Kenny Buttolph’s 1955 Olds Ninety-Eight Holiday coupe is his latest in a long line of ’50s Oldsmobiles going back to the period shortly after they were new.
Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart
Kenny Buttolph has owned more than a thousand vehicles, from nickel-era tourings to 1960s sedans to 1940s convertibles and almost everything between and around. Of all those cars, Buttolph has a particularly soft spot for General Motors products of the mid 1950s, especially Oldsmobiles. If you look past Buttolph’s experience as the editor of Old Cars Report Price Guide for more than two decades, it’s easy to find the root of his attachment to Rocket Eights.
“When I was 17, I worked at Roberts Motors in New London, Wis., at the very end of the production year of 1955s,” Buttolph said. “I ran errands and cleaned cars and the kid stuff. I was a general worker, a lot boy. I [shuttled] dealer trades and all kinds of stuff.”
The experience of working at an Oldsmobile dealership from 1955 through the early 1960s put Buttolph behind the wheel of many Oldsmobiles during the company’s early hey day, a time when Cokes were a dime, poodle skirts and saddle shoes were in vogue and the hottest cars were Rocket powered.
“Everybody had to have an Olds,” he said. “I would say until ’64, they were the ‘in’ car.
“When I started, the ’55s that were left were sedans, and then we got ’56s and we got everything — convertibles and all kinds of stuff. And then ’57s, we got all those ’57s with J-2s in them.”
It’s a little surprising that a small-town dealership sold a significant number of J-2-equipped Oldsmobiles, but it’s downright shocking that a number of the 300-hp, 371-cid engines appeared in Fiesta hardtop station wagons. According to Buttolph, the owner of Roberts Motors apparently ordered J-2 Fiestas on spec and one customer after another fell in love with them, so incoming Fiesta station wagons would often be sold before the carrier dropped them off.
“They were sold by the time they got there,” Buttolph said. “People would order them. There were at least eight to 10 1957 Oldsmobile Fiesta station wagons. Probably six or more were Rose Mist and Antique White. You always wonder, where did they all go? Were they crashed or did they burn?”
Not all of the J-2 Oldsmobiles sold by Roberts Motors went into Fiestas to cart kids around. At least one owner had quarter-mile intentions.
“We did sell a ’57 ‘88’ two-door sedan with a J-2 and a standard transmission; it was black with a red interior. It was a factory hot rod with little hubcaps and, like all J-2s, had dual exhaust.”
Looking as if it were propelling Oldsmobile into the future, the rocket-inspired
hood ornament brought the company’s 1955 “‘Go-Ahead’ look” catch phrase to life.
As good as J-2 1957 Oldsmobiles were, and as well as they are remembered and valued today, Buttolph recalls a significant design problem Oldsmobile corrected early in production.
“The first J-2s had vacuum dash pots to pull the linkage back on the accelerator,” he said. “When you got the car floored, there is no vacuum, so when you let up on the gas, they kept on going. People couldn’t stop, because the engine was floored with no vacuum to pull the throttle linkage back, so the linkage stayed down when you were letting up on the gas. There were accidents, so Olds recalled them and fixed that.”
Perhaps experiencing those 1957 Oldsmobiles when they were new was enough for Buttolph. Among all the cars he has owned, just one was a 1957 Oldsmobile, a Ninety-Eight Holiday coupe with J-2 that he bought in the mid 2000s and recently sold. However, he fondly recalls a 1954 Ninety-Eight convertible that he has long since parted with, more than a dozen 1956 Oldsmobiles, several 1959 Oldsmobiles and just three 1955 models, among which he counts the 1955 Ninety-Eight Holiday coupe pictured here.
“The 1955 just seems more secure or solid than a 1957 Oldsmobile,” he said. “They are both really nice cars, but if you were blindfolded, I think you would prefer the ’55. The ’57s are faster, sit a little lower inside and out, ride on 14-inch wheels, but the ’55 is an all-around nicer car.”
Oldsmobiles of this era featured a globe on the hood and rear deck, but
Ninety-Eight models also featured a trim streak down the center of the deck lid.
Compared to its predecessor, Buttolph also finds the 1955 Ninety-Eight to be slightly superior to the 1954 Oldsmobile he once owned.
“The ’54 Ninety-Eight Starfire convertible had hydraulic windows and king pins instead of ball joints, so there are lots of nice improvements from ’54 to ’55.”
Among the other improvements from 1954 to 1955 were an increase in horsepower derived from the overhead-valve 324-cid Rocket Eight. The 1954 “88” featured a 324-cid V-8 with 170 hp while Super “88” and Ninety-Eight models cranked out 185 hp from the same size engine. In 1955, the horsepower of the “88” was upped to the same horsepower rating as the previous year’s Super “88” and Ninety-Eight, while the 1955 Super “88” and Ninety-Eight pumped out 202 hp from the four-barrel 324-cid V-8. In advertising, Oldsmobile lauded the powerplant as a “surging ‘Rocket’ 202 engine” and made it a main feature of its line of automobiles. When equipped with an automatic transmission, 1955 Oldsmobiles were backed by a four-speed Hydra-Matic that provided a power combination that Buttolph still appreciates from his 1955 Ninety-Eight in this era of fuel injection and front-wheel drive.
“If you are going under 10 miles per hour in second gear and you floor it, it shifts back into low and the rear end really jumps,” he said.
To cradle this driveline, Oldsmobile used a chassis with the same wheelbase of 126 inches during 1954 and 1955. Body changes caused the figure for the overall length to be tweaked from 214.26 inches in 1954 to 212 for 1955.
Oldsmobile sold significantly more Ninety-Eights for 1955 — 93,325 in 1954 versus 118,626 in 1955, a sales figure aided by the new-for-’55 four-door hardtop Holiday sedan. All told, 1955 was a banner year for Oldsmobile production as the company sold 583,179 cars for the model year, placing the division fifth in sales in its best year to date.
That’s 324 cubic inches of Rocket power. The dual-snorkel air cleaner is one of
the’50s most famous and was found on everything from Cadillac to Packard to
Oldsmobile. Beneath the air cleaner is a four-barrel Rochester Quadra-Jet helping
the engine crank out 202 hp.
For 1956, horsepower went up to 240 in the Super “88” and Ninety-Eight, but Oldsmobile sales slid. It seemed the industry-wide sales high of 1955 was followed by a bit of a hangover, but Oldsmobile still posted a respectable sales total of 432,903 cars for the 1956 model year. The sales slip certainly cannot be blamed on design changes; it took a Rocket watcher to notice the updated trim, bumpers and other subtle changes between 1955 and 1956 Oldsmobiles. Once behind the wheel, Oldsmobile drivers might notice the Hydra-Matic of 1955 and earlier had given way to a Super Hydra-Matic Drive or Jetaway Hydra-Matic in automatic-equipped Oldsmobile models. Of these, Buttolph believes the 1955’s Hydra-Matic is superior.
“The ’55s are quicker with the Hydra-Matic, and ’56s use more fuel,” he said. “The ’56 has the slippy JetAway, and Oldsmobile had trouble with JetAways in 1956 and there were recalls on those. On the one I had at the time, people said if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, so it never got fixed. I went 130,000 miles without any trouble.”
Although Buttolph credits the 1955 Ninety-Eight’s larger 8.00 tires to helping the car ride better than an “88” with its 7.60 tires from that year, the bigger Oldsmobile wasn’t without its downfalls. According to Buttolph, there’s a weakness among all 1951-’56 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eights that can be easily remedied.
“Bobble heads were invented in the back of 1951 to ’56 Ninety-Eights,” Buttolph joked. “You would be behind them and their heads would be rocking back and forth. Those cars had such flat springs, because Oldsmobile tried to make them sit low, but then they didn’t have any arch to the spring.
“People used to put four shock absorbers in them to try to keep them from wobbling. It was just a natural thing. It was always funny.”
To correct the problem, Buttolph looked to a 1980s rear-wheel-drive Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight.
“I put late-model wheels on my ’55 — they set out farther and are more stable,” he said. “It keeps the thing from wobbling, and [the wheels] are a safety rim.”
The round speedometer mimicks the round steering wheel and horn button, which
repeats the globe theme on the hood and deck.
Like many owners of Oldsmobiles from the 1950s, Buttolph notes a minor annoyance from noisy lifters in the Kettering-derived Olds V-8s of the period.
“From 1949 to 1960 or so, Oldsmobile engines are picky,” he said. “In 1961, ’62, ’63, I had a 1955 Buick Roadmaster two-door, a 1956 Oldsmobile Super ‘88’ four-door and a 1956 Cadillac Coupe deVille. I would put in diesel detergent oil in the Oldsmobile and the lifters would stay clean and not tick. They would sound like Singer sewing machines. Then one day you would be stopped at a stop sign and there would be one lifter clattering away.”
At the first sound of the lifters, Buttolph would drop the oil and recycle it into another car, where he would use it another 1,000 miles. “I would take the oil and put it in the Buick or the Cadillac after it had been in the Olds for 2,000 miles,” he said.
Buttolph has remained a fan of Oldsmobiles built all the way through the 1950s, perhaps because those Rocket engines can keep up with his lead foot.
“It was always neat to drive a ’59 because they had that big [394-cid V-8] engine and with single exhaust, they sounded like a jet going by,” he said. “When you were passing someone, you always had to floor it.”
Currently, Buttolph’s large car collection doesn’t include a 1959 or any of the dozen or so 1956 models he seems so fond of. The 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight featured here is the sole 1950s Oldsmobile in the collection, but it’s the car you’re most likely to find him driving on a nice Wisconsin day.
“When you get in it, you like it so much you want to put 1,000 miles on it before you get out and stop driving,” he said. “When you drive a ’55 Olds, you get out and throw rocks at your Chevy — and I have a ’56 Chevy!”
When Buttolph fell in love with his 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, it was parked in the car corral of the Kruse International auction park during the fall event. The car featured its original paint and interior, but had seen some engine work in its past.
“It came from Wyoming and had a burnt valve,” Buttolph said. “A man from Indiana bought it at Auburn and had the heads reconditioned and detailed the engine compartment. He also had a 1955 Olds Super ‘88’ four-door and as [he and his wife] got older, they liked to take people out to eat, so they sold the Ninety-Eight.”
“Holiday” was Olds speak for hardtop, and in case buyers didn’t notice the lack of
a B pillar, Oldsmobile hardtops included “Holiday” badges on the front fenders.
The tri-bar spinner on the wheelcover is an extra-cost Oldsmobile accessory.
Since purchasing the car, Buttolph has pushed the odometer up to 54,000 miles and had the lower portion of the body repainted. Today, the car is partially restored with several original features.
“I had the body painted, but the roof is the original paint,” he said. “It had a funny outside rearview mirror, so I had [the painter] fill the holes and had new, [correct-style] mirrors from Fusick installed.”
Buttolph expects to address some of the car’s upholstery needs while leaving other aspects of the car original.
“The original chrome is real nice and straight,” he said. “The upholstery needs some attention — the seams are splitting. But you can’t get that salt-and-pepper carpet that I know of, so I am going to leave it.”
In addition to its condition and performance, Buttolph appreciates several of the 1955 Oldsmobile’s design features.
“In a ’54 and a ’55 [Oldsmobile], there is a reflection [in the instrument panel] when you turn the lights on, and the reflection from the clock lights up around the radio speaker.
“The passenger can look out the back window and see both tail lights,” Buttolph added. “The driver can’t see them in the mirror, not like a Cadillac, but these are the little things that make car people car people. Others don’t even notice or take them for granted.”
Kenny Buttolph’s 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday coupe is one of 38,363
built that year at a base price of $3069 and weight of 3,805 pounds, before accessories.
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