My trusty steed. The original 294, with 3-speed auto has 120,000 miles.

The Decision To Drive A Hot Rod Every Day

My wife and I just got back from seeing the movie Wild starring Reese Witherspoon. It is a very inspirational story about a woman who had a tough upbringing and made some mistakes as an adult. She decides to embark on a quest to complete the Pacific Coast Trail as a type of “spiritual cleansing” so to speak and in the process learns a lot about herself.

While my journey was not quite on the scale of what Witherspoon’s character went through, in 2009 I had an epiphany of my own.

I guess I should start with a little background. I’m a “car guy”, my first car was a running ‘55 Chevy that my dad bought for me when I was 16 in 1986 for a mere $1500. I still have it – it looks nothing like it did back then — but I am not a highly skilled car guy by any means. Yes, I can do some basic stuff like change the oil and the brakes myself. I have pulled the engine myself a couple of times, but don’t ask me to build one. I just got my first welder for Christmas and have yet to strike my first arc. Let’s just say I know people a lot more skilled than myself.

Here is the backstory, in 2005 I was not even in the car industry – I was changing careers from doing computer/server support with a major airline catering company that was vacating Memphis to go to work at a regional bank as an Internal IT Auditor. My career was doing well and I felt I was finally at a place in life where I could afford to buy my first brand new vehicle from a dealership – I chose a Nissan Xterra.

It was my first brand new vehicle, so I got everything I could get on it: 4 wheel drive, tow package, and a bike rack. It cost nearly $30,000 when all was said and done. Fast forward to 2010 – I have a five year old SUV in perfect condition with low mileage, but gas prices have soared to near $4 a gallon. I have just completed a 2 year frame-off restoration on my ‘55 and am enjoying being able to get it out of the garage and meet car people. I only worked 11 miles from my home, so miles per gallon were not a major concern for me.

I had just paid off the Xterra and was aware that SUV’s were losing value fast. Frankly, I was a bit bored with the Xterra and started playing around with the idea of getting an old car as my daily driver. I started searching on eBay and Craigslist for something that fit my criteria. Whatever I bought had to be dependable seeing I would be selling the Xterra to pay for it. Living in the south and working at a bank, I had to wear a suit or at least a tie — it had to have AC.

I searched KBB to find out that the Xterra was only worth $12,500 – in only 5 years the perfect condition SUV had lost well over half its value. I figured I could sell it for at least that much and buy a classic for $8-10,000 and have a few dollars left over in case I needed to fix something. The plan was in place, now all I had to do was find the classic and sell the Nissan.

I really wasn’t ready when on the Tuesday after I made the decision, I received a notification that the owner of one of the cars on my eBay watch list had put a “buy it now” price on the car he had for sale. It was a 1963 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 Holiday Coupe. I had never even seen one, but I fell in love with one photo of the car from the taillight down the side of the car.

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The car looked amazing in the photos, but was three hours away from me. I swore that I would not buy a car that I planned to drive daily sight unseen, so I emailed him and asked him to call me. Wesley McKnight was the owner. He explained that there was nothing wrong with the Olds, it was a 94,000 mile survivor that he had repainted the original color with PPG paint and put some big wheels on it. Wesley is a Goodguys member like myself, and we had a really good conversation about whether he thought it would be a worthy daily driver. His confidence put my fears at ease, but I still wanted to see the car in person.

I made the gamble that night to take Wednesday off from work to go look at the car. Wesley had said that I could give him a non-refundable deposit to take the car off of eBay and hold it until the weekend if I found it to be “the one”. I awoke that morning and drove to CarMax when they opened to get a quote from them. The quote came in at $11,000, which was a little lower than I would’ve liked, so I left there with a 7 day guarantee, went home, snapped a few photos of the Xterra and listed it on Craigslist for $13,500. My friend David got off at noon that day, so he hopped in the car and rode with me to Hot Springs, AR to look the Olds over.

We were able to look the car over, but unfortunately Wesley was not in town, so we weren’t actually able to drive it. We found the car to be just as advertised. The original interior was astounding – not one rip tear or smudge – even the carpet was pristine. The rockers, trunk, and undercarriage showed the car had probably lived a privileged life inside a garage most of its life. I gave Wesley’s father a deposit of $500 with the agreement that I would have the right to pull the offer if I found a problem when I returned on Saturday for the test drive.

Amazingly, not 10 minutes after I left Hot Springs, I received a call on my cell phone from a guy in Hunstville, AL who had been looking to replace his first generation Xterra with a newer model. He said that he could be in Memphis on Saturday by noon to buy the truck. I told him to bring cash, because I would have to turn around the next day to drive to Hot Springs.

On Saturday morning, we did the deal on the Xterra and there was no turning back now. Sunday morning saw my friend, Justin Gatewood, and I driving over to Hot Springs again to take the car for a test drive. The car drove great around town and had cold AC, so I gave Wesley the money when we got back to his house. Justin and I proceeded to get on the road and not five minutes down the road, I began to question my purchase.

The “HOT” light came one as we were running down the highway. I flagged Justin down to pull over. We sat on the side of the road to let it cool and I made a call back to Wesley for ideas. He said he had not had a problem, but did top off the radiator, so maybe there was an air pocket. I cracked the lever on the radiator cap creating a cloud of steam. We waited another 30 minutes and decided to start again, this time with the AC off. Wesley waited by the phone, ready to come get me with his trailer if needed. The light came on again as we approached the interstate, so I called Justin and told him to get off at the next exit.

We stopped at Walmart and bought a new radiator cap and a gallon of anti-freeze. After topping off the radiator, we re-started our trek back to Memphis. I started with the AC off, but decided to test it after 15 minutes of hot light-free driving. No more worries from the radiator, but I did find the car to be a little unnerving when changing lanes and really rough on the bumps.
DSC_3874When I got back, I put the car up on jackstands and found that there were only 3 bushings left in the front-end, hence the adventuresome lane changes. The first change I made on the car, after replacing all the bushings in the front-end was to replace all the shocks and springs. Wesley had heated the springs to give the car a lowered look, which was fine for as little as he drove it, but it wouldn’t do as a daily driver. After giving the springs some time to settle, I went back and cut one coil out and re-aligned the front-end. The car drives great and still has a killer stance.

Driving an old car every day is certainly a different experience, but a move that I don’t regret for one minute. The car has yet to let me down when it comes to getting to work. I have had occasions where I have chosen to make a certain change that made me take another ride. My wife travels for business quite a bit, so I usually schedule longer repairs when I know she is going to be flying somewhere.

DSC_4229In February of this year, I made the largest undertaking – pulling the engine. The plan was to pull the engine one weekend, clean, paint, replace gaskets and the timing chain during the week and drop it back in the next weekend. I was a little ambitious with that plan. The cleaning and painting took a little longer than I hoped, but if I was taking the time to pull the engine to do it — I wanted to do it right — so it took two weekends.

The engine looks factory fresh now and doesn’t leak anymore. The only part that doesn’t work on the car at this point is the windshield washer pump. Unfortunately, they don’t make a direct replacement for it. It is one of those parts that you don’t need, until you need it. It is rare, but when your windshield gets all dirty from wet road grime, there are times you wished you had them. One day I will get around to putting in a replacement pump.

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I have now owned the Olds for almost 5 years and only had to replace a few parts. The stock radiator kept developing pinholes, so I had to get a new one. Also, as you probably know, old fuel lines and gaskets don’t like ethanol and the fuel pump gaskets finally gave up. Oldsmobile uses a combination of electrical and vacuum when it comes to the heating system and the actuator in the engine bay dried out and wouldn’t open the heater door anymore. At $95 for a replacement, it is not the cheapest part to replace, but the others seem to be holding out ok. I have replaced the brakes and wheel cylinders as well.

I have never added up the receipts, but I would estimate that I have put roughly $2000 into the car. Not a bad return on my investment for a 51 year old car that I have put 25,000 miles on. I thought I would miss the creature comforts of a new car like cupholders and FM radio, but there are a few AM stations that simulcast FM stations, and my wife found one of those old plastic cupholders that hang on the windowsill.

Like I said, driving an old car does have its challenges. I certainly drive it differently than I do a new car. I pay much closer attention to the road, looking for potholes, bumps, and ridges in the road. I also pay much closer attention to what the people around me are doing.

When your car weighs 4,200 lbs, you have drum brakes, and no seat belts, you better be able to anticipate what the other guy is doing. Which brings up another point about driving an old car – people are excited to see it. Years ago, you would just get people honking or pulling up next to you to give you a thumbs-up, but nowadays they want to get a picture or video. That is fine if you are at a stoplight, but going down the interstate trying to take a picture of the car next to you is not the wisest or safest of decisions.

I think driving a classic every day has actually made me a better driver. You won’t see me on my cell phone – I’m too busy paying attention to what I am doing. My decision in the beginning was financial driven, but it was really the boredom or driving a non-descript boring car every day. Nearly every day I have someone hanging out of the window to get a closer look at the car. The biggest questions I get asked at traffic lights are “what is it?”, “is that an Impala?”, and “what year is it?”

Originally I planned to sell the car after a year or two, but I have absolutely fallen in love with it. I have never seen another one at all of the shows I have gone to (and I’ve been to a lot). I have also fallen in love with all the little quirks that are distinctly Oldsmobile like the electric/vacuum heater control, how every nut on the driver side of the car is left hand thread, and how the speedometer cable hooks into the grease cap on the driver’s side wheel. Oh yeah, and how can I forget, Reverse being all the way down on the column instead of right next to Park! Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing!

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