Since it is station wagon week, I felt inspired to contribute my first article to Curbside Classic. Growing up in an Oldsmobile family, it was only natural for me to lust after wagons with Rocket power under the hood, and, beginning at age 16, many a Custom Cruiser graced our driveway. I would like to dedicate this article to my favorite longroof COAL.
It all began in 1995, when I was just eleven years old. Wandering into the old Seattle Public Library, I left the rest of my family to their mystery books and meandered off into the cars section, where I stumbled across a photographic history of Oldsmobiles. (I have never been able to find that book again, but it was similar to Dennis Casteele’s The Cars of Oldsmobile, albeit somewhat abridged. A copy of his book sits on my bookshelf to this day; it is a fantastic reference for the Olds fanatic). I was enthralled to have discovered such a piece covering everything from the pioneering curved dash models to the luxury barges of the 1970s.
As a child of the 90s, station wagons were still being used by parents at our Catholic school, but they were all at least ten years old, and very few examples from the seventies were still in daily use. I had been aware of the Kingswood Estate wagons, because one of them was parked under a tree a couple of miles from our house, and I knew of Pontiac Grand Safaris, because a neighbor’s relative drove one to their block party. But until I wandered into the library on that weekend in 1995, I had never before seen an Oldsmobile clamshell. When I found a black-and-white photo of a 1971 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, I can’t explain how I felt.
It was a car whose design really spoke to me. A thing of beauty.The fender skirts made it so graceful; the trademark Oldsmobile skegs ran along the lower body, emphasizing the wheel wells and then terminating into smoothly tapered bumpers. Combined with the almost art deco lines of the clamshell tailgate, the look was truly sensational. I wouldn’t know it for another few years, but that first impression would not be dissuaded when I first got behind the wheel.
What ensued over the next ten years could fill several chapters of a book but in essence, I got to know a local character in our town of Snohomish who happened to derby these cars as a hobby. While that is not something I approve of, it still worked to my advantage: He was always willing to sell cars, and parts were readily available. I made it my goal to buy almost every Custom Cruiser he found before he had the chance to derby them and then find it a proper owner. This proved to be a very expensive and impractical hobby, running something akin to a station wagon adoption agency, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. It was awesome to get to know so many great cars, and even if they aren’t all still in existence, I can at least look back and say that I tried to keep them on the road a little longer.
This article is about my favorite of those cars. I owned it for four years beginning in 2004, when I was just 20. When I first stumbled upon it at the aforementioned junkyard, it looked like this:
She was not in that bad of shape for the circumstances, having been parked under a carport for a long time and its sides exposed to Seattle rain. My derby driving acquaintance made it a regular procedure to scour the countryside in his tow truck looking for cars like this, and he had picked this one up from the original owner’s son in north Seattle. His dad, who had lived along a golf course and parked it under his carport, was now in a nursing home and could no longer drive. He agreed to sell the car to the derby man for $400, with a promise that it would be fixed up, and off it went.
When told this story, I was saddened to hear that last part, knowing full well that his intention was never to fix up the car, but instead to strip it down, rattle-can the exterior and take it to the fairgrounds for a summer derby. I think I was visiting the junkyard to find parts for a Buick when the tail end of this thing appeared as I hiked through a long line of Cutlasses and Chevy Caprices. I knew right away it was the car of my childhood dreams as it had the vents in the rear tailgate, a 1971-only feature of flow-through ventilation.
Upon closer inspection, I found the interior like new. Strangely, this was only a six-passenger model, of which just 4,049 were produced that year. A rare wagon indeed! Gazing across the huge expanse of interior, I was in awe of the condition of the loop carpeting, and pleased to see that in 1971, the spare tire well and walling in the cargo area was covered in some kind of padded vinyl, not the cheap hard plastic that disintegrated in later models.
And those C-pillars! They were like the flying buttresses of a Gothic Cathedral, arching gracefully out of the rear and up into the roof.
It also had the huge chrome brake and gas pedals, as well as the fancy Oldsmobile Rocket emblem floor mats that simulated loop carpet in their texture.
Each door panel was finished with wood paneling that featured a stainless crest emblem in the center.
On the dash was a separate ash tray for the passenger, as well as an electric clock.
Outside, rust had bubbled in quarter-size spots over the B-pillars, indicating a more serious problem; otherwise, the car looked like it just needed a good detailing and some minor cosmetic work. Even the clamshell tailgate still worked without getting stuck! I’ve been in a few muscle cars (Dad had a ’73 Charger for a time, and Mama shuttled us kids around in a 1970 Cutlass when we lived in Cali), yet somehow this excited me more. Getting behind the wheel stirred the adrenaline. There was a quickening of the pulse, combined with a feeling of dreamy bliss, as though all was right and balanced in the universe–and all whilst sitting on the one hell of a wide living room couch that was the front seat. It was fantastic. I twisted the derby man’s arm and bought the car for $700.
It didn’t take long for me to start making her look proud again…
I replaced the parking signal lenses and front bumper. I buffed out the paint, and the nose got a fresh coat of Sandalwood beige. After I got new motor mounts, had the radiator re-cored, fixed the broken turn signal switch, added a period correct AM/FM Delco radio, I was off on what would become four of the best years of my life. I took the car to Everett Community College, where I was taking painting classes and getting math credits that were needed to attend a four-year university. On my days off from work and school, I took the car up some of the Cascade back roads for hiking and camping. That summer proved to be the year I went wild, in the sense of going to a lot of parties and dabbling in things. I worked at a campground with co-workers who loved to have a good time after hours. And this car was there for the ride! I was in love. This wagon was ostentatious and curvaceous, like Marilyn Monroe–unabashedly zaftig.
When it came time to head to Bellingham and study at WWU, I thought I needed a small beater car to use for commuting so that I could save the Custom Cruiser for weekends and fair weather. That proved to be a mistake. I bought an Olds Achieva, which was more like an Olds Upheaval, and put the wagon in storage a few miles from my apartment. Even though it came out once in a while, I think sitting for most of the winter for two years was not good for the motor.
One day, I took it into the garage to be serviced, and the mechanic told me that coolant was leaking into the oil and it needed an intake manifold gasket. OK, I thought, no problem. Get the timing chain done at the same time, yada yada. Well, the car comes out of the shop and suddenly the oil light comes on and stays on. I call them back and ask to have it checked at once. They looked it over and said they accidentally had the wire for the oil pressure sending unit grounding out on the block, causing the idiot light to glow. Nothing to worry about! The motor sounded good as always, that distinct Olds Rocket V-8 purr, and it showed no signs of trouble.
In retrospect, I have to wonder…this was before I knew a reputable mechanic, and while in college, I didn’t do much work on cars myself. That came later, when I moved to Eastern Washington and started to do more things myself. I really learned more about maintaining cars after this fiasco unraveled. Needless to say, the engine was now in tip top shape, or so I thought. It was time to take the old gal out on a proper road trip.
A week later I was driving to Moses Lake, about five hours away on the interstate. When I got there, the darned oil light came on again, but this time it kind of flickered on and off. Call it stupidity, naiveté, or what have you, but I just figured the wire came loose and was grounding out again, so I didn’t worry about it. Smoked some good chronic and continued with my plans, running errands into town, and driving with a friend the next day on a side trip to Grand Coulee Dam. The light was still coming on and going off the whole time, but what did we care? Just play some Grateful Dead and Ozzie and forget about it. We camped out under the stars in the Okanogan, and woke up the next morning unaware that our luck was about to change.
After a brief boat ride across Lake Roosevelt, we finally were climbing a steep canyon road out of Keller’s Ferry when the engine started sounding like the lifters were ticking really loudly. I thought it strange that I could hear the workings of the motor much more clearly than usual. So we went about 20 miles farther down the road and pulled off at a gas station in the little town of Wilbur. I decided to check the oil. Pulled the dipstick and it is bone dry. Holy Sh*t, I think to myself. Frantic, I raced into the gas station store and bought whatever oil I could find, Pennzoil 10W30 if I recall correctly. I added about four quarts before the dipstick read full. We drove maybe 70 miles back to Moses Lake, leaving a trail of blue smoke the whole way. Once there, I changed the oil and added a quart of Lucas. Drove all the way back to Bellingham, about 300 miles, adding a quart of oil in the process.
I don’t wish to dwell too much on my mistakes, but I have to finish the story–so I ended up moving to the east side of the state, and decided that the Olds was probably not going to make it for the long haul. I put it up for sale, and my old derby acquaintance called me up, wanting to buy it for cheap. I said no. A month passed, I was close to ending my apartment lease and had to move ASAP, when a Canadian called me up to look at the car. I agreed to meet him just this side of the border. Driving through a drizzly rain, a eulogy going through my head about all the great times I had in this car, I made my way up the Guide Meridian to meet the next owner of a vehicle that had become more than just a car to me over the four years I’d had it. He showed up with a huge flatbed tow truck, and my first thought was “demo derby”. Like the guy I bought it from back in Snohomish, he claimed he was going to restore it, but something about his gestures made me doubt his honesty. Guess I don’t really want to know…time was running out, and in a weak moment principle gave in to money. I watched it roll away, up the road into Canada, and waited for a taxi to take me back into town.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and this was not the end of the line for me when it came to “saving the whales,” as ASWOA puts it. In the past seven years, I’ve done a lot more work on my own cars. Still have an old American station wagon, most recently a Mopar, saved from the derby and the crusher to live another day. Regardless, I do miss the car that first stole my heart, first in the pages of a book in 1995, and then made an appearance in the flesh, visiting my garage if only for a short while. RIP, ’71 Olds!
I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked station wagons. No one in my family has ever owned a station wagon. My favourites have always been American station wagons. My favourites among American wagons are the 1964 Buick Sport wagon and Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser. I also like the 1970 and 71 Buick Estate wagon.
Buddy of mine in college drove one this color combo. Late 80s. I remember that hood stretching on for miles.
A friend’s mom had one of these when I was in elementary school. I remember being impressed by the Rocket 455 air cleaner decal. Theirs was a muddy green color with fading vinyl wood. His father drove a 1976 Oldsmobile Starfire until one day in 1982, when both Oldsmobiles departed for two new Chevrolets; a 4×4 6.2 liter Diesel Suburban with an options list longer than a doctoral dissertation, and a two-tone Caprice Classic. His father worked for the government, which even then must have involved compensation that taxpayers should be more concerned about.
It had the perfect engine to tow that barge around. A long stroke, high torque, big block monster.
The 71-72 Custom Cruiser is my very favorite flavor of these huge GM wagons. The Oldsmobile styling is just about perfect, both brawny and elegant. Nothing like the sound of that Olds 455 coming out of the tailpipe, either.
I’m not much of a GM guy, but I could so do this. If for no other reason as to reset my friends’ measuring standards on what constitutes a big car.
Love your former ride and at least you saved it from the derby for a few more years. The fins on these look great, as do the semi-Cadillac taillights.
I grew up with the downsized ’77-’90 version. Until minivans and SUVs got the upper hand around ’92, I think they were the third most popular family car behind the Country Squire and Chevy Caprice wagon. There were a LOT of Custom Cruisers in those days. And still a goodly number of people with C and H body FWD sedans as Dad’s car and the Olds wagon as Mom’s. That was changing by 2nd grade, everyone was getting Cherokees and Caravans as the next 3-4 year ownership cycle was starting.
Am growing to love the big 455 Olds cars as I recently bought a ’75 98 Regency to keep my ’77 Electra 225 company. I believe I also may have saved mine from a derby…just a sense I got from what the seller DIDN’T say when describing the other party. I’m suitably impressed by it so far, and glad it’s not being smashed up by some goon. I especially love the smoothness of the 455. A gentle nudge on the pedal from the stoplight and you’re a few carlengths ahead. Not for racing of course but wow, that effortlessness is wonderful. I switch it out with the Buick (which drives like a sports sedan by comparison) every few weeks (neither is driven daily) to keep them both moving.
Glad you found the ’75 98, and are enjoying it for what it is. Have you read Jim Grey’s 2013 article on the one he spotted in a parking lot? The wagons of that year would have looked cool with the rectangular lights. Considering they shared the 98 grille, it would have made more sense. Having a pre-downsize and post-downsize car sounds like an ideal combination, depending on the mood you’re in for road manners- and either way, you have a plush living room couch for the drive : )
Yes I have. Mine is in better shape and powder blue, but I enjoyed seeing that old green one, shows how tough these are. As far as clamshells go, the Pontiac is my favorite.
Pre and post downsize are an interesting comparison. There’s a lot of partisanship in both corners around here. I’ve found certain things I like better about each and it’s not easy to make a uniform pronouncement about quality between the two generations. It is funny how different they are and how much more like today’s new cars a ’77 is than a ’75…and yet you don’t realize that until you’ve driven a ’75.
I hope we’ll hear more about your other wagons.
That car is identical to one I bought new in 1970. It was a tremendous car that that served me and my family well for almost 10 years. When I finally got rid of it I bought a diesel Olds wagon. What a disaster that turned out to be, but that is a story for another day.
That sounds like a great old sled for you, and you clearly enjoyed it. Don’t remotely blame yourself about the engine. The car was already ancient by that time. It is a testament to just how tough these old iron lumps were that they could literally go years with low oil pressure. It even got you home. Few other motors in the universe could have done that. The only one I can think of would be a Slant Six. Driving one of today’s high hp, high rpm engine with low oil pressure for one minute would cause a rod to exit its exquisite lightweight aluminum crankcase.
I very much enjoyed reading this. I cannot express how strong my disdain for demolition derbies is, and it’s refreshing to hear from someone who saves cars and has helped old cars find homes. I certainly approve of your choice in the Custom Cruiser.
It sounds like you had a great experience with the Olds, and I’m envious. I guess we’ll never know what happened to your Custom Cruiser, but it’s best to just remember your fond years with it.
I’m “intrigued” by “The Cars of Oldsmobile” book, as well as the other one you cannot find. I’ll have to check it out!
Derbies don’t matter any – it’s just one more step between a usable car and a new Chinese-made washing machine. There are not enough people out there who want to save these old cars and Derbies don’t change that one whit – you are right that sometimes a really pristine example gets derbied and I really don’t like to see that either.
I have derbied one of these myself (’75 Pontiac) and drove a ’76 Pontiac wagon during college, which I sold to get the ultimate wagon, the 1969 M+M Cadillac Ambulance combination with 42″ roof.
I really enjoyed owning/driving these land barges during my younger years, but now that I live in a major metropolitan area with tiny parking spots and have a family, our Honda Odyssey (rear sliding doors FTW), Honda Civic, and VW Passat are about as big as I would want to drive around.
That’s about the nicest Clamshell wagon I think I’ve seen–no park bench bumpers, and not beat up. Although my original response to these cars was disgust–“this generation of cars is the turning point toward GM’s demise!”–this does seem to be great in exactly the way you’ve used it, as a car to create good times.
I always thought these looked like a factory hearse.
Memories of New Years eve 1972 at Dick’s Drive-in on Broadway in Seattle and six of us in a friend’s new company car, a 1973 Custom Cruiser, beautiful with it’s ‘gothic’ taillights.
To this day, it’s hard to fathom how these boats fit on both sides with room to pass through.
You might like this.
Thanks to all of you for the station wagon articles this past week. Enjoyed the memories. My parents 2nd new car was a ’73 Custom Cruiser 3 seat wagon. Had that car for 13 years and 140k+ miles. The GM clamshell tailgate wagons were all over at the time but I think demo derbies claimed most of them. I’m pretty sure that was where ours went after we sold it.
I was never really fond of it when we had it. But looking back it really did serve us well. Got somewhere between 12 & 15 MPG whether it was empty with just a driver or our whole family of 6, camping gear and a pop up camper on the back. I guess some folks had problems with the tailgate but we never did, nor did my parent’s friends ’71 Pontiac Safari or anyone else we knew with one. They were huge and thirsty but the did the job.
And kudos for saving them. That’s cool.
A fantastic write up! Thank you!
I was completely captivated by this Olds wagon—the look, the lines, everything you describe above—when my best friend’s mom took us on a school field trip in one of these (in this exact color combo) in elementary school. Nice to know I’m not the only one who appreciates this wagon. I echo every sentiment you’ve expressed. Well done.
Thank you. Seeing that photo of yours in the posting comments the other day brought a big smile to my face; I am thrilled that you were able to save it : )
It’s my dream to own a 71 clamshell. Thanks for the story.
You, sir, deserve a medal for your efforts rehousing old iron. Thanks for sharing the story and the images of your old ride. Best wishes for your future automotive endeavours.
Great story! Wanted one when I was in college in the late 70’s. Never could get the right deal. The Custom Cruiser just put it all together like no other wagon except maybe the Chrysler Town and Country. After reading this I took out my 96 Roadmaster Limited Wagon for a spin and savored its space and luxury, though it does not compare to a 71-76 Custom Cruiser. Been so long since I have seen an in the flesh Clamshell Wagon.
PS Remember riding in the way back of a 72 Caprice with a 454 going over 110 mph back in 11/72 on some youth outing.
Thank you all for the kind words as well as the stories. Until today, I’ve been blaming myself all these years for what happened to that car- but now I think I can leave that guilt behind once and for all. This was fun to write about- I will definitely try to post some of my other rescued wagons. If I have a camera handy (I need to start carrying one), there are a number of interesting rides around Moses Lake that are worthy of a CC Outtake. Paul would be thrilled to know there is even a white, somewhat rusty ’55 Chevy 210 wagon that is still on the road! Time to go track it down. . .
Late to the thread but very good story. I camped at Lake Roosevelt 5 years ago and would love to go back and check out the area further.
Great story and it’s a good thing that you were able to give this old beauty a few more years on the road. I wish I could do the same for so many cars headed to the derby–they’ve always rubbed me the wrong way. This one seems like a great vehicle to have spent four years with! About as close as the clamshells got to styling perfection.
The cool thing about the Custom Cruiser is how well the rear end design of the 98 works on a wagon body.
Most wagons since the ’50s either have tailights that bear no resemblence to the sedans, or are akwardly modified to work with the tailgate.
Thanks for your clamshell story. As a Buick guy (from Europe) I have been hunting for a fully loaded 71 Estate Wagon 3seater for years ..ended up buying a 72 in 2006. Everything has been done to the car except a repaint..hopefully this winter
That looks like a nice wagon! The paint looks nice, at least in that photo. Are you planning to go with something different, or keep it the original color?
Dad had one from ’71 through the fall of 1978 when it was traded in on a GMC High Sierra Heavy Half ton. Many a ski trip to the Sierras and Mt. Bachelor, Bend, Oregon in that car and one trip back/forth from San Rafael to Audrain County, Missouri.
One of my parents’ friends had one of these in the mid-70s, when many of the other moms in the neighborhood had Colonnade wagons, and my mom had a Torino. I remember being really impressed with the clamshell tailgate. I later had my own ’87 Caprice wagon, not the same but a great car overall. A big wagon is enjoyable in a way that a big SUV is not.
My Dad had a ’71 Grand Safari, and it was really a cool wagon to say the least. He only cursed the clamshell a few winters when it refused to open, but other than that it was a good car. I always thought the Oldsmobile had a very “sedan-like” look to it, probably because of those rear 98 taillights and fender skirts. My Dad had gone to the local Olds dealer to possibly order one but the salesman was reluctant to do so for some odd reason. They had two on their lot, a white one and cream one – possibly the same color as the featured car – but Dad didn’t like the colors/options so he wanted to special order one. The salesman got him so angry he decided to try the Pontiac dealer and guess what – they ordered Dad’s Safari without blinking an eye. It had the huge 455 V-8, which I believe was standard on the Grand Safari. The only flaw was ordering the Auto Climate Control A/C. My father cursed that system for all the years we had that wagon! It was replaced in 1977 with a new Caprice Estate (special ordered WITHOUT Auto Climate Control!!)
Seems like someone missed the mandatory maintenance class that goes along with driver’s training. Well, at least I assumed it was mandatory.
I have owned 2 of these, both 1976’s. 1 was this cars exact color scheme, the other a blue/woodgrain model. Each car had bodycolor matching interior and each had the 455. I paid $40 for the yellow one and $100 for the blue one, back in 1988. They were both great cars, albeit massive and I loved driving them. The yellow one gave up its engine to give new life to a ’77 Catalina coupe (which was quite the sleeper) and I eventually traded the blue one to once again bring the Catalina back to life, by trading it for a transmission. Those were the days and I still miss those cars 20 years later!
The ultimate version of the ultimate wagon, from TV’s Fast N Loud:
I’ve been meaning to comment on this for a few days. I spent the weekend dreaming about custom cruisers thanks to your article. Its amazing how cars can fly under my radar for years, but thats what I love about the hobby. That picture of you on the dirt road is awesome. The car looks so tough!
Your story about being young and spending good times with friends reminded me of the good times I had in my car. I’m only a little older than you and had a facination with the ’71 Buick Riviera (basically the same chassis as your car). I had seen them in movies and in a Motors manual I liked the front end picture they showed. In ’97 I was 19 when I bought it. Over the next few years I also used it as the party car. I probably had 50 different individuals ride in that car. Doing burnouts with 6 people in the car was still possible with the 455.
Anyway, thanks for saving a few of these cars and for sharing your story, it made my week.
My Uncle Izzy had one of these when I was 5 years old. He was a contractor, and the wagon was always stuffed with supplies, ladders, paint buckets, etc. I recall his was beige. I always thought the “clam-shell” hidden-tailgate was a neat design, even though it was not perfect in execution. Anyway, here are a couple nice examples.