I’ve always had a weird relationship with the 1958 Oldsmobiles. Given that Oldsmobile had some of the least offensive styling of the 1950s, this Chrome slathered non sequitur was one of the greatest styling fumbles ever to come out of any manufacturer. But underneath, wasn’t it the same good Oldsmobile as everything that preceded (and followed)?
Oldsmobile was often the most conservatively styled of all General Motors cars (if not the whole American auto industry). Other than a slight lead sled stance and Flying Colors paint job the 1955 models were pleasant, but not arresting.
By 1957 Oldsmobile styling had basically become narcolepsy inducing compared to the flamboyant designs from Highland Park and Dearborn. Although the mild mannered overall competence of Oldsmobiles still garnered its fair share of sales (from the ultra flexible hydra matic, a newly enlarged and enlivened 371 Rocket with J-2 carburetion) something more that a tri-divided rear window was needed to set the sales charts alight.
Unfortunately we were in the waning years of Harley Earl’s magic era of General Motors styling. And like Virgil Exner’s flame out at Chrysler soon to follow, his stewardship of the 1958 General Motors cars was an inelegant finish to a remarkable career of developing the first major in house design studio of any car manufacturer.
It is a tad hilarious to see all of the 1958 Oldsmobile ads tout the slogan of Oldsmobility advertising what to most eyes looked like gilded bricks with wheels, especially in comparison with those fatally faulty Forward Look Chryslers and DeSotos in the same market bracket. The only way the Oldsmobiles could imply motion in their ads were by doing weird angle shots. Notice both coupes in the ads aim towards the sky, to perhaps suggest that good old rocket thrust was in this all new Oldsmobile Queen Mary 88. I mean Dynamic… Eighty Eight.
But in reality, underneath all of the new jewelry, an Oldsmobile was still an Oldsmobile. The 371 came in healthy servings of 265, 305 and 312 horsepower, and that delightfully flexible Hydra matic meant although it wasn’t as much of a big block bruiser as say a Mercury Park Lane or Edsel Citation, it was still able to keep pace in base trim (Car Life Clocked a Dynamic Eighty Eight at 10.2 seconds to 60) or outrun (Super Eighty Eights were good for high 8 second times) the competition.
And where it would lose in in a drag race, and a road race course for that matter (against a DeSoto or Chrysler) it would outlast. The quality woes of those graceful Forward Look cars were well known, and almost universally avoided during the mid price market collapse of 1958. Actually Oldsmobile acquitted itself quite well, settling in the #4 slot for 1958 and becoming the most popular of all 1958 medium priced cars with nearly 295,000 examples going out the door.
Nonetheless, the chrome slathering ways of Earl, and the lessons learned from Highland Park were renounced with sweeping changes to all 1959 General Motors cars save the Corvette. While all other GM cars went all out in flamboyance to end the oddly repressed decade, the 1959 Oldsmobiles looked ready for the stylish, swinging sixties refreshingly devoid of chrome, almost looking, especially in Holiday Hardtop form, like overgrown 1960 Corvairs.
In all of this storytelling I almost forgot I was going to personally defend the 1958 Oldsmobile in some way today too. I have to say, for years I’ve gone back and forth on whether this long derided for styling behemoth is actually attractive to me. And I realize that I’m forever drawn to this rump. Something about the sweetheart dip at the back of the (front) doors on the Coupes and Sedans, especially on the shorter deck Eighty Eights in solid colors, flowing into the signature Oldsmobile rocket tip tunnel tail lamps, works brilliantly.
This little buxom detail makes viewing this Oldsmobile actually quite sensual for me, despite the ridicule . In a lot of ways the same exotic curvature that makes the 1958 Chevrolets seem so rich and “Cadillac” like works here, even slathered in chrome. Admittedly the Oldsmobiles this year were graced with a more serious, almost forboding face. Which for me adds to the allure. This juxtaposition between sternness and sex appeal in what was a truly competent by 1958 standards car is purely intoxicating to think about.
So there it is, possibly the most tawdry confession ever to grace Curbside Classic. I have a torrid love for the looks of the 1958 Oldsmobile. I’m ready to face all of the judgement that will happen in the comment section below. Love is never rational ladies and gentlemen.