Curbside Classic: 1972 Oldsmobile 98 – Back When Folks Drove Big Cars Instead of Big Trucks

(first posted 8/25/2017)       The simple reality is that a substantial segment of the American market likes their things big, as long as it’s affordable. Big Macs; Big McMansions, Big Gulps; Big butts; Big cars and Big trucks. Already back in the early 70s, while Europeans were riding in cramped and noisy little R4s, VW Beetles, Fiat 850s and Minis, Americans were rolling in really big cars, like this Olds 98. The love for bigness is hardly new. As long as gas is cheap enough to feed them, big vehicles proliferate.

The 1971-1976 GM C-Bodies were the high-water mark for sedan bigness. Even this pre-5 mile bumper 98 stretches 228 inches (5.8 meters), and the Cadillac Fleetwood 75 took that right up to 250 inches (6.35 m), which made it the longest production sedan ever. Will we be saying the same thing someday about today’s mega-size pickups?

GM knew they had gotten too big before the energy crisis ever hit in late 1973, and the next generation was always going to be smaller, although it was shrunk some more thanks to that painful reality check. Not having unlimited domestic oil turned out to be a bit of a problem.

But that problem has essentially evaporated. Fracking and shale oil has made the US flush with hydrocarbons, and the results are obvious. Trucks, SUVs and CUVs are utterly dominating the market. Just like big cars once did when gas was also fairly cheap. The Olds 98 was a slightly cheaper Cadillac, and with a bit of squinting, its sometimes hard to tell them apart. When did Olds start sprouting fins again?

Under its highly ample hood, an Olds 455 V8 is ready to go to work, with a squirt of raw gas into its big four-barrel carburetor to jolt it to life. And it’ll gladly keep slurping as much as a pint of the go-juice per mile. Even at 36 cents per gallon, that added up, given that’s $2.10 in today’s coin, not much different than current gas prices.

And given that today’s big pickups can get almost twice the mileage, it’s easy to see why they’re so popular.

Let’s talk more about this big 98 rather than gas prices. The front end is dramatic, very much in the style of GM studios during that last fleeting moment before 5 mile bumpers put the front end stylists out of work.

A bit busy and overdone for my taste, but it certainly conveys the point this car is making, from stem to stern. And the flames are a most excellent addition. Should have been a factory option.

The Olds dash of this vintage was quite odd, and not appealing to me. Olds had been working towards ever more eccentric instrument panels since the ’66 Toronado, but it just didn’t really work. Soon enough, they abandoned this line of narrow-focus thinking.

The rear seat was the place to be in these, with their expansive width and leg room. But the painful truth is this: it really is more comfortable to sit more upright in a modern SUV or CUV than plopping down and sprawling out in one of these. Given their huge length, the interior accommodations weren’t really all that glorious. Sorry.

This particular 98 has arrived recently in my neighborhood, and I’ve welcomed it with open arms; a most excellent addition. The side-mount exhausts are another fine touch. All the better to hear you with, my dear 455.

Those of you paying attention will have noticed that it swapped out its wide whitewalls for blackwalls in the three days that separated these two shooting sessions. I’m not so sure I agree with that choice, though. Even though they’re hardly period-correct, they work for me. But then the sidemounts are hardly period-correct either.

I won’t be around, but it’ll be interesting to see if today’s big trucks will end up reprising the role of these big cars 45 years from now, and will be similarly collectible as relics from a different era. Who knows? Certainly nobody could have guessed how things unfolded in the past 45 years. Energy is becoming ever-more abundant and cheaper, and as we figure out how to tap the sun’s bounty with ever more efficient and cheaper means—while housing gets ever more expensive—it wouldn’t surprise me if folks eventually end up just riding around (autonomously) in great big solar-powered electric vans that double as living pods. The tiny house that goes wherever you want it to.