Ruminations on an Oldsmobile

Posted In:   From Issue 719   By: Aaron Toth

27th January, 2011     0

53,438 Dynamic 88 four-door hardtops rolled off of Oldsmobile’s assembly lines into the driveways and garages of American consumers during the 1962 model year. Many of them were welded, bolted, and riveted together at a factory in Lansing, Michigan, the state’s capital since 1847. 

The Dynamic 88 was a confident car, big and mighty, indicative of the pride, and some might say arrogance, that General Motors included in the design and engineering of its vehicles.  Onetime GM chairman Alfred Sloan later wrote a famous book outlining his years of success.  He is credited as the man most responsible for keeping the company solvent in the early days and growing it into the business behemoth it became by 1962.  As a result of his efforts, one of every two new 1962 cars on America’s highways was manufactured by General Motors, and many of Michigan’s nearly eight million citizens worked directly or indirectly for this corporate goliath. 

An example of a 1962 Dynamic 88 now sits in a near vacant lot on the corner of two Michigan state highways, one of which I traverse on my way to work. This particular example passes the hours with nothing but an abandoned outbuilding to keep it company, along with the unceasing rush of motorists passing it by.  It seems lost in a modern world where commuters charge past without casting a second glance, texting behind the wheel, eating cheeseburgers, watching DVDs. 

In 1962, this same Surf Green hued 88 serenely glided by other neglected vehicles, its lacquer finish glinting in the sun, chrome sparkling, whitewall tires creating a rhythmic hum against the smooth, flat state highway that carried its rising, middle-class family to its home in the subdivision, or off to parts unknown.  The greatest distraction was a crackling AM radio station or an ice cream cone spilled on the bench seat.  A family of six might have boarded this 280-horsepower Michigan-made projectile, Dad pointing its rocket-inspired flanks down a new Interstate Highway, rolling up the miles with the wind buffeting the back seat passengers through four open windows.  Maybe they went camping or fishing or picnicking.  Maybe they watched ships pass through Soo Locks.  Maybe they visited Porcupine Mountains.  Maybe they went to a Tigers game.  Maybe they just went to the store for a Push-up.

Unfortunately for the Oldsmobile, time passed, as it does for all creatures and machines.  This particular 88 tumbled down a hill of ever-increasing slope, much like the state in which it was built and the company by which it was manufactured.  It now sits on its grassy lot, passenger side tires sunk into the earth up to its rims.  Its wide whites are faded and flat, its seafoamy-green lacquer paint flat and nonreflective.  From behind a missing headlamp, the car winks at anybody who happens to notice it in its repose.  Cars rush by on a potholed and frost-heaved public highway, their passengers headed to a position they hope is there for them tomorrow. 

Many of the men and women who crafted the Oldsmobile from Midwestern iron ore, stamped its sheetmetal, assembled its “Rocket” engine, and upholstered its bench seats are probably gone now; the ones who are left face an uncertain retirement from a company that may have become too arrogant over time.  As years passed, car buyers realized that newer Oldsmobiles didn’t quite have the flash and pure personality of the old Dynamic 88; in fact, very few GM cars did.  Even cars like the Dynamic 88 fell out of step with a more energy-conscious world.  Foreign makes recognized this and stepped in to take advantage.  Oldsmobile stopped production in 2004, and GM teetered precariously on the brink, helping Michigan rack up some frightening double-digit unemployment numbers.

In stark relief to the economic turmoil encircling it, the Dynamic 88 still sits, proud as an old war soldier, surveying its surroundings.  It has survived record high scrap metal prices, junkyards, and parts scroungers.  It stands above ground, in its original form, unlike many of its contemporaries.  Its uniquely creased fenders and doors have not been liquefied into molten steel to build the economy of a foreign nation. 

It’s stubborn, refusing to submit to the elements, waiting, like the residents of its unique state with its unique heritage and industries, for a second chance.

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