Curbside Classic: 1979 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale – Mr. Average Makes A Final Appearance

Average.  Nobody likes average today.  People today want special.  They want unique.  They don’t want coffee, they want something at Starbucks that takes as long to say as it takes to make.  They don’t want bourbon, they want spirits crafted in a particular way, with a particular variety of grain, barrel char and aging.  But it wasn’t always so.

In the years of my youth average was good.  People drank their coffee from Folgers or Maxwell House. Cutty Sark scotch was the good stuff.  And so was Oldsmobile.

I grew up around Oldsmobiles.  And rebelled early.  Oldsmobile was for parents.  Female parents, actually.  Oldsmobile occupied the same place in my mind as old bits of advice like “eat your dinner before you get dessert.”  Oldsmobile was good for you.

The result of all this is that while I was steeped in a world of Oldsmobiles, I didn’t really pay attention to them.  Why bother – they were everywhere.  If I ever got in a spot where I needed an Olds, finding one would be a cinch.  But that was for fuddy-duddies.

When Oldsmobile (and the rest of GM’s big car lines) were put on a diet for the 1977 model year I found them yawn-worthy.  I liked my big cars big, and these no longer were.  Big Lincolns and Chryslers were exotic to me, with presence.  But looking back now after all these years I realize two things: Oldsmobile’s kind of normal was good.  And I had no way of knowing that this kind of normal was on the brink of disappearing forever.

Let’s think about what normal was in 1979.  Until summer of that year (pretty much the end of 1979 model year production) cars were just cars.  Cubic inches still ruled and sixteen or seventeen miles per gallon on the highway out of a big, heavy American sedan was the kind of thing people bragged about.  CAFE was coming and took some of the biggest engines out of some lineups by 1979 but you still had some decent powertrains available.

A good big American car started right up when you turned the key and didn’t make you think about it until you shut it off again.  When you stepped on the gas it went faster and when you stepped on the brakes it went slower.  Yes, there had been a learning curve in dealing with emissions hardware, but by 1979 the engineers had gotten pretty much back on their game.

Take this Oldsmobile.  A 4 bbl 350 V8 was still considered a God-given right.  But we could see a world of compromise coming across the horizon.  This was the year you could also get a V6, a diesel, an Olds 260 V8 and a (gasp) Pontiac 301.  If you wanted to tow a trailer or just wanted a little more scoot a 403 was easily available.  If you bought a used ’78 model, anyway.  At least you still got the good old Turbo HydraMatic 3 speed transmission.

But more ‘change was a-brewin’.  By 1980 the traditional big American car started to die.  CAFE was the new law of the land and weight was the enemy.  Displacement and axle ratios raced to lower numbers.  Overdrive automatics of increasing cost and complexity (and decreased driving pleasure) started to show themselves.  And cars would no longer be styled just to look good.  At GM at least, these big B/C body cars would get the aero treatment forced on them, so that new Oldsmobiles looked like big doorstops on wheels.

This is another set of pictures pulled from my marinated and aged stash of cars I never got around to writing up.  I’ve got a million of ’em, so if I never see another CC I still have a couple of years worth of material to cover.  And had I figured out that there has never before been a proper CC of a 1977-79 Delta 88 I might have gotten back to this one sooner.

These shots reminded me of a couple of things.  First, I was delighted to see this color jump back to near the top of popularity after its early 1970’s disappearance. I am not sure I noticed it at the time but this is actually a two-tone paint job – and with a vinyl roof thrown in for fun.  That slightly darker blue on the body sides is an interesting color (imaginitively called “medium blue”) that seems to have been offered in only 1977 and 1979 and only as part of a two tone on Oldsmobiles and Buicks.

The second thing these photos made me think about was that this was, to my eyes, the best styling job of the four B body cars that GM offered in 1977-79.

Everyone loves the Chevy, but it never did a thing for me.  The Pontiac was OK if you were in the mood for lots of chrome and some fender skirts, and the Buick was fine until you got around to what might have been the least inspired rear end of a car since the 1920’s.  The Olds carried its big-boned, square-jawed looks well.  The shape was good, the details were right and there was nothing wrong with it.  And as a bonus, it sounded like an Oldsmobile should.


I eventually owned an Oldsmobile that was built five years after this one – a 1984 Ninety-Eight Regency coupe.  The interior was nice and it sounded like an Oldsmobile, but that was where the similarities ended.  The shape was not quite right, the engine was too small, the axle was too tall and the glass-jaw transmission required a rebuild at 54,000 miles.  This car was not American-style-1970’s-normal but the 1980’s-style basket of compromises that made you painfully aware of each and every one of them with every single drive.

Stepping on the gas no longer guaranteed an immediate increase in speed and the car’s shovel-nose styling was not the kind of no-apologies-here-I-am kind of attitude I had come to expect from an Oldsmobile.

It is now forty years since this car was new.  Which is a long time.  And admittedly, what is “normal” or “average” for one age group is not the same as for another.  But for those of us old enough to remember Oldsmobile during its glory days, this car would be in the running for the last of the big Oldsmobiles that could be described as great cars.  This aging former-Oldsmophobe now misses cars like this and would happily welcome one into his garage.  Because “normal” is under-appreciated.

Further Reading:

1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Diesel (Big Old Chryslers)