“Too bad it’s a four-door.” Shut up. I grew up hearing that phrase over and over, and man, does that really grate on my nerves. So many good cars were lost to the scrap yard for “having too many doors.” Back in 2002, my parents were searching for a car for my oldest brother and heartily in the “real steel” car camp. After some trips to look through the floorboards of a rotted out Plymouth Satellite and a Pontiac LeMans missing all of its paint, we found the one, this one, a near-mint 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Town Sedan (yeah, it’s got four doors and B-pillars).
The Cutlass was grandma-fresh with bench seats, four-wheel drums, an AM radio, and 2.73 rear end gears. A younger guy owned it and had hopped it up with an Edelbrock intake, four-barrel carb, Isky cam, and headers with dual exhaust. By all rights, it sounded like a hot rod, and spray-bombed blue with white stripes, it even looked the part. “It’s a shame it’s a four-door.” Even my mother wasn’t a fan; however, both of my parents were staunch Oldsmobile flag-flyers and this was a big car with a solid body. So, home it came and my brother learned to drive in it and carted us younger ones around constantly.
Then, senior year, what happens to most teenagers’ cars happened. Luckily it was a pretty minor accident for the Cutlass, requiring the replacement of a hood, fender, and bumper. The new parts didn’t line up perfectly, but it was still all one color and back on the road… at which point the front left wheel came off and folded the driver’s side fender under the car. If you look at the driver’s rear door, the scuff mark the tire made on its way off is still there.
After that, the car went on blocks while Dad waited for the right time to pull the drivetrain out of the “undesirable” four-door body for another project. During this time, I was being kept busy with my own project and first car, a 1965 Pontiac Tempest coupe.
The Cutlass sat there, quietly rusting, while I went through college and began balancing work and my daily/project car (note: do not make your daily your project car). Tarps never last, and as the car was more and more out of mind, it got more and more out of shape. The metal surrounding the rear windshield began to rot, and eventually leak. I remember cutting back the weeds one year, opening the door, and finding floor pans full to the door sills with water and mold everywhere. Thinking it was a lost cause, I tried to forget about it.
Yet it nagged at me. I drove past that Oldsmobile for years and years, watching the blocks sinking into the ground as the weeds took it over. It bothered me, seeing what had once been such a cool car just disappear out of the world. One day, not long after reassembling my freshly painted BMW E30, I wandered my way back over to the Olds.
It was a pretty sad sight. Inside was actual growing vegetation and it was clear the trunk had also been filling with water as well. But… the doors closed firmly, the floor pans were still solid (at least from a glance underneath), and the engine rotated a little when I hand-spun the fan. I told my dad, “I’m coming over early tomorrow to try and get that on four wheels and cleaned up.”
My father relented, and the next morning I came loaded for bear, expecting broken/stripped/seized wheel studs and locked-up drum brakes. In reality, all of the lug nuts spun on and off freely, and all four brakes were ready to roll. This car wanted to continue, it wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. I threw on some spare wheels and hauled it up to the house to be washed and loaded on the trailer.
The water in the floor pans was deep enough to seep into my shoe while pulling the Cutlass out of its resting place. It only got worse once we started washing the mildew off – turns out the front windshield was almost has bad as the rear.
Once at my house, I shoved it off the trailer and enlisted a friend to get the bench seats out so I could pull up what was left of the carpet. After yanking some frozen-solid seat belts and water-soaked insulation, the Shop-Vac showed me that the floor pans were truly solid.
We removed the distributor and the passenger valve cover and I ran the oil pump with a drill. The lifters pumped up and oil came out of the pushrods dirty, but with plenty of volume. I changed the oil, dropped the distributor back in, and used some jumper cables to power the car up.
Lights came on and the starter even spun the engine over. I pushed it into the garage and started ordering ignition parts. A new battery, ignition coil, points and condenser brought the Oldsmobile 350 to a spitting, sputtering, coughing idle. After dusting off some of my old-school repair manuals, and old-school repair skills, I got the ignition timing in the neighborhood of right and tested the transmission. IT WORKED.
Reverse and all three forward gears would at least spin the tires on jack stands (the brakes weren’t locked up but were also non-functional) and it could even make the speedometer needle dance. Every time I made a small repair or replaced a part, more and more of the car came back to life. Since the brakes were in need of replacing anyway, I converted the front to disc and then snagged some 15×8″ Corvette Rally wheels with 245 mm tires and, of course, raised white letters.
With more help from friends, I cut out the rear windshield and hack-welded some good metal in. The four-door rear windshield is not the same as any of the two-doors. I was lucky enough to find someone parting out a four-door and he cut his good metal out for me. I used ready-made patch panels for the front – since I had the welder out anyway, I figured why not get the car at least close to water tight. I spray-bombed the interior a nice Ace Hardware blue, ignored some more rust, and glued the glass back in.
I had the state title the Cutlass as an antique and got ready for its first outing. I’d grown up around GM A-Bodies, ridden in them for all my middle- and high-school years, cut my teeth wrenching on them and had been completely enamored with their whole history as a young hot-rod enthusiast. I’d never driven one on the road. Anticipation is an interesting feeling. Would I love it? Or had I gotten so used to more modern vehicles that this would just feel like a heavy barge that I couldn’t connect with?
Thankfully, it was the former. A quick trip around the block showed me that this was a car worth putting the hours in on, and so I started branching out with some short trips to work to figure out small kinks like the defroster not working and the rear air shocks being totally blown out. Man, does this thing cruise, though. Its best use so far as I can tell is floating down the smaller-numbered highways of eastern Pennsylvania like 611, 46, and 512.
We’ve tried some higher-speed highway time and the only issue there is how thirsty the car is, as a 150 mile highway trip brought an average of about 11 miles per gallon. Throw the Cutlass on some dirt back roads and it dares you to stab the throttle around every sweeping curve. The Olds 350 may not rev high, but its power curve starts right off idle and will trumpet jubilantly on any on-ramp. The highest I’ve seen it shift on its own is about 4,000 rpm, so the long rear gears are very well-suited to the engine’s powerband. It’s not super fast, but can reach 75 in second gear pretty easily, even during a burnout. Bench seats make it the highest passenger capacity vehicle I own, with a trunk big enough for pretty much whatever I want to haul.
When I originally set about getting this car down off the blocks and back into driving condition, my main goal wasn’t to go back to the days of being driven around in the back seat (youngest child syndrome), but to rewrite the ending of a car that had been given up on. The Cutlass seemed to agree, as it’s been happily starting even on mornings when it’s in the mid-40s to come home from work, and even took a deer face-first into a quarter panel without so much as a scratch.
The front end is a bit beat up, the black-eye from that Jeep Wrangler was never mended quite properly, and the seat covers are of the Amazon-special drug-rug type, but I’ll never regret the time and money I have into it and the more that is certain to follow. I grew up always wanting to own an Oldsmobile. Their history and cars have always captured my attention and researching them made me the car enthusiast I am today. So I drive my Crew Cab Cutlass with pride. To those who say “shame it’s a four-door” I say “Oh yeah? Where’s yours?”