When Frank Sinatra sung I did it my way, he expressed that his regrets were few to mention.
I don’t normally believe in regrets, what’s the use? However, there is one, and it’s about parting company with a 1965 Oldsmobile 88 4-door hardtop.
First things first: Where were you when you first laid eyes on your favorite car of a lifetime? For your author, it was on January 22, 1965, in northern Virginia, in our driveway at home. A Friday after school, remembered as if it were yesterday, we had a new car. Most of my younger childhood family car memories are from trips in our 1958 Plymouth Sport Suburban, the favorites being on family vacations, campouts, touring interesting places and visiting relatives and friends around the country. At ten years of age, thinking that I knew American cars pretty well, the ’65 Olds just wasn’t on my radar.
The only Oldsmobiles I really knew of belonged to Mom’s two sisters and a brother-in-law. The elder sister and her husband purchased a new 88 every three years. We visited them many summers. Their ’60 and ’63 were recalled, the ’60’s ribbon speedometer making a lasting impression.
Her younger sister purchased her first new car in 1963, a nifty Olds F-85 Cutlass. She living on the west coast and we on the east, she spoke highly about it after flying to visit us in Virginia. I first saw her car in person in 1965 after we moved west. In the following years, I did get to know the Cutlass pretty well. It was a miniaturized Olds, replete with all the performance, engineering, luxury and quality on which Olds had built their renown reputation. A lifetime Oldsmobile owner, with five Cutlasses under her belt, the ’63 was always Aunt Ellie’s favorite.
The reason Dad considered Oldsmobile is unknown. I remembered that, along with the 88, he was looking at the Galaxie and Impala. My best friend next door, also into cars, had Fords in his family’s driveway. Somewhat competitive, I was none too keen on ending up with a car of that brand. Crazy kids. 1965, a watershed year of American automobile design and sales success, many neighbors and friends would be purchasing handsome new cars.
Our best east-coast friends, a Chevrolet family, ended up with a gorgeous Impala 4-door hardtop. For the money, the ’65 full-sized Chevies remain atop the Mt. Everest of beautiful styling. During the concurrent shopping process, the local Chevy dealer was asked about any discount for best friends purchasing a Chevrolet at the same time. Nice try.
Another set of best friends ended up with a 1965 Olds 88 sedan; could they have been the influence? There were so many incredibly good-looking cars introduced in 1965. The family of a close friend a few blocks over had a brand new Pontiac Safari, in which I remember sitting, admiring the instrument panel’s canted, chromed gauges.
Mom always seemed to covet the Buick brand, but their full-sized models were ruled out immediately when Dad saw the dashboards. The main instrumentation was set down low. A WWII naval aviator, fighter ace and military hero who survived being shot down, he wanted nothing to do with a machine that wasn’t maximized for it’s mission. I remember sitting in the glamorous, glassy Sport Wagon in the showroom, but believe that after seven years of wagon ownership, there just wouldn’t be another one for this family.
I also remember during the shopping process, while my parents were preoccupied with a salesperson, sitting inside a new Olds 98 in the middle of the dealer’s showroom, depressing the trunk release in the glove box, to be totally shocked and somewhat embarrassed when the trunk lid sprang open. Thrifty mid-westerners who had lived through the depression, neither Mom nor Dad would have ever considered owning the tony olds. Nor, would they entertain the thought of looking at any Cadillac.
During the search, my eldest brother, a car guy, expressed interest in a manual-transmission equipped model. Wonder how rare an Olds 88 hardtop sedan with 4-speed would have been?
When the new car arrived, it was beyond my wildest imagination that the Lucerne Mist 88 would one day be all mine.
In the 60s among military and comparable civilian families, it seemed like new cars were purchased about every seven years. In 1972, we’d acquire a new Buick, the year in which I graduated from high school. It would be Mom’s car, and Dad was still enjoying his final days in active military service commuting into and out of Washington DC in his Austin Healy, originally purchased by my brother when we lived in California. When we were ordered back to Virginia in 1969, we drove across country in the 88. Upon arrival, when he needed his own car for work, a naval protege whose post included a large transit aircraft that was partially empty and scheduled to fly from southern California to the east coast arranged for the roadster to be loaded aboard the plane.
I do not remember if I was allowed to drive the Olds to high school for the last few months before graduation. Neither my brothers nor sister would have had their own car to drive to school, and if a more favorable protocol was extended to me, the youngest, there would have been serious repercussions. The Olds had been relegated to the side of the driveway, no longer housed in the carport. Summer, winter, spring and fall, the car always started and ran. I regularly drove the car to and from college, and took it with me when I moved into my first home in Washington DC.
The 88 was right-on reliable. It could be covered with 15″ of snow, but with a few healthy pumps of the gas pedal, it fired right up. You sort of had to modulate the gas, not just leaving it in one position or another, but you could drive off instantly, the car never stalling, and I knew exactly where we’d be on the main road out when the engine’s cold light would extinguish.
When the car was brand new, there was trauma. I do not recall the specific reason, but believe it had something to do with an un-drilled access point for either lubrication or cooling. The only time I had heard about Dad crying was when I was in college, after he had taken my dog out on an early morning run, he on the bike and the dog off leash chasing a squirrel, when she was hit and killed by a milk delivery truck. Mom saw him alone out on the wood pile. I can only imagine how upset he might have been when he learned that the power plant in his new pride and joy would have to be extricated for the major repair. The car performed virtually flawlessly for its entire lifespan over the course of fourteen years and almost 90,000 miles, heady numbers for it’s era. I wonder if having the engine removed and reinstalled when not on a running assembly line credited the cars long life?
As a youngster, I eagerly awaited the fall issues of the many periodicals to which we subscribed in order to view the new car introductions. In 1964 it was unbelievable to first set eyes on the images of General Motors’ 1965 full sized mainstream coupes. I had to go from page to page to see if every GM brand had adopted this radical new slope-back roofline for their two-door B-body hardtops.
I admired our 88’s styling, especially the slab sides, rear quarter fender hop-up, and hardtop roof. One design flaw that was quite apparent was how the front fender brow shadowed a piece of chrome above the headlamp, making it appear that a piece of trim was missing. The front of the 1966 full sized Oldsmobiles was more refined and attractive, in my opinion.
Nowadays, it is not generally feasible to design/option a new car that is personalized/individualized. Before multiple-option packages became commonplace, and the Japanese perfected the system of manufacturing sub-models that were identically equipped, it was possible to order accessories separately, and request special builds. If I had been more astute, an adult and had cash resources, I would have enjoyed the opportunity of dressing out the 88 hardtop sedan with snazzy Starfire features, such as front and rear end assemblies, bucket seat interior, floor console with shift selector and the highest-performance 425 cubic inch engine.
I wasn’t really aware of the Starfire model. It was conceived as Oldsmobile’s most luxurious, powerful and exclusive coupe or convertible, built on the B body frame. With all the glamor and glitz, including intermittent application of brushed chrome on the dash, interior door panels, exterior swaths of side trim and inlaid chrome flooring grids, it sold relatively well yet never achieved the cachet of Pontiac’s Grand Prix, conceived under similar pretexts.
1965 Oldsmobiles sold very well, and on the trip across country in the spring that year, seeing new Oldsmobiles like the one in which we were traveling was a very common site. There would be four 1965 ’88s in my life. Ours, the one belonging to the friends mentioned above, my Uncle’s business car, an 88 that had an early version of cruise control, and our brand new neighbors when we arrived at our new home in 1965. We shared a common driveway, our garages directly opposite each other. Their car was a white full size 88 coupe. It had a concave rear window feature, shared with it’s cousin, the Pontiac Grand Prix, but did not have the Starfire tail lamps. That would have made it a Jetstar I, the less expensive iteration of the Starfire.
An excellent example of switching out identifying end clips is what the Canadians got on their full sized Pontiacs during the mid-60s. Their Bonneville equivalent sedans and Safaris, the Grand Pariesiennes, had Grand Prix styling, even the front of the Safari station wagon. Some countries have all the luck.
In 1965, arriving on the west coast, the car settled into its life as our family transporter. After a couple of years, it suffered a horrific trauma. My eldest brother, driving the car uptown, experienced a collision in the Olds when it was hit by another car traveling at a very high rate of speed. He was unharmed. It impacted the big Olds with such force that it spun 270 degrees around, broadsiding a parked Corvair with such energy that the Corvair was knocked completely up onto the curb. The Olds suffered severe damage on three of the four fenders.
While the car was in the shop, our west coast best friends lent us their car for a weekend trip out of town. Originally Chevrolet owners, they had made the switch in 1967 to a brand new turquoise Delta coupe. Astonishingly, the new car was traded soon afterwards. I can’t even begin to imagine what a financial loss that was, but they ended up with a brand new ‘67 gold Delta hardtop sedan.
It was a pretty car, with a somewhat unusual combination of gold exterior with gray interior, but was fun riding in to see our friends in another new Oldsmobile. It was equipped with power windows, an option that Mom and Dad would never have considered. The friends being visited were the owners of the white ’65 Olds 88, who didn’t really care for the car. When we arrived, not knowing that the ’67 was just a loaner, they exclaimed, oh no, they bought another one. Back home, our own 88 was repaired and restored to as good as new.
We visited the out-of-town friends often. Their eldest son, heartily into cars, always took me to see the newly-introduced models. In 1966, that meant revolutionary front wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado. What can one say? One of the most stunning mid-century modern American personal luxury cars, along with the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, it was fascinating to see how Olds built what seemed like a completely different car with the same basic engine and other Olds parts, save for the inventive front wheel drive powertrain. Yes, the car had a silly name. Yes, it was entirely too big and too heavy, and yes, completely impractical for most of us, yet, it was a remarkable automobile. The achievement of building the Toronado was but one in a long list of automotive engineering and technological milestones on which the company had built it’s storied reputation.
Before our trip to move across country in 1969, Mom, on car trips, always having taken care of four children, with the dog at her feet in non-air-conditioned cars, made the request to have an aftermarket Frigette air conditioner installed in the ’65 88. It functioned extremely well, you could see your breath if you blew into the unit’s cooled airflow. We did have a temporary thermostat issue on the cross-country trip that involved regular monitoring and overheating mitigation, but the problem was resolved and the system worked perfectly for the rest of the car’s life in the heat and humidity of the Washington DC area. After serving as our family car for about seven years, I was thrilled to have the car all to my own in 1972.
In 1973 on a trip to the Olds dealer to see the new models, there it was: a brand new model, with European sporting intentions, wearing the rocket badge and Cutlass Salon emblem. I visited the car on the back lot many times, dreaming of how to earn the funds required to make it mine. I can still imagine the aroma of its gold corduroy interior.
A dream that did come true while finishing up college was a one-year appointment to GAO (the General Accountability Office, originally General Accounting Office) in downtown Washington. I was hired to work in their graphic arts department. My main responsibility would be producing the covers for their Congressional Reports. The purpose of the agency was to research and publish information on subject matter requested by congressional members. The cover had a short summary of the book’s content. It was a fascinating job, that included other design tasks. The 88 was driven into town daily on a brand new stretch of highway that tunneled underneath the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol building. I paid to park it in a lot near GAO. My work hours were from 10 am – 6 pm. Everyday, I’d come out to find the Olds being the last car in the lot and the attendant long gone. It was left unlocked, with the ignition key above the sun visor. Try to imagine.
After completing the appointment, I was offered a position in the newly organized Department of Energy, in the office of Energy Technology. The agency, a twelfth cabinet level department, was comprised of ERDA (Energy and Research and Development Administration), and AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). I would be producing visual information layouts showing how money and people were being allocated and organized. By this time, I had moved away from home and had a nice English basement apartment in downtown DC in the Dupont Circle area, the Olds being parked on the street. I utilized the new Metro subway to and from work. The job was amazing, in a new building with huge, bold, colorful graphics on every floor, each having it’s own selection of hues. As an artist, the building provided an enlightening backdrop for performing my duties. I had been hired by a temporary agency, who was working for Argonne National Laboratories, under contract to DOE (Department of Energy). At 24, I had my own office in a major governmental agency, thoroughly enjoying this prestigious career position, which included visits to the mail office at the White House.
Governmental employees were in temporary positions as the new agency matured. One by one, people in my immediate office left to accept permanent positions elsewhere. I assumed their responsibilities as program facilitators. My scope of work changed from producing visuals to writing various justification documents for the director, James Schlesinger. Transitioning from working in my field of the arts, to writing, and being all alone in the suite of offices, the situation just wasn’t fun anymore. Depression hit hard. I left.
Cocooning at home and leaving the Olds on the street with a flat tire, it was deeply disturbing one day when it vanished, having been towed to the city impound lot. A good friend with her car gathered me up, along with a spare tire, to retrieve my beloved Oldsmobile. The Olds had not been driven for months, yet, now with over 80,000 miles on the original 425mand what must have been a strong battery, it started right up. The spare was mounted, and the car brought back to my street. Unfortunately, after the rescue, being left long term in the same parking place beyond the legal limit, it was again towed. My cherished companion was gone forever.
The engine had developed a thirst for oil, but was otherwise in good condition. The interior looked almost new. Some minor tears in the driver’s and front passenger’s seats were covered with attractive, individual cushions. The rest of the upholstery looked sharp. I never used floor mats over the dark blue carpet. Wearing well after a lifetime of regular vacuuming, there were no rips, stains or worn spots. The headliner was pristine, brushed metal dashboard still gleamed, air conditioning still blew ice cubes, heater and radio worked, on and on. The engine still pulled hard. It had been an amazing power plant, coming on like gang busters when pressed into passing gear, almost picking the wheels up off the pavement and thrusting the vehicle forward. I think the record was 112 mph, but now, I wouldn’t be going anywhere in the Olds. Ever again.
I still have the keys. I’m confident it would have taken me across country when I left the east coast in 1979, but looking in the rear view mirror, I would not have had the resources to to rebuild the engine or maintain a car that may have otherwise been reaching its intended life expectancy, so maybe it was for the better.
After four decades I still feel regret, and am deeply sorry, my faithful friend; you deserved so much better than to be abandonded after having served so comfortably and dependably in the best of style. Wherever you are, thank you. I will forever in my mind relive our springtime cruises on the Mt. Vernon Parkway. Alongside the Potomac River, with your windows wide open, listening to the intoxicating burble of your powerful soul, feeling your wheels smooth the pavement expansion seams, looking across your broad-shouldered hood, you’d take me anywhere and everywhere I ever could ever dream.
Photo of 1963 F-85 Cutlass from the collection of the author. Oldsmobile milestone composition from proposal to General Motors regarding re-introduction of the Oldsmobile marque. All other images from the internet. Actual model of car owned was a Dynamic 88.
Chronologically, what would have been my first COAL, is now the last. Thank you to all contributors here on Curbside Classic for your comments, interest and friendship. And, to our fearless moderator for empowering the documentation of these journeys.