1938 Oldsmobile L-38

Rumble-seat ragtops and sidemout spares were old news by 1938, but the 1938 Oldsmobile L-38 still offered both -- plus a forward-thinking transmission with no clutch pedal.

1938 Oldsmobile L-38
The redesigned grille and factory-sidemounted spare
tire complemented the Oldsmobile L-38's sleek look.

The Depression seemed to be lifting in 1938 when the stock market snapped, creating what Republicans gleefully called the "Roosevelt Recession." Sales slumped throughout the American auto industry -- especially at Oldsmobile, which turned out half as many cars as it had the year before.

The '37 Oldsmobiles had been heavily redesigned, so the '38s were little changed. Still, all models sported more prominent grilles flanked by new "catwalk" trim in the inner front-fender aprons. Back for a second year was the "Automatic Safety Transmission," a clutchless manual gearbox presaging fully self-shifting Hydra-Matic in 1940. For '38, AST was newly optional for six-cylinder Oldsmobiles as well as Eights. Unchanged were Lansing's two L-head inline engines: 95-horsepower 230-cubic-inch six for F-38 models and 110-bhp 257-cid eight for L-38s.

1938 Oldsmobile L-38, Interior
The dashboard of the L-38 was a quasi-futuristic jumble of panels directly
in the eye-line of the driver, a style that was en vogue at the time.

Each line again offered a convertible coupe, but this was the last year for Olds droptops with rumble seats and optional sidemount spare tires. Both features were by then out of fashion with buyers -- and out of production at most other automakers. It's odd that Olds was so slow to drop them, considering its growing renown as General Motors' "innovator" division.

The L-38 convertible coupe pictured here is one of only 68 with the factory sidemount, this out of 475 cars total. The six-cylinder version managed 1184 copies in all. Unlike later years, however, ragtops are not the rarest '38 Oldsmobiles. Though integral trunks had become popular for closed body styles, Olds also persisted with passé "trunkless" sedans. These, too, would vanish after 1938 and very low production in eight-cylinder form: just 200 of the four-door model and 137 of the two-door.

1938 Oldsmobile L-38, Rear
The rear of the L-38 displays Oldsmobile's persistence in
building a "trunkless" coupe.

Typical of late-prewar GM cars, the '38 Olds dashboard was rather "Buck Rogers," but put most instruments and controls directly ahead of the steering wheel. Such affairs may look quaint to modern eyes, but they were real "hep" at the time.

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