Back when big cars were everywhere on American roads, Cadillac was the standard for what a large luxury automobile sought to be. Only one problem, buying a Cadillac was out of reach for most buyers. By the time the fifth generation Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight (98) was released for the 1971 model year, Olds had carved out a nice niche of offering Cadillac level luxury in its 98 for a reasonable price.
The 1971 98 was the biggest, heaviest, and most luxurious production Olds up to that time. The exterior design of the 98 resembled a Cadillac. It had a long low and wide stance not to mention long tailfins that ended at the attractive tail lights. Tailfins by the mid-1960s had disappeared on most American cars however a few luxury brands still had understated fins the accented the trunk area. Cadillac was the leader in this trend for understated tailfins. The 1971 Oldsmobile 98 had the most prominent tailfins in years and matched the Cadillac’s tailfins in terms of size. Though the Oldsmobile 98 was trying to be a Cadillac, it incorporated a distinctive Oldsmobile look. The split front grill was a traditional Oldsmobile design and the front pointed peaks between the twin headlights on each side of the front end (there were quad round headlights) were distinctively Olds. And the tail lights (one on each side of the rear) that looked like rockets were located in distinctive pods where the tailfins ended. The 98 did not know the word “compromise”; it gave a buyer all the best Olds could provide. And part of this “no compromise” strategy Olds gave all 98 buyers standard the Rocket 4 bbl. 455 CID V8; there were no smaller displacement V8s or 2 bbl. carburetors available. The 98’s 455 V8 put out a hearty 320 net horsepower (for 1971 all GM cars had lowered compression and went to the more stringent net vs. gross horsepower ratings). For 1971 the 98 came in either a two door coupe or four door sedan; both of which could be had in base model or optional Luxury Coupe or Sedan. The base price for the coupe was $4,790 and $4,852 for the sedan. Even in 1971 dollars this was a lot of car for the money. A total of 83,291 Olds 98s were sold for the 1971 model year.
This was only the beginning; things would get better for the 98. By 1972 a limited edition Regency would be released. The Regency nameplate would continue for years as the pinnacle of 98 luxury. When the 1976 model year arrived, things still were rolling strong for the 98. The 98 Regency was as luxurious as ever and the exterior was aesthetically pleasing with attractive quad square headlights, a classy split front grill, and refined tail lights. The tail lights were still at the end of beautiful sculpted tailfins; 1975 had seen the introduction of this new refined tail light design. By 1976 the 98 was so close to the best Cadillac had to offer. This was not to say that the best full-size luxury car Cadillac offered for 1976 – the Fleetwood, was ugly (quite the contrary) it was also very attractive. However the 1976 Oldsmobile was a work of art. When looking at the 1976 98’s lines; one sees the long hood, wide stance, shapely quarter panels along with the previously mentioned tailfins. Also a 98 favorite were the standard rear fender skirts which gave it a classy but traditional look.
The 98’s long flowing lines can’t be replicated on today’s much smaller cars, the 98 was from an era never to be repeated. Using today’s standards the current (and soon to be cancelled) Ford Crown Victoria which is only now produced for police, taxi, and general fleet service is considered massive. The 2010 Crown Victoria is 212 inches in length and has a wheelbase of 114.7 inches. Now compare that to the 1976 98 which was 232.2 inches in length and had a wheelbase of 127 inches. Before you say “that’s not that big”, take into account the 98 is almost a foot longer than a 2010 Chevrolet Suburban which is 222.4 inches long. Now that’s big!
1976 would be the last year for the fifth generation 98 and the last year of the ultra-large 98. GM downsized its entire large car lineup in 1977. The smaller full-size 1977 platform would still be large enough for the 1977 98 to be attractive, but a lot of the distinctive flair of the 1976 98 was unfortunately gone. And 1976 was a great year for Oldsmobile; sales were impressive all across the board. The 98 was no exception it sold very well, easily beating out the sales of the first year fifth generation 1971 98. Total production for the 1976 98 was 104,481 (55,339 of these were Regency sedans). This was a big feat considering that high gas prices which were the aftermath of the 1973 oil crises had hurt big car sales.
The 1976 98 only came equipped with the Olds (big-block) 455 (4 bbl.) V8. Its rating was at an all-time low of 190 horsepower but it had plenty of torque, so the 4,673 lbs. 98 Regency (sedan) moved from traffic light to traffic light with ease. And 190 horsepower was considered a lot of horsepower in 1976. For instance the 1976 Pontiac Trans Am (which was one of the hottest American performance cars for 1976), had as its top performance option a Pontiac 455 V8 which was rated at 200 horsepower. Sadly the Olds 455 would depart after the 1976 model year; it was a victim of the EPA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) standards. The Olds small-block 403 CID V8 replaced the 455 for 1977, but it also fell prey to the C.A.F.E. standards and 1979 would be its last year. The 455 in the 1976 98 was teamed with GM’s rock solid TH400 three-speed automatic transmission. Gearing in the 98 was setup for optimum fuel economy. However more aggressive rear axle ratios could be ordered which included a performance-oriented 3.23 gear ratio that was perfect for improving acceleration times and of course towing the family boat or trailer. Remember this was back in the days when most large SUVs had small-block V8s and were not very popular. If someone wanted a vehicle for towing, a big-block V8 powered full-size American car like the 98 was just the ticket. And for 1976 the 455 was capable of 17 mpg on the highway. May not seem like much today but for a 4 bbl. carburetor equipped big-block V8 with no overdrive, it’s actually pretty good.
Most people today who have never had exposure to big cars like the 98, tend to fall into the category of the naysayers – laughing and ridiculing these big behemoths. However for the generations who drove or grew up on these types of cars, they know the hidden value of these big cars. These cars were 100% functional and ultra comfortable; there were no comfort compromises like today’s cars. You could be as fat as Frank Cannon and still feel comfortable in these cars. The difference in interior space between cars like the 98 and the current crop of new full-size cars is the difference between first class and coach on an airliner. You may find some full-size cars that can fit six adults (three in the front seat and three in the back seat), but this configuration is tight. On the 1976 98 this type of configuration is very comfortable. In fact there’s enough left over room to fit another two adults.
The 98 for 1976 came in both two door and four door configurations both of which were available in two luxury levels: base trim level (Luxury Coupe and Sedan) and the Regency. The Regency had plush cloth velour seats that were fit for royalty. Even the naysayers after opening the car door and falling into the plush pillowy seats can’t deny these cars are the absolute definition of luxury. Most living room sofas aren’t as comfortable as the Regency’s interior seats. And the Regency came with a whole host of standard features and a plethora of options. Such rare options for the mid-1970s as an automatic climate control system and electric powered seats were available on the Regency.
Now we get to the area of handling – what handling? The 98 is downright scary around hairpin turns at higher speeds. Remember those old TV shows with high speed chases which involved big 1970s cars? The cars were almost on two wheels when doing high speed turns with a symphony of tire screeching. So it’s a given the 1976 98 Regency was not made for the corners, it was made for sheer comfort. Riding in a big car like the 98 is a dream on long trips with its smooth comfortable ride. You hit a pothole – no problem, the soft suspension and its heavy weight absorbs the shock and barely if anything is felt in the cabin. These are the type of cars you can run over a speed bump at 25 mph and not feel a thing. Even driving one of these massive land yachts today is a lot of fun. The downside is it does not pass gas stations very often without stopping for a fill-up and parking in tight parking spots is no joy in a vehicle that is larger than a Chevy Suburban.
The 1976 Olds 98 Regency is a time piece, it’s a shot back in time to an era when an average family could afford a large luxury car. The 98 Regency was what Oldsmobile made best, it’s no coincidence as these cars were forced into extinction that Oldsmobile’s final departure would soon follow. And it’s also no surprise that the greatest era of prosperity in the U.S. was when big cars like this ruled the roads. Big cars were symbolic of the “American Dream”, as they have died so too has the American Dream. One ride in one of these luxury giants like the 98 Regency will most certainly put a smile on the face. The bright side is the collectors have not horded the remaining supply yet, so prices for good conditioned ones are cheap and easily within reach of the average buyer. So fire-up that quiet V8, put down those electric windows, and slap in your favorite Sinatra 8-track – the 98 Regency is up to task for a nice long comfortable cruise. What more could you ask for in a car?
Written contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved