1957, 1958, 1959 Oldsmobiles
Another new Oldsmobile body arrived for 1957 with sleeker styling and the first Olds wagons since 1950.
Called Fiesta, the revived wagons comprised a pillared 88 four-door and pillarless 88 and Super 88 versions, the latter reflecting the public's evident passion for hardtop styling. Both 88 lines were subtitled Golden Rocket (after a 1956 show car) to mark Oldsmobile's 60th anniversary; Ninety-Eights gained Starfire as a first name.
The Rocket was enlarged again, going to 371.1 cid and 277 bhp. Also new was a three-by-two-barrel carburetor option called J-2, good for 300 bhp. With the high-profile exception of driver Lee Petty, Olds was by now largely absent from stock-car tracks, but the J-2 made it a force to be reckoned with on the street: A J-2-equipped 88 could do 0-60 mph in less than nine seconds.
Priced in the $2700-$4200 range, the '57 Oldsmobiles were rather cleanly styled for GM cars that year. The wide-mouth grille was mildly reshaped; windshield pillars were more rakishly angled; a broad, stainless-steel sweepspear dropped down from the middle of the beltline, then shot straight back to the tail to define a two-toning area; and there were finless rear fenders ending in peaked, oval taillamps.
But GM styling was beginning to seem a bit passé next to Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" at Chrysler; Harley Earl's reign as America's automotive styling arbiter was at an end. Still, Olds built nearly 385,000 U.S.-market cars for the model year to finish fifth once again.
While most makes faltered badly in recessionary 1958, Olds moved up to fourth, though on lower volume near the 315,000 mark. Offerings stood pat except that two-door sedans were now restricted to the base series, renamed Dynamic 88. Wheelbases stretched a nominal half-inch across the board.
Styling, as most observers declared, was atrocious. Ford designer Alex Tremulis satirized Oldsmobile's four horizontal rear-fender chrome strips by drawing in a clef and a few musical notes on a photograph. And indeed, Dearborn's '58s were somewhat more attractive than GM's, while Chrysler's mildly facelifted cars were in another league entirely.
Yet for all the overchromed dazzle, Oldsmobiles sold pretty well for '58 -- aided, no doubt, by more power choices: 265 bhp for 88s (a nod to buyers suddenly concerned with fuel economy), 305 bhp standard on Supers and Ninety-Eights, and an optional 312-bhp J-2 setup for all.
The '59s might have looked even worse, but GM responded to Chrysler's 1957 initiative with a crash restyling program that produced generally cleaner cars than first envisioned -- plus a significant divisional body realignment. Chevy and Pontiac would now share the corporate A-body, the junior Buicks and Oldsmobiles a new B-body, and senior models a slightly different C-body with Cadillac.
Olds and Buick wheelbases were set at 123 and 126.3 inches, respectively; Pontiac's was slightly shorter, Chevy's shorter still. This program had repercussions. Chevy and Pontiac, for example, had to drop their all-new '58 platforms after only a year; Olds, Buick, and Cadillac after two years. Still, this change helped hold down production costs, thus enabling the company to put that much more time and money into developing a squadron of new compacts.
As ever, divisional styling strived for distinct looks, though the '59 Olds ended up more like Pontiac than Lansing might have liked. With a new emphasis on "Wide-Track" handling, Pontiac outpaced Oldsmobile in production, something it hadn't done since 1953.
But Lansing's '59s were hardly slim, swelling nine inches in width on a new "Guard-Beam" chassis and 10 inches in overall length. Naturally, they shared basic elements of the new corporate styling: vastly enlarged "Vista-Panoramic" windshields, curving non-dogleg A-posts, big rear windows (fully wrapped on new Holiday Sport Sedan hardtops), thin-section coupe rooflines, narrow pillars, and fuller lower body sheet metal.
To this Olds added a simple dumbbell-shaped grille with four widely spaced headlights and straight-topped rear fenders with vestigial fins above elliptical taillights. Division ad types called all this "The Linear Look."
No matter: The '59s were a vast improvement on the sparkly '58s. But there were still gadgets aplenty, including "New-Matic Ride," Lansing's year-old version of air suspension that was costly, unpopular, and about to disappear. At least power was still plentiful. Dynamic 88s retained a 371 V-8 with 270 bhp standard, 300 optional.
New for Ninety-Eights and Super 88s was a bored-out 394 making 315 bhp with four-barrel carb but slightly reduced compression (9.75:1). Not at all obvious were many internal changes made to this year's Rocket as well as the "Jet-Away" Hydra-Matic long ordered by most Olds customers.
For 1959, buyers could choose from a convertible, two- and four-door Holidays, and a pillared Celebrity sedan in each line, plus Dynamic 88 two-door sedan, and four-door Dynamic and Super Fiesta wagons. Prices were higher than ever. Only three Dynamics started below $3000, while the ragtop Ninety-Eight was now close to $4400.
Even so, 1959 was a good Olds year on balance, the division notching another fifth-place finish on slightly improved volume of nearly 383,000. Though it had come a long way from the first 88s, Olds still retained something of a performance image (aided by Lee Petty's photo-finish win in the first Daytona 500), which it would shine anew to great success in the '60s.