My Father's Oldsmobile

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
my father s oldsmobile

On Sunday, when my eldest daughter and I headed to a local grocery store for a few things, we happened upon a car show in progress. The local Oldsmobile club was having their annual show, which caught the daughter’s eye. Naturally, we put shopping on hold for a few minutes to wander through the lot.

Until a few years ago, I never truly realized how vast an influence the cars of Oldsmobile had on my formative years. On first glance, we were an import family, with Nissans taking precedence and some others sprinkled in. But when I was very young, Dad drove a couple different Cutlass sedans, one of which you can see above with a toddler-sized Chris.

I strangely recall losing my lunch in the back of one of those Olds — coming back from a funeral, I think. In between jobs, Dad sold cars at the local Olds dealer, too, and came home excitedly telling me about an autocross held for salesmen in the new W41 Calais. When he took the sales job that would keep him on the road nearly every week, his first company car was a Cutlass Ciera.

As the kid and I looked over a Twenties-vintage Olds with a rumble seat, I took a phone call from my wife. I turned away from my daughter for a moment and noticed an older gentleman walking over toward us with a trophy. I figured this would be a quick learning moment where we could talk with the owner briefly. Instead, he approached my kid and handed her his trophy, telling her that she could have it. We politely refused, but he insisted. He told me he had a pink ’57 a couple rows over and had plenty of trophies already. My nine-year-old, who really prefers purple if she had to choose a “feminine” color, fell in love.

I don’t know how Dad became a gearhead, but he certainly passed the gene onto his only kid. We’d work on his old cars together, spend our weekends together traveling to car shows and races, and bonding over a shared love of all things automotive. As I approached my teens, I’d write to performance parts companies for catalogs, trying to convince him that he needed to race or autocross his Z.

Twelve years ago, I bought a 1991 Miata. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty clean and would make for a great weekend toy. Dad also wanted to run autocrosses with me in his C5 Corvette ragtop, but he found himself unusually weak and unable to eat much of anything, so motorsports needed to take a backseat for a while.

Eleven years ago last week, my new bride and I pointed the Miata northeast on our honeymoon. We reasoned that New England in autumn would be a spectacular vista to encounter with the top down. An eighteen-hour trek that included the famously-awful Pennsylvania Turnpike failed to dampen our spirits and we spent a magnificent week along the coast of Maine.

Last summer, we made the trip back in a more appropriate vehicle, dragging the kids along in the Town & Country. We stayed in the same hotel and even ate in many of the same restaurants. The van made Pennsylvania much more tolerable.

It was an enormous challenge to watch my Dad those months before the wedding. Esophageal cancer had made it nearly impossible for him to eat anything — and what did get through was annihilated by the chemotherapy. He was always a big man, generally in the vicinity of three hundred pounds on his 6-foot-3-inch frame, but the cancer had cut his weight in half. Another indignity — he traded the Corvette in on a Pontiac Vibe, as the sports car was too difficult to get in and out of.

When I’d visit, he’d try to lighten my mood by talking about cars, specifically my car. He knew I had a list of go-fast bits I wanted for the Miata, but hadn’t purchased since we were saving for the wedding. One visit, he insisted on buying new wheels, tires, shocks, and springs for me. As I objected, he strained to raise his voice: “No. I’m not going to be around much longer. Let me do this for you.”

The trip back to Ohio was uneventful, other than driving past the car haulers headed out of Mid-Ohio from the annual SCCA Runoffs. I knew some of those drivers and cars, having attended nearly every year with Dad since the event was moved out of the south. We got back to the condo, parked the car in the garage, and collapsed on the couch.

The next day, my stepmother called. As it turned out, Dad took a turn for the worse the prior evening within a few hours of my arriving back home safely. My new bride and I headed to the hospital, the same facility where my own two children would come into the world over the next few years, and watched and waited. It didn’t take long.

My eldest turns ten next spring. The Miata sits in the garage under a cover, in need of restoration, wasting away under the detritus of suburban life.

I wonder if the gentleman who gave my daughter the trophy thought she was being dragged along by her dad to the show and gifted it to her out of pity. But she really wanted to be there and is now a bigger enthusiast after his kind gesture.

I think I’ll take the kid out to the shop this winter, hand her the Craftsman tools my dad used when he was in tech school, and let her start taking things apart so I can send the shell to a body shop.

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2 of 33 comments
  • Wristtwist Wristtwist on Sep 28, 2015

    Got me right in the feels, man.


    My first car, in 1978, was a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in Sherwood Green with the dark green interior, floor shifter and SSI wheels. I had been searching for a vehicle for some months when I found this Olds in Huntington Beach. Even though I had looked at Pontiac Tempests, Le Mans, Buick Skylarks and Olds 88s, I knew this was the one at first sight. For $725 it was mine and I drove it straight to Yellow Cab of Anaheim where my father worked part time on the taxi fleet radios. Lyle, the Yellow Cab mechanic, scolded me for not buying something with a slant-six. The Cutlass was already overheating but I did not care; it was mine! As I worked at Southwest Leasing we had a mechanic who could fix anything. Joe Fournier (Joe's Alignment Shop!) repaired the blown head gasket and rebuilt the top end of the 2-barrel 455 for $200. I kept that car for nine years and won an award at the 1986 Oldsmobile Club of America Nationals in Santa Maria, California in the modified category. The car had American Racing Vector wheels, some chrome removed and blacked-out grill with smoked plexi-glass headlight covers. And the "70 OLDS" license plate! My goal was to keep any car for at least nine years before selling. The first loss was my 1979 Trans Am, sold to pay rent plus it had 148,000 miles on the Olds 403 anyway. I now have several Oldsmobiles that I have owned since 1991 and beyond, certainly longer than the nine-year mark! And even though some people see Oldsmobile as lost since 1973 or 1986 or 1991 (pick your decade) I enjoyed selling them for fourteen years until the end in 2004. I just bought a Ruby Red 2000 Alero GLS coupe from Copart in Oregon (A Wheels For Wishes donation) that runs great and has less than 52,000 miles.

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