COAL: 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass • Weren’t They All That Colour?

Almost no photographs were taken of dad’s Cutlass, and even fewer survive; the one at the top of this post is the only one I can find. Here it is again:

That’s Christmas day 1982, or maybe a day or two later. The Blizzard of ’82 on Christmas Eve wallopped Denver-Metro with multiple feet of snow, and as you can see—more pics in this slide show—the drifts were extreme. The storm cleared up by the morning after, but the snowdump hung around for a recordsmashing forty-six days. Sister (10) and I (7) were little enough to be exempt from shovelling duty. Mother had this mishegoss idea to throw coins and candies in the snow and invite older neighbourhood kids to find them in the course of shovelling; realism prevailed over that one.

When it was finally possible to reach and open the car again, it was reluctant to start—on top of its usual crankiness, the battery and the oil had been in a deep-freeze for days on end. Eventually it did fire, but wanted to stall. Mother stood on the accelerator; I remember the racecar sounds and the odd, burnt odour of the exhaust. Who needed those smelly ol’ piston rings, anyhow?

There was another cold-start adventure, too, on a cool schoolmorning when I was eleven. Mother was running late getting ready to go, and asked if I would go start the car. In my head, I went Ohboy ohboy ohboy, really?! COOL!!! With my voice, I went “Okeh, where are the keys?”. I fairly floated out the front door, keys in hand. I was actually going to get to start the car! I unlocked it, sat in the driver’s seat(!!!), put the key in the ignition—oh, just as blasé as you please—and turned it. The starter cranked.

And cranked and cranked and cranked and cranked and cranked some more, because I didn’t know to kick the gas to prime the intake and close the automatic choke. Mother emerged from the house, smiling and shaking her head. Dammit, no, I can do this! Just as she neared the car, the engine fired, sorta, in that loping, dubious manner of a cold engine started without the choke. So it was, after all, a start.

By 1987, the Cutlass was bedraggled enough that my folks decided it was time to sell. Ads were placed in Denver’s two(!) daily newspapers. The Denver Post’s classified ad phone number was 825-2525, in accord with which they were usually running an “8 days, 2 lines, 5 bucks” deal, and dad showed me how all the relevant information was made to fit with extreme abbreviation: 77 CutSup 4dr 350 AT-PS-PB $900 696-0909. Signs were also posted on the bulletin boards at the grocery store and around my school.

Classified-ad weirdos did not suddenly appear with the advent of Craigslist, I’m here to tell you. It was conveyed to me one day that after I got home from school someone would be coming to see the car, and I should show it to them. Mom and dad were both at work, I guess, which would mean Laurie was watching us kids, but this still makes all kinds of no sense at all. I was a fifth-grader, still firmly in the never-get-in-a-car-with-a-stranger age range and years away from holding even a learner’s permit, yet somehow I was meant to show the car…?

Oh, someone came seeing the car, alright. Dude screeched up in a red-orange Chevrolet Monza, opened the door, and bopped up the driveway, making obviously deliberate effort to look, act, and sound like a mix of Wolfman Jack and John Travolta. The result was a bit like a parody of Disco Stu.

I was standing by the Cutlass, the only car around except for his. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the Monza and said “At’s my go-cart ovuh here!”, then made a big overproduction of looking around and said “Wherezza Cutlass at?” I indicated the car I was standing next to. He squinched up his face and said “It’s a four-door!”.

I said nothing. He rolled his eyes, bopped around the car, muttering “four door…!” under his breath and shaking his head, rolled his eyes again, gave forth a big sigh that was more exaggerated than exasperated, and said “Well, I’m here, I guess I’ll take a test drive, but…man…four-door!”.

We got in the car. I fastened my seatbelt, whereupon he turned to me and angrily said “Hey, man, I don’t have to do that! Hate seatbelts!” He started the car and backed it out the driveway, shifted to Drive and punched the gas—hard. Then he stood on the brakes, shifted to Reverse, nailed the gas, hit the brakes, shifted to Drive, stomped the gas, etc. Back and forth we lurched, about 25 feet each way, about ten times (me, I don’t hate seatbelts). He pulled over, pulled the hood release, got out, bopped to the front of the car and opened the hood, pulled the transmission dipstick, and went “Transmission is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!!! Lookit this grit in the fluid ovuh here!”

He resumed his test drive; I directed him around the neighbourhood while he cursed the existence of four-door cars. Eventually he parked back in the driveway and allowed as how he might buy it, even though it was a four-door. I told him he’d have to talk to my dad. He bopped back down the driveway to his Monza and screeched off.

We never heard from him again, and dad explained how the act was intended to justify a lowball price. The Cutlass did eventually sell, I don’t recall how or to whom, but the idea of a trade was explored with the seller of its replacement—a car that was aspirational, I suppose, but was very much not an improvement over the Cutlass. We’ll get to that after I tell about Laurie’s cars next week.

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