To stop hiding the ball and finally tell you why I was looking for an old American station wagon, it is for a tough mission: the Banjul Challenge, a 3,700 mile cross country driving event for beater cars, organized and led by Brits (who else would think of such a thing?) since 2002. Starting in the UK and ending in Banjul, capital of The Gambia, it was a pioneering “Banger Challenge,” duplicating some of the experience of the Paris-Dakar Rally, but using worthless old cars that anyone can afford to drive into the ground.
A friend whom I met in Iraq and I had long dreamed of doing such a driving challenge, inspired by years of watching Top Gear and seeing Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond driving around the UK, Europe or Africa in old clunkers trying to perform absurd feats with their barely functioning cars. We really wanted to do the Mongol Rally, which runs from London to Ulan Bator, but we found the huge distances and the awfully tiny cars required under the rules (1 liter subcompacts) to be a bit daunting. The Banjul Challenge’s shorter distances and acceptance of any and all cars looked more manageable, and when I learned that another friend from Iraq was going to Banjul for an assignment at the U.S. Embassy there, the planets had aligned to make Banjul our destination.
Bringing a big old American station wagon will be further icing on the cake, because we will be the first contestants to enter a “Yank Tank” in this event. A Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine went down to Timbuktu – not a metaphor, or a Weird Al Yankovic parody of the Charlie Daniels Band; there is a Timbuktu Challenge organized by the same people – but no Detroit iron has arrived in Banjul yet. (At least one Jeep Cherokee has made the journey, but doing it in an SUV would not be the same experience.) Americans rarely enter this event, and all of the American teams that I am aware of have used the same European-market cars as the British and continental entrants – diesel Mercedes, VWs, even Ladas and other Soviet bloc cars. Shipping the car to Europe on a roll on/roll off ship will be an added expense and effort, but it will be less than the cost and hassle of buying a suitable car in Europe and working on it there.
We will be flying the flag among the Europeans, and we will be bringing what I believe to be an ideal vehicle for the journey, which is mostly on highways, with off-road driving only in a two day crossing of the Sahara Desert. Understressed American V8 power, old fashioned bench seat couches, and simple and easily repaired GM mechanicals were intended for this kind of work. Crossing long distances in Texas or Arizona has always been routine for an average American car, so West Africa conditions should be no problem.
For crossing the Sahara, we may use knobbier rear tires to increase our traction in sand. Air shocks to maintain ground clearance while heavily loaded are a likely addition as well, since we plan to make our vast cargo hold available to other teams that need extra space for gear (and/or beer) that their small cars, with their small “boot” space, do not have. (This magnanimity will help to ensure that we do not get abandoned in the middle of the desert!) No other modifications should be necessary, only ensuring that all essential systems are in sufficiently good condition to survive the three week journey.
The Custom Cruiser’s vast expanses of plain white sheet metal are a perfect blank canvas for sponsor decals or a creative team theme. An obvious idea is to bring out green rattle-can paint and model the car after Clark Griswold’s Family Truckster in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” which is the first thing that anyone below the age of 50 thinks of when they see an old American station wagon. We also could reach back into the classics of American literature and christen this white whale “Moby Dick,” and do the trip in a nautical style that Herman Melville would appreciate. If we find other Yank Tanks going as well, another nautical theme presents itself: the Great White Fleet of white-painted battleships sent to circumnavigate the globe by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. Reaching back to the music of my teenage years and recording a theme song in the style of Billy Idol (“It’s a nice day to start again. It’s a nice day for a white wagon!”) also occurred to me, but since I already have a different musical theme picked out, that idea will have to be set aside for another time.
Back to the present day, to my pleasant surprise, the old Olds has turned out to be even better than I expected, after months and almost 2,000 miles of driving and observation – its shakedown cruise, to use an appropriate nautical term. The engine and transmission function flawlessly (albeit as feebly as you would expect from an Olds 307), the steering is exactly as I remember from my 1976 Olds Cutlass Supreme and various B Bodies that I have driven over the years, and the brakes stop the car strongly and straight, with no noticeable fluid leaks from any of these systems. I had a brief scare when what looked like smoke emerged from under the hood, but five seconds of tightening an upper radiator hose clamp ended that problem. The body is still solid and free of rattles and squeaks, with no structural rust.
Mechanical issues are few and mostly unnecessary to repair. A rear power window motor stopped working, but since the windows roll down only half way, this failure was not a significant loss. The speedometer squeaks in cold weather sometimes, but since the noise is only intermittent and the Sahara Desert will not be cold while we are driving, disassembling the dashboard to inspect the speedometer and speedometer cable looks like too much unnecessary effort. Only the non-functioning A/C is a significant issue, and I will troubleshoot it in my spare time. With more time to ferret out hidden mechanical problems before departure, and my co-driver’s mechanical skills available on the road (he used to be a professional auto mechanic), the Custom Cruiser should be able to handle the journey. We will have a year to work on it, because we signed up for the January 2014 Banjul Challenge but had to reschedule to the next year because of personal issues that emerged this year for both me and my co-driver.
Keeping this old station wagon for an extra year is fine with me, because it has turned out to be a supremely useful vehicle that I am increasingly reluctant to let go. Its huge cargo area has already been used to its fullest several times, and I estimate that the vehicle has almost paid for itself already by making van rentals unnecessary. The most notable time has been when I moved all of the possessions that my fiancé (now wife) had accumulated in a two bedroom apartment. The Custom Cruiser swallowed so much cargo that two trips were all that was necessary to move everything aside from a few items of furniture too bulky to fit into the tailgate. Each weekend, this most unsporting of motor vehicles also becomes a “sport utility” vehicle in the most literal sense. Going bicycling? Forget about wrestling with a bike rack, just toss the bike into the back and go. Going to play hockey? The Custom Cruiser has become my hockey game transport and gear storage container.
The reasons are several. Having space to easily carry hockey sticks and a bulky equipment bag is only the beginning. Those who have played hockey know that hockey equipment has a uniquely vile smell that comes from years of stale sweat that never gets washed out; those who do not know this smell should be thankful. The interior of the Custom Cruiser is unaffected by it, since it already has a slightly musty old car smell from its years of sitting outside, so the eau de hockey gear is not really noticeable. Being able to leave my hockey gear in the car without worrying about making the car smell, because it already does, is quite a luxury. Combined with the car’s vinyl upholstery, which is impervious to sweat, and the Custom Cruiser seems purpose-built for the role.
Another luxury is the ability to laugh off bumper taps, door dings, errant golf balls and baseballs, or children using the hood as a trampoline. Big 1970/80s metal bumpers are impervious to parallel parking taps from the plastic bumpers of modern cars, and the thick steel of these older car bodies is hard to dent, so there is little risk of the car being damaged by anything other than a collision with a similarly solid metal or concrete object. And if it gets scratched or dented, who in their right mind would care? It is already faded, dented and rusty. The ability not to worry about anything is a rare luxury, and in this car, you have it.
Aside from its usefulness for carrying things and freedom from worry, the Custom Cruiser has become a vehicle that I actually enjoy driving in many situations. It is not the same driving enjoyment that I had during years of driving an Audi S6, or during my brief experience of Porsche ownership. With its 307 V8 producing a mere 140 horsepower when new and with the standard suspension, it is slow and not sporty at all in the way that it handles, but those aspects of driving enjoyment are completely irrelevant to this kind of car.
The uniquely relaxing driving experience that traditional large American cars provided is the attraction. Instead of clamping yourself into a bucket seat, concentrating on steering and shifting precisely, and feeling obligated to drive fast because otherwise you are letting your driving machine (ultimate or otherwise) go to waste, you simply relax on the front couch, waft along with the silent V8 tugging gradually but effortlessly, and aim the car down the road with the no-effort power steering doing the work for you. Driving in the city is especially pleasurable in the Custom Cruiser, because its unfashionably soft springs and high profile tires allow you to ignore potholes and torn up pavement, which are barely noticeable through the tall and flexible tires, soft suspension, and body-to-frame rubber mounts that probably have the firmness of marshmallows. Driving this way all the time would be terribly boring, but for the majority of the time when congestion and bad pavement make fast driving impossible or uncomfortable, it is quite pleasant.
Almost thirty years ago, not long before my Custom Cruiser rolled off the assembly line, Peter Egan wrote a column in Road & Track about his experience with buying an almost 15 year old full size Ford station wagon from a neighbor for 100 dollars. (“The Hundred-Dollar Special,” in the December 1984 issue of Road & Track.) The noted sports car and motorcycle writer described how he had bought it only to serve as a cheap tow vehicle for his British sports cars, but unexpectedly found himself driving it everywhere as he realized how competent, useful, and carefree it was. While writing this article, I remembered Egan’s column and realized that I have repeated his experience with a fundamentally similar vehicle almost three decades later. So far, that is the extent of my life with this Custom Cruiser, but in the next installment I should have more unusual adventures to report.