I have mentioned in my previous writings that when I was growing up, my Dad was a voracious dealmaker when it came to cars and while I inherited his fascination for the four-wheeled motorized conveyance that is the automobile, I missed out on the fondness for terrorizing car salesmen or refining the “art of the deal” (That particular talent passed on to my brother). No matter what might change over the years, we could always count on Dad finding some deal somewhere and bringing home something several times a year and we looked forward to hearing the words “come see what I got” when it occurred.
He enjoyed traveling to the auto auctions in Atlanta and Macon, sometimes in cahoots with my Uncle Ray who I think made a career out of buying and selling cars; Dad mainly dabbled in it on the side but enjoyed it just as much as any committed car guy I know. All of my first cars, up until I bought my first new one, came from auto auctions, either something Dad found or Ray told him about. My 1975 Ford Elite, the first car I had, was one example and others were to follow.
I think Dad realized early on that buying a land yacht-sized, gas guzzling Ford with a powerful V-8 motor for a 16 year-old with a heavy foot was probably not the best idea he had. After a year of mishaps, speeding tickets and one encounter with a friend’s brand new Camaro, the Elite was disposed of and replaced with a succession of smaller, economical cars better suited to a young driver. He tried to put me in an AMC Pacer once, an idea which I was not overly fond of but fortunately this only lasted a couple of days after he realized that the glassy, bubble on wheels could not be cooled no matter how high you ran the air conditioner. A pair of frugal Honda Civics followed, much better cars and very reliable. Then came the ’82 Oldsmobile Omega.
I’ll say first off that the Omega was not intended for me but was actually just one of the many cars that Dad found at auction and came home with, intending to sell it for a profit. As it was, he and Uncle Ray were trying to find me a particular car that I was interested in and they had not had much luck yet and since I had sold the latest Civic (the first car I actually bought from Dad), I was in need of transportation so the Olds was provided for me to use in the interim.
Having had three rather spartanly equipped automobiles, the Olds was like a breath of fresh air. It was the first of General Motor’s “X-Cars”, a foursome that consisted of the Chevrolet Citation, the Pontiac Phoenix, the Buick Skylark and of course, the Omega. GM had only dabbled in front wheel drive cars and this was the first concerted effort on their part to create a mainstream FWD automobile. As most people would learn later, they should have waited a bit longer to get these cars off the drawing board as they were notoriously unreliable and would chalk up a record number of recalls in the years after their release.
The Omega was only a couple of years old, had very low mileage and looked newer and better than anything I had previously driven. I guess that the previous owner had decided to get rid of it when it was still relatively new. There was probably good reason for that as I would come to find out.
I was quickly taken with the car, which was painted in “Light Jadestone Metallic”, a kind of pale silvery green. My Aunt Charlotte drove a full size Olds Regency 98 of the same year and painted the same color and it was easy to see the family resemblance between the two cars. I suddenly found myself to be an “Olds Man”, driving around town in what looked like a shrink-wrapped Regency 98. While it was considered a small car for the times, by today’s standards it was a pretty roomy car and they didn’t cut any corners in trying to relate it in the buyer’s mind with Oldsmobiles of more noble pedigree.
This wasn’t just your ordinary Oldsmobile Omega either….this was an Oldsmobile Omega Brougham, which meant more luxury, more chrome and all the prestige associated with the “Brougham” moniker. It was a typical mini-luxo cruiser of the 1980’s, upholstered in rich, pale green velour upholstery, button tucked and pleated. A virtual forest of simulated butterfly walnut wood adorned the dashboard and doors, which was also trimmed out in chrome accents. Outside, the car’s crisp, taught lines were embellished by a set of white wall tires, chrome wire wheel hub caps, a padded vinyl roof and a stand-up hood ornament, all unique to the “Brougham” package. It also had (fortunately) the slightly larger and slightly less anemic V-6 engine option as opposed to the truly crippled 4 cylinder that was standard on lesser Omegas.
There were rituals that had to be observed anytime a new ride came into my care and from the moment I received the keys, I set about going through them. The car first had to be washed to my standards…hand washed, dried and coated with Turtle Wax. Every spoke of the wire wheels would be sparkling by the time I got through with them and every chrome surface had to be gleaming. Once done, I would turn my attention to the non-metallic surfaces, meaning liberal quantities of Armor All soon coated the tires, the vinyl roof and the dashboard. The shinier the surface, the better. With all the wax and Armor All in place, no bird droppings or bug splatter had a chance of sticking to the surface as the entire car was slicker than Teflon.
The car having been brought up to standards, it was time to go cruising the town, making sure to drive by the plate-glass store windows on the downtown square so you could see how good the car looked in motion. A quick stop at Biles Service Station to get gasoline and the ritual dressing down by Maurice Biles was also part of the ritual. Maurice was surely taking bets on how long it would be before he had this newest ride in his shop to fix something and as it turned out, he didn’t have to wait long.
It was a typical first day with a new ride, figuring out its strengths and weaknesses, enjoying the feeling of being in something different, luxuriating in the floaty ride, cushy seats and ice-cold air conditioner. Cruise control was still an option on almost all cars back then and I had to try that out too, along with all the other buttons, bells and whistles. Most important was an assessment of its power-did it have sufficient launch thrust to move a couple thousand pounds of broughamed-up Oldsmobile at a reasonable clip? I was about to find out and when the opportunity presented itself, I floored the accelerator, bringing all 112 horses to bear on the road ahead.
To say that the Omega Brougham was underwhelming in its acceleration would have been an understatement. The temperature needle on an outdoor thermometer in a Georgia summer rises faster than the speedometer needle in the Omega did. Oh it got faster, to be sure, but it did so very leisurely and I quickly learned there was a tradeoff between pseudo luxury slowness and relatively speedy but spartan Hondas. Coming from a family that had always driven full-sized leviathan Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles, I was experiencing that “Special Feel in an Oldsmobile”, right up to the moment that the engine blew up.
Well, it didn’t really “blow up” but I thought it had. The Olds suddenly made an awful noise going down Third Street through town and then steam began pouring from the grille and hood. For a moment I thought the car had caught on fire and wondered briefly if Armor All was highly flammable. Fortunately the car had just overheated. I left the Olds safely parked off the roadway and walked to the nearest business that I could find to telephone Dad. He always knew what to do when something like this occurred and fortunately he seemed to have charge accounts at various automotive businesses around Jackson for just such an emergency.
He told me to go back to the car and make sure that it had cooled down, and when it was cool, to slowly drive it to the local radiator shop which was just a few blocks away. I did as he instructed and the car limped its way to the radiator shop where after a short while, I was back on the great open road again with some new hoses and coolant on board.
Over the next two months, the Oldsmobile never stranded me but we would become frequent visitors to the local repair shops around Jackson for a variety of maladies including brake master cylinder failure (that was fun), a fan belt, a clogged fuel line and a few other odds and ends. It also overheated once more, resulting in something called “boiling out the radiator”. When it wasn’t in the shop, I had the cleanest lemon in town though, and the small car was comfortable enough for several friends to go cruising in it as well.
Sadly, the Olds didn’t stick around too long once Dad located the car I had previously been looking for and it was with some amount of regret that I gave up the keys. True, it had stretched unreliability to a new level, at least in my hands, but it was comfortable, good on gas and hard to get a speeding ticket in, even when floored going down the big hill on Brookwood Avenue.
As it turned out, the car wouldn’t be going far… Dad pretty much gave it away to the lady that cleaned our house and looked after my brother and I sometimes when our parents went out-of-town. She drove the Omega for the rest of her life and I heard she never had a bit of trouble with it. I guess by the time I was done with it, all the problems had been fixed.
It was a pure symbol of everything that went wrong with General Motors in the 1980’s, when quality was at an all-time low and when overwrought style and chrome were preferred over substance…still, there is something to be said for a dose of the overwrought. We have a year-old Toyota that has pretty much everything the Oldsmobile had, plus reliability, safety and 26 more horsepower…but it’s no Omega Brougham in the style and comfort department. Despite all their flaws, the 80’s model cars were something special, when you could choose from 10 different interior colors, 8 different wheel options and an option package called “Brougham”. We won’t likely see those days again.
PS: Enjoy this video that pretty much sums up 80’s luxury. Turns out you could really “Do it with style” :