Curbside Classic: 1973 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency – Nice Car, Fabulous Seats

Here is another one that I have been sitting on for awhile.  Since August of 2011, in fact.  Why did I take pictures of this car?  I don’t really like (he said politely) these 1971-76 B and C body cars from GM.  And I certainly don’t revel in cars that find themselves in this condition.  But there was that one thing that spoke to me.

These cars made a strong impression on me when they were new.  It is true that any Oldsmobile was liable to make an impression, if only because there were so many of them in my family.  And as one who liked luxo-boats, if I was going to find an Oldsmobile to love it would be one of these bruisers.

And then there was the “Regency” model itself.  I felt like someone who got in on the ground floor of the Ninety-Eight Regency.  When my mother was shopping in earnest for a 1972 Cutlass, I spent hours in Oldsmobile showrooms.

The Regency was a limited edition super-luxe package offered on the Ninety-Eight that year, Oldsmobile’s way of celebrating its 75th anniversary.  It was offered in a single color combo – “Tiffany Gold” paint with a matching vinyl roof and a black velour interior.

On the outside, it was an attractive package.  The 1971-72 Ninety-Eight was one of the best looking of a good looking family of cars, and the new Regency showed the car in its most elegant light.

But it was on the inside where this car made its money.  Those seats.  I had never seen seats like this in a car.  Understand, at the age of 13 I was a connoisseur of big American luxury cars.  This was where my tastes naturally ran, and I had the bonus of a Dad who was on his second Continental Mark (a 1972 Mark IV).  So I knew what the inside of a high end U.S. car was supposed to look like.  But this!  This was new.

A little research shows that Cadillac also offered velour-upholstered seats as a choice in its Fleetwood Brougham that year, but I think it is fair to say that Oldsmobile’s version was the one that made you want to jump in and try them out.  Could the “Tiffany inspired” Ninety Eight Regency have been the car that ignited the Velour Wars of the Great Brougham Epoch?  By 1974 the stuff was everywhere and the “loose pillow” upholstery style was spreading in the higher price classes.

When the ’73 model came out, I was not sure that the look of the outside was an upgrade.  It did not suffer the way the cars from FoMoCo did, but it was not an improvement either.  I will admit that the rear end came off as one of the better looks of the big-bumper era.  The Regency now held top spot of the regular lineup and was not some kind of limited edition.

But The Seats were still there.  Is it just me, or did Oldsmobile re-use the 1972 artwork here, only with a change in background scenery?

I got to experience The Seats a few times.  In 1971-73 I was attending catechism classes at a local Lutheran church.  It was an odd situation, it was not our own church because their classes conflicted with my scout meetings.  So I was at an unfamiliar church, but one where some of my friends from school attended.  This was Fort Wayne, Indiana, where there were more German Lutherans per capita than anywhere outside of Minnesota.  Or Germany too, I suppose.

Various parents took turns car-pooling us and one of the Dads was driving a brand new 1973 Ninety Eight Regency in emerald green.  And yes, it had The Seats.  They felt just as comfortable as they looked.  There was a lot of cheap in the interiors of these big GM cars of the period, but none of it was in these fabulous, fabulous seats.  For a kid used to slick vinyl bench-style back seats, those tufted velour pillows seemed to envelop the rider in a soft, gentle hug.  I can’t say I enjoyed those catechism classes much but the rides in the back of that big Regency made getting out of the car less enjoyable than usual.

Could these be the most famous seats of any American car ever?  Yes, there was the “Corinthian leather” of the Cordoba, but the seats themselves were not all that memorable.  I would argue that this upholstery style lit the flame that would not burn out for a generation.

Just for comparison, take a look at what passed for luxury seating in a non-Regency Ninety Eight of 1972.  Does anyone remember these?  Of course not.  Loose pillows and velour were “where it’s at” and would be a combination that would take a long time to go away,  For my money none of the imitators ever did the job as nicely as Oldsmobile in these big sleds.

Olds was still doing seats in this style (though not quite as thick and decadent) in the 1984 Ninety Eight I was driving in the late ’90s.  It would not be a stretch to say that those seats were my favorite part of the car.  I found them very comfortable, and that chocolate brown velour wore like iron, never showing the effects of wear or age.  There were things I griped about with that car, but those seats salved my hurts and made me feel better about the whole thing.

But let us return to this poor wrung-out Oldsmobubble.  The Moss Gold lacquer paint (a 1973-only color) did its best against the elements but eventually gave up.  The plastic bumper fillers are toast.  The wheelcovers and fender skirts have gone AWOL and who knows what kind of maladies lurk beneath this car’s deteriorated skin.

But The Seats are still there and looking mahhvelous.  My early experience was that these automotive velours were as tough as cast iron and this car confirms that opinion.

I don’t think its a stretch to say that the Ninety Eight began its glory years in the early 1970’s, earning a quiet luxury cred that it would hold onto all through the 80’s.  The Ninety Eight broke a production record in 1973, with 138,462 cars being welcomed into garages everywhere, a figure well above 1972’s record year of 121,568.  For some perspective, the 1973 Ninety Eight was only about 20,000 units shy of the what the entire 1971 Chrysler line had managed to sell, Newports and all.  Add in 88s and Toronados and you can see that Oldsmobile was hot (and Chrysler was not).  And this ignores the Cutlass altogether, something very few were doing in 1973.

In my eyes the Olds Ninety Eight was every bit the equal of the Buick Electra 225, something that had seldom been true in previous decades.  And it seemed to hold its own against its Flint-built cousin until the oddly styled 1991 model which was the final version.

I look at these awful pictures and marvel that I was allowed to post them here in the site’s early days.  But though I have much better pictures of other cars, these are worthwhile to highlight the peak of 1970s’ Brougham Decadence.  I think it is safe to say that few were better than Oldsmobile at understanding what middle-class America wanted in the 1970s.  We had no idea in 1971 that what we really wanted was a pair of fabulously opulent pillow-tufted velour seats.  It was Oldsmobile that showed us that what we wanted was exactly that.

Further Reading:

1972 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight (Paul Niedermeyer)

1972 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight Coupe (LongRoofFan)

1975 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight Regency (Jim Grey)

1976 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight (Jason Shafer)