COAL: 1982 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Brougham -Channeling Christine

the Olds from hell

The GM B-bodies get an inordinate amount of love. Even people who have never owned one are convinced that these were great cars. And maybe some of them were. In the abstract, I like them myself. But show me a B-body Olds in shades of beige, burgundy or brown, and it’s a flashback from a horror movie. It all started like this…

After the engine in my 1979 Monte Carlo died, I was left with a choice: a new engine, or a new car. After some deliberation, I decided on the latter. The replacement car was an ’82 Olds Delta 88 that I found in the local classifieds. I needed something right away and the Olds appeared to be one of the better choices that week. There it was, a little newspaper ad full of alphabet soup – “83 Olds, 4dr, a/c, p/w…”

What did you expect, a long, detailed description and lots of nice color photos before you’d even consider texting “is it still available”? No, we were still in the 20th century, and so one immediately got on the phone (that’s land line, quite possibly still with a rotary dial if you were calling from your grandparents’) and hoped to catch the seller at home before somebody else did. There weren’t a zillion other choices to text back and forth about. Going through the classifieds, you usually only circled a couple worth looking at, and if somebody beat you to them, good luck, try again next Friday when the following week’s paper came out. And yes, that’s the actual ad that somehow miraculously survived in my scrapbook. Now git off my lawn!

The Olds was being sold by its original owner, a rather distracted young lawyer who had just upgraded to a BMW, a rather typical scenario in those days. An Olds still meant solid and respectable, but it would no longer suffice to convey prestige for somebody with upwardly mobile pretentions. The asking price was $2250, which I quickly bargained down to $1600 – only a little more than replacing the engine in the Monte would have cost. The owner appeared clueless about the car’s mechanical condition and actual model year, which turned out to be ’82, not ’83. While the Olds was indeed “well kept” as far as the exterior went, my mechanic pointed out that the car badly needed tires, all four shocks, a transmission mount and a few other issues addressed. I figured I was still getting a good deal as long as the seller agreed to adjust the price accordingly. At the time, I congratulated myself on my bargaining skills. In retrospect, I should have been suspicious at how easily the guy agreed to drop the price. He must have been as thrilled to get that car out of his life as I eventually was.

To me, the Olds represented a newer, bigger car with lower mileage, a step up the Sloan ladder from my old Chevy, as well as a step up in responsibility. Fresh out of college, I had temporarily moved in with my grandparents while saving up to get my own place, and thought that they would appreciate being chauffeured in a big four-door Olds rather than the two-door Monte or some small and overpriced Japanese compact. It was the kind of responsible, adult car I decided I needed at this stage in my life.

Here’s the Olds the first day I brought it home. The name is still an impressive mouthful: 1982 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Brougham. Note: this one above is the only photo of my actual car. All the others were found online.

Most Delta 88’s were Royales in 1982. Few buyers chose a vinyl interior of the base Delta 88, apparently, most went for the velour Royale. The Brougham package added bodyside moldings, opera lamps (on the coupe only) and not much else. So the long name was really all sizzle and no steak. Instead of politely asking “Can We Build One For You?” the ads now stated “We’ve Had One Built For You”, as if there was no longer any choice. My car was beige with a brown vinyl roof and a burgundy velour interior. The engine? The same exact 3.8 V6 as in my previous car! At least it wasn’t that dreadful diesel. I was willing to settle for a six again for expediency’s sake. My GM loyalism and the general goodness of GM’s B-bodies of that era made me feel proud of my choice, the base engine notwithstanding. I really, really wanted to like this Olds.

But on the very first day, a trunk spring broke, dropping the lid on my head when I opened it. Ouch! This was only the first dose of pain the car would inflict on me. A minor thing, easily remedied with some springs from a junked car, but we were off to a “great” start.

The next morning, the brakes failed. When I had to make a panic stop due to some young kid going into an unexpected illegal U-turn in front of me, the brakes faded suddenly and I ended up t-boning him. I hadn’t owned the Olds for 48 hours before it was wrecked! Insurance paid for the bodywork repairs and the Olds soon looked like new again, revealing its Christine-like nature. My mechanic went over the brakes, but I never felt confident about that car again. The trust was gone, replaced by wary uncertainty.

Over the next few months, the Olds turned out to be a nightmare of unreliability. It failed to start in the mornings – sometimes, hitting the starter with a hammer helped, but intermittent issues remained even after I replaced the starter. The headliner drooped. The dashboard disintegrated into pieces of flaky, sticky foam, with entire chunks cracking and falling off. The rear bumper rusted out from the inside. The turn signal stalk stopped cancelling itself out after turns. The metal trim came loose from the side of the driver’s seat. Power windows shorted out in a thunderstorm, leaving me drenched and furious. Even the horn button broke one not-so-fine Friday afternoon, beeping on every bump and confusing other drivers. I had to drive like a total putz with a randomly beeping car for three days until my mechanic opened up on Monday morning. I have never had anything so insidiously minor yet hugely annoying happen on any other car before or since.

In the summer, the radiator failed. My merry Oldsmobile chose to overheat at 3 am on the FDR Drive. The FDR doesn’t have a breakdown lane and this was long before cell phones, so the only

thing I could do was nurse the Olds off the nearest exit into the heart of Spanish Harlem and go looking for a pay phone. The two shifty crack dealers on that corner were too shocked to do anything but point this white boy in the direction of the phone when I came straight up to them and asked. I was too angry at the car to be scared. Miraculously, the phone worked and the wheels were still on the Olds when I got back.

Then the transmission started slipping. Shortly after the transmission was replaced, the engine started knocking. Apparently, it decided that it couldn’t handle the stress of a rebuilt transmission working properly. According to Grandma, as a small child I could distinguish certain cars by the sounds of their engines. There weren’t all that many different models in Russia in the early 1970s, so if it sounded like a bunch of tin cans, it was definitely a Zaporozhets, the old joke went. The Olds, in the spirit of Yeltsin’s democracy, began to sound like tin cans too.

So, having missed my perfect chance to swap a V8 into a much loved Chevy, I ended up replacing both the engine and the transmission on the Olds, among a myriad other woes. The car only had 76K miles on it at the time. I finally had my proper V8, but I no longer cared. I felt cheated and hated that Olds with a passion. It hated me right back by getting me into another accident, when a bus sideswiped me while making a turn. It could have happened to anyone, but by then I was convinced my car was out to get me. The bus company paid for the damage and so the Olds came out looking great again, almost appearing to have fixed itself like Christine for the second time.

Weekends were spent sourcing parts at junkyards and on my back doing stuff like replacing the rotted bumper, installing new muffler brackets and reattaching the headliner. For more complicated stuff, there was my friend Alex, the mechanic. According to my logbook, Alex was very happy to see me at least once a month.

January: stuck driver’s window (again)

February: transmission leak – new filter and gasket

March: another brake line replaced

April: power steering rebuilt

May: wiper motor and pump, new battery, turn signals shorted out

June: radiator

August: valve cover gasket

September: water pump, starter

October: intake manifold gasket

November: power steering issues again, fuel filter replaced

December: exhaust pipe and muffler, carburetor issues, new transmission

January: new engine

February: now on the new engine, again water pump, again valve cover gasket…

Nothing happened in July, which was a minor miracle.

Having continuously thrown money into a black hole for almost two years to keep the Olds running, I had none to spend on its replacement. So I took $100 and bought the first running beater I came across – I figured it couldn’t possibly be any more problematic than the Olds. This was a spontaneous step in a completely random direction, although those who have paid attention reading my Monte Carlo installment, just might hazard a guess as to why I chose that particular beater. To my family, this unexpected plot twist made no sense at all, fighting a problem by taking on an additional problem. And for a few months I had two cars that never both ran at the same time, but between the two I could usually manage to get to work. Moving one semi-operational car twice a week for alternate side street parking is no fun, moving two such cars is a special circle of Brooklyn hell that even Dante couldn’t imagine.

When my brother needed a car for a summer job in New Jersey, I lent him the Olds, with a stern warning. Two weeks later he called me, asking what he should do. The Olds had failed spectacularly for the last time. The driveshaft came loose on the highway. Thankfully, he managed to pull over and not hit anything. This was the last straw for me. I drove straight over to where he was, cleaned everything out of the Olds and called the nearest junkyard. My last memory of the Olds was seeing it hooked up to a tow truck, glinting malevolently in the summer sun. The guy drove away shaking his head, convinced that we were a couple of idiots, junking what looked like a perfectly good car over an obvious and simple repair. But I knew better. After two years of regret and maddeningly endless repairs, I couldn’t stand to even look at that Olds anymore. I was done with that car. We took the $50 we got for it and went to get some beer and celebrate its demise. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Olds was quickly repaired and went on to terrorize a hapless third owner, like a bad horror movie sequel.

All this happened when the Olds was just 8-9 years old, with 60-80K on the odometer. It did its best to turn me into a former GM loyalist. I had my $100 beater for a while (which deserves a COAL of its own – stay tuned), but when the time came to get my next proper car, it was a Chrysler product, followed by string of Japanese imports.

Is there nothing good to say about the Olds at all? Well, when it wasn’t channeling Christine, it was a very comfortable cruiser. On long road trips, when everything worked properly, it was magnificent. I could just lean back into that soft velour, line the hood ornament up against the lane markers on the highway, pop a cassette into the stereo and ride in style. The trunk could easily swallow a full drum set and still have room for all the weekly food shopping at Brighton Beach. Parts were plentiful and cheap and mechanics knew these cars inside and out. It was a handsome and potentially capable machine that I really, really wanted to like, but to date it remains the worst car I have ever owned in over 35 years of driving. When the Oldsmobile brand was discontinued some years later, I wasn’t surprised at all. They built one for me, and made me wish they hadn’t.