After getting a stupid idea and a 2 door Buick out of my system, I was as happy as I had ever been with a pair of cars – the big Club Wagon was still doing primary family duty and my ’68 Chrysler became a sort of automotive escape pod from the modern world. But as had had been the case before, my days with the Chrysler came crashing to a halt when I was presented, once again, with another car and THE QUESTION – “Here is a car. Do I buy it? Yes or No?”.
I had known my friend Karl since we met in law school. Karl and his wife had introduced me to Marianne, and we had remained in fairly close touch. Karl was fond of telling people that he was the only child of two only children. His father had died when we were in law school, but his mother continued on for quite a few years. When Karl’s father became sick, he picked out a new car for his wife, one that would take good care of her after he was gone. It was a really nice one – a brand new Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency. Where this one was unusual was in the number of doors (2) and the amount of vinyl used to cover the roof (none). Although the lesser Delta 88 would run through 1985 on the old RWD chassis, the bigger C body Ninety-Eight (with it’s Cadillac and Electra 225 body-mates) would make that change one year sooner, so Virginia’s 1984 model would be the last of its kind.
Karl’s mother drove the car for 12 years or so. I had never paid much attention to it, but had seen it from time to time. At some point in the fall of 1996 I learned that Karl’s mother died. I helped him clean some things out of her house and adopted a few items that nobody wanted. And I never thought for a nanosecond about her car – I knew that Karl’s wife had a large extended family, and surely someone would want it. A couple of evenings later, Karl called to ask if I would be interested in her car. “She would want someone to have it who would take care of it, and I thought of you” was what he said. How do you say no to that?
But damn, an Oldsmobile? I was SO not an Oldsmobile man. Oldsmobiles were what I had rebelled against as a teen. Oldsmobiles had been, in my world, the most boring of boring cars. Oldsmobiles had made cars like Ramblers and Ford Falcons seem exotic. From the beginning of my life until 1978, I think there were but two model years of Oldsmobiles that played no role in my life beyond as background scenery – 1960 and 1962. Beyond those two years, I spent time around at least one (and often more) Oldsmobiles from each of those years. An Oldsmobile would turn me into the ultimate establishment man. They say we all eventually become our parents, but I had spent my car-owning life trying really hard to not do that. Oldsmobiles were fine for mothers, aunts, uncles and grandparents, but not for me, dammit. Besides, I had a car that I was quite in love with. But this was another moment when I decided that I needed to be the adult.
For starters, it was much newer than my Chrysler Newport and would be much easier to keep running from a parts and service perspective. It was also bound to do better than the 11-ish mpg I was used to in local driving (although gas prices were not much of a factor then). But most of all, I decided that it was the kind of car that would require less time for active management (like parts chasing and repairs) and thus leave me more time for lawyering or daddying or husbanding, as circumstances required. “Man up and buy the effing Oldsmobile” I said to myself. And so I did.
I will admit that it had its positives. After my narrow brush with Buick ownership, at least this one was the big dog C body. And what’s more, there were some things that set it aside from the Ninety-Eight mainstream. First off, it was a 2 door. I have always loved big 2 door cars, for one main reason. How much driving do we do that involves walking out of a store with a bag of groceries or out of the house or office with a briefcase? With that one big door, parcels go on the floor behind the seat and I get into the car without having to open and close multiple doors.
Also, the car had two examples of addition by subtraction: my Oldsmobile lacked those by-then cliche’ fake wire wheel covers and even better, lacked the ubiquitous vinyl roof. But that addition by subtraction was offset by its opposite – subtraction by addition, in the form of an automatic temp control system that never worked right.
There was also subtraction by subtraction. Everyone went on about how big the Oldsmobile was. But I had just come from a genuinely big car (a ’68 Chrysler) and owned another (the Big Clubber). The Oldsmobile was not a big car. A big car could accommodate three-abreast kiddie seats in a rear
bench sofa. The Chrysler could handle them. The Club Wagon could handle them. But not the Oldsmobile. A car that size ought to be able to accommodate a family of two adults and three tots. But no. And in truth, those two doors that I considered a feature was also a bug when it came time to loading toddlers (only two of them, of course) in back. Open door, fold seat forward. One foot in the car to accommodate a squatting position, then heft the tykes inside to fasten them in. Not optimal, and definitely a young man’s game. But that just meant that the van became the vehicle usually taken when kids were involved, with the Olds left for adult use.
Other positives were that it started and ran decently, it rode smoothly and quietly, and those sumptuous velour pillowed seats were very comfortable. I also kind of liked that it actually sounded like an Oldsmobile. There was a kind of harmony in listening to the burble of the 307 while looking at the little rocket emblems placed here and there. Not everything about an Oldsmobile was bad.
But some things were. Like the acceleration (or lack thereof) from the 307 cid V8. Compared with the Chrysler (and the Club Wagon) the acceleration was glacial. OK, I had driven a Buick LeSabre with a V6 in the late 70’s and this was better than that had been, but not by a lot. Even my late, unlamented Crown Victoria had exhibited more grunt off the line or when merging onto a highway.
A bigger problem was the Turbo HydraMatic 2004R. When I first drove the car, the transmission shifting seemed a little off. I remembered knowing someone who had replaced a vacuum modulator valve in an older THM and I had done that job myself in my Marquis Wagon (the smaller one, like a Fairmont), so I figured that it was likely something simple like that. It was far more pleasant than my Crown Vic’s AOD and it couldn’t be anything serious on a car with only 54k miles on it. Bzzzzzt. Wrong. A little research (done too late) indicated that this transmission could not be so easily fixed. A trip to the transmission shop provided an education in modern General Motors. I used to hate GM because it was the 800 pound gorilla of the US auto market – so big and so successful and the builder of cars so maddeningly free of faults. 80’s GM, it turned out, was not the same thing at all. “Let’s make it cheaper!!” So my inexpensive car got a lot less inexpensive. My thoughts went back to Bill and Howard who had provided me with so much car advice, no small part of it about avoiding stuff from GM. They were not wrong, just ahead of their time.
The car also suffered a series of electrical gremlins. These apparently pre-existed my ownership, because some earlier wiring work had made the power windows independent of the ignition switch. I liked this, as I was reminded of my ’63 Cadillac. But other wiring shorts would blow fuses and my mechanic spent much time chasing electrical issues. You never realize how much you can count on a dome light until you don’t have one that works. This may have been the cause of the car’s most irritating fault – an automatic temp system that never worked right.
The Olds system was on the simple side, with manual controls for the fan and the mode (heat, a/c, etc.) and only the temperature blend being automatically controlled. But that was enough to louse up a perfectly functional control system. The only way to get really cold a/c was to run Max Cool all the time because the auto system always wanted to add warmth. Hot heat only came with the temp selector at the highest setting. I eventually got tired of trying to make it work and went to an Olds dealer to have the “programmer” replaced. Which was an interesting experience in and of itself.
Remember that I come from a world where Oldsmobile dealers were huge places, with acres of cars for sale and 20+ service bays in the shop. It was probably 2001 when I went to Ed Martin Oldsmobile, which by then was also selling Nissan. Only a great inversion had taken place – most of the facility (including the large service area) was devoted to the Japanese car which now supplied most of the sales and service volume, while service for Oldsmobile (which was still a going concern) was now relegated to the little 6 bay garage that had been built to handle the curious sideline the dealer had taken on eons ago. Times change. Anyway, the system worked after that, but I have long wondered if the fix was permanent or would be undone by the next errant short somewhere that would course through the electrical system, looking for a victim.
There was also the car’s need for premium fuel to avoid a persistent spark knock. I sort of convinced myself that my little Rocket must have been extra powerful due to some added carbon-induced compression. If premium was necessary to unlock the extra performance in my engine, well, it was a small price to pay. Yes, I said, let’s go with that. Gas was cheap and I didn’t feel like trying to figure out a real fix.
Less serious was that it was (yet another) white car. I was getting pretty tired of white cars, and if I had to have a white car, did it have to come with brown interior? Of all the drab, colorless combinations. In an Oldsmobile, of course. I found myself becoming a little misty about the light metallic greens I had hated so much in my youth. About that chocolate brown inside, I will acknowledge that it was a color that allowed me to put off cleaning the interior for an inordinately long time.
Another irritation was those non-wire wheelcovers. I was happy that they were not wires, but those big, thin, flat discs were also VERY prone to getting bent or sprung, and would then escape the car at every opportunity. The only fix was to carefully straighten the offender and put it back on (and to remove them myself before having anyone work on wheels). I was fairly successful here because I only had to buy one replacement.
Those nits aside (though Marianne refused to consider that transmission rebuild as a nit) it was a sturdy, comfortable, reliable car that did its job without drama (but, for that matter, without generating any joy, either). It was presentable outside and extremely nice inside and made a suitable rig for travel with the occasional client. One time in particular a client and I spent about four hours driving back north from a Federal court mediation near Louisville on roads that were shiny from the ice, where 30 mph was just about as fast as it was prudent to go. It was comforting to know that we had plenty of car around us if things went bad and we got caught in one of those chain-reaction crashes that can happen in those conditions. But I was well-used to the stability of big RWD cars, even on ice, and it got us back home in fine shape.
My Oldsmobile years were a good time for drama-free comfy transport because one of those years turned out to be my father’s last one. Many, many 2-hour trips were made up and down I-69 for family time during his extended bout with a brain tumor. My sister and I (his only local-ish kids) made sure one of us was there every Saturday to spell my step-Mom, who spent every single day with him, bless her. I had a lot of time to process memories and emotions during those many hours in the big white Oldsmobile. And making those trips in a big, white 2-door car seemed appropriate given that such was my father’s favored configuration on his own cars for a long time.
It was on one of those trips that I learned a great side benefit of the ungainly 5 mph rear bumper. I had stopped for a fill-up on the way out of Indianapolis. These were among the last cars with a fill pipe behind the license plate, which was a trade-off of convenience (I didn’t care which side the pump was on) and irritation (the low filler tended to cause the pump to shut off prematurely). A couple of hours later I arrived at the care center where Dad was living by then. I went around the back of the car and discovered the fuel cap still sitting exactly where I had put it on the top of the bumper. I wasn’t sure whether it was just fortuitous design or an actual miracle, but I didn’t care.
All in all, I got four years out of the car. I can’t say that I ever hated it, but I certainly didn’t love it either. Mostly, it always kind of felt like I was borrowing someone else’s car. It was the feeling I had as a teen or twenty-something when driving the big GM sled owned by an older relative or boss. I grew up around a lot of GM lifers, and got plenty of wheel time in their Bodies By Fisher.
At the four year mark, there were some wacky little issues like the bolts on the transmission pan that would work loose and start a red leak on my new concrete driveway. And those big fat pieces of trim on the lower body hid some nasty rust getting started on the underside of the passenger door. But at four years I was prepared to keep rolling with it – until the day I accidentally found its replacement.
I am actually kind of amazed that I have been able to write this much about that Oldsmobile. Because it certainly did not inspire much in the way of feelings while I had it. I sold it quite easily, to the delightful Afghani man who ran the coffee shop in my office building. One of his kids was going to medical school and needed a car. I later heard that it served him well until it met its demise on an ice-covered interstate highway, where it sacrificed itself for the safety of its occupant. Oh well, it wasn’t my car. If it ever really was.