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By Brian Earnest
Tommy Cockrell’s wonderful, eye-candy 1953 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday Hardtop coupe is a bit like one of those plastic car model kits come to life.
Only in Cockrell’s case, the car came in lots of boxes, instead of just one, and somebody forgot to pack the instructions.
“When I bought it, the car was actually in pieces — all in boxes,” said Cockrell, a resident of Camden, S.C. “Somebody bought it and started taking everything off it, then they changed their mind. Nothing was labeled. There were lots of pieces of trim and everything else. It was quite a big puzzle trying to figure everything out.
“It was probably a much bigger project than I anticipated.”
But Cockrell is a lifelong car fanatic and likes a challenge, plus he figured he could get to know his new Oldsmobile up close and personally as he put it back together. He could also figure out what needed replacing and restoring as he went. His four-year Olds odyssey began in 2004 and finally ended in early 2008 when his lovely red-and-black Ninety-Eight returned to the road — for the first time in 35-plus years. “It was a local car that had 100,377 miles on it. It had just rolled over 100,000 when they took it off the road,” Cockrell said. “I think the last tag for it was from the early ’70s. I don’t know much about it, but it was a local South Carolina car. It was a rust-free car. The guy I bought it from, his family actually had an Oldsmobile dealership, and they had bought this car back and wanted to restore it. When I went and looked at it, it was in an old Oldsmobile showroom. They had closed the dealership years ago, but they still had a couple of old Oldsmobiles in there.”
But being rust-free didn’t mean the Olds didn’t need some help. Cockrell eventually re-chromed most of the shiny bits inside and out, re-covered the seats and changed the color scheme on the car from its original turquoise and white to its current red and black. “I changed the color on it because my uncle had a similar one,” Cockrell said. “I really like the way the red and black looks.”
The Olds Holiday hardtop body style was first introduced in 1949, and although it never unseated the traditional four-door sedan as the most popular style among buyers, it certainly proved to be a sales winner and favorite look among today’s enthusiasts. For the 1953 model year, a total of 27,920 Series Ninety-Eight hardtops were produced. That same year, Olds made waves by introducing its two-door Fiesta convertible, an upscale ragtop that proved to be a one-year-only model — only 458 were built.
Even as a two-door coupe, the Holiday hardtops were big cars, tipping the scales at 3,906 lbs. And they had plenty of pieces to assemble, as Cockrell found out. “At the time I didn’t know if everything was there or not,” he said. “It needed a lot of work. Of course, I painted it and had to pretty much re-do everything — paint, body and all the chrome. But the engine had been already rebuilt, but never put back in. So that was a plus. I didn’t have to re-do the engine.
“So over the course of four years I had it painted, had the interior redone and most of chrome redone, and just reassembled and redid everything.”
Cockrell had previously restored a 1950 Ford and 1957 Olds, and worked on plenty of 1960s Mustangs, but the ’53 Olds was a different challenge because it was in such disarray when he took over its title.
“One of the biggest challenges on this car was just the way that it was torn apart when I got it and I had to try to locate everything,” he said. “I just had boxes and boxes of parts. Just finding everything was probably the biggest challenge.”
Fortunately, Cockrell had a lot of car to work with from the beginning. Though the car had seen 100,000 miles, it had obviously been driven carefully before it was retired the first time. “I don’t think there was a single dent anywhere on the body,” he said. “There was not any rust, and I think the car had really been taken car of. The interior had started to deteriorate, but the body was really nice, and pretty much all the glass in the car is original.
“The only thing I really changed, except for the color — when the car came from factory it had hydraulic seats and windows … and I didn’t want to get into all that tubing and replace all that. I didn’t want to re-do all the hydraulic stuff. So I changed the windows to electric and the seat was changed to a manual adjustment.”
The engine is the original 303-cid “Rocket” V-8 that produced 165 hp and 284 lbs.-ft. of torque. The Rocket V-8 drinks through a four-barrel carburetor and is mated to a Hydra-Matic transmission.
The Olds still carries its original Wonderbar radio, unique Autronic Eye head lamp dimmer on the dash, power steering and brakes. It was not ordered with the optional air-conditioning, which means the electric windows have to go down on those warm South Carolina days.
“It drives really good,” Cockrell said. “The hardest thing has been getting the right carburetion adjustment, but when I get it running exactly right it does great out on the Interstate. It cruises 65, 70 just fine. It handles good, and you can imagine all the attention it draws. It’s been great, and we really enjoy taking it out.”
Cockrell admits that part of the fun of the car hobby for him is working on cars for a while, driving them for a bit, then moving on to something different. When it comes to his 1953 Oldsmobile, however, the ties that bind run a little deeper. “Oh, I plan to keep that one,” he said. “I put more time and effort into this one, so I plan to hang onto it for a while.
“Would I do another car that came in boxes?” he asks with a laugh. “My general inclination would be to say ‘no.’ Knowing what I know now, I might not have done it, but I’m glad I did it, and I got a nice car out of it!”
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