Curbside Classic: 1971 Oldsmobile Delta Royale • Getting Warmer

Ever since I was smol, as today’s hep young people say, I’ve had something of a loathe-on for GM’s ’71-’76 big cars. When there were still a lot of them on the roads—and there were—I hotly despised everything about them. Don’t guess I need to elaborate much—offensively bloated; grotesque; ill-built; inefficient, etc—aggravated by their having gone out of production the year I was born, so most of the ones I saw were decrepit to one or another degree. The sole exception was grandma Zelda’s Cadillac Calais, which I never mentally connected to the ChevrOldsmoBuAcs I was so tickled to stop seeing in traffic and parkades.

But now I think some of my hatred might’ve been down to massive overexposure, for I saw this ’71 Oldsmobile the other day and—for the first time in the history of ever—saw some styling rectitude. Some sculptural merit, even! Lookit:

Whatever I might think about the whole mastodon, this part of its design is some fine work: two sides of a building, viewed from the corner. In 1971 there was nothing such as pedestrian-friendlier car design; that kind of traffic violence was regarded as the fault of the stupid pedestrian. Not like now, when pedestrian-protection regulations on car design and construction exist (except here on the North American regulatory island, where pedestrians are still just stupidly askin’ for it by not being in cars).

Might this look better with a composite headlamp rather than these mandatorily standardised sealed beams (this inboard high beam appears to be original to the car)? Me, I’d stick with this twin-round treatment. The turn signal is kind of unusual, with that two-segment lens in front of one bulb—shielded from direct view by the vertical strip of bumper—in one reflector bowl.

There’s bulk quantities of more to see; come take a look at this door handle right over here:

It’s the same kind as on grandma’s same-year Cadillac; I remember standing just about eye-on to it and grooving on its de luxity, with that intricately concave pushbutton. I don’t know what these doors sound like now, but when they were younger I bet they said the same thing on opening—jaBROCKet!—as the doors on grandma’s Calais. I have always preferred pushbutton doorhandles of this general configuration; they’ve always seemed easier to use and more appealing than the lift-bar type or the pull-the-whole-handle kind. And don’t let’s even start about the current fad of ones that automatically pop out to make themselves available for use on the fobholder’s approach (unless and until they don’t, but who cares? They’re internet-enabled, and that’s the main thing).

Below the doorhandle here is one of the approximately seventy-three kazillion of these upside-down door locks GM bought from Briggs & Stratton, wasn’t it? They’re upside-down in that the key is inserted with the notches down. Like the debate over which way the toilet paper should come off the roll, this question has one right answer—not this one. This answer’s wrong because if the key notches face down, it means the lock’s tumblers point up out their holes. Like everything else on this planet, dirt and freezable water fall down; a lock mechanism is less likely to get fouled if it’s above rather than below. But…

…this is a convertible, so locks are irrelevant. Car’s a bit boatlike in profile, iznit? I don’t think those wheels are doing it any favours after Labour Day, but they’re wearing good ol’ BFGoodrich Radial T/As.

These louvre ornaments remind me of the ones atop the tailfins on a ’61 Valiant V200. The Valiant came with three and this Olds came with nine, making it three times posher than the Valiant. It’s got only eight now, but surely it is better to have louvred and lost than never to have louvred at all.

These other louvres, near the northern border of the deck lid’s northernmost county, are harder for me to understand. Even when the owner opened the trunk I didn’t see that they connect to anything. What is the point of these?

Rear bumpers ensconcing the lower part of the taillights were an Oldsmobile tic; see also 1973 Cutlass. The tops of the rear fenders quietly hint that tailfins used to be a thing. Consumer Reports pipes up here: You must rotate a medallion to insert the trunk key, a nuisance.

The owner, who was sort of skittering about a half-block area centred round the car, was vocally jumpy about anyone who looked like they might be reading his licence plate. In deference to his preference, I’ve shooped the front plate; he had covered the rear one.

No more boring ol’ ’60s ol’ block letters; the ’70s were going to be all about curlicues; calligraphic cursive, and filligreed font frippery. I used to hate these taillights, seeing them as a random melted-bar-of-soap shape. They work a little better for me now I can see they’re actually shaped like a covered casserole turned up on edge. They’re big; hence good and bright without being glaring—we used to know that’s the right way to do it; now we’ve forgot. The ‘chrome’ on the lenses is in remarkably good condition; mostly it quickly wore off GM cars so adorned.

Speaking of bolt-ons GM bought 73 kazillion of: this kind of sideview mirror, shaped like a palm with no thumb or fingers. If it wasn’t exactly the same mirror head on my folks’ ’84 Caprice, it was damn near. And I guess these head pretend-restraints are on the kazillion-list, as well.

Oh, dear. I do not think ye olde calligraphique cursive Royale emblem countervails the Rubbermaid Brute Commercial Products armrest and doorhandle area; best dig the grain of that seat upholstery instead.

Hoyup, welcome to 1971! Been a long time since I saw an ashtray lined with tinfoil like that. That’s the kind of shift lever I swapped onto my ’91 Crapiece. Hey, look, it’s one of those chromed bent-metal plates GM used to put on the outboard rear upright corners of their seats because reasons! Nothing whispers “»tsk« too cheap to buy the air conditioning” like blockoff plates where the outboard air registers would be. Certainly quite the collection of…items…bungeed to the rearview mirror. Powuh windizz, powuh lox.

Powuh windizz here, too, with those square-chrome-bezel switches (also on the kazillion list; GM used these well into the ’80s and I think maybe as late as the ’90 Caprice). This is not a Cadillac; nevertheless, it has diamonds in the back. Seatbelts tucked inaccessibly behind the seat, just like every ’71-’76 B-body taxicab I ever rode in.

From this angle, we see what looks like a very long rear seat cushion and very short rear leg- and footroom. We also have a good perspective on the hood, big enough for its own weather systems.

I do not know why the hood was up; the owner’s skittering didn’t seem to include any engine room ministrations, and there was no evidence of an overheat or other breakdown. I’m not so keen on these grilles, which look like the grate on an air conditioner or something. Perhaps it would look better with lines only vertical or horizontal, andor brought forward flush with the front of the header metal rather than recessed like this, or maybe I just need another four decades’ time to come around. I do like the red Rocket emblem, and the way the front bumper meets the header sheetmetal in the middle there.

Taking a pic of this great big engine bay was a little like facing down a great big Dagwood sandwich: just where does one take a first bite? So the angle’s a little awkward; sorry bout that. That headlamp sculpture works from this angle, too; I like the pointy prows.

This is a 455, and the owner announced multiple times to passersby that “it’ll pass anything but a gas station!”. I can’t tell from here if this one has the two- or the four-barrel carburetor; aftermarket cattledogs say it could be either. Way over yonder on the other side of the radiator, hidden from our sight by atmospheric haze—okeh, by the radiator shroud—is a side-terminal battery; 1971 was the first year some GM cars had these as original equipment. I’ve never liked ’em; they’re a terminal pain in the –nuts– bolts when getting or giving a jump start. GM claimed they were vastly superior to top-terminal batteries; I think they were really just vastly superior to those dumb spring-ring battery cable ends GM used before on regular top-terminal batteries. I haven’t checked lately; are GM still pretending they’re right and the entire rest of the world is wrong about this?

1971 was also the last year for external voltage regulators on GM cars, like this what we see perched on the firewall just below the –starboard– right angle-brace. And under the left one we see a fine example of how GM mounted brake master cylinders at an angle, an innovation that made fluid check-and-fills and brake bleeding operations forty per cent extra messy.

Now look down and notice how much road we can see; the engine’s big—it’ll pass anything but a gas station—but the engine bay’s huge. One can drop a half-inch wrench—or a nine-sixteenths, or a twenty-three sixty-fourths; none of that pinko commie metric stuff here, and hear it go »Ping-ClengaDenk« on the actual, real ground. In accord with Scripture (and Don Martin).

American automakers squawked and bleated that mandatory side marker lights would spoil their styling and be ruinously expensive and not cost-effective and they’d cause ring-around-the-collar; waxy buildup on floors and unsightly spots on glassware, and quite possibly psoriasis. They look fine to me, and they don’t appear to have bankrupted GM. Areal shirts and business floors and glassware seemed okeh, as did my scalp. So I donno.

I took these last two pics and ran along on my errands. As I was coming back up the street a little later, the Olds—audibly running on all eight—pulled away in front of a plume of invisible but filthy exhaust. I was born the year of peak leaded-gasoline consumption in America, so that kind of toxic ground-level “air” was on the decline by the time I noticed it. Even so, and even though everyone was used to it because it was inescapable, I sure as hell remember it unfavourably.

The Olds headed off south; the nearest gasoline station was about a kilometre down the road.