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'60 Olds was a styling breakthrough

November 11, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

If you lived through the 1950s as did I, the Oldsmobiles were easy to spot.

They were far more imposing than the typical Chevy, Ford and Plymouth, with massive grilles and bumpers that looked as though they could bash right through a brick wall and come out the other side completely unharmed, chrome glistening brighter than ever.

The look, the rumbling sound emanating from the exhaust and the aura are what set these cars apart from the crowd.

Back then, I had never thought Oldsmobiles were particularly attractive until the arrival of the 1960 models. Compared to earlier versions, this collection of coupes, sedans, hardtops and convertibles seemed like a vision from the future.

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In those innocent times, October was always an eagerly anticipated month. That's when North American automakers unveiled all their new wares at the same time. Dealerships stayed opened late for the occasion and provided free coffee and donuts and balloons for the kids. With sheetmetal changing - often drastically - each season, there was always something exciting to see.

The 1960 Oldsmobile collection was no exception. Although constructed on the same new-for-1959 steel frame, the only content the two years shared were the glass and engines.

Far from displaying its usually frumpy shapes, the 1960 Oldsmobiles were wide and low-slung as well as restrained in the quantity and size of glittery chrome adornments. The grilles were clean and simple and the bumpers actually appeared tiny when compared to those giant prows of the mid- to late-1950s.

Yet the most noticeable change on the Olds that year was a complete absence of tail fins that had been so prevalent in the late 1950s. Surprisingly, almost shockingly, the 1960 Oldsmobiles proudly showed off flat, featureless and finless fenders.

Also causing multiple double-takes were the taillights as well as a rear bumper that had been smoothly grafted to the edges of each fender.

On the inside, an equally graceful dash held an elegant deep-dish steering wheel that effortlessly twirled when connected to the optional Roto-Matic power steering. The column also featured a plastic-topped lever that controlled the optional three-speed Jetaway Hydramatic transmission.

The 88 series, including the Super 88 Celebrity, Holiday 88 and Fiesta 88, were propelled by 371-cubic-inch V-8s with ratings of up to 260 horsepower. Meanwhile, the more luxurious Olds 98 line, with its longer (by three inches) wheelbase received the potent 315-horsepower, 394-cube V-8. The bigger engine had already become the choice of many drivers on the NASCAR stock-car circuit at the time, including Lee Petty, father of Richard and grandfather of Kyle, who won the first Daytona 500 in 1959 piloting an Olds.

As with most youngsters of the era, my favorite cars were the convertibles, and the Olds ragtop was especially eye catching. However, the 88 and 98 SceniCoupe two-door hardtops, with their thin roof pillars and "bubble-top" rear window, complemented the rest of the car's modern facade. I wasn't too crazy for the wagon and I also had trouble with the four-door hardtop with its wrap-around rear glass that made the Olds look the same coming or going.

My parents admired the flowing looks of the 1960 Oldsmobile, but its price of around $3,000 for a base 88 was well beyond their means and they stuck to their underpowered and content-absent sedan. Still, there were no shortage of buyers that year willing to shell out as much as $4,200 for a 98 convertible as total sales topped the 150,000 mark.

Although it might have been the "biggest" year, 1960 would also prove to be the last for these land yachts as Oldsmobile began to shrink the line to more reasonable dimensions.

With each successive year, I would continue to have my favorite models and styles, the same as any car-crazy kid. But the 1960 Oldsmobile continues to stick in my memory as one of the more glamorous automobiles of that long-ago era, and a brand that I learned to appreciate for its design excellence as well as for its seductive exhaust note.




Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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