Curbside Classic has probably said most of what one can say about the 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Starfire Convertible by discussing other Oldsmobiles. We’ve seen much of Oldsmobile’s history in the Cutlass Chronicles: ingenious inception, unqualified success, and collapse into confusion. What’s more, many writers and commenters remember Oldsmobile here.
Me, too: the 394 Rocket in my parents’ long-lived 1964 Super 88 made my favorite childhood sound. (The VW was more fun to imitate, but the “good car” was almost as interesting as a fire truck, and had air conditioning to boot.)
In 1949, Oldsmobile and Cadillac first put together the “package” that would dominate North American motoring for 30 years: overhead valve V8 engine, automatic transmission, rear wheel drive with solid axle. Variations were permissible: the driveshaft could be open or enclosed, coil springs or Hotchkiss drive were both acceptable, and some people, most of them opposed to fun, would buy an American car with fewer than 8 cylinders.
This car looks to deviate from the midcentury formula with a column-shifted manual transmission, given the absence of a quadrant on the steering column. With 202 horsepower pulling 4,159 pounds, the ability to create and conserve momentum probably has some value here. The 324-inch Rocket also developed 332 ft-lbs of torque at 2400 rpm, so there’s probably no need to fuss with a lot of shifting, unless you want to.
Using this steering wheel is definitely worth the price of admission.
I had never seen one of these “futuramic” badges up close. I don’t think I’d ever come across a 50s Oldsmobile in person, before, and I’m impressed…
… even though there’s something profligate about the number of items around the grill and hood. On the whole, though, Oldsmobile seemed to be after a simple, rugged look: the front is squared off, and all features are big and easy to see.
The back is square, too, and that makes the non-fins at the edge seem a little odd. From a few yards away, the taillights look rather home-made.
But an up-close look reveals surprising detail.
As may happen with General Motors, the name on the car you buy may lead to some disappointment.
The Starfire was originally a Motorama car, with a fiberglass body that looked quite a bit sleeker and lower than production Oldsmobiles of the 50s. Starfire was just the name for the convertible 98, during 1955. A 98 convertible is a good car, but not a dream car. Perhaps most of all the GM divisions, Oldsmobile would be permanently barred from getting too close to the Corvette. If we’re discussing cars with 2 rows of seats, well, my imaginary, wealthy 50s self would have preferred the Motorama Starfire to Ford’s Squarebird, that’s for sure.
Still, as a sort of unpretentious, prosperous mobile lodge, this Starfire still succeeds in the job it was designed for.
You can also drive it four blocks to the supermarket.