Friday, July 15, 2011

Come away with me, Lucille, and see the '57 Oldsmobile

Many great automotive nameplates have fallen by the wayside recently. American favorites like Pontiac, Mercury, and Plymouth have all been shuttered, while bland, heritage-less boxes like Hyundai, Kia, and Scion thrive.

One of the most significant losses in recent years was the demise of Oldsmobile, which at the time of its closing was the oldest American auto manufacturer. But things weren’t always that bleak.

In 1957, General Motors was on top of the world, and Oldsmobile was right in the thick of things. ’57 was the 50th-anniversary of GM’s Rocket division, and there was a lot to be excited about.

Back then, GM acknowledged its heritage, and they knew that their oldest division’s golden anniversary was a big deal. Even Oldsmobile’s storied Rocket engines were painted gold to commemorate the occasion. In some circles, the 88 model was called the “Golden Rocket 88”.

Oldsmobile was no stranger to NASCAR’s victory lane, but they traded in their rifle for a cannon in ’57 when they introduced the J-2 engine option. These 372-c.i. monsters were equipped with three factory carburetors, which resulted in an incredible for the time 312-hp. Of course, that was fine for the street, but NASCAR soon realized it was an unfair advantage and banned the option from competition. In fact, the first race car that Richard Petty drove was a ’57 Oldsmobile.

Oldsmobiles were luxurious, yes, but they were also among the first muscle cars. By 1957, the smaller-bodied Super 88 line was considered a real performance powerhouse, especially when equipped with high-compression engines strong enough for the larger, flagship 98 lineup.

Even though Oldsmobile was far from GM’s top-selling division in 1957, they still managed to produce 384,390 cars. Many carmakers would kill for those kind of numbers today, but the three-piece split rear window setup that most of these cars had proved to be someone unpopular among customers. Apparently, people didn’t want to give up rearward visibility for style.

Of those 384,390 cars, 19,800 were station wagons, and Oldsmobile had a great one in 1957. The Fiesta name had been used for an exclusive custom Oldsmobile convertible just a few years earlier, but in ’57 it was attached to one of history's greatest grocery-getters. The sleek, graceful greenhouse of a four-door hardtop was combined with a sweptback station wagon to create one of the most beautiful cars ever to have a tailgate. Combine that with the coveted J-2 option, and you also have one of the most performance-oriented wagons this side of a Magnum SRT-8.

Today, it is easy to look back at the rocket-festooned Oldsmobile and assume that it looked futuristic by 1957 standards. But really, the General Motors lineup was a little on the stodgy side by then. When you look at the low, sleek designs coming from Chrysler and Ford, you can see how the higher, more upright design on cars like the Oldsmobile was a year behind the times.

But that’s one of the reasons the ’57 model is so great today. Oldsmobile was modernized in 1958 all right, but it was a gaudy, chrome-drenched, over-the-top transformation that in retrospect gave the ’57 models a classy, understated elegance.

So to that end, I’m including a wonderful collection of pictures that I discovered for sale at You can buy pictures and brochures like these from their extensive inventory of automotive literature, and they have a huge presence on eBay.

I’m also throwing in a ’57 Oldsmobile television spot for your viewing enjoyment. I chose this one in particular because it features a '57 Olds Promotional Model spinning around on a record player at the beginning, and I'm a sucker for anything that includes an old model car.  Enjoy!

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