It’s Gotta Be An Oldsmobile

Olds 442

This story was written originally in 1991, then revised in 1993 – KC

“It’s gotta be an Oldsmobile,” Teddy explained when I asked how he liked my recently-purchased GTX.  “You ain’t nothin’ if you don’t got a 442, Larry.”  Of course, I didn’t like what he was telling me, but anyone who knew Teddy would say that his response was normal.  He had been like that since high school.  I should know; I’m his best friend.

In 1973, after years of college living, I was finally making enough money to get out of my college car.  My rust-bucket ’58 Chevy wagon had seen over 148,000 miles and countless clothes hangers, bungee cords, hose clamps, and retreads.  It made it to the East Coast in five days and on seven quarts of oil, carrying five drunk decision makers of the future.  It went to L.A. in ’71, serving as the Attitude Adjustment Project Vehicle for me and my roommates.  We drove straight through to escape Washington State University for spring break, and with the exception of five quarts of oil, two tickets in Oregon for doing 95, three busted fan belts, and a flat retread, the car made it without actually stranding us.  The Chevy was my only mode of transportation (and often my only source of headaches) for two years of high school and four years of college.  I knew every inch of that car intimately; every inch had needed repair at one time or another.

Because of its myriad of problems, it’s safe to assume that, by the time I graduated in May of 1973, I had made the decision to retire the Chevy. Me and all my college buddies had to drive the worst cars ever to roll down the roads of Western Civilization, and the Chevy was by far the grubbiest.  It only suited our purpose because of its size, and I only kept it because of my poverty.  But now, out of college, I felt compelled to get a car that had the great feature of dependability, with the option of getting in, turning the key, and driving away without going through some ritualistic series of whacks, adjustments, or pumps on the accelerator.   

I got a good job and started saving money.  Putting some away from each check was hard with rising gas costs, but my need to replace the Chevy far outweighed my hatred of paying the upward side of 45 cents a gallon. I didn’t care about gas prices.  The lines of cars that curled around the gas pumps and out into the street didn’t bother me either.  Bad gas mileage didn’t even bother me.  In fact, nothing could stop me from getting rid of that ’58 Chevy.

Combing the car lots, I found a beautiful three-year-old GTX.  The Plymouth dealership was practically giving the thing away.  $1495 was roughly a third of what it had sold for new in 1970.  Gas mileage was the issue of the day and a GTX with a 440 and digger gearing was on an economy death list.  Therefore, the dealership couldn’t unload this car no matter what they tried.  I was able to get my desired price because of this, and a decent trade-in on my rust bucket.  I didn’t care about OPEC; I just wanted something better than I had before.

Teddy disagreed.

It needed to be more than something better; it had to be an Oldsmobile.  He was like me when it came to the gas crisis, which meant he didn’t care either.  But what he did care about was whether or not it was an Oldsmobile.  He was weird that way.  Any time a buddy of ours would buy a car, Teddy would say “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”  We could always tell if he liked the car by the tone of his answer; if his “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile” had bubbly inflexion, we all knew he liked the car, but didn’t want to admit it.  If his “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile” was under his breath or had no enthusiasm, we knew he didn’t like the car, period.  After scoping out my GTX for about 15 minutes in silence, Teddy let out a slightly enthusiastic “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”  It was his way of telling me that, deep down, he liked my Plum Crazy B-Body Plymouth, but had too much conviction to say so.

Outwardly, Teddy was never the odd sort.  He was just like the rest of us, drinking the same kind of beer and throwing the same ounce of dart.  But his Oldsmobile fetish really put him on the wrong board.  His first car had been an Oldsmobile, a ’51 Holiday 88 2-door.  The back seat was the size of Rhode Island and was probably the main reason why he now has a daughter living somewhere in Oak Harbor with her mother.  That car was the biggest thing I had ever seen when he got it in ’67.  But as soon as he bought it, all his friends could see that Teddy’s personality was beginning to change.  It was almost evangelical; he would collect data and literature on Oldsmobiles with zealous enthusiasm.  Warthog, his ’51, had many rare and collectable parts installed as our years at Shoreline High School progressed.  She received a full set of Strombergs, side pipes, fire paint front covering a flat-black body, and eventually power steering from a ’63 Starfire.  Teddy, who was the type that never had to study, would spend every available hour on Warthog, before and after school.  It became his obsession, which received his loving touch end to end.  

A conversation with Teddy would eventually get around to Oldsmobiles.  I would be talking about a date or outing and he would usually interject with “what kind of car did he/she have?”  If it was an Oldsmobile, it was all over.  He would go in to something like how the Starfire had a special blend of paint, or how the 442 had a super-stiff suspension.  After his sermons, he was always euphoric, smiling and pliable.  Apparently, he saw something in their marquis that none of us could pinpoint; something called to him from behind the chrome and emblems, and he felt a need to indoctrinate his friends in the glories of his faith.  But Teddy wasn’t always a good orator, and could never make his true feelings known to us.  Therefore, it remained a message that none of us heard, but one to which Teddy had the right frequency.

Just before I left for college in ’69, Teddy began to collect more than Oldsmobile data.  He began to collect Oldsmobiles.  Storing Warthog for awhile, he bought a ’64 four-door 442, a car that was not only hard to find, but also unknown to many collectors.  Teddy’s was an ex-police car, the exact purpose for which the 442 was formulated.  It had a 330, a 4-speed, 4 doors, and about 120,000 cop miles.  When he brought it home from the Everett Police auction, he muttered a dreamy “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”  To an outsider, Teddy’s infatuation with Oldsmobiles would have seemed physical in origin.  But physical love is so shallow and misleading.  No, Teddy’s love for Oldsmobiles was spiritual in nature, rooted far deeper than a lust after a physical body style.  

Something other than design drew him to the marquis.  

As Teddy pursued his own type of education, I struggled through classes that had no real-life purpose. I feel that way because I spent four years in confusion, not knowing when my next meal would be slapped aluminum first on the TV tray. When the stomach growls, the brain doesn’t think.  But getting an education meant more than just going to unnecessary classes and receiving a diploma.  It meant living like a rat for a few years and learning to enjoy it.

Teddy got a job at the local Oldsmobile dealership in the Parts Department right out of high school and quickly became the only one who could find rare or hard-to-come-by parts.  He knew it all.  The dusty parts books spoke to him clearer than to anyone else behind the counter.  

1969 was Oldsmobile’s heyday, the time for “The Newmobiles for ’69” and “Dr. Olds.”  Their 442s were running faster than ever, thanks to improved induction systems, and a little rule-bending from inside the corporation.  Even their station wagons could be purchased with performance options, under the guise of “towing packages.”  As a performance car manufacturer, Oldsmobile was climbing to the top.  Teddy’s knowledge of rare parts carried him right up the ladder with them.

All along, Teddy collected the cars and the data.  It was spiritual.  Each month, he would contribute 25% of his gross earnings to his cars and his acquisitions.  Every time I’d arrive home from school, Teddy would have another Oldsmobile or more parts in the garage of his home out in Bothell.  His third Oldsmobile was a close-to-new ’70 442 W/30 with only 3000 miles on the odometer and a toasted wiring harness from a severe electrical fire.  His dealership had taken it back on warranty and gave the owner a new one.  Teddy bought it for some ungodly low amount and towed it home.  Painstakingly, he rewired and stored the car, occasionally driving it to Oldsmobile shows.

He was a fanatic about restoration.  He would get into what we called “the restoration mode,” becoming a man of few words, and usually limiting a conversation to varied grunts and “uh-hums.”  For many nights at a time he would spend countless hours in the garage on one of his projects.  It was almost as if he was on a quest for something, to create in real life what only he could see in his mind.

Yes, Oldsmobile can be called Teddy’s devotion.  While our friends were experimenting with drugs or singing folk songs at church youth groups, Teddy was spending the wee hours of the night reading Oldsmobile Technical Service Manuals, and periodicals on Oldsmobiles.  He also combed the classifieds from several Washington newspapers, looking for Oldsmobiles and parts for Oldsmobiles.  He made a pilgrimage to Oldsmobile’s R&D Office, so he could see their research and development up close.  We jokingly called his home “The Sacred Shrine of Oldsmobile,” pointing to all the posters and amassed parts that cluttered his garage.  We also referred to Linda Vaughn, the bikini-clad spokeswoman for Hurst/Olds, as “Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration.”  When we bugged him, Teddy would shrug and explain in a determined tone “maybe you guys need to read up.  It’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”

Since Teddy was so deep into Oldsmobiles, I have to admit that I considered getting one instead of my GTX.  I thought I was starting to see reasoning behind his obsession, and figured if they were good enough for Teddy then they would be good enough for me.  I had looked at a beautiful ’72 Cutlass Supreme before I got the GTX.  There was no denying that it was a really nice car, plush and comfortable.  But I just didn’t like it in the same way that Teddy did.  When I talked to him about the ’72, he replied, “Hey man, that’s a great car.  Rochester made a lot of changes to the Dualjet for ’72.  They ain’t as finicky to adjust no more.  And that 350?  What a puller.  Just watch out for that fourteenth lifter…damn thing gets stuck all the time…” and so on and so on.  Sure, I like the technical side of cars, but after strapping my ’58 together with Duck Tape for six years, all I wanted was a car that went fast and didn’t break down.  For me the Cutlass was too soft and too quiet.  I wanted rugged and loud.  Everyone has their preferences; Teddy’s doctrine wasn’t for me.

I guess that Teddy considered me a sinner after I bought the GTX.  But even some of Teddy’s hardest, fastest iron couldn’t come close to my 440 4-speed, except when he’d catch up to me at the gas station.  Every time I’d race Warthog (by now complete with a Dyer-blown 455) or against one of his 442s, Teddy would scratch his head, complaining “it’s gotta be an Oldsmobile,” which implied that he didn’t understand how my Plymouth could run as hard or as fast as an Oldsmobile, and not be an Oldsmobile.  He couldn’t see Plymouth as being a performance car, since his faith was in Oldsmobile.  Teddy’s sight was narrow and this overpowered Mopar was out of his vision.

Yet, he persisted in his obsession, like a bee against a window.  Flexibility was not his strong point when it came to cars.  He couldn’t visualize anything outside of Oldsmobile or why anyone would want to own anything outside of Oldsmobile.  Time and time again, he would point to the literature, saying “it’s all here in the book.  See?  Read this and you’ll see there ain’t no other choice.”  He refused to believe that my GTX was every bit as powerful, fast, loud, and unbreakable as any of his Oldsmobiles.  Teddy was obsessed, and felt his views should be everyone’s.  His faithfulness to Oldsmobile was getting the best of him, and pissing me off in the process.

But that message kept calling to him, though neither I nor any of Teddy’s friends could hear it.  His shrine grew as he acquired more and more Oldsmobiles.  He was still listening to that inner voice.  He knew something about his cars, but didn’t tell us what that something was.  He thought that his mystic vision was visible to everyone.  

As the years passed, and as he acquired more Oldsmobiles, Teddy began to collect only certain kinds.  One of the most specific was a ’78 Quasi-442, which had a 260 and a Borg-Warner T5 5-speed.  Teddy told me he wanted one for his collection, because its 5-speed was the same unit installed in the IROC-Zs of the ’80s and was worth a lot of money.

Money?

I had never known Teddy to be material.  He cleared it up for me.  “Some guy come by my place last week.  Offered me fifteen grand for Warthog.  I tell him it ain’t for sale but he can buy my big-block Vista Cruiser for seven.”  Teddy’s ’70 Cutlass Station Wagon had only 15,000 miles, and was powered by a 455 and a 4-speed.  “He told me my cars are worth a ton.  And he bought the wagon for seven.”

Then it occurred to me.  Teddy’s inner drive hadn’t necessarily been money, but rather blind faith in instinct.  He didn’t realize, until this guy’s healthy offer for Warthog, why he was collecting Oldsmobiles; he just collected them.  

Well, it’s 1993 and I still have my GTX.  The beautiful Plum Crazy paint job is now chipped and spider webbed.  In the 20 years that I’ve owned it, I’ve replaced the u-joints three times, rewired it once, and had the body straightened after two Seattle accidents, both which ironically affected the side of the car that already had the best paint.  The trunk leaks like a sieve and the windshield cracks up the middle every time I slam it into second gear at full throttle.  Even with these problems, I have to hide the keys from my 16 year-old.  To my son Jeffery, it’s not a well-used piece of crap; it’s a piece of crap with some abuse left in it.  I know that, at the hands of a teenager, my poor GTX would die a painful death pasted to a telephone pole somewhere in Lynnwood.  It’s given me almost 170,000 miles of faithful service since 1973; to have it crunched by Jeffery after that many miles would hurt far too much to bear.

This is why I considered selling it to someone who would restore it and treat it with some respect.  We are now living in an era when old muscle cars get top dollar.  Clean, low-mileage examples of my GTX get well over $10,000 with the 440.  If it’s an original Hemi car, don’t even bother looking at it if you have less than 30 or 40 thousand.  My GTX is no Hemi, and is neither choice nor low-mileage, but it does have the original, unrebuilt 440.  This means that as a restorable, it’s a great deal for someone who wants to take the time on it.  But I found out that it’s not near as desirable as any one of Teddy’s 442s.

Remember the W/30 he bought in ’70 with 3000 miles?  Well, it now has 8500 miles and is worth $35,000.  Warthog is worth about $20,000 (now sporting an alcohol-burning, injected and blown 455 that will lay molten rubber for an entire city block).  There’s no telling how much his collection is worth, considering most of it is stored and low-mileage.  His cars are in great demand because of their condition and Teddy’s devotion to detail.  He knows everything about every car he’s ever owned.  He can tell a guy what plant the car was built in, along with the exact month and day.  He sold his four-door 442 and paid off his mortgage, and then his ’78 5-speed to buy his daughter an ’86 Firenza as a college car.

Needless to say, I wanted this sort of stuff to happen to me.  My GTX wasn’t nearly as pristine as any of his Oldsmobiles, but it was complete.  I hoped there was someone out there who would want my car.

Teddy told me of a guy who was looking for a restorable muscle car and gave me his phone number.  Apparently, Teddy’s collection was too rich for his blood, because the demand and price for performance Oldsmobiles had gone through the roof.  This guy wanted something to restore that he could buy for less.

I could sense the inner voice now that Teddy had followed.  The voice that had pushed him on for all those years was speaking to me, and making me realize that it has to be an Oldsmobile to be worth something.  I listened to Teddy in high school, but didn’t hear what he really meant. His consistent comment didn’t relay all that it stood for.  But Teddy had listened to the voice; it told him to buy Oldsmobiles.  “Buy them for the future, because in a few years, your small investment and your annual 25% offering will become a fortune in your garage.”  That’s what the voice was telling him.  And since he blindly followed, the deities of his faith looked kindly on him and rewarded his efforts.  All this time, his quaint little phrase had more meaning than it seemed.  His collection was now worth big bucks.  Any performance or modified Oldsmobile was like gold.

Although I was sure that my GTX was worth something to someone, deep down I knew I would never be able to get as much for it what Teddy could get for any of his cars.  Still, as a restorable car, I was hoping to get some some good money for it.  I called the phone number Teddy had given me.

“Yeah, I’m looking for something restorable,” the guy said.  “But Teddy didn’t tell you.  I want to restore a 442.  They got that super-stiff suspension, and I already got a Vista Cruiser to use for parts.  The lines of the ’69 hardtop really put a hook in me when I was in high school.”  There was a short sigh of euphoria.

“Sorry, man, but I don’t really wanna restore a Mopar.  It’s gotta be an Oldsmobile.”

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The Food Shark

Food Shark 001

“Hot, Fresh, & Cheezy”

In January 1991 I had just lost my beloved 1959 International ½ ton pickup to a snapped axle on Snoqualmie Pass. By then my wife had graduated from WSU and moved back to Seattle; I was one year behind her. My only transportation in Pullman at that point was a choice of motorcycles – my Honda CB550 or her 250 Rebel which was still on The Palouse. Outside of The Bookie I saw an ad for a $100 car; from that ad a friend and I got an idea to share a vehicle to deliver pizza on different nights of the week. All told, this car would rack up 35,000 miles in 15 months, and it made a ton of money for whoever sat behind the wheel.

Pizza Pipeline offered us a larger cut of the profits if we painted the company colors on my own car. While I don’t recall exactly how the idea came up to put the teeth on, I do recall that the original name – which got nixed by the shop owner as unprofessional – was “Pie Shark.” The innuendo was all wrong, so the “Food Shark” it became.

Food Shark’s teeth and racing stripe were painted on the car in a WSU parking garage while the outside temperature was hovering around 20 degrees F. Obviously the paint didn’t stick too well in that chill, so it was repainted in May after the weather improved. Typical gas mileage for the Food Shark was around 11mpg when delivering, and 18mpg on the road. The Food Shark needed very little to be dependable. I gave it regular oil and coolant changes, did a tune up, u-joints, tires, and true dual exhaust (no emissions testing in rural Washington). It only stranded me only once, when the electronic ignition gave out ($12 fix).

The “Shark” Concept proved to be popular and profitable. During the first part of the year, friend Paul and I shared the Food Shark and traded off evenings delivering as we had planned. In May he purchased his own Shark – another Cutlass, this one a 1976 – for $50 and drove it home on bad brakes after the City Of Pullman threatened to tow it. Paul repaired the second car, painted it with the obligatory teeth and stripe, and dubbed it “Shark Tooth.”

Oddly, Shark Tooth got horrendous mileage and averaged a dismal 7mpg while delivering pizza.

The Sharks were loved and hated equally in Pullman; as we drove around, children would smile and wave while public safety officials would stare and glare. With the racing stripes and the shark’s teeth, the cars cut a very high profile when on the road. This worked to a financial advantage for Pizza Pipeline but worked against the people driving them, as we were watched very closely by the local authorities. While I tried hard to stay within the law, I still managed to rack up 3 or 4 traffic stops and one messy court date. Paul drove Shark Tooth hard and was pulled over often.

In the Spring of 1991 I had attached the front license plate above the driver’s side headlights, in an attempt to keep the plate from coming off the bumper every time I entered a parking lot. I had considered mounting it with zip ties on the grill, but it covered too much and would have caused the car to run hot. I then consulted the Revised Code Of Washington and determined that I could move the plate from the bumper to the upper panel and still be within requirements. Code indicates that the front license plate on a Washington vehicle should be mounted level in such a manner that it can be read “left-to-right” at all times. It says little else, other than indicating the maximum height from the ground (I was within limitations here as well). Mounting it above the headlights was admittedly in a gray area, because top-to-bottom angle was extreme; I asked the Pullman Police Department if they had a problem with it, and they said “no.” Then one summer day, on the lonely way home on Highway 26, I was pulled over by the Washington State Patrol because the trooper didn’t like how the plate was mounted on the Shark. After I showed why I had mounted it in this manner, indicated what Code I had consulted, and that I had spoken with my local enforcement, he tried to cite me for drunk driving (I hadn’t been drinking at all). This incident is one of the contributing factors to my current status as an occasional drinker, and never when I am going to drive somewhere.

My favorite memory of the Sharks involved an impromptu session of Front Bumper Scrummage; I was coming back to the pizza place in the Food Shark as Paul was leaving in Shark Tooth. We then went bumper to bumper and pushed each other around for a while. I won, presumably because my car cost $100 and his cost $50.

I retired the Food Shark from pizza delivery in December 1991 after graduation from college, using it as work transportation after that. I removed the Pizza Pipeline lettering & logos and replaced them with the simple door inscription “For Recreational Use Only.” In April 1992 – knowing the Shark would never pass the stringent emissions test for the area – it was sold to my brother in law, who promptly parted it out. Paul drove Shark Tooth until 1993 and then traded it in for a new Geo Storm.