(first posted 3/28/2016) It is to this car-spotter’s advantage that North Sheridan Road in Chicago’s north side can move slowly during warm, languid summer afternoons. If you aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, it can be fun to walk down the sidewalk or ride the 151 or 147 CTA bus and count the classic cars in traffic. North Sheridan runs roughly parallel to Lake Michigan, and for many who live in the neighborhoods of Edgewater or Rogers Park (or further north), it’s the quickest route to get to Lake Shore Drive, which is basically four lanes of expressway-like travel into downtown. It was on one, such Saturday afternoon after grocery shopping when I spotted this brown, bovine beauty inching forward in traffic like an animal that had found itself lost in the city and was just going along with the herd. And what a beautiful brute it was.
Oldsmobile produced just over 16,000 of these Custom Cruiser wagons for model year 1975 (just 2.5% of total Olds production that year), in both two- and three-row configurations, with or without DiNoc. The wagons came standard with Olds’ 455 c.i. big-block V8 which produced 195 hp, mated with GM’s ubiquitous three-speed TurboHydramatic transmission. The dry weight of the most basic Custom Cruiser was just over two-and-a-half tons. The heaviest ’75 Custom Cruiser, at nearly 5,200 lbs., weighed only 200 lbs. less than the lightest 2016 Chevy Tahoe – a difference of roughly 3.5%. That’s mindblowing to me, especially considering the new Tahoe’s weight includes a host of safety features and equipment now required by the federal government.
The new Tahoe is undeniably a large vehicle, but the Custom Cruiser appears to my eyes to have more visual bulk – stretched long, low and wide, based on GM’s largest full-size, B-Body platform ever offered and riding on a 127″ wheelbase. Part of the reason the current Tahoe looks lighter than this Olds to me could be due to its linear styling, versus the Olds’ complex shapes and curves…but what curves and character lines this zaftig Custom Cruiser has! This Oldsmobile is a visual feast, with heavily sculpted bodysides, wraparound glass, and cathedral-shaped taillights. When’s the last time you saw one of these in person that wasn’t at a car show or in a demolition derby?
Sadly, I bore witness to the destruction of a GM “clamshell” wagon (so nicknamed for the rear tailgate, which slid completely out of sight under the body of the car, with a turn of the key) at a demolition derby in Michigan, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. The car in the ring wasn’t an Olds – it was a Chevy, if I recall correctly, but this was the mid-1980’s, and none of the other cars in the arena could hold a candle to that B-Body behemoth. I grew up watching shows that featured spectacular car crashes (“CHiPs”, “The Dukes Of Hazzard”), and lived to watch that stuff on television. Somehow, in person, the thrill of victory had felt more like the agony of defeat, as I watched the battered clamshell Chevy – once a clean, straight-bodied beast – moan loudly through its busted exhaust as it limped around the ring after winning its title at the Genesee County Fair before very inevitably heading to the crusher. As if witnessing the implosion of an old, once-grand building, I felt an inner emptiness after this experience that left me utterly confused. I was supposed to have liked this.
Our featured car is a true survivor – an automobile that was rare, even when new. Lansing’s GM division produced almost twice as many Starfires in ’75 than full-size wagons. Looking at this car, I had many questions I wanted to ask the driver. How did you come to acquire this fine specimen? How many owners? Miles? Years since you’ve owned it? May I sit in it? Will you lift the hood? What did you do with the fender skirts? Oh, and yes…as is obvious from the pictures, the fender skirts were missing. I’m not going to lie – I don’t dislike the look of this car sans fender skirts, but I hope that they’re in the garage somewhere for safe keeping. Sadly, I had two arms loaded with grocery bags when I spotted this Olds wagon coming southbound. While I could sense the driver had noticed me taking pictures after quickly setting my grocery bags down, there was no time for an in-depth interview. I shouted, “Nice car!” to him, and he waved back. Sometimes, that’s all you get, especially when folks have places to go.
“It’s a good feeling to have an Olds around you,” states this page out of the ’75 brochure. The phrase of having an Olds like this “around you” is like saying a yacht or a tank or a swimming pool sits “around you”. Just read the text outlining its features: “semi-transparent” woodgrain vinyl applique, front-facing third-row seats, and a storage compartment hidden beneath the cargo floor in the “wayback”. This was heady, heavily-engineered stuff, even for this era of GM overkill. For all of the technological and creature comfort wonders outlined in the brochure, I’m most curious as to what kind of trouble the smirking kid in the navy blazer in the upper right got into before, during and after this photo shoot. Doesn’t he just look like trouble? He’d be the one I wouldn’t let sit in the wayback for fear of him making gestures at passengers of other cars. But I digress.
I’m glad this big ‘Cruiser, as of last summer, had yet escaped the fate of the demolition derby at the hands of some unappreciative yahoo. Large and in charge, this Olds glided with stature and grace down the main boulevard of an area that had been, up until the dawn of the 1950’s, the playground of the wealthy. North Sheridan Road is now lined with high-rise condominiums, mid-rise four-plus-one rental apartments, and a handful of private residences. It’s noteworthy that the high-rise featured in the opening credits of “The Bob Newhart Show”, where Bob and Emily Hartley had fictionally lived, is two blocks south of where I photographed this car (which would have been new when that show was in first-run). Thank you, Mr. Olds Driver, for giving me my Nineteen-Seventies fix for the day. Please keep this classic, American station wagon running, keep it pretty, and keep it looking as loved and appreciated as it did on this day.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, June 6, 2015.
- From Woodgraincoasty: COAL: 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser – The Ultimate Wagon Of A Lifetime;
- From Paul Niedermeyer: Curbside Classic: 1975 Buick Estate Wagon – The Ultimate American Station Wagon;
- From Tom Klockau: eBay Classic: 1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari – A Lot To Love!; and
- Another great eBay find from Perry Shoar: Ebay Find: 1975 Chevrolet Bel Air Wagon – Economy-Sized Economy.