Curbside Classic: 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88 – One Redeeming Feature on the Outside; Several Under the Skin

GM’s 1959 cars are an endless source of, ah, visual amusement (I’m trying to be generous). It’s best not to take them too seriously, as presumably the design studio water coolers were being dosed with hallucinogens. How else to explain them? Sputnik? Googie architecture? Irrational exuberance? Desperation at having been shown up by the ’57 Chryslers?  Well yes, that’s certainly what triggered the mad rush into the automotive stylistic unknown.

Their origin story has been told many times, including here in my 1959 Cadillac CC. Today we’ll look at what I consider to be the poorest expression of that wild rush to go where no automobile has gone before. The ’59 Olds looks like it escaped the reject pile, although its front end does have some barely redeeming qualities. But under the skin, the Olds still had some of the qualities that had made it as good or better than its corporate siblings. Let’s start from the inside out, and save the wild stuff for last.

Starting with its frame. Somewhat curiously, Olds never used the X-Frame, which was used on a variety of GM cars starting in 1957. In 1957-1958, Olds and Buick had used what amounted to a hybrid of the X-Frame and a semi-perimeter frame. For 1959, Buick and Olds diverged frame designs, and Olds used this, still a combination of X and perimeter elements, which was referred to as “Advanced Wide-Stance Chassis”. The side frame rails take the place of the reinforced body sills on the X-Frame cars.

Even more curiously, Olds used Hotchkiss-drive leaf spring rear suspension from ’57-’60. That was rather going against the GM coil-spring grain, although the ’57 Cadillac (not the Eldorado) also used leaf springs.

Under the hood, the Olds was as good as it got at GM. The new 394 CID Rocket V8, the latest evolution of the original Olds V8 from 1949 that rocketed the industry, now had 315 gross hp, and was right up there with the best the other divisions fielded, except of course Pontiac’s Tri-Power 389. And it was backed by the best transmission GM had on tap, the “Jetaway” Controlled Coupling Hydramatic, an expensive to build but significantly improved evolution of the original. It still had a fluid coupling, four gears and split-torque for unparalleled efficiency but with smoother shifts.

So that’s the good stuff. Now for the not-so good stuff. All the ’59 GM cars were based on the Buick body shell, which explains why it was the most organic looking of the bunch. Everyone else had to start with that and try to create a variation that best reflected their division’s brand, or just look different, in the wild melee that was happening in the GM design center at the time.

Cadillac’s over-the top fins and strong front end were certainly differentiated and unique enough, and resulted in an icon.

Essentially the same can be said for the Chevy.

The Pontiac, especially from the rear, starts to suffer from a bit of desperation to differentiate. But its split grille front end and Wide-Track stance are its saving grace.

But the Olds rear end can’t escape the tacked-on look.

In fact, that little descending line that sweeps down across the rear fender has the unfortunate effect of looking as if the upper portion and its bulging tail lights are literally grafted on, as on some of the more unfortunate Studebakers. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing cohesive or organic about this. It’s a jumble of elements pulled out of a grab bag and applied in a scatter-shot way. Go back and look at that Buick rear end, if it’s necessary. That was actually a design; this is a mess of leftovers.

But we can amuse ourselves with it, especially from the right angles.

I look at this picture and it starts to look like something that the Russians would have shown at their Great Hall of Industry in 1962 as a preview of what the comrades would be driving in 1969, if the stars all lined up just right.

Admittedly, the sedan ’59 body was the weakest one, but then it was also the most common, at least in the lower 88 lines.

Yes, the Holiday four door hardtop with its flying wing helps. But it’s never going to be a…’59 Buick. Oh well. It can probably outrun the Buick.  And get better mileage. You know, the under the skin stuff.

Let’s take a quick stop inside, although this is hardly original upholstery. But that deeply dished steering wheel certainly is, and was a real Olds trademark for a couple of years. Now if only they’d gone with a single spoke wheel; hey, Olds was “the experimental division”.

Here’s a more cheerful look at the interior.

And how did the “Linear Look” 1959 Oldsmobile do, on the market? Not too shabby; it outsold Buick, which was in a downward trajectory. And it was only barely beaten by Pontiac, which was of course on an upward trajectory. This was life in the middle of GM’s family; the oldest and youngest were firmly entrenched in their respective positions, but the middle three endlessly fought it out.

But in 1960, when that rude upstart Rambler popped into the top five, and Dodge had its very brief moment in the sun, Olds slipped out of its typical #4 or #5 spot all the way to #7. But that fall from grace was temporary.

And I’ve purposely left the front end for last. Why? It intrigues me, to some extent.

It’s credited to Irv Rybicki, who would go on to replace Bill Mitchell in GM’s Deadliest Era. But here he shows some uncharacteristic flamboyance, thanks to the spiked water. I’m not so much a fan of the details, but I do rather like the way the hood dips in the center section.

That theme was of course taken up by the 1960 Corvair, in a drastically sparser variation.

This one is even wearing chrome eyelashes, which only add to its complex textures and shapes.

Is there some sort of bug screen over the middle section, to obscure the bold Oldsmobile letters?

Yes there is. So let’s sign off with a nicer example.

Which is even available as a yoga mat. Seriously. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one that has a bit of a soft spot for that front end.