OLDS FAITHFUL You never forget your first love – and Gary Lord won’t, because he still owns the Oldsmobile 442 he bought at 15… Words Greg Macleman. Photography Will Williams.
LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR One man’s enduring relationship with his very first car, a mighty Oldsmobile 442
We all remember ‘the one that got away’. The single car from our past that slipped through our fingers as the bills began to mount, enthusiasm for effecting endless repairs waned, and real life temporarily took precedence over a love of old cars. But not so Gary Lord. Against the odds, this Californian managed to hold on to his first car – a 1966 Oldsmobile 442 – before eventually committing to a restoration so meticulous that it would send a concours judge weak at the knees.
“Dad downshifted and jumped on the gas before shouting ‘Oh, sh*t!’ – he immediately thought he’d given me a loaded gun”
Oldsmobile had form when it came to the muscle-car revolution, having become an early pioneer of the segment by dropping its first postwar V8 – the Rocket – into the mid-sized 88 in 1949 to create the legendary, NASCAR-storming ‘Rocket 88’. Yet it was its GM stablemate, Pontiac, that built on the theme in the 1960s Prompted by a management decree to withdraw from competitive motorsport in 1963, the firm switched its emphasis to street performance and shoehorned the Catalina and Bonneville’s thumping 389cu in V8 into the forthcoming second-series Tempest to create the GTO.
The new car proved to be an overnight success, and was enough to stir its in-house rival into action. Fearing that it could be left behind, Oldsmobile responded by repeating the trick with its cooking-model Cutlass. A team led by John Beltz, Dale Smith and Bob Dorshimer mated this everyday workhorse with the firm’s top-spec 310bhp, 330cu in (5408cc) engine. “It’s as if they stuck a powerful engine in your grandmother’s grocery-getter,” smiles Lord.
The company’s flagship V8 was fitted with the latest performance enhancements, usually the preserve of police interceptors, including trick air filters, high-quality conrods and main bearings, joined by a beefy four-barrel carburettor, four-speed manual gearbox and fruity twin-pipe exhausts – giving rise to the ‘4-4-2’ moniker. For all its efforts, Olds was late to the party, and while the finished product impressed well enough, marketing and advertising fell short of expectations. Punters either didn’t know what it was, or didn’t know that it existed, and only around 3000 were sold in the first year.
Things improved in ’1965, thanks in no small part to another engine swap, with the 330cu in V8 making way for a monster 400cu in (6555cc) unit that put out 345bhp and 440lb ft, giving the 442 the performance to match its rivals; 0-60mph took just 5.5 secs, with the quarter-mile covered in 15 secs flat. Changes were made beneath the skin, too, with bigger tyres, firmer springs plus front and rear anti-roll bars contributing to a leap forward in handling ability, and a subsequent marked improvement on the salesroom floor. By the end of the year, Oldsmobile had shifted more than 25,000 units. “One thing that Oldsmobile did a bit differently to the other GM A-body cars is to put a sway bar on the rear end to give it a little more rigidity,” says Lord. “That was its edge over the GTO.”
Ultimately, it was a later generation of Olds that first caught this enthusiast’s eye. “Back when I was 15 or so, I saw an amazing car in a used car lot, which I later found out was a 1970 442,” says Lord, who was drawn by the car’s curvaceous styling – an echo of the designs emerging from the carrozzerie of Europe – with its streamlined rear profile, steeply raked ’screen and sloping boot. But his path to Oldsmobile ownership took a fateful turn early in his search.
“I said to my dad, ‘I wanna get a 442!’ So we looked in the local newspaper listings and found one for sale – I didn’t know the years,” explains Lord. “When we went out to look at it, we realised that it was totally different, being a much older version of the 442. But I fell in love with it and bought it then and there for $750.”
The car that won Lord’s heart was a 1966 convertible, which differed from previous generations with its all-new bodywork that did away with the staid, slab-sided and square design of old in favour of ‘Coke bottle’ styling. Flared arches and broad hips gave a more sporting appearance, while the engine was up to 350bhp – enough to cover 0-60mph in just 7.1 secs.
“Being 15, I couldn’t drive when we went to pick it up,” says Lord, standing beside his pride and joy. “But my dad was with me and we took it out on a straight expressway outside of San Jose. He downshifted and jumped on the gas before shouting ‘Oh, sh*t!’ – he immediately thought he’d given me a loaded gun.” Gary’s mother wasn’t too pleased at the prospect, either, assuming that, because it was a convertible, he would roll it. “But trust me, there’s no way you’re flipping one of these things,” smiles Lord.
“The day I turned 16, I got my driving licence and went straight home to tell my mom, ‘I’m taking the car.’ She said, ‘I don’t think Dad got your insurance…’ and I replied, ‘No, but I did!’ Given his chequered past – he was already driving way before he had a licence, and he wrecked his father’s car – my dad assumed that I would do all of the stupid things he did.”
In the early years, and with a limited budget, Lord tried to keep the car on the road with varying degrees of success: “It was in rough shape when I bought it – it had been used well and it was constantly breaking down. I was calling Bob’s Tow Truck company once a month to get it towed – we were on first-name terms.”
“These things weren’t built for longevity, and by the time I got it in ’76 the car was 10 years old,” says Lord. “For the next couple of years I worked in a gas station, and I’d save up for parts. One of the first things I bought was a set of tyres – the old ones were bald, so it would just spin out in the rain. I did a lot of drag racing, too: those were fun but dangerous days.”
For the following decade Lord used the 442 as his main car, driving it to and from work every day. During that time, he and his father decided to carry out an amateur restoration, with the main objective being to keep the car in roadworthy condition while improving its tatty appearance. “We disassembled all of the trim in order to do the bodywork, then had a friend of the family paint it,” says Lord. “I fitted a new roof and re-covered the two front seats – it looked pretty darned respectable!”
With life moving on, and his interests leading to other cars, Lord parked the Olds at his parents’ house, where it remained in storage before getting a run out on his wedding day: “We ended up moving to New Hampshire for three years, so trucked it out with us and stuck it in the garage, then trucked it back. It ran the whole time – it was always driveable. There were a few times early in our marriage when we were short on funds – such as one year when we needed a washer and dryer – and I said I’d sell the car, but my wife said, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ So we hung on to it for all those years.”
By 2000, the 442 was once again beginning to show its age, and Lord decided the time had come to embark on a full restoration. “I wanted it as if I had bought it new,” he says, “as if I had gone down to the dealership and specified it myself.” The man chosen for the job was Jeff Lilly, a muscle-car specialist from San Antonio who had just completed a nut-and-bolt rebuild of a ’67 442. “Having finished virtually the same car, he knew exactly where all the right fasteners were and where to find them, and the correct colour of paint for the engine and all of the chassis components,” explains Lord. But the project hit a snag early on when a fire ripped through the paintshop at Lilly’s Texas ranch, thankfully leaving Lord’s car unharmed but damaging a number of other customers’ cars. “He wanted to make every one of the 20-or-so damaged cars right, so he said it would be at least two years before making a start on my car,” says Lord. “He ended up having it for eight.”
The majority of 1966 442s left the factory fitted with Rochester Quadrajet carburettors, but Lord’s dream specification included an option introduced that year – the first tri-carb manifold Oldsmobile had offered since the 1950s, designated L69. Thanks to the trio of two-barrel carburettors, coupled with a return to the factory 10.5:1 compression ratio, power was bumped up to 360bhp. “Unfortunately, that means you have to run it on 100-octane fuel, which is $10 per gallon here!” laughs Lord. Few convertibles benefited from this increased performance, and even fewer featured a four-speed manual ’box and Posi-traction 4.11 diff, making this car something of a rarity.
After being advised by Lilly that a black paint finish would better show off the lines of the Olds, friends and family were consulted and the decision was taken to keep the 442 in its original shade of white – although the white vinyl roof was thrown out in favour of black cloth. “At a concours event, that would be the differentiator between me and the guy next to me,” explains Lord. “But I didn’t restore it for a concours show. That wasn’t my objective. I wanted to take a different approach with it – to use as many new-old-stock components as I could find. I didn’t want there to be any reproduction parts on the car, so the only non-factory items are the door mirrors, which I simply couldn’t find. Everything else is original from 1966.”
Compared to restoring a Pontiac GTO, where nearly everything is available, sourcing parts for the less-common Oldsmobile proved an adventure in itself, and Lord committed countless hours to online research and long-distance phone calls. “I found a guy in New Jersey who had a warehouse full of 1966 and ’1967 parts,” he explains, eyes brightening at the memory. “The bumpers are new-old-stock – they had never been on a car and were still in their original boxes. The Rallye wheels were unused originals, too, while the dashboard pads were perfect – they didn’t need anything doing to them. The dash inserts are also new-old-stock because trying to restore a dash like that, with all of the different finishes, is virtually impossible. Everything else was refurbished.”
Following the restoration, Lord exhibited the car extensively, but this summer marked the first time it had been shown in eight years as it took to Carmel’s Ocean Avenue during Monterey Car Week. It’s now set for an easy retirement, being driven on high days and holidays.
“By old-car standards it’s pretty comfortable,” says Lord. “It’s a big car, but in its day these things were pretty hot – there wasn’t much in the high-school parking lot that could beat it. By today’s standards, though, it’s a boat! It just cruises along and it’s got stock exhausts, so it isn’t too loud or obnoxious. As for cornering… well, let’s just say that these things were meant to go in a straight line. Quickly, yes, but they were meant to go straight.”
With another show season now under its belt, Lord only has one more ambition for the car. “My eldest son just proposed and they’re going to get married down here in the Carmel Valley,” he says with a smile. “I’m hoping he’ll want to use this for his wedding, the same way his mom and I did. That’s what I really want.”
“The only non-factory items on the car are the door mirrors, which I just couldn’t find – everything else is original from 1966”
Clockwide from above: rare tri-carb manifold boosts power by 10bhp; proud 21-year-old Lord with dad and the Olds; the 442’s handling was hailed in period, but today seems slightly less sporting – early personalised plate was a 16th-birthday present from his parents. Clockwise, from above: reconditioned seats and door cards were stitched by hand; Lord enjoys a familiar view on local roads around Monterey – the four-speed manual suits the V8’s torque; Gary and wife Tami on their wedding day with the Olds, then sporting a white vinyl top.