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

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.

By |2019-04-08T08:30:37+00:00June 19th, 2018|Featured, Road Trip|19 Comments

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Brad Hansen lives with his wife in Los Angeles. He sold his Bullitt Mustang, and he still thinks about it...
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