Memories of dad’s Olds inspire
1964 Starfire restoration
By Angelo Van Bogart
When it comes to great cars in your past, you can go back, and sometimes the car is even better the second time around.
In 1969, Bryan Hunter’s father drove a 1964 Oldsmobile Starfire as the family ride, and over the six years his father owned it, that top-of-the-line Olds two-door hardtop grew on him, even though he was just a passenger.
“My dad had one in 1969 and sold it in ’75,” he said. “That’s the car I grew up with… We took it fishing and to the drag strip. My dad beat a 383 Road Runner with that Starfire, but no one would believe how fast it was for a luxury car until my dad proved it to them by beating them.”
The history of the Starfire goes back a little farther than 1969, or even 1964, for that matter. With the introduction of the Starfire in 1961, Oldsmobile began revving its performance image back to what it was in the 1950s. In addition to a powerful 394-cid V-8, the Starfire personal luxury cars were highly trimmed, as one would expect on a larger Ninety-Eight, but utilized the smaller Eighty-Eight convertible body to create the big engine-little body combo that makes go-fast fans tremble. Despite it being the most expensive convertible model in 1961, people rocketed to showrooms and made the Starfire Oldsmobile’s second-best-selling full-size convertible with 7,800 cars sold, just behind the much-less-expensive Dynamic Eighty-Eight convertible with 9,049 sales.
In 1962, a hardtop model joined the Starfire line, and by 1964 Oldsmobile was flying high with its “Oldsmobile Sports Cars:” the Starfire; the Jetstar I, which used a less-trimmed interior yet shared the Eighty-Eight hardtop body, engine and chassis with the Starfire, but at a lower cost; and the smaller F-85 Cutlass.
When marketing the Starfire, Oldsmobile exclaimed: “High adventure starts here. Someday there’ll be another car that combines the niceties of life with the thrill of the open road as neatly as Starfire does. But not this year. From its bold new grille and functional fender vents to its exclusive dual-chambered exhaust, this beauty’s new action silhouette says ’64 belongs to Starfire! Sample the fire of the 345-hp Starfire V-8. The quiet authority of T-stick Hydra-Matic, power steering and brakes. Along with leather-trimmed buckets and sports console, they’re all part of the package! One thing’s for sure: When you flip the key to a Starfire, you’re pulling the pin on one of America’s most exciting cars!”
As exciting as the Starfire may have been, the new Olds 4-4-2, a new Thunderbird and the Riviera’s second year of production may have cut into its sales, as production fell to 16,163 hardtop and convertible models in 1964 from 25,890 hardtop and convertible models in 1963. Regardless of how it sold, the Starfire was a fine used car for Hunter’s dad, and for Hunter.
“I always liked my dad’s Starfire, so I bought this one in Texas in 1986,” Hunter said. His dry Texas find was purchased new by a dentist in Houston from Bill McDavid Oldsmobile, one of the nation’s top-selling Oldsmobile dealerships, at least in the 1970s. When the Starfire arrived by flatbed to Hunter’s Minnesota home, he wasn’t thrilled with the color. He describes it as saddle tan with a tan interior — a combination that is much less flashy-sounding and looking than the silver of his dad’s Sheffield Mist car.
At the time of his purchase, Hunter’s Starfire showed 78,000 miles, and was in nice enough condition to show at local events. Nearly 20 years later, the car had racked up another 10,000 miles and Hunter was ready to restore it.
In the summer of 2004, Hunter embarked on a challenge perhaps no other person has undertaken: A body-off-frame restoration of a ’64 Starfire two-door hardtop. Fortunately, the car remained complete, driveable and rust-free, but since nut-and-bolt restorations of 1964 Starfires are extremely uncommon, especially on hardtop models, Hunter had his work cut out. He also used the opportunity to make a couple changes.
“After we took it apart, I said, ‘Let’s paint it a different color – Sheffield Mist like Dad’s.’”
He contacted RPM Restorations in Minnesota to complete the body, paint and chassis work in bringing the car back to better-than-new condition.
“Anything that was (chassis) black and we could have powder-coated, we did,” Hunter said. “We would have powder-coated the frame if the booth was big enough.”
Restoring or replacing the Starfire-only parts formed the biggest challenge, due to a lack of available reproductions and new-old-stock parts. (He nearly bought a project car only for an NOS rear trim panel that was part of the deal.) As was often the case, when Hunter couldn’t find an NOS replacement, he had to restore the car’s original parts.
“I did my own stainless restoration,” he said, adding that he also completed the re-wiring, upholstery and remaining trim restoration. “The stainless trim was really hard to restore. For instance, to restore the ribbed rocker trim, I had to clean the rockers, then tape off the high points and paint it with engine enamel that matches the original color.
“It’s flash-chromed from the factory, so the chrome had to be sanded down starting with 120-grit, working up to 1500-grit and three stages of buffing,” he added.
Even though the Lansing, Mich., automaker was taking a design nod from customizers in making its Starfires cleanly styled with trim largely highlighting edges and other character lines in the body, Oldsmobile’s Starfire remained a large car with as many body creases as a freshly pressed suit. There’s also trim throughout the interior, from the door panels to the instrument panel to the bucket seats and the sporty console. All of the chrome parts were replated, including the console, and all of the remaining trim was restored by Hunter. One of the most difficult pieces to restore was the portion of the instrument panel in front of the front seat passenger.
“I restored the Starfire dash plaque by removing the faded plastic-chrome plating on the ‘Starfire’ script on the backside of the plaque and applied modeling chrome sheeting to the script,” Hunter said. “I then plastic polished the face to a new-like condition.”
Luckily, the leather seat and door upholstery was available through SMS Auto Fabrics, and R&R Upholstery in the Twin Cities was able to install the material so well that it once again perfectly complements the brushed stainless panels on the doors and the chrome trim throughout the seating area.
Unlike his father’s Oldsmobile, Hunter’s Starfire was already loaded inside and out, but he tracked down options his car didn’t already have. Among them is the fuel filler door guard, which added a measly $1.61 to the sticker price, plus a tilt-away steering wheel and Guide-Matic headlamp control, priced at $43.04 each.
“Guide-matic is the height of laziness,” according to Hunter, but he wanted to make sure his car was loaded in the spirit of Oldsmobile’s top-of-the-line sport coupe. The car is further outfitted with an anti-spin differential, power seats, air conditioning and a power antenna for the optional AM/FM radio. It also carries the Group 1 lighting package, which includes backup, under-hood and trunk lamps. With an additional 10 interior lamps to create a mood for cocktails at the backyard terrace under the evening sky, this Starfire might be Oldsmobile’s brightest-burning rocket.
The Starfire’s optional sports car wheels provided more restoration challenges. Each wheel has five lug nuts to hold the steel wheel to the studs, plus an additional three lug nuts to hold down each cast-aluminum wheel cover. It took Roy Mastel of RPM Restorations three coats of powder-coating to match the original finish of the wheel covers before each was capped with a two-bar, pot-metal chrome center.
Although it was a standard feature of the Starfire, not all examples feature the custom-looking tri-bar headlamp cover found on the high beams of Hunter’s car. The covers appeared on the first Starfires built before and shortly after Oldsmobile’s 1964 model-year introduction on Friday, Oct. 4, 1963, but was dropped before the year was out.
“All Starfires were supposed to come with them, but the public was getting pulled over for having them,” Hunter said. “They told dealers to pull them off. (Oldsmobile) stopped making them, so if you wrecked your car in ’63, they were impossible to replace.”
Oldsmobile referred to these tri-bar headlamp covers as “custom sport headlights,” and Hunter said they are expensive and extremely difficult to locate. “My dad’s had them, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about them,” he said.
In addition to the change in paint, Hunter decided to swap the original T-stick Hydra-Matic transmission for a 700R4 four-speed automatic after the restoration was finished. A Bendtsen transmission and adapter were installed, and now the setup delivers power to a 3.64 rear gear ratio, rather than the original 3.42 arrangement.
“The thing that makes it more driveable is the rear end and 700R4,” Hunter said. “It was night and day.”
Still, Hunter remains proud of the work he did to maintain much of the car’s originality.
“The original transmission sits next to the car, and the car came with chambered exhaust from the factory, so it has it again,” he said. “(The 394-cid V-8) still has 10.5:1 compression, even though most people drop it when they build them.”
Today, the car is worthy of the pickiest indoor shows, shown elevated on wheel stands with mirrors reflecting the stunning bottom side of the car and lights reflecting on each surface of the car. But Hunter’s example of Oldsmobile’s ultimate cocktail cruiser looks just as seductive in the evening light with the AM/FM radio playing Dean Martin through the Reverbatone speakers and all ten interior lamps glowing onto the delicate interior trim. The scene takes you back to the ’60s, when Oldsmobile was king and Hunter’s dad was beating Road Runners.
Update: Since this story appeared in the Sept. 10, 2009, issue, Hunter has placed the car for sale to make room for a 1961 Pontiac project. You can find the car's eBay listing here.