For over a year, this 1986 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser has appeared on this site as a vehicle destined for an overseas adventure, the Banjul Challenge cross country drive from Europe to The Gambia. With mixed feelings, I have to report that the Olds has found a new and far more domestic purpose that will keep it in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. It may disappoint many who have followed the story and looked forward to a tale of adventure, but should please those who like the idea of preserving these American classics and keeping them on the streets.
Repeatedly lost wheel cover soon to be remedied with new wheels
Life takes unpredictable twists and turns, and the convergence of events that made the Banjul Challenge the right thing to do in 2013 has shifted and made it the wrong thing to do in 2014. In 2013, my co-pilot and I had spare time and funds for the journey, and there was a friend for us to meet in The Gambia. In 2014, I have new work that requires my time and attention (which has also significantly reduced my ability to write and publish here), my co-pilot has business and personal issues to work out, and there is no one to greet us at the destination. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is not a significant factor in the decision, since The Gambia and the other countries along the way have avoided it so far, but the epidemic did not improve the case for going.
While all of these life events were happening, the Olds acquired a new purpose. Instead of being valued for its athletic ability as a potential marathon runner, it is now appreciated for its big rear end. My ownership of this wagon coincided with a time when I needed it frequently, for hauling during two major moves and some significant house renovations. It hauled an entire two bedroom apartment full of furniture and personal items to my house when putting together two households to get married. When my mother sold the house that had been our family home since 1975, I used this wagon to haul away at least a dozen full loads of bookshelves, chairs, lamps, and boxes of keepsakes. Repairing my house’s deck saw it hauling in numerous 8 foot long boards and then hauling a large load of old rotten lumber away to the county dump. It has been the right vehicle for the job in countless other smaller tasks with large, heavy or dirty items.
Spending almost two years with this wagon has convinced me that everyone could use a vehicle like it – a cheap, worry-free cargo hauler for the many unglamorous tasks that are not part of anyone’s automotive dreams, but are part of the reality of everyday life. A convertible as a sunny day cruiser or a classic sports car are what many of us want, including me, but this Olds, Paul’s 1966 Ford F100 pickup, and other rough and ready boxes are classics that are highly useful.
As noted in an earlier installment, with this 28 year old station wagon I have re-created the experience of the noted automotive writer Peter Egan with his “Hundred Dollar Special,” a 1970 Ford Country Sedan (a Country Squire without the Di-Noc plastic wood) purchased in 1984 as a barely running apparent junker, which he found himself using every day after a few ultra-cheap repairs. The $100 price of the Ford in 1984 being $480 in 2014 dollars, I paid almost exactly the same inflation-adjusted amount for my similarly no-Di-Noc Oldsmobile, and I have had essentially the same experience with my wagon. Like Peter Egan’s Ford, this Olds possesses enormous interior space, a smooth ride, and cast iron durability, and it demands only the cheapest parts available in any neighborhood auto parts store. Small things are non-functional or have given up the ghost after 28 years, but nothing that has been expensive to repair or, if ignored, prevented the wagon from doing its job.
Life with any 28 year old car with almost all of the original parts that date back to when it rolled off the assembly line is not perfect, but problems have been few and far between and easily diagnosed and repaired. In approximately one and a half years and 7,000 miles, it has had only one immobilizing breakdown, failure of the 28 year alternator, and less than a handful of problems of any sort, all of them related in previous CCs. There have been two Check Engine Light fault codes, easily readable using the simple engine management system’s readout method that uses the “SERVICE ENG. SOON” warning light as a form of Morse Code, both of which I have chosen to ignore for now to no significant detriment. The car does not run perfectly, but it has lived up to the adage that old GM cars run badly longer than most cars run for their entire lifetimes.
The Olds has been reliable enough to look like a long-term keeper, and as time passes I have been tracking down faults and gradually bringing systems in the car back to normal. Long-burned-out footwell and dome lights finally got new bulbs earlier this year, so the interior is now as well lit as when the car was new. A strange electrical problem which disabled the radio and lit the “Tailgate Ajar” warning light when the cigarette lighter or glove compartment light (both non-functional) were supposed to be drawing current, I finally found to be caused only by a burned out fuse whose replacement brought all of those systems back to working normally. Conversion to R134 and recharging brought the air conditioner back to life briefly until the new refrigerant all leaked out in a visible cloud (“It’s alive! It’s alive! Ohhhhh …”), a problem that I will get around to addressing at some time next year.
Major improvements have been entering the picture as well. Modern electronics – an up-to-the-minute navigation and music system with touchscreen and voice command – have invaded the car in the form of my smartphone with a cassette adapter and cigarette lighter charger. Rolling stock will receive a significant upgrade in the form of a set of 15×7 inch Oldsmobile Super Stock III wheels, primed and unpainted and complete with trim rings and center caps, that I found for a reasonable price on Craigslist. They need only to be sprayed with wheel paint to be ready for action. The 307/THM200R4 powertrain is as smooth and quiet but feeble and slow as it usually is in full size cars, but I have finally found an online source of information on troubleshooting and upgrading the 1980s 307 with electronic Quadrajet, so some improvement in power may be upcoming.
Driving an old American station wagon is an interesting experience, because it generally blends into the scenery and is ignored, but people in the right age groups notice it and enjoy sharing the happy memories that it triggers. Seemingly everyone over the age of 40 – before the era of minivans and SUVs – remembers when their or a friend’s parents had one or they had one as a hand-me-down first car, and memories of childhood or teenage hijinks that happened in them often come out. One such instance occurred a few weeks ago, when a woman of about 40 stopped and enthusiastically asked me questions about the Olds, then said, “We had one just like it when I was in school! I used to – (looks awkwardly at 10 year old son) – ummm, sleep in it. Uh, nice car.” No doubt many people have similar memories of Volvos and other European and Japanese wagons, but they cannot be as numerous, and a smaller Volvo had a lot less space to, ummm, sleep in.
In the years to come, people a decade or two younger will have similar memories of the SUVs of their childhoods and teenage years. Aside from Suburbans and Excursions, though, they have even less space for creating teenage memories.
The old Detroit steel and cast iron of the Olds also appears to magnetically attract the older and unusual cars that are the focus of this website, because almost every ride in this car includes a sighting of a CC-worthy vehicle. Most of the cars that I have sighted and profiled here during the past year appeared while I was driving this Olds. Considering that I use it for less than a third of my car trips, its track record of running across interesting cars is remarkable.
The Olds’ sheet metal has non-magnetically attracted the plastic bumper of an elderly neighbor whose parking skills are apparent in his having re-arranged every fender and door panel of his Jaguar, but it was a completely no-stress experience, unlike my likely reaction in any similar situation involving a previous car. I have seen this neighbor since, and it did not even occur to me to bring up the damage with him. Normally anal retentive about the condition and maintenance of any car or motorcycle that I own, I do not mind what happens to the outside of this car because it came into my possession with dents, rust, and a bad paint respray. In my estimation, this old Olds’ condition makes it an ultra-luxury car, because the ultimate luxury is being free from stress.
Being both highly useful and dirt cheap to purchase and operate, the Olds has provided an ideal “youngtimer” classic car experience that should continue for a while longer. Moreover, its low costs have made it possible for me to consider simultaneously owning another of the cars that I have always wanted to experience, without driving my automotive budget up to an unacceptably high level. So, for example, I may also be able to buy and drive a Mercedes W126 turbodiesel, such as the 1986-87 300SDL in this photo. It is another reason why this Custom Cruiser was the right choice when I picked it up two years ago, one of many reasons that have changed over time.