Curbside Classic: 1984 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight – Your Father’s Last Oldsmobile?

Until it was discontinued some years back, the Oldsmobile Ninety Eight was one of the few nameplates that had been around for my entire life and even before.  Like the New Yorker and the Fleetwood Sixty Special, the Ninety Eight was one of the old-timers of the automotive world that somehow managed to stay at the top of the brand’s pecking order for virtually its entire existence.

Most people my age and younger have no clue about the naming of these cars.  Once upon a time, these numbers made complete sense.  As Oldsmobile moved from the 1930s into the 1940s, it replaced its letter designations with numbers.  There was a 60, 70, 80 and 90 series, though the 60 and 80 were short-lived.  By 1941, each series was available with either a six or an eight cylinder engine.  So, there was an Oldsmobile 76 or an Oldsmobile 98.  Voila – we have a name.  And as an added bonus, you now understand how the Oldsmobile 88 got its name.

I have never been quite sure why this car existed.  Oldsmobile was in the middle of the GM brand ladder, and its offerings tended to move both up and down depending on tastes and sales.  Back in GM’s heyday, every car in the line used one of three body shells – the A body, B body or the C body.  The Chevy and Pontiac were on the A shell, and the Cadillac was the reason for the C.  The “regular” Olds and Buick were the B body cars.  It is understandable that Buick would merit a C body model, but Oldsmobile?  Somehow, Olds got one, and it was the Ninety Eight.

It is a little known fact  that for their final year of production (1984) the car was no longer designated as a C body, but as a D body (even though the car was on a shorter wheelbase than the D body Cadillac).  The front drive 1985 replacement would be the new C body.

I grew up in a very middle class family.  All through the 1960s and 1970s, there were Oldsmobiles peppered all through both Mom’s and Dad’s sides.  I can count at least a dozen family Olds models during those two decades, but all of them were either the midsize F-85/Cutlass or the bread and butter 88.  Ninety Eights were for rich people.  Rich midwestern German Lutherans, anyway, who had some money but saw no reason to broadcast to the world just how much.  Because it was nobody’s darned business, by golly.  This, in a nutshell, WAS the reason for the Ninety Eight.  If you were ostentatious, there was Cadillac.  If you could afford to be only moderately ostentatious, then get a Buick instead.

My mother bought a new Oldsmobile Cutlass in 1972, and I spent a lot of time in the Olds showroom that summer.  1972 was the year that Olds introduced the Ninety Eight Regency, and it was an impressive car.  This is the first car that I remember as having the poofy loose-pillow velour upholstery that looked positively decadent.  That upholstery style must have been a hit with Ninety Eight buyers, because it remained as a hallmark of these cars for a long, long time, right up through today’s subject car.

I have some fondness for this 1984 model because I owned one of these for a few years in the 1990s.  I had been driving a 1968 Newport Custom sedan (still one of my favorite cars) when I got a call from my friend Karl.  Karl’s mother had passed away, and he was looking for someone who might be interested in her car.  It was a white 1984 Ninety Eight coupe with no vinyl roof and this same deep velour seating as in this car, only in brown.  And the thirteen year old car had all of 54,000 miles under its belt.

My Chrysler was in need of a fuel tank repair, and although I had no desire to get rid of it, I have lived my car-ownership life with but a single rule:  When you have a really nice car plop itself at your feet, purchase is mandatory.  So, I followed my rule, bought the Olds and sadly sold my Chrysler to the son of a friend who was looking for a cool old car to drive.

This was not my first-ever GM car.  I had owned a 1963 Cad Fleetwood for about six months in the late 1970s.  Also, about a year or two earlier, I had owned a a 1985 LeSabre coupe for about three weeks.  So, this was the first GM that I owned for longer than six months, and I generally liked the car.

I say generally.  Shortly after purchase, I learned what a THM200-4R transmission was, and why it was such a piece of crap.  An expensive piece of crap.  The car also suffered from some electrical gremlins and an automatic temp control that never worked properly.  Also, it never really felt like my own car, but one borrowed from an elderly aunt.  But there was one thing that made it all worthwhile: that distinctive Oldsmoble Rocket V8 burble from the exhaust.  There was no other engine that sounded even close to that Olds V8, even it if was only the puny 307.  I had the same engine in both the LeSabre and in a later Cadillac, but something was just wrong when that sound accompanied any hood ornament other than the famous launching rocket.

Oh yes – those seats were really, really, REALLY comfortable.

We here at CC occasionally fall into the trap of giving old cars the hagiographical treatment.  So here is where I depart from this path:  I never liked the slope-nose look of these Oldsmobiles.  From the cowl rearward, there were few cars of the era that better evoked the feel of a limousine fit for a high-ranking foreign dignitary.  The skirted rear fenders made for one of the best looking butt’s ever found on a post-1960s big sedan.  But that sloping front end sort of turned the car into something like a really big doorstop, particularly as the front springs sagged a bit due to age.  If only the 1977-79 Olds front end could have accompanied this otherwise attractive car.

Whether we blame GM decision-makers or the CAFE fuel economy rules, it was not a good thing when this car (and the Buick Electra/Park Avenue) was shown the door at the end of the 1984 year.  These were highly profitable cars for GM, and were extremely popular in the middle parts of the country.  These big Oldsmobiles represented GM’s core competency, and were also among the best that the company built during an increasingly troubled period in its history.  Starting in 1985, you could still get a Ninety Eight, but if we were were still following the naming rules, it was really a Ninety Six.

I ran across this car one day when I saw it pull into a post office.  The owner was sitting in the drivers seat while his nephew went into the building.  The owner was a very pleasant older fellow who had had this car for awhile.  He had owned at least one big Olds in the 1960s, and still has a soft spot for them.  This is a nice low-mile car that he really enjoys.  I would go into some more detail, but am sorry to say that I quickly lost the little scrap of paper that I used for some notes, so this is all I can recall from a short but enjoyable conversation.

Oldsmobile made a big splash in its advertising in the late 80s, trumpeting that “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile”.  Well, this Ninety Eight WAS your father’s Oldsmobile.  Maybe even your grandfather’s.  Can’t you just smell the aroma of pipe smoke?  It may have also been the last genuinely good big Olds that he had.  There had been a time when a guy would be really proud of a new Oldsmobile, particularly if it was the big Ninety Eight.  This was the last one that required no explanation or apology.  If you came from a family of Oldsmobile men, this was the last car that the old guys spent the rest of their days missing.  Having spent some time with one, I think I understand.