Car Show Classic: 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 – Pressed In A Book

I wouldn’t wish being a 13-year-old boy on my worst enemy. Rarely in life is a person more self-conscious and annoying than they are at 13, but there is no period of life without its advantages. For example, my parents freely promoted my automotive education, perhaps to the detriment of other studies, as evidenced by my “capable of better work” report card comments. But that’s another matter entirely. As a 13 year old, I often visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, which had and has a lovely gift shop, where my parents bought me a book titled Cruise O Matic: Automobile Advertising of the 1950s, thereby sealing my fate as an inveterate hoarder of antique paper products.

In that book (purchased for $14.95 – the tag is still on the back) were 108 pages of antique car advertisements from the 1950s, including the idyllic winter scene shown above. The book contained little analysis, just a glorious cross section of automotive art, both drawings and photography. There has never been a time in my life where the preponderance of my thoughts didn’t involve something with headlights, and in that distant pre-internet age of 1990, nothing could have affected me more. I currently have thousands of car ads (including the one pictured above) in addition to my ridiculous collection of actual cars, toys, and literature. Sure, it’s like the Pacific Ocean – someone would have found it eventually – but this book started something new.

Therefore, my “misspent” youth wandering museums and collecting all the books about cars my parents would buy me was all I could think about when I found this Super 88 at the Sloan Museum Auto Fair in Flint, MI, this past summer. Certainly, few believe that 1957 and 1958 were the pinnacle of Harley Earl’s career, fans of the 1957 Chevy notwithstanding, and mid-priced brands such as Oldsmobile and Flint’s own Buick perhaps suffered the most from the vicissitudes of the buying public during those oft-maligned years.

Although Oldsmobile remained in the top-five in sales for 1957 and 1958, those sales plummeted from 485,458 in 1956 to 384,390 in 1957 and 294,374 in 1958. The reasons why mid-priced brands suffered have been well-documented, but one excuse for Oldsmobile and Buick in particular is that their cars were too “gingerbready.” That’s a bit of a tough sell in the context of this Super 88; the rear view is perhaps the most representative of that line of thinking, but it is tame compared to some cars of its generation, including the 1958 models. The fins aren’t even really fins, and the rocket-inspired taillights clearly fit the car’s advertising image.

It’s possible that this tripartite backlite of some models with its bisecting ridges was not in the best taste, but it’s interesting and it doesn’t really detract from the styling as a whole.

The dashboard is appropriately glitzy, but not too much so for 1957. The Autronic Eye is a nice touch, as is the central clock.  Even in a flashy red combination, the expansive view and chrome surround made for a dazzling drive, especially on a summer day.

Harley Earl was always at his best when it involved little details such as these little rockets atop the fenders and the forward-canting posture of the “88” on the “Super 88” emblem. All of this is fairly tasteful in context of the time, and augments the experience of owning or admiring a ’50s American car.

Perhaps the only excuse, aside from cars such as Fairlanes and Bel Airs encroaching upon Oldsmobile’s place on the Sloan Ladder and a recession, is that GMs of 1957 and 1958 looked backward rather than forward, as their contemporary Chrysler products claimed to. We all know the lengths to which GM went in 1959 to expunge their blunder, but from today’s perspective, it’s hard to fault the styling of this Oldsmobile. Sure, everyone had caught up to the Rocket 88’s lead in inexpensive performance by 1957, but that name was so enduring that people were still clamoring for it in 1977.

To be fair, Buick fared no better (and often worse) in sales during this time period, and it took longer for them to recover from 1957 and 1958. It’s been hinted at that those within GM at the time questioned Buick’s future due to the sales drubbing it took in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and if it weren’t for the sway of General Motors bigwig Harlow Curtice (whose 1957 Super, shown above, is a part of Sloan’s permanent collection), there might not be a Buick around to build innocuous SUVs today. That story is romantic but probably apocryphal: A Buick man to the end, even when he had the biggest office, Curtice retired in 1958.

True or not, Oldsmobile didn’t have such an inside-man at the top at the time of its demise in 2004, which is still sad to a lot of people who collect Oldsmobiles. If that weren’t bad enough, there are few modern print ads for the 13-year-old kids of today to collect, so those Oldsmobiles of 2004 may not jog the memories of tomorrow’s adults as this Super 88 jogged mine.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I really liked this Super 88 and I’m glad it’s still around, making guys like me smile about some of the most awkward years of their lives.