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Inheriting The Past: Reflections From A Road Trip In My Grandparents’ Oldsmobile

Brad Hansen June 19, 2018 Featured, Road Trip 19 Comments

I’m eight years old, and my Grandpa Dave takes me for a ride in his brand-new supercharged Pontiac Bonneville SSEi. He lets me sit up front, a rare privilege that my parents wouldn’t afford, and my little fingers play endlessly with the dizzying assortment of passenger-side power seat buttons. I watch as the supercharger boost gauge in the dash soars whenever he gooses the gas.

He guides the sedan to a small-town Iowa car show. A magnetizing Shelby Cobra glitters in the sun, and I’m pulled towards it.

On the way home, he parks the Bonneville at a hobby shop and buys me the very same Shelby Cobra, only in 1:24 scale. We build the Cobra model together that night. It is the first of countless car models I assemble in my youth, a hobby I use to bide my time until I’m old enough to spend endless hours and dollars on the full-size ones.

I can thank my Grandpa Dave for getting me into cars.

Dave’s wife of over forty years, my grandma Lois, is just as kind and patient. The first car I ever drive is her unassuming baby-blue Dodge Spirit. I’m finally grown to the point that I can touch the pedals and still peek over the wheel. When Dave is off distracting the rest of our family, Grandma Lois takes me and the Spirit to an empty parking lot near their house, and it’s possibly the most thrilling drive anyone ever had going under ten miles per hour in a K-car.  

I get older, and so does the Bonneville. I talk at length with Grandpa Dave about which new car to replace it with, and after pouring over endless Car and Driver reviews together, he comes to the conclusion that the local John Deery Motors Oldsmobile dealership will win his business. The last car he ever buys is a 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue with the new 3.5L “Shortstar” V6.

Not long after that, he succumbs to Alzheimer’s.

I witness a loved one fail to remember who I am, but who can still remember the forty or so cars he owned before I was born. I watch helplessly as a man who loved to be behind the wheel is told no, over and over again, each time forgetting why. My Grandma Lois never loses her love for him, each time patiently explaining to him why she needs to be the driver now. This goes on for years, a slow decline. Then he passes away.

It is the first time Lois is alone in over five decades. But she soldiers on. She sells the Spirit and keeps the Oldsmobile. When she becomes too frail and sick to drive herself, the Olds becomes a free rental car for family members who fly in to visit her. The visits become more and more frequent until time runs out.
  

With Lois gone, no one in the family needs the Oldsmobile any longer. It sits alone in the retirement home garage. I can’t bear to see the Olds sold off to a stranger for next to nothing. So even though I have no real need or space for another car, and I live across the country in Los Angeles, I find myself requesting to take it under my care. I will drive it home after the funeral, alone with my thoughts for 2,000 miles.

I have no idea if I can even get the car smogged or titled in California upon my return, or what I will eventually do with it. I just know that I’m not ready to let it go.  

Our massive family is scattered through every corner of the country, but we all fly back to the heartland home of Iowa for Lois’s funeral weekend. There are laughs, but also tears. The joy of seeing family after many years is tainted with the purpose of our visit.

 

In the cemetery where we bury her ashes next to Dave’s, I notice a curious headstone nearby. It is topped by what looked to be an early 80’s Oldsmobile 98 sedan. The name on the tombstone rings a bell- John Deery, of John Deery Motors, the very same dealership that my grandparents had bought their Oldsmobile Intrigue twenty years ago.

It has been quite some time since I’ve laid eyes on the Intrigue. I knew that both grandparents had taken exceptional care of it during their 130k miles with it. A bible of service records from John Deery Motors is stuffed in the glovebox date all the way back to when they bought the car new. Along with the original window sticker, I find a cut-out article from an old Car and Driver long-term test of the Intrigue, likely the final piece of literature that swayed Dave’s once-careful mind towards this very car.  

But the Oldsmobile had been a family rental car, used but not owned, and it is starting to look like one. I give it a thorough cleaning inside, knowing it will be my home for the next week’s drive. After opening the hood, I realize it needs a bit of work to get me across the country without drama.

In between family events, still in suit and tie, I do what I can to get the car ready for the journey and to turn off a few warning lights. I recharge the freon, tighten a loose front fender, top off the oil, and replace a few blown fuses. The air filters are filthy, and the coolant and brake fluid are long overdue for a change. Short of time and not wanting to take chances, I pay the local Jiffy Lube to exchange the fluids, along with a few suspect serpentine belts.

I still have boxes of my old belongings in my parents’ attic nearby, filled mostly with car models. I check to make sure the fragile Shelby Cobra model is secure as I pack the Oldsmobile with memories. Loaded up, I steer south.

After being surrounded by the warm din of family, I am suddenly alone in the world. I cruise along the open fields of the Bible Belt highways, taking stock of the car I have inherited. As the Olds effortlessly eats mile after mile, I build trust with the car.  

I realize in the twenty years since the Olds was made, two things had happened to the great American sedan to their detriment- They became firm to ride and hard to see out of. Perhaps the success of the Chrysler 300C was to blame, but sometime after the Intrigue was designed, every sedan had to have huge wheels with a firm rubber band of tire sidewall, coupled with a chopped-top look that meant a high beltline and a narrow greenhouse.

The Oldsmobile has no such issues. The diminutive wheels make space for massive balloons of soft sidewall. The cushy tires do half the work of absorbing any impact the suspension might encounter, giving it a ride that rivals my old Lexus and Infiniti from the same era. And even if the Oldsmobile’s tall greenhouse of rounded glass looks like something George Jetson would pilot, it is a perfectly vast window in which to view the changing scenery outside.

I could race back to Los Angeles in a matter of days, but I want time to absorb it all- The car, the loss, the country. I have journeyed this path before, so I seek out the lesser-known sights I had previously missed.

The National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame, off the beaten path in Oklahoma, is first on my list. The octagonal museum building was designed by famed customizer Daryl Starbird. Its halls are stuffed with many of his automotive treasures that he designed and built, wild custom one-offs from the 60s and 70s.

I am the lone visitor when I park the Olds outside. A cheery receptionist greets me, who I soon realize is Daryl’s wife. After taking in the wild imagination of the designer inside the museum, I ask her if Daryl happens to be around. He is, and she bets he would love to hear how I liked his museum. She points me out back.

Daryl is there, white-haired, well into his 80’s, still hammering away on his passion inside a muggy Oklahoma garage. He welcomes me, and shows me around his shop, where he is halfway through a build of a behemoth bubble-wagon that sits astride a Lincoln Mark VIII chassis. We talk about cars like the Shelby Cobra and what makes them so attractive (it’s all about proportions, he says).

I wish my grandpa could be there with me.

As the miles roll by, I think about what happened to Oldsmobile, which perished in 2004. The Intrigue was one of the brand’s final designs, a dying gasp from a company that had been an American institution since 1897, the first in the world to mass-produce an automobile on an assembly line. What happened to the Oldsmobile that introduced such innovations as the Hydramatic, the Turbo Jetfire, the Toronado?
 

Oldsmobile hit their peak sales in 1985, but such innovations were long gone by then. The brand coasted downward, blind-sided by the success of European and especially Japanese brands.. By the time GM course-corrected Oldsmobile into their import-fighting brand with cars such as the Aurora and the Intrigue, it was too little, too late.
 
I wonder which image of Oldsmobile my grandpa had in his mind when he purchased this Olds. Was it the innovation-rich Oldsmobile that made the Rocket V8, or the malaise-era Oldsmobile like the one that topped John Deery’s gravestone?

I branch off on Route 66 through the rest of Oklahoma, meandering through forgotten roads and abandoned gas stations. Not long after arriving in Texas, I stop by VW Slug Bug Ranch, the lesser-known cousin to Cadillac Ranch. The bones of five Beetles jut out of the soil. Their skinny shift levers still work, clunking the rods rearward to a phantom transaxle.

As I drive further westward, the hue of the countryside morphs from green, to tan, to red, and then to the searing brightness of White Sands National Monument. A massive area of dunes, I drive as far away from the main road as the Oldsmobile can go. I get out and hike up a sand dune. I can see for hundreds of miles in every direction, and don’t see a single reminder of civilization.

I wish my grandma could be with me. Returning to the Oldsmobile, I wonder if she is.

I stop in New Mexico for my sister’s graduation weekend, where I’m joined by my brother. They’re both a full decade or so younger than I am, and for the first time, I realize that they never knew the Grandpa Dave I did. Their Grandpa Dave had a confused and afflicted mind, a shadow of his former self. They didn’t get to have a Shelby Cobra in the park, or sitting on their bedroom dresser.

More family flies in for the graduation ceremony, reunited from just a week ago. We witness life taking another step forward, into the future. We embrace it as we do each other. When we part ways, we’re not usually the kind of family who says that we love one another, it’s just something that’s felt and understood. But we all make sure to say it out loud this time.

The Oldsmobile glides through the desert and the up the mountains without a hint of trouble. As the highway spills down towards Los Angeles, the roads become more and more familiar, until suddenly I am parked safely outside my home.

As the Olds ticks softly away on my street, I ponder what a shame it is that the great American sedan is going away. Years from now, when they’re all gone, we’ll still be thinking of the places they took us, the people we rode with, and the precious cargo they ferried.

I unpack my belongings. The delicate Shelby Cobra model has survived the journey. I place it on my desk, thankful for the memories.  

 

  • Rover 1

    What a great story! Thanks.

    I’ve often wondered if Oldsmobile would have survived if it had had half the resources thrown at Saturn?
    To me it was, despite it’s middle american image, the most European in outlook of GM’s US brands. It could have become something in between Audi, Citroen and Volvo as they were when they weren’t small car brands.

    • Fuhrman16

      I agree. Oldsmobile should have been America’s Audi. A premium brand with ageless, understated design with a healthy dose of sportiness. I can’t help to think GM had killed off Pontiac (and probably Saturn) instead of Oldsmobile. The new GTO would have probably sold better as an Oldsmobile Cutlass Surpreme, for example. The G6, G8, and the Aura would have probably worked better as Oldsmobiles as well.

    • Brad Hansen

      Glad you enjoyed the story.

      I had plenty of miles to think about why Oldsmobile failed. Part of it is just how slowly consumers perception lags behind reality. Even though Olds was putting out some pretty good products by the late 90s, and they had some youthful designs, people still thought of them as their “grandparents cars” (in my case, that was literal).

      The name itself was also a big stumbling block. It’s difficult to change your market perception as being for younger buyers when you have “OLD” in your brand name!

      • ptschett

        Both my grandfathers had Oldsmobiles and both their Oldses(?) were brown.
        My mom’s dad had a G-body Cutlass coupe for as long as I can remember till he passed away in the mid-’90’s.
        My dad’s dad inherited a ’72 Ninety-Eight from his mom / my great-grandmother, that he drove into the ’90’s till it got totaled due to an oncoming car losing control and spinning into it on an icy road one wintry Sunday morning. He’s had a series of Cadillacs since.

        Olds did fight that perception for a long time though. I remember the “not your father’s Oldsmobile” ads from the late ’80’s; they irritated me, my dad’s Oldsmobile was a ’68 4-4-2 that he had when it was practically new and it was obvious that it wasn’t the same thing as a GM10 Cutlass Supreme with an anemic 2.8L V6. The ’68 literature had liberal use of the term ‘Youngmobile’.

        • Brad Hansen

          Never heard of the Youngmobile campaign, just looked it up. Pretty great!

  • outback_ute

    Great story and photography Brad, really well done.

    My grandfather succumbed to dementia in his final years which was a similar experience, but I treasure the time we did have together.

    • Brad Hansen

      Thanks. Hell of a thing watching someone slowly lose their mind. Like you, I’m just happy I knew him so well beforehand.

      • Zentropy

        Same here. Towards the end, my grandfather suffered a stroke that left him only rarely lucid. My memories of him are separated into two people: that whom I knew before and well, and that after.

  • Lokki

    I am not confident that even with every cent of the money thrown at Saturn given to it Oldsmobile could have been saved. It failed for the same reason that Saturn failed despite all the spending: GM’s corporate culture. Starting with the success of the Chevy V8 in the 1950’s, GM was always obsessed with “the Great Leap Forward”. They kept leaping forward, but never doing enough development or refinement. Thus we got the Corvair -abandoned. The aluminum V-8, abandoned and sold to Rover. The Toronado FWD system boondoggle. The Vega Disaster. The underdeveloped wonder car, the Citation. The poorly thought-out downsizing of -everything- in the mid 80’s. The not ready for prime-time diesel. The forlorn forgotten Fiero with its plastic panels. The Quad-four its great potential wasted. The Microwaved Cadillac Cimmaron, merely an undeveloped rebadge. The not-quite-true-North Star engine. Saturn. And of course the Aurora, potentially great, but changed too soon and not improved.

    The pattern always repeats itself: Let’s stop working out the bugs in this one.Forget it and let’s hurry go one to the next project that will rule the automotive world! Get it to market this week; we’ll work out the bugs later. Let’s stop working out the bugs in this one.

    Forget it and let’s hurry go one to the next project that will rule the automotive world! Get it to market this week; we’ll work out the bugs later. Let’s stop working out the bugs in this one.

    So… nothing could have saved Oldsmobile.

    • 0A5599

      Another factor in the GM corporate culture was the “compete, but let the chosen one win” mentality. In other words, a division wasn’t able to make a car faster than a Corvette, more lux than Cadillac, etc.

      When it came time to reduce the number of brands, that worked against Olds. Better to be known for one particular strength than to be moderately good at several. Second place is the first loser, etc.

    • Derrell Gumm

      Lokki, your exactly right. I have said that for years. GM had the “damn the public, they will buy them anyway'”, Well when all the Hondas, Hyundais, etc. came along with, what I hate to admit, better cars for less money. So there goes all the people whos parents, grandparents bought American cars and had troubles with them, but continued buying them anyway. Then the their kids grew up and said screw this, I’m buying something half way dependable.

      And of course Ford and Chrysler had their issues also. As far as GM goes, when they did get something finally right, the public wasn’t going to have any part of it then. They went somewhere else.

  • Zentropy

    Wonderful story and expert presentation– poignancy without sappiness is hard to deliver, and I didn’t even like the Intrigue. My grandfather’s base-model 5-speed, 6-cylinder F150 sits neglected on my father’s property. Perhaps it’s time I gave it some attention and reinvested in my own memories.

    On a practical note, I genuinely relate to your comments about generous greenhouses and suspensions that don’t rupture a kidney. I drive a beater BMW E28 with great visibility and modest wheels/tires, and every time I get behind the wheel, it’s a refreshing departure from modern vehicles. No, it’s not sleek and sexy, and yes, it leans in turns. But I can see, I’m comfortable, and I feel connected to the car in a way that the anonymously slick, rough-riding, gunslit-windowed vehicles of today just can’t achieve.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Brad Hansen

      You’re very welcome. Agreed with everything. And I hope I’ve inspired you to get your grandfather’s F150 some care! Sounds like an honest, fun workhorse that shouldn’t be too hard to keep running for years and years if it isn’t too far gone.

  • mseoul

    That car actually looks pretty good. And amber rear turn indicators too.

    Sorry if missed anyone else asking, but where’s the model Cobra picture?

    • Brad Hansen

      Thanks, I think the Olds has held up incredibly well for being a 20 year old vehicle in the rust belt.

      I went back and forth on including a picture of the Cobra model in the article…Kinda liked the idea of “insert your own important car model here” in your mind, and the model itself doesn’t look that impressive beyond the emotions attached to it. But because you asked, here’s a pic I had on hand!

  • SoldierofaDifferentStripe

    Great story and well told.

    • Brad Hansen

      Thank you.

  • Great story! I’ve always wanted had an affection for Oldsmobile, probably mostly because I learned to drive on dad’s orange 1977 Cutlass Supreme. I remember going shopping with dad before he bought it.

    I always loved and dreamed about a Hurst Olds as well and almost bought a ’75 after high school and before college. It was a mess and my father, wisely and sadly, talked me out of it. I nearly bought a’ 77 Cutlass of my own with t-tops and the 403 V8 around the same time.

    My grandfather was a car guy too and had a small collection of interesting cars that my dad and I still have. Grandpa bought my 1960 Thunderbird in Los Angeles in 1978 and Dad has a 1956 Thunderbird grandpa acquired in the early 80s and a 1957 Eldorado that grandpa brought in 1959. Lots of history in that car. Mom and Dad dated in it and I just remember it always being in grandpa’s garage. Only his 1937 Cord Phaeton is no longer in the family.

    • Brad Hansen

      Sounds like a great family collection, hold on to those cars! Glad you liked the story.

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