(first posted 6/3/2016) From the close of the Second World War to the present, the variety of body styles offered by the American auto industry has been remarkably constant. Sedans, station wagons and pickups were in dealer lots in 1947 and they remain there today. There have also been some oddballs that show up for a few seasons from one or two companies, then disappear like, say, the four door convertible. But is there another body type that burst so spectacularly on the scene and remained in the catalogs for so long, only to quite suddenly disappear and never be heard from again? I am thinking of the four door hardtop.
The two door hardtop hit the American automotive market with great fanfare after the War. Although there were some semi-custom jobs like the seven Chrysler Town & Country hardtops built, the Buick Roadmaster Riviera is credited as the first mass-produced hardtop. Cadillac and Oldsmobile would offer their own 1949 hardtops on the C body, with Oldsmobile calling its version the Holiday – a name that it would apply to its hardtops until at least the 1970s, and several of its more sporting coupes even later.
The two door hardtop took the industry by storm, combining the beauty and sex appeal of a convertible with the comfort of a sedan. By 1952, it was hard to find a car line in America that did not offer a hardtop. Even small players like Hudson and Studebaker spent great sums to reconfigure an aging body with that must-have style. As popular as the hardtop had become, it must have taken very little imagination to think of the next big thing.
Although Kaiser-Frazer fans might claim that its 1949 model offered the first four door hardtop, the judges here at CC must deny the claim. After all, how can it be a real hardtop if there is a center pillar and framed glass? No, the first real four door hardtop would come a little later, and would (of course) come from General Motors. But this time, Oldsmobile and Buick would get the honor of bringing out this new style on its 1955 models. Why not Cadillac? Good question.
Oldsmobile occupied an interesting place in the GM heirarchy of the 1950s. It was right in the middle of the middle of the market. Although generally good looking, it was not the most stylish or refined – that was Buick’s territory. It was, however, certainly a car that Chevy and Pontiac buyers looked up to. If anything, Oldsmobile was a maker of practical cars that appealed to middle class folks of good common sense for their many examples of better-than-average engineering, like the Rocket V8 engine and the Hydra-Matic transmission.
GM was clearly not the only company with the idea for a four door hardtop, as they were quite widely available across the Big Three by 1956. That this was a bandwagon not to be missed is evident by the investment by both Ford and Chrysler to offer the style in the final year of bodies already slated for replacement in 1957. But none of the offerings by Ford or Chrysler had the impact as those found in GM dealerships in 1956. Was it because GM was the recognized leader in styling, and that people who valued style tended to gravitate there? Perhaps. After all, Buick always had a substantially higher take rate in four door hardtops than did Chrysler.
Nineteen Fifty-Six would turn out be a great year to buy an Oldsmobile. Not only could you get a Holiday hardtop sedan in both the B body 88 (regular and Super), but in the C body Ninety Eight as well. This would be the final year for the 324 cubic inch (5.3 L) version of the famous Rocket V8, that would be advertised as the New T-350 for its 350 foot pounds of torque. The engine got a compression boost to churn out 230 horsepower in the 2 barrel 88 and 240 in the Super 88 that was equipped with the Rochester 4GC “Quadri-Jet” carb.
Although the engine was mostly a holdover, customers could at least boast of a new version of the famous Hydra Matic transmission. The Jetaway Hydra Matic that debuted in the 1956 Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, would be perhaps the finest flowering of GM’s original concept for an automatic transmission, which did its thing with four speeds and without a torque converter. This would be the final version of the old-school H-M, and perhaps the last really good transmission design to come out of GM until the Turbo Hydramatic which began to appear in 1964 Cadillacs.
The Super 88 was the middle of the Olds range that year, and was also in the middle in popularity, with Olds building roughly 179,000 Super 88s (out of total Olds production of over 485,000. The four door Holiday hardtop was the most popular Super 88 body style, with over 61,000 making it out the doors in Lansing.
I came across this car one sunny afternoon some time ago, as I drove into the parking lot at the bank. Harrumph, I thought, another old car fouled up by a rat rod treatment. But as I got out, I could see that this car was not what I expected. One look at this interior, and I could tell that this was the real deal. This turned out to be the last car shot with the first JPC DroidCam, before it fried its little silicon innards, and I was able to obtain these from a backup. Good thing, too, because finding an original ’56 Olds is not an everyday occurrence here in the land of iron oxide.
Let’s get back to this interior. If there was ever a car worthy of being featured here for the interior alone, this would be it. General Motors made some mighty fine interiors in the 1950s, and this may be one of the best of that Jet Age era.
The outside is a little harder to work up a lot of enthusiasm over. Oldsmobile probably had more trouble than any of the other GM Divisions in its attempts to come up with a beautiful car on a regular basis. This Super 88 is not unattractive, by any means. But it is also unable to make the impact of a Buick or even a DeSoto from that year.
I briefly met the owner, who told me that this car had all of about 71,000 miles on it. I’m doing this from memory, because my notes were not backed up. He closed the right front door and demonstrated that special thing that nobody did as well as GM back in the day – build a car with a door that closed with a firm, authoritative “click”. Not a bad demonstration from a sixty year old car with no center pillar, and a feat that not many of its competitors could likely match today. GM and it’s five car Divisions really did bring the goods in the ’50s.
The owner had purchased the car fairly recently, and was as mystified as I was as to why the prior owner chose a metallic apple green for the roof of a car with this brillant original red interior. The owner plans to do some body and paint work to make the outside worthy of the inside. How is it mechanically? Let’s just say that it was a complete thrill to listen to that Rocket engine fire with the first turn of the starter, and then to listen to the great exhaust burble. A pull of the gear lever all the way down for reverse (you are definitely over fifty if you remember this) and then up three clicks to Drive, and off it went, doing just what it was supposed to do. And sounding like a proper Oldsmobile should.
In the 1960s and 70s, a lot of Oldsmobiles found there way into the driveways of my extended families, on both sides, several of them being four door hardtops. But by the end of the 1970s, that oh-so popular body style was gone, at least from the U.S. – quite a feat considering that they had been common in the lineup of nearly every brand of the Big Three as late as 1974. They had their problems (not the least of which were leaks in automatic carwashes) but they combined the practicality of four doors with a sporty style that could not be matched by a boring old sedan. If I had been born ten years sooner, it is not hard to imagine that we might have had one of these at our house. And I would have been OK with that. Still would be.