(first posted 6/10/2015) Tear the highly practical metal roof off of one the more boring big American cars like a 1963 Olds Dynamic 88, and suddenly it becomes the key ingredient of an intensely romantic scenario: a hot summer day, a full-size ragtop, a beautiful woman to share it with, and the open road. What could be better? It’s got to be one of the top “relive the youthful automotive memories/dreams” recipes for guys my age or so. Except in my case, it’s a nightmare.
It’s 1972, I’m nineteen and couch-surfing in Iowa City. A tall and statuesque former high-school classmate has flown out from Baltimore to visit me – on a one-way ticket (it’s all she could afford). We had a fun week or so, but it wasn’t a viable situation, for a number of reasons; one of the more pressing ones being another girl in the picture. How to get her back home? (I was perpetually broke too, then). Solution: I would hitch-hike the thousand miles back to Towson with her, and then turn around and thumb it back home. Perfectly logical too; yes, times have changed.
I was a highly seasoned hitchhiker back then, but with a strong aversion to “doubles”, because the success rate usually plummeted. So the strategy was for me to keep a low profile sitting in the weeds, and let Tracy’s profile do the thumbing. Well, she stopped the cars on I-80 mighty quickly, but not the kind that would typically stop for me.
Almost instantaneously, two guys driving an open ’63 or ’64 (I was too distracted to notice which year) Olds 88 rag-top pulled over.Undoubtedly, their intention was to share the big front bench seat with Tracy. When I jumped out of the ditch, the two disappointed-looking guys at least showed us the back seat instead of their taillights. They were going all the way to Gary Indiana, some 250 miles, no less; a very good ride, normally. I’d never really ridden much in a big convertible before. How cool was this!
My hair back then was almost as long as Tracy’s, and by the time the Olds was up to the then posted limit of 75, I started having serious doubts. Sitting in the back seat was like the point of convergence of four Level 5 Hurricanes: the wind ripped at me from all quarters. My locks were whipping into my face; I could hardly keep my eyes open. Our dream ride quickly turned into a four-hour long CIA-approved torture session. I suddenly understood why the elegant double-cowl touring car had been invented.
Tracy and I crouched and huddled on the seat pretty much the whole way, but out of desperation rather than affection. In fact, that brutal ride pretty effectively beat any lingering warmth right out of me; for convertibles as well as Tracy. And it took me weeks to get the tangles out of my locks.
Makes you wonder what motivated the six percent of Oldsmobile buyers in 1963 that picked the six-seater convertible. It sure as hell wasn’t for them to take the family on vacation to Disneyland in. Or for a long freeway commute on the smog-choked freeways. More likely, especially given the conservative image and styling of the Olds, they were already reliving their youthful memories spent in an open-top Model A or the like. And there was enough money for wifey to drive a matching Olds wagon to haul the kids in.
In the sixties, Olds was consistently in last place among GM’s B-O-P (Buick, Olds, Pontiac) mid-range trio. Buicks had more prestige factor, and were generally better looking (than Olds) during those years. The Olds is a nice-enough looking car, but not inspired in any way. And Pontiac was on a tear, ripping Plymouth out of the coveted number three spot behind Chevy and Ford. For a good reason too: Pontiac was the styling leader of the whole industry. The 1963 full-sized Pontiacs shocked and scared the competition; it was light years better than anything out there. The 1965 Fury was Chrysler’s desperate attempt to imitate the ’63 Pontiac. And the ’65 Fords aped it just as badly.
In Chapter Four of my Auto-Biography I wrote about the brothers across the street gripped in endless (and mostly futile) exertions getting their old beater Ford hot rods to run. They had a buddy who would came by driving a pristine new black ’63 Pontiac rag top (Dad’s, I assume).
It had the same basic body as the Olds, but what a difference a bold new face, a little curve in the hips, and a few other tasteful details made. It makes the Olds look mighty plain and uninspired. Anyway, he would watch the hapless mechanics, but from a distance, and kept his hands clean. He was also the only one of the bunch with a girl friend, and she did justice to the beautiful Poncho. She sat there waiting on the shimmering Morrokide upholstery and did her nails. I sat in the grass, between the Pontiac and the greasy old Ford, watched quietly, and took notes. But I must have lost them somewhere along the way.
The Dynamic 88 was Old’s bread-and-butter car, the Biscayne of their full size range; just the basics in terms of chrome and ornamentation. That was sometimes a good thing back then. It cost $3,379 new ($26k, adjusted), which was a 10% premium over a Chevy Impala convertible.
But the Dynamic had that big 394 cubic inch “Sky Rocket” V8 standard. As well as a much nicer dashboard.
I’d seen this nice original but-not-overly-pristine 88 parked repeatedly with the top down at our non-profit recycled building supply store. I hung around at closing time, and caught the owner as he was leaving. He’s about my age, and is a volunteer there. He and his attractive wife/SO got in, and she slid over the seat and sidled up next to him. And as I watched them burble slowly down Franklin Boulevard, my convertible post-traumatic stress syndrome finally melted away in the golden glow of the late-afternoon sunshine.