Curbside Classic: 1978 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency – All The Brougham You Want, In A Tidier Package

(first posted 4/8/2013)    From 1971 to 1976, General Motors had the market covered when it came to luxy, Broughamtastic land yachts. But at the same time, these offerings did not quite compare to their immediate 1967-70 predecessors. While still very imposing and roomy, they were at the same time less substantial and sturdy. Where was the quality, man? But through fluke or ingenious prediction, they got their act together with the downsized 1977 B- and C-body full-sizers. And if you didn’t want to spring for the high-priced Cadillac version, you could still get nine-tenths of its luxury in a Ninety-Eight Regency–the smart man’s luxury car.

As most of you know, the big, brash–and somewhat tinny–Ninety-Eight was the least expensive way to get into a plush C-body. They were particularly popular in the Midwest among folks who wanted comfort but didn’t want to flaunt their financial status. For 1977, the Ninety-Eight remained part of the Oldsmobile lineup–but as something strikingly different from its 1976 model predecessor.

The 1977 Ninety-Eight Regency was, according to the brochure, “A new luxury car that meets the demands of the times we live in–yet preserves the traditional qualities you’ve come to expect from Oldsmobile.” That was a nice way of saying the new Regency was still comfortable, but had had a lot of blubber removed–much like some of the Baby Boomers who were beginning to get just a bit of middle-age spread and considering taking up jogging.

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While it doesn’t sound like any great shakes today, standard equipment on the Regency (the slightly-less lush Luxury Sedan and Coupe were still available) included a digital quartz clock, storage pockets on the front seat backs, sail-panel opera lamps, power windows, power steering and brakes, and an automatic transmission.

As was plainly evident, the downsized Ninety-Eight was much more space-efficient. At the same time, interior room remained much the same as the 1971-76 version, and the trunk held 20 square feet of luggage and odds and ends. The Olds 350 CID V8 came standard, with the 403 available as an option.

The 1978 Ninety-Eight was changed only slightly from the ’77 model. The expected annual grille-and-taillight revisions were in evidence, but that was about it for the year. The Regency, with its Broughamier interior and C-pillar opera lamps, remained top dog: As the ’78 brochure stated, “Regency presents a beautiful marriage of logic and luxury to meet the new demands of our times.” Regrettably, that logic included the addition of a new option for ’78: the now-infamous diesel V8 engine. Fortunately, the previous year’s bulletproof Rocket 350 and 403 engines returned for 1978 duty.

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The regency’s interior was the primary reason for purchasing it over an LS. Button-tufted, loose-pillow seating, accompanied by dressier door panels, was the big draw. As stated in the brochure seen above, leather was also available.

Our featured CC is upholstered in the more common (and standard) crushed velour. I imagine driving one of these Regencys was like piloting the streets in your favorite easy chair. All that was missing was the hassock, TV remote and side table with your favorite beverage and snack, although the latter situation could be partly remedied by pointing the Rocket hood ornament into the local drive-in or fast food drive-thru.

Aside from the aforementioned seatback pockets, digital clock and pillowed velour, 1978 Regency interiors also came with a split front bench seat with dual controls and door-opening warning lamps a la Cadillac. In effect, you were getting a Sedan de Ville for about four-fifths the cost–a good deal, to many of us flatlanders in Iowa and Illinois. Perhaps that is why Oldsmobile was king throughout my Midwestern youth. They were literally everywhere–despite the fact that my parents drove Volvos.

With its Broughamy luxury, proven powertrains (well, except for that diesel) and tidy (for a full-sizer) 220.4″ length and 119″ wheelbase, the 1977-79 Ninety-Eights sold quite well. Inaugural 1977 was the best sales year, with 139,423 units finding homes. Sales of 1978 models like our featured white-over-red example dipped by about 20K, to 118,765, while 1979 sales rose by about 10K, to a total of 127,651 LSs and Regencys–not bad for what was a rather expensive car at the time–a 1978 Regency sedan was base-priced at $8,063.

The 1979 Ninety-Eight represented the last year for the original downsized C-body’s sheet metal. As in 1978, only minor trim details distinguished it from the previous year’s model. However, Regencys did get new door panels with even more fake wood than before. Curb weight was up by about 80 pounds–perhaps due to the additional simulated wood-grain.

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The LS interior continued unchanged from 1977-78–and today, does indeed look much more palatable to modern eyes. I really, really like the pastel green of the ’79 LS coupe seen above. A one-year-only color, it was also available on other 1979 B- and C-bodies; I’ve seen it on Bonnevilles and Caprices.

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Buyers were spoiled for color choices, as you can see above. Available 1978 colors included carmine red metallic, russet metallic, light green metallic, light camel beige, pastel blue and dark blue metallic. Interior colors were just as bright, what with red, blue, green, camel, black and white hues all on offer.

Some new colors, including pastel green, pastel yellow and dark brown metallic (replacing dark carmine metallic), were added for ’79. Yes, in the late ’70s, color selections were much more diverse than today. I mean, look–there’s only one silver! However, many of these late ’70s Oldses were brown or gold–just as so many of today’s cars are gray.

This white Regency with its red interior and vivid red top looked really good to me, although I’d have tossed those Tahoe/Suburban alloys and replaced them with color-keyed Super Stock wheels–with whitewalls, of course! Still, it was a pretty clean survivor, considering the winters we endure around here. And I am VERY glad it hasn’t succumbed to the purple-with-lime-green-trim-and-honking-big-wheels syndrome so many vintage GM luxury cars are saddled with today.

I spotted today’s CC one Sunday last January while driving out to see my folks. I saw a flash of red off to the left and had to investigate. It was certainly a nice bit of color on what was a rather dreary and overcast day. As you might be able to glean from the pictures, the top has been painted–but to my eyes, that didn’t detract from anything. The job was well done, too, though I suspect the brittle plastic of the passenger side opera lamp may have been a casualty of the required dis-assembly. Never mind, I’m always happy to pull over to look at an Olds!