Curbside Classic: 1964 & 1965 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight – In the Key of C (Part 1)

(first posted 8/12/2011)    One of the most unheralded but perpetually popular chassis designations in General Motors alphabet soup was the “C” Body cars. We’ve recently seen the praise of the Electra 225 and DeVille (both in convertible form), but today we let the eldest sister bask in the light. She was a looker all on her own.

Born in the 1941 model year, the Oldsmobile Ninety Eight was the eldest of the modern “C” body family. The DeVille was born as a special hardtop in 1949 and Electra was the baby in 1959. Initially there was a twin sister ship, the less well endowed Ninety Six with the Olds flathead straight six, but it didn’t survive infancy, departing the Oldsmobile line up for 1942.

By the mid 1950s the Ninety Eight was pretty much a junior Cadillac with more conservative styling. You could get the excellent and efficient (for the times) Rocket V8, the majority of options including the Hydra Matic automatic with perhaps similar to equal build quality for less money. It was a smart buy that on the average did swell business for Oldsmobile dealers.

The market niche it settled into by the mid 1950s was the position it stayed in through the rest of its long life. There’s debate on when the Ninety Eight truly hit its stride. For a good portion of the 1950s it’s hard at first glance to detect the difference from the more family/sport orientated Eighty Eights, a problem that would would persist through the 1962 model year. Among the less brand loyal buyer in the early 1960s, it was a serious problem as they looked for unique and distinctive touches if they were going to lay down $4,000 or more on a car. Those fickle buyers most likely defected to a Thunderbird; that fancy Ford fashion coupe that was priced dead center in Ninety Eight price territory.

The first step came in 1963. Compared with the same year Eighty Eights, the distinction that this was the high society Oldsmobile started to become more obvious. The Eighty Eight still played to the active PTA member crowd. The Eighty Eights even have a more athletic, forward leaning stance compared to the Ninety Eight.

Two very jewel like “Cathedral” style tail lamps were hung out back of the Ninety Eight’s extra length, a sharp pants crease that set off a nice suit. I always thought this element, that was retained in variation on Ninety Eights til the end originated with borrowing a Cadillac cue. But the large singular lens didn’t appear at Cadillac until 1965.

And typical to General Motors styling trends, Oldsmobile retracted for one year before settling on this template.  The C-Body Electra stole the sister’s earrings for a season. After fielding the first preview at the distinct full width “Buick Blob” that would grace every full sized Buick until 2006, the Electra fielded it’s own Cathedral tail lamps for 1964, before reverting to the “blob” for 1965.

It’s worth noting that the “Cathedral” tail lamp had been first seen at Chrysler in 1956, and used through 1959. However Oldsmobile didn’t use them to cap the exuberant plumage of forward look copycat cars. Much the opposite. The 1963-66 Ninety Eights most strongly follow the revolutionary 1961 Lincoln Continental design philosophy towards long lean lines. But the General Motors tendency to accessorize gives the “little black dress” element of the Conti look a more accessible, less austere feel to the American buying public.

There are elements that make the Ninety Eight seem more athletic than perhaps was was intended.  By 1964 there was a blurring between the Starfire and the Ninety Eight. The Ninety Eight Sport Coupe was in its second year, and offered the 345hp Starfire engine, and a console. All in a fender skirted Ninety Eight. And all that did was hasten the demise for the poor Starfire.

While we’re on the subject of performance, despite being besotted with one of the worst variants on the original Hydra Matic concept, any 1960s Oldsmobile Ninety Eight is an effortless performer in a straight line. Car Magazine tests normally pegged 0-60 times in the mid 9 second range and top speeds up and over 125 miles per hour.

1964 marks the point that my father’s family started the sea change away from the brand loyalty to Fords to Oldsmobiles as well. My Uncle, freshly rejected from the California Highway Patrol, was working at Paddleford Olds in Palo Alto in the Parts Department. With knowledge of the Police Pursuit packages available for all Oldsmobiles he ordered a rather remarkable Super Eighty Eight. Most likely it had the Starfire 394, a very numerically low axle ratio and police shocks and springs. The family was nonetheless very impressed, and one by one, Oldsmobile purchases became the sign of true adulthood in my family.

The Super Eighty Eight made its debut in a family crisis in the fall of 1964. My Grandfather had been in a freak accident at the Gulf Oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. My Uncle sped from Palo Alto to Port Arthur in the remarkable for the time 40 hours to make it to my Grandfather, most of the time running 115mph through the high deserts of the Southwest.

Apparently the story of this magic Oldsmobile that could run day and night at triple digit speeds intrigued my grandfather more than his recovery, because he ordered the all-new for 1965 Ninety Eight Sedan before he knew if he’d be able to drive again. Gracing his purchase were the now legendary Turbo Hydra Matic and the first major revamp of the Oldsmobile Rocket V8 in sixteen years. Also those hips that saw the light of day over at Pontiac in 1962 came uptown to the C club.

Thankfully, Oldsmobile was one of the pioneers of making automobile usage accessible to the disabled. In the aftermath of World War II, Oldsmobile launched its Valiant program that made accommodations to disabled veterans purchasing new cars. 20 year later it meant that in most Oldsmobile Dealerships there were on the shelf kits to provide the cars with throttle controls on the steering wheel. And gave my Grandfather the chance to delight his grandchildren with smoky burn outs with his 365hp new Ninety Eight, a far cry from the 292 equipped 1959 Galaxie that was traded in.

And here is where I believe Oldsmobile in particular, and General Motors as a whole, was able to rest on their laurels. These word-of-mouth testimonials to the superiority of buying an Oldsmobile over a Chevrolet or even Pontiac came from those years. The blockbuster success of Oldsmobile in the 1970s through 1985 was based on the quality products it produced in the 1960s. The loyalty was based on redeeming qualities from some point in history.

Once considered sophisticated and stylish enough to be a prize for Miss America, for a variety of reasons Oldsmobile Ninety Eights ended up being a joke, most often undeservedly. The Oldsmobile Ninety Eight always remained what it meant to be, a stylish, quiet cruiser with “contemporary” style. It just lost the audience. It went from being your father’s car to becoming your grandfather’s car too soon. And the automotive landscape is all the more desolate without it.