Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 51
Dec. 21-27, 2000
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Olds Lang Syne
Remembrances on Hearing of Oldsmobile's Demise

A recent parade of 1,000 cars in Detroit also indicated that the automobile is here to stay.
-Newspaper report, Aug. 6, 1909

Ah, yes, the auto was here to stay as predicted more than 91 years ago in a press story out of San Francisco describing how four "daring" women drove from New York to the West Coast in just under two months in a 30-horsepower, two-cylinder, $500 Maxwell-Briscoe.

The auto was here to stay, but many of the manufacturers, big and small at the time, weren't. One that made the news that year and survived was Ford, which announced that it had turned out an unheard of 17,700 vehicles for the year. Henceforth it would only make the $850 Model T - which would later sell for less than half that as true mass production came about. As Henry Ford said, "A customer can have a car painted any color so long as it is black."

Ford, of course is still around, though the Maxwell isn't. Another auto popular at the time the quartet of ladies crossed the country in an open touring model was Oldsmobile, which is still around - though not for long.

I see by the daily press of last week that GM is phasing out the oldest U.S. car brand, after 103 years on the market. It's not going to be a hurried thing, instead a slow, lingering death with the 2002 Bravada sport utility vehicle the last new Olds model from General Motors. Current models will be built and sold as long as the company can make money on them.

But 13,000 employees won't be making money on them for long. The auto giant reported that many jobs will be cut next year alone at Oldsmobile plants.

My Old Olds

Over the years, my old journals inform me, I've owned 29 autos of one make or another, many made by manufacturers that have folded, including at least one each from Maxwell, Jewett, Hupmobile, Hudson, Henry J, DeSoto, Whippet, Willis-Knight - and a variety under the Nash and subsequent American Motors labels.

Only once did I own a vehicle from the company founded by Ransom E. Olds, and whatever carpentry skills I have today I owe to that jalopy, which as I recall was one of the last turned out before all American manufacturers ceased civilian production to switch efforts to Jeeps, tanks, trucks and such for the military in World War II.

It was my misfortune to buy a second-hand, maybe even third- or fourth-hand, Oldsmobile station wagon of wood. That was far enough back, 1953, that vehicles of that type were more commonly called beach wagons.

Now I must admit wood is classy, but on boats and motor vehicles it belongs only on dashboards and other interior trim. Teak does enhance the cockpit of a fishing boat, but at the expense of countless hours of hand labor over the years.

If you think it's tough to sand, grind and fill a rust spot on an aging all-metal exterior car of today, you should have been around when beach wagons were made of real wood - not that phony metal look-alike so popular not long ago.

Look at it this way. A metal exterior with all its coats of paint and rustproofing not infrequently spawns blemishes after a decade on wintertime salty roads, so what do you think it was like trying to preserve the outside of a wooden station wagon? I should have known better, but I was a young newspaperman in Vermont not making much money at the time - and from a generation that looked upon beach wagons as a status symbol.

If enough varnish was applied to the exterior, a station wagon looked fresh and classy. I hesitate to say this in these politically correct times, but as with women, beauty is only skin deep.

The old Olds, for which I paid probably $350, had a powerful and dependable engine, and the rest of the power train was admirable. There was enough room inside to carry fishing or hunting gear for the six occupants it could accommodate (no third row of seats back then). I thought I had it made.

Over the Mountains And into Trouble

And I did - for about six weeks. On a December day, I journeyed over the mountains to the other side of the state to interview U.S. Sen. George B. Aiken, then one of the most prominent Republicans in Congress. How smoothly that frisky six-cylinder engine took me up the steep inclines; no need to downshift as with the previous Plymouth.

The interview went well. To top it off, I purchased a Christmas tree from the senator, whose farm north of Brattleboro included a nursery. He lived up to his reputation as frugal and thought it not beneath him to do business - including helping a customer tie a holiday evergreen to the roof of a car.

As we lashed the tree to the top of the classy station wagon, me on the passenger side and he on the driver's side, he opened the door so he could step up and reach farther. He wasn't very tall.

Soon as the tree was secure he stepped down, and for support leaned on the door. The door practically leaned on the ground. I presume you can picture the scenario.

Beneath that sparkling exterior, the wood was mushy. The hinges pulled free from the frame, and big, soft splinters erupted. Despite our pushing, tugging and squeezing, the door wouldn't return to its usual position.

The senator apologized profusely, and though he didn't offer to cut the price of the tree, he did give me more heavy string to secure the door as best we could. We couldn't get back up the window that I had lowered when trying to squeeze the door back into place.

Now if you've ever tried to drive around hereabouts in mid-December with a window open, think of what it would be like nearly 50 years ago when winters were colder, auto heaters weren't what they are today - and you were in the mountains of Vermont, where temperatures average 30 degrees or more on the downside. With a gap of at least six inches in the door.

I froze. But I was to freeze much more later - and not just until I could repair the door. My heart froze once I started the internal search for firm, good wood.

Any do-it-yourselfer who has or still does own a boat of wood knows the feeling. With keyhole saw, chisel and hammer, I set out to remove the patch of rotted wood in hopes of finding something solid enough to anchor the repair job.

I hardly needed the saw. Porous wood broke away and fell on its own. I could put my fingers through some of it. Before long, I was chiseling and sawing at the back of the Olds above the rear bumper, then up the other side.

This was back before clear plastic sheeting, so a covering of black plastic temporarily minimized the airflow of speed and winter. Then came the rebuilding. For I couldn't afford another car.

It was well into summer before I recreated a solid beach wagon as best I could, measuring, planing, sanding, sawing, refitting, staining and varnishing. Even so, the left rear door was beyond repair and had to be sealed permanently, as did the back hatch.

A bit inconvenient at times, yes, but the old jalopy didn't look bad, and I had learned enough carpentry to build a Bay boat had I so desired. For nearly another year, the old Olds ferried me over the mountains snug as a termite in birch before I traded it in on a Henry J, my first post-war car and among the first of the compacts. But that's another story for another day.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly