Stuart Rosenthal's '71 98 LS

The Story of THE MACHINE...
This 1971 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight LS started life in Ogden, Utah, where it was purchased by my wife's grandmother, Hazel Engstrom. It was housed in her tiny 1940's-vintage garage, which in itself was truly amazing, considering that she probably had only six inches of clearance on either side of the car. Hazel drove the car until 1982, when she decided that she needed a new Oldsmobile (also a Ninety Eight). She gave the 1971 to her son, Gordon, who is a successful western clothing salesman based in Salt Lake City.

Gordon used THE MACHINE as his regular road car, traveling all over Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. He says that it was a great car, and he kept it maintained and adjusted. When it started to get old, he had it repainted, had the transmission rebuilt and had a new vinyl roof installed. In the mid-1980's, Grandpa Gordon got a the first of several new Cadillacs and he semi-retired THE MACHINE for skiing or for the use of visitors (like my family). It was always fun to drive, and it's obviously very safe, due to its colossal mass (4479 pounds empty)!

Once when we were visiting Gordon, we decided to drive THE MACHINE to Colorado to see some friends. On our return trip, we were near Green River, Utah and decided to stop to have lunch. As soon as I stopped on the off-ramp, the engine stalled and all the warning lights came on. I popped the hood to look at the trouble. At first, I couldn't tell what was wrong, so I checked the oil just to make sure we hadn't blown the engine for lack of oil, but that was OK. Then I noticed that the alternator belt was abraded and when I felt the alternator, it was burning hot. I could see the town about a mile ahead, so I decided to go for it. I re-started the engine. The oil light went out and we headed off. Within a few seconds, I knew the belt was gone because the steering suddenly became very heavy. Here I was, steering a near-4500-pound car with no power assist! I knew I would only be able to make one sharp turn, so I picked a gas station and gave it my one big heave! I shut the engine down and opened the hood again. Now the other belt was gone, too. But luck was with us, because parts are readily available for this car, and the technician (a very nice guy) fixed it while we went and had dinner at a dumpy-looking, but very good, little restaurant.

In 1996, Gordon nonchalantly told me that he was going to sell it. Sell it to me! How much do you want? was my instant response. The next time we flew out to Salt Lake City to visit, the time had come to take my baby home! I could hardly wait. I knew it would need a few things, so I brought tools, my tach-dwellmeter, and all the tune-up parts with me.! Amazingly, I was blessed with 75-degree weather to do the tune-up work--a really unusual event in Salt Lake at Thanksgiving! What a good omen! Since I knew THE MACHINE's stereo had long since gone to the great dashboard in the sky, I also brought a boom box and lotsa tapes for the trip home. To top all of this off, Gordon gave me the car for free. Such a deal! I had the oil changed and I was off!

Driving THE MACHINE across the country was a labor of love, but not an easy one. I left at 4 am and drove south to Salina, Utah, then turned east. Unless you've been in this part of the country, you really can't appreciate America's sheer size. I remember seeing huge buttes in the distance, and thinking, I'll bet those things are five miles away. But because they were so huge, they were actually 20 miles away. There are innumerable vast, empty valleys I drove through that were literally big enough to put the entire Washington area into. Living in this city, we sometimes get the impression that the whole country is as developed as this one, but in reality, most of the country is still empty.

The weather got worse, but THE MACHINE climbed over Vail Pass (11,000+ feet) with ease and never got stuck in the snow, even when I stupidly decided I had to look for a bathroom and got off the highway to wander the side roads. Not a smart move, but somehow, no thanks to me, it turned out OK. THE MACHINE had no trouble climbing the west's steep grades. In fact, when I would have mini-races with other cars, I would inevitably win, because with 320 horsepower on tap, I could maintain speed or even accelerate uphill, whereas modern overdrive-equipped cars had to downshift. I only got about 14-15 miles to a gallon, but that's OK. Actually, compare that so a lot of modern cars such as an Explorer, Blazer, or Crown Vic and you'll see it's not that much different. To show my level of respect for the 55 speed limit, I never exceeded 85 miles an hour.

I got back to the Washington area 3 days after I had started the trip. Since my regular car was a tiny Datsun, I was unused to THE MACHINE's tremendous size when I tried to put it in my garage. I decided to put it on the street. This was a major mistake, as I'll describe in a minute.

As you may recall, there was a huge blizzard in January 1996. THE MACHINE was still parked on the street and it was literally buried, but it was unharmed even by the snowplows. But a month later, after all the snow was gone, a teenager smashed a stolen Hyundai into my Oldsmobile!! I was heartbroken! After all, THE MACHINE had survived 25 winters, 3 owners, a transplant from Utah to Maryland and 180,000 miles of use, only to be wrecked in a few moments of crime. Anyhow, because the Hyundai was a stolen car, my uninsured motorist insurance paid about half of the cost to fix it.

I had a heck of a time finding the right parts to fix the car. After some searching I located a quarter panel and a fender skirt in Arizona and I had them ship the parts. Incredibly, the salvage yard told me after they had sent the parts that the trim (chrome) was not included! After a few threats to dispute the credit card bill, they caved and said they'd send it (which they actually did). My wife's car had been repainted by Auto City Body Shop in Silver Spring, so I had them fix THE MACHINE too. Not only did they welcome the job, they were very nice people. I told them that I didn't need the car back soon, so they gave me a big discount for waiting. It took them a long time to do the job, but they used the best paint (primer/sealer, two coats of color coat and clearcoat), they fixed all of the small dents and dings, and they even removed the no-pass vinyl roof and filled in all the holes for the vinyl roof's trim. They said there really wasn't much rust on the car, despite its age. I guess that's because it's so dry in Utah.

The day I drove the car home was an event. I picked up the now-beautiful car and when I showed my wife, she couldn't believe it! It was truly a work of art! The body shop said they hadn't attached the chrome molding strip on the side, because they couldn't locate the right kind of clips. I couldn't find them either. I called everywhere in Cars and Parts and Hemmings, but to no avail. Just when I thought I would have to buy a Dremel tool to fabricate the clips myself, I found out that Lustine Chevrolet had all kinds of parts. I went over to their warehouse in Hyattsville, where they looked in their amazing computer (they have parts for some cars all the way back to 1976) and located the exact clips! I had to make a tool out of a bent hacksaw blade and use it very carefully to hook the clips onto the quarter panel without scratching my beautiful clearcoat paint!

I installed gauges (amps, oil pressure and temperature), a great stereo with four nice speakers, and I rebuilt the huge Quadrajet carburetor, wheel bearings, master cylinder. Also, I replaced the hoses, belts and front brakes. I also changed the rear differential gear oil to synthetic. I got new tires, ball joints, rear coil springs, battery and muffler. Of course, I now keep THE MACHINE in my garage (I have about 4 inches of clearance in front and the same in back, with the door closed, but she does fit OK side-to-side if I park her just right. My family uses it in good weather as our fun car. We've even taken it on vacation. The year before last, we drove it to Canada. I figure that with all five of us, all of our junk, and a full tank of gas, THE MACHINE probably weighs in at 5200 to 5300 pounds.

People sometimes ask us where we got it, and a few people even ask if it's for sale. I've made a few half-hearted attempts to sell it, because sometimes I feel guilty for the money it costs. But then, compared to a modern car, it's actually dirt cheap. With no fuel injectors, no ABS, no airbags, no EGR, no computers, no sensors and no catalyst, it's really simple to work on.. Right now, THE MACHINE has about 187,000 miles on its clock, and although she's not perfect, she is very nice. I still have a few things I have to do to her, but that's what having an old car is all about! The mighty Rocket 455 uses a little bit of oil, but it's hard to tell how much, because I change the oil so frequently that it doesn't go down much. And one of the best things about the car is the wonderful deep bass sound made by that huge, slow-turning engine.

So what if it uses a lot of gas? Life is short. You gotta enjoy!

Stuart's Email: Stuart.Rosenthal@noaa.gov