COAL: 1976 Olds 98 Regency – This Is Your Grandfather’s Oldsmobile

Well, here we are, with granddad’s Olds Delta 88. A ’72, I think. Left to right, it’s Mom, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and me. Summer of 1981, waiting forever for a ferry on the N.C. Outer Banks. Looks like a very similar blue Olds in the background, and an Olds Omega behind that! 

It’s a nice added touch that Nana is giving my Mom bunny ears, and Mom is giving her own mom the bunny ears. Ladies, please, can we just get a nice family photo?

My maternal grandmother was pretty petite. My mom is 5’2″ on a good day, and you can see she was a bit taller. Grandma must have been no more than 5′ or so. And this big brown barge was her everyday car.

Before that, she had a 1967 LeSabre, which somehow didn’t seem as large. Hers was this shade in blue, an ice blue. The baby blue interior was shiny, silky fabric. It reeked of cigarette smoke, in a comforting, 1970’s grandma kind of way, if that makes sense to anyone else. Grandmas sashayed around department stores and the grocery store smoking back then. There was always one burning in the ashtray, even when they were too busy cooking or knitting or playing bridge to touch it. It was the smell of my youth.

She assumed the helm of the Delta 88 when my grandpa bought our 1976 Volare wagon, identical to this one, which occurred when we bought the new 1979 240D.

The Volare had plaid seats like the lower right photo here, from the 1976 Volare catalog. Ours was a brown/orange/yellow plaid though, to go with the butterscotch colored paint. Wow, what a riot that would be to see on a new car today! But I digress.

My best friend in grad school was a car nut, like me. We shared an old house with two other guys. While the two housemates studied, my best friend and I talked cars, and drove around for hours in the 1991 Prelude, looking at new and used cars. There was no internet, really, yet. We didn’t have cable. Smartphones were years away. It was how we killed all our spare time.

One day, we had a chance encounter with a 1976 Olds 98 Regency hardtop for sale. It was massive, and very weathered. Of course, it reminded me of grandad’s Delta 88. His was long gone by this time.

Grandma and Grandpa were back down to one car, a 1988 Chevy Celebrity they bought new. It was the last car either of them drove. We had to take the keys away from my widowed grandma by 1995 or so, because she started getting lost in the neighborhood where she had lived for 30 years.

The 98 (Ninety Eight?) was silver, and for whatever reason, silver Detroit cars did not hold up well. This was probably 1993 or so, so it was old but not yet 20 years old. The paint was flat and devoid of any hope.

But, the interior was divine! I’ve never been to an actual brothel, but this is what I would imagine the Playboy Mansion circa 1976 looking like.

Lots of fake carvings, buttons, and gratuitous embellishments, like you see on 1970’s furniture. It was so much more exciting than the off-white interior of the brown Delta 88. As weathered as the exterior was, the interior looked pretty darn good. It wasn’t faded or torn. The seller wanted $750.00 for it. We talked him down to $600.00 cash. My friend put up half and I put up the other half.

We painted it with white tractor paint and a brush. We masked the trim and did a neat job. The white hid the brush marks well and it looked pretty darn good, I kid you not. Black would have been nice with the red interior, but applied with a brush it would have looked like crap.

The air didn’t work, but with all the windows down on the pillarless hardtop, it was about like a convertible anyway.

It had a 455 but you’d never know it. It couldn’t get out of it’s own way. Google tells me it had 190 horsepower on a good day. It ran smooth as glass, so I don’t think there was anything wrong. It was just so heavy and so de-tuned for emissions and economy, I guess.

It had an “economy meter” that plunged into the red if you so much as rested your foot on the accelerator.

The Olds quickly became the go-to vehicle for anyone we knew who needed to move. We put a set of cheap whitewalls on it, but I don’t recall any other repairs. A good thing, since we were broke. We moved my now-wife from one address to another in it; we filled the trunk with furniture, and her dresser fit in the back seat. This thing had room to spare! We hauled mattresses for friends on the roof, and filled the trunk with ice and kegs one weekend. My friend used it to build a chain-link fence dog lot for his girlfriend, later his wife.

The power windows eventually all simultaneously failed, a short or some electrical gremlin. That meant it couldn’t be driven unless it was cold weather, as you would suffocate. But in cold weather, the windows would fog up due to the lack of A/C or being able to crack a window. It was a rolling terrarium.

It didn’t get driven much after that. As graduated neared, we had to do something with it before our lease was up. And, neither of us had told our parents about it either. There was a small old garage behind our rental house, and we had left it in there (or as much of it as would fit). Our next door neighbor was an older gentleman with a Cadillac, a 1970 I think. It was his everyday car.

We asked him if he wanted the Olds, for free. We didn’t need or expect money for it, what with no air and no windows either. We had gotten two years and $600.00 of fun out of it. He acted like we had given him a million dollars. His face lit up and he gladly accepted the keys, and moved it across the street to his carport. He kicked the Cadillac out into his backyard.

My friend married his grad school girlfriend, and I married mine. You’ve already heard about my subsequent rescue COALs. My friend had a couple of rescue COALs that I know of. He called me with excitement when he later bought a halfway decent Grand Wagoneer Limited.

And, he later picked up a very nice Electra Estate wagon, with leather and the alloy wheels.

My friend, who had never smoked anything, developed a cough he couldn’t shake. About eight years after we graduated, he died of lung cancer, leaving two kids the same age as my two oldest ones. I think about him every time I see a big old Detroit anything, and wonder what he would have to say about it. I’m getting misty eyed typing this, actually.

And I still remember what he said when we bought the 98 together. I didn’t have the money to spare, really, and neither did he. I wasn’t sure I could pay my part of the rent and power. “I think I made a big mistake”, I said. His reply? “No, I think you just made the best decision of your life!”