WILLIAMSTOWN — Whenever my paternal grandmother felt the need to replace her car, she’d head to her usual source: a large Oldsmobile dealership in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
There, she would invariably negotiate the purchase of the biggest car on the lot, a ritual that usually concluded with the delivery of a “98,” top of the Olds line. Long and low, the car featured a roomy trunk, a luxurious interior (she preferred velour) and a massive engine.
She owned and was the primary driver of several big Oldsmobiles over the years, but the one I remember most fondly was a 1965 “luxury sedan” style 98. The dark blue car had a 425-cubic-inch displacement eight-cylinder engine capable of producing 360 horsepower. Its fuel tank held 25 gallons. Miles-per-gallon data are fuzzy. Even 58 years on, the auto industry seems more than a bit reluctant to even list, much less highlight, those grim numbers. The best estimate I could filter out of the current online car-speak babble was 10 mpg.
The 98 preferred “premium” gas, but when my grandmother and step-grandfather took their annual trip to the Maine seashore via Williamstown, they declined to spare the horses. Premium gas it was.
The car had no radio. Still, it’s likely that the savings realized by refusing this then-optional feature were obliterated by her insistence that the most powerful air conditioning system available be installed.
Anxious to please a good customer, the dealer made inquiries in Detroit and learned that the only AC system that would meet the case was one designed for use in products from Oldsmobile’s REO truck division. There was no room on the 98’s dash for both tunes and cool breezes, so the radio had to go.
For my grandmother, a lifelong lover of cold weather, the choice was obvious: no radio. So it was that in later years, when my cousin and I, boom box-equipped and freshly licensed, discovered that by setting the 98’s AC on “extra high” fan and “max” cool, we could freeze our shower- or pool-dampened hair in a matter of minutes.
This simple amusement, coupled with errands invented for the purpose of keeping us on the road for as long as possible, was frequently augmented by a visit to a busy car wash situated in a Cincinnati suburb.
Walking at a museumgoer’s pace, we sauntered slowly along a glass-enclosed corridor that ran parallel to the wash “tunnel,” observing each stage of the 98’s deluxe washing and waxing.
The process reached an intriguing, almost choreographic crescendo when the car emerged from the tunnel and was instantly swarmed by employees equipped with vacuum nozzles and fluffy, clean cloths. All four doors were open wide; sometimes we counted as many as five people inside the car, all busily vacuuming, dusting and polishing.
Afterward, aglow with a largely unearned but nonetheless pleasing sense of accomplishment, we’d head for a burger joint with car hop service, aiming to display the 98 in its gleaming finery. To our delight, it usually turned a few heads.
All this came to mind last week when I visited a newly renovated car wash on State Road in North Adams.
I was pleased to note that it is no longer necessary to align the car’s wheels between metal rails to have it pushed through the tunnel in neutral. The washing, waxing and drying functions are performed by a frame that passes over the stationary vehicle. Lamps on the frame provide a diverting light show as the job is done.
“Karl,” my 15-year-old German import, emerged looking very fine. It’s doubtful that the days of what we sometimes called “the final swarm” will return, but drivers can still earn a sense of accomplishment by investing quarters in the vacuum cleaner.