Curbside Classic: 1976 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight – Orville Builds a House For Irene

(first posted 7/19/2012)    Nineteen seventy-six brings varied images to mind.  It saw the election of Jimmy Carter and the founding of Apple Computer.  It also saw the last 455 cu in (7.4-liter) V8-powered Oldsmobile 98.

By 1987, disco was dead, Reagan was in his second term, and Oldsmobile was in the third model year of a front-drive Ninety-Eight. It was also the year Orville built a house for his wife, Irene.

Perhaps you are wondering what correlation exists between Orville building a house and an Olds 98.  Well, here’s the connection…

Orville had just turned 80 when he decided to build Irene a new house.  Living near the Mississippi River, they were tired of being flooded out every other year.  So Orville looked around town and found three acres of land for sale directly in front of my parents’ house.  I have never understood why the builder of my parents’ house built it at the front of seven acres and why Orville decided to build his at the rear of his three acres.  In any case, the two houses were quite close in proximity.

One day, soon after school let out, I heard some commotion in the front yard.  Here came Orville in his ’76 Oldsmobile 98, which was pulling a trailer with a bobcat.  He unloaded the bobcat and started to level a place for his house.

He would continue to haul a trailer with various supplies every day or two throughout the summer, always pulling it in the pillow-topped comfort of his Olds 98.  Rarely did he have a light load, and the nearest lumber yard was more than 12 miles away. Orville also had a 1969 Ninety-Eight that he didn’t drive very much.

If you’re a bit skeptical about an 80-year-old man being so physically capable, it’s sad that you didn’t know Orville.  He, like his Olds 98, was the last of a breed.  He had owned, amongst other things, the tavern in the small of town of 450 souls where I grew up.  Orville didn’t suffer fools.  Legend had it that Orville was in the bar one night when a couple of rowdy young men came in from out of town.  They proceeded to make a ruckus, and Orville politely asked them to leave.  They didn’t.  Orville  gave them one last chance.  They refused.  Orville then proceeded to use his bare fists on both of them and then picked them up, carried them outside and dumped them onto the street.  He did this at the tender age of 67.

Orville’s Oldsmobile was likely the last Oldsmobile 98 that could effortlessly accomplish the task of pulling all the equipment and materials needed to build a house–not to mention all of Orville’s and Irene’s furniture and belongings–up the 7% grade of 1/4 mile length required to get to their new house.  Try doing any of that in a 1985 Oldsmobile 98.

One day as I was out mowing the yard, Orville was taking a break.  I stopped to talk with him, and I inquired why the hood was up on his Oldsmobile.

 “It needs a bit of oil.  The old thing has about 150,000 miles on it, so she’s entitled to use a little.”

I asked him when he bought the car, and also asked about his ’69 model.

“This ’76 model I bought when it was about a year old.  Irene and I had just gotten married.  Only thing I don’t like is the color – black, inside and out.  Hotter than hell this time of year, so I’m having to run the air full-blast going to and from the lumber yard.  I don’t think Irene likes the ’69 much, although it will run circles around this one, even with the same engine.  The ’69 I bought new and it has fewer miles than this one.  I’m thinking part of Irene’s not liking it is because my ex-wife has driven it.”

I pulled out one of my dad’s Motor repair manuals and learned Orville’s ’76 Olds was rated at 190 net horsepower, whereas his ’69 model was rated at 365 gross horsepower.  Orville’s claim surely made sense.

Orville continued.

“Irene wanted a house close to town.  I wanted to be out where the chickens look like the hoot-owls.  She refused, saying she wanted to be close to a hospital since she says I’m getting old.  Hell, we’re still 15 miles from a hospital.  Oh, well, this gives me something to do.  It’s been working the Oldsmobile pretty good, but it does it without a whimper.  With a car like this, who needs a pickup?”

Interesting point.  Back then, most cars were capable of pulling a lot and few people had pickups.  Nowadays, most cars aren’t rated for pulling much and nearly everyone has a pickup.  One can’t help but wonder if there is a connection.

Orville did get his house finished late in the summer.  He got Irene and their belongings into the house.  The next summer Orville was outside with Irene’s grandkids everyday.  One day, after the five-year-old had built a mountain of rock on the Oldsmobile’s trunk lid,  I learned how well Orville could yell, along with the scope and grasp of his vocabulary.

Incidentally, Irene was 20 years younger than Orville. She was short, with pendulous bosoms that rested on her belt line, and always wore tank tops.  Orville was an amazing guy.

And Orville’s Oldsmobile was an amazing machine.  By 1976, this generation of Oldsmobile 98 had had a natural lifespan (in automotive terms) since being introduced on September 29, 1970.  Its lifespan spanned the implementation of five-mph bumpers and the increasing influence of the EPA.  GM’s approaching downsizings, in 1977 and 1985, should have been expected even if not welcomed.

Today, versatility sells SUVs and CUVs. Still, one could argue that cars like the ’76 Olds 98 were equally versatile and capable–maybe even more so, as Orville demonstrated.  The 1976 Oldsmobile 98 truly was the end of a breed.