Car of the Week: 1971 Olds 4-4-2

By Brian Earnest

When Tom Eberlin is roaring down the road in his spectacular 1971 Olds 4-4-2 W-30, he’s not worried about too much.

He’s not stressing about the big check he had to write to buy his prized machine. He just chuckles watching the gas gauge slowly move left as the 455 cubes under the hood inhale copious amounts of fossil fuel. He’s not frozen by any mid-life crisis, worries about whether he made a wise purchase, or that it took him 20 long years to pull the trigger and buy the car he always wanted.

About the only thing the Peoria, Ill., resident is concerned about is making sure he doesn’t take any curves too fast. The 4-4-2s weren’t exactly designed for slalom courses.

Beyond that, Eberlin is too busy living the dream to think about much else. The unbridled joy he experiences when he gets behind the wheel make all the sacrifices worth it.

“I still have to wake up and go look at it to make sure I do have it,” he says, almost apologetically. “It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s mine… But there is zero buyer’s remorse. The car wasn’t cheap, but zero remorse!”

It would be a pity if Eberlin had any regrets with his Oldsmobile muscle machine, because he waited and plotted and schemed and lusted for two full decades before he was finally able to locate and buy one. He admits his obsession with 4-4-2s had long ago become old among his buddies. They had written off such talk years ago. “I talked about it for so long, my friends never thought I’d pull the trigger,” he laughs. “So they were stunned when I got it.”

After surviving his child-rearing years, Eberlin says he finally got serious about shopping for a 4-4-2 about four years ago. His target was a 1970 with a four-speed, preferably one that had not been completely restored. “My dad was an Oldsmobile guy and my brother had a ’73 4-4-2 which was just a paint job, but I fell in love with them way back then,” he said. “My first car was a [Camaro] Z/28, but then I got married like everybody else and had kids and needed four doors. That’s why it took me 20 years. I finally got to where I figured I’d better get one.

“I finally got serious about finding one, but I got real specific. I wanted a ’70, and instead of wanting one somebody restored, I wanted an all-original … But when I saw this one, I jumped pretty hard.”

The car was owned by a man from Milwaukee, Wis., at the time. He had bought it from a man in St. Louis, who had bought it from his brother there years ago. “He had gotten it back in the ’70s from a used car dealer. Before that, I don’t know much about it,” Eberlin said.

Eberlin found the car online and knew right away he was interested, but he didn’t know if he’d get to the car in time to buy it. “I was literally flying out of the country for work and I called him from O’Hare Airport,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t bid on eBay, but if it’s still for sale when I come back, I’ll take a look at it.’”

While he was gone, Eberlin had a friend check the car out and verify that it was in fact the loaded, numbers-matching W-30 that it was advertised to be. “When I got back, I hauled up there one night and in about five minutes of light at the end of the day, I made the decision that it’s what I wanted,” he said. “I took it for a test drive and looked around it and looked at some of the documentation and the numbers on the head and the block… Honestly, it was cold that day, we were standing outside with our hands in our pockets, and I just rolled the dice and told the guy I’d buy it. The guy was a good guy, I learned afterward. He had documented a lot of the numbers on the car and he knew his stuff and I trusted him.”

The car had been repainted its original Saturn Gold — with factory red fender wells — at some point in the past and had some engine work done, but beyond that, it appeared original. “There is some overspray you can see in the trunk, so I could tell [it was repainted],” Eberlin said. “I think the motor had been taken out once, or maybe just pulled the head off. They did change some of the rings, and I assume that was so it would run on unleaded fuel… And someone put a shift kit in it, which annoys the hell out of me!”

Shift kit aside, there wasn’t much about the 1971 4-4-2 that performance car lovers didn’t like. By ’71, the 4-4-2 was in its eighth season as GM’s most refined muscle machine and its last campaign as its own model.

With power front disc brakes, front coil and rear leaf springs and a rear stabilizer bar, the 4-4-2s received high marks for their road manners. They were also fast, especially if you outfitted them with the top-of-the-food chain W-30 option. Checking that box cost you an extra $369 in 1971, but it gave you the 350-hp/455-cid hi-po engine which, even though it was down 20 ponies from the year before, was one of the most potent factory mills still available. The W-30s had an 8.5:1 compression ratio, thanks to pistons with dished-out tops.

Other standard equipment included dual exhaust, carpeting, special engine mounts, Strato bucket seats, heavy-duty wheels, special emblems and a deluxe steering wheel. Buyers could choose either vinyl or cloth upholstery. The standard tires were G70-14s.

A unique 1971 feature was the use of valve rotators on the exhaust valves of 4-4-2 and W-30 engines. In addition, valve rotators were fitted on the intake valves. Special alloy exhaust valve seats were installed in the cylinder heads and the valves themselves had aluminum seats and hardened tips.

Optional on the W-30 cars was a dual-disc, dual-plate clutch that offered 10 percent greater torque capacity, 40 percent less pedal effort and a 100 percent increase in clutch life.

The sport coupe body style was gone for 1971, leaving only the regular Holiday coupe and convertible configurations. The Holiday coupes were far more plentiful, with 6,285 built compared to 1,304 ragtops.

Holiday coupes in the 4-4-2 series carried a base price of $3,551 before taxes and any add-ons from the Olds option menu. Reportedly only 910 came with the W-30 option. It’s unlikely few were as loaded as Eberlin’s car, which also features the twin-scoop W-25 hood, air-conditioning, AM/FM radio and eight-track player, sport mirrors, Rallye pack gauges, Hurst Dual-Gate shifter, W-35 spoiler, and Super Stock II wheels.

The biggest concession Eberlin said he had to make was accepting his car’s TH400 automatic transmission. “I’d rather have a four-speed, but I bought it anyway,” he said. “You just don’t know how many W-30s will come around.”

Perhaps more than anything, Eberlin appreciates the 4-4-2 for its originality. As far as he can tell, nothing of importance was ever swapped out on the car, including every bit of the interior. “I haven’t touched it and I’m not going to touch it,” he says. “It still has the same air-conditioning and it still blows cold. I’m amazed, given that it’s had so many owners, that other stuff hasn’t been done to it. There are no tears in the seats, nothing. The interior is old, but nothing I need to fix. It’s not a trailer queen and I’m going to drive it and have fun with it …

“I imagine in 10 years I’ll get to the point where I want to get it back to original, but for now I’m not going to touch it. I’d like to take the rear seat out or drop the gas tank out just to find another build sheet, but I’m hesitant to even do that … I’m happy with the way it is, and I’m going to keep it that way for the foreseeable future.”

That means driving the car the way he bought it — with a big smile, and no remorse. “You have to bring your wallet when you go out for a drive,” he said with a laugh.

“And I don’t forget about it in the winter time. I hope for a pretty day with no salt and I take it out and get it heated up and just enjoy it. You can watch the fuel gauge move. I have fun on the Interstate with it. A kid is a kid, you know. And every time I do it, it costs 10 bucks. Their reputation on gas is well-deserved!…

“It is amazing how it takes off. It just opens up and roars and sucks fuel. It’s just big-block, you know? If you grew up with a big-block, there is nothing to replace that sensation.”

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6 thoughts on “Car of the Week: 1971 Olds 4-4-2

  1. Jerry Holder

    The early 70′s Oldsmobile Cutlass was an icon. I owned a 72 Cutlass Supreme – 442 convertible. It was yellow with beigh hood scoops and a top to match. I call it beige but I’m not sure what GM called it. It had the Hurst slap stick automatic. It was one of the best cars I have ever owned. I wish i still had it.

    This 1970 Cutlass is a great looking example of a pure 70′s muscle car. It sounds like it has found a good home and will be enjoyed for anothe 40+ years.

    To bad Olds is a victim of Americans buying foreign cars and GM forgetting what made people want to buy GM automobiles. I think GM has learned a big lesson. I’m not sure if the American public will give GM, Ford, and Chrysler another chance to earn their business. Let’s hope they do or we may have seen the last of Americas iconic cars.

  2. Robert E Walton Sr.

    I am a Oldsmobile fan for 50 years and the orginal owner of a 1972 442. The Olds 442 is a great car and will get around corners and trru saloms really well. I noticed that the article referred to the 442 having “rear leaf springs”. This is incorrect. The Olds Cutlass and 442 had front and rear coil springs. If this 71 has lef springs in it some one has butchered it.

  3. Martin Bernstone

    I am very excited and happy for you in your acquisition of a true classic, basically unmolested collector muscle car from the good old days when a person could buy fun cars at an affordable price! I was living in Cleveland, Ohio attending podiatry school when your Oldsmobile was brand new. My girlfriend at the time had a red 1969 Buick GS-400 convertible with a black top and black seats. We drove that car all over the Midwest and Canada, and it gave us many, many hours of driving pleasure and pride. These GM muscle cars are very collectible, and give you much more bang for your buck that some of the mopar products, since the market forces seem to have driven up the price of those cars disproportionately high, especially when they have either the 426 hemi or the max wedge mill. However, the stage I and II Buicks have gone up too. So, I wish you happy motoring in what was not your father’s Oldsmobile!

  4. jim

    nice cars,we had a true w-30 in kelly green with white stripes in 1982,car was from north carolina and was
    hidden away in a barn surrounded by combat wire and alarms.took us a week of bargining to purchase from
    original owner. we sold the car later that fall to a women in the local area. i raced her one night with a 1970
    cuda 340 small block and the car left me in the dust!! truely
    a pure olds muscle car,as they did not make
    many!!

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