Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Larry Severson wasn’t particularly interested in the dirty old Oldsmobile. Even the fact that it was a legitimate “barn find” car — one of those intact relics car lovers everywhere hope they stumble upon — didn't get his heart racing.
It wasn’t until he discovered that he and the big, black Oldsmobile had something important in common that Severson figured he was somehow meant to have it.
“I got to digging around and found a bag of papers with the original bill of sale and the title and all the documents and discovered it was a 1936 model and then I got interested in it, because I was a 1936 model and I really thought it would be nice to have a car the same age as I am!” joked Severson, a resident of Burlington, Wis. “So I bought it and six years later, I went to my first Oldsmobile meet in Wheeling, W.V., and I’ve been playing with it ever since.”
Severson liked old cars but didn't own one when he came across the 1936 Oldsmobile L-36 sedan back in 1991. He didn’t consider himself a likely candidate to rescue an old machine, that’s for sure. “It was totally by accident. I was an over-the-road truck driver, and I worked out of Chicago, and a fella in the plant there knew I liked old cars so he asked me if I wanted to buy an old car,” Severson recalled. “His brother had a demolition company and he was contracted to knock down a barn outside of Chicago and he found this old car in there.
"I had no idea what it was. I got the address … and I went and took a look at it. The car really didn’t appeal to me that much. I didn’t know much about it other than it was an Oldsmobile.”
The license plates on the car indicated it hadn’t been on the road since 1963. There was a good chance it hadn’t even moved in 28 years. The car wasn’t in bad shape, however. The fenders were a bit banged up and the interior was pretty much shot. Mechanically, though, the car was solid. And for Severson, the car was built in the right year.
“The only thing wrong with it [at first] — it did run, but the fuel pump was out and it had one burned valve,” Severson said. “ I changed all the fluids right away. I did a compression check — a wet check and a dry check — and decided it was a burned valve, rather than a bad cylinder or anything. So I drove it with that miss in one cylinder for probably five or six years after I had it roadworthy again.
“The car ran pretty good with that miss. It’s an eight-cylinder, but six or seven years later I got tired of listening to that and I pulled the head off and got another exhaust valve, ground the valves and and put it back together and that’s all I really had to do to it.”
In a familiar story to many hobbyists, Severson wound up doing a lot more to his new toy than he expected. He had no plans to restore it initially, but, as the saying goes, one thing led to another.
“Originally, I was not going to do anything to it. I was just going to drive it," he said. "Then I got to looking at the chrome and the chrome didn’t look too good. Then I got the paint on it and the fella did a really nice job. The young fella that painted it was only 16 years old. His dad had a body shop. They painted it in the attached garage for their house, because they didn’t have their shop built yet.
“The dad said it took four of them to paint this thing: one of them was running the spray gun, one of them was moving the step ladder, and the two other friends were carrying the hose all around it. He said, ‘This is the biggest car I’ve ever painted in my life!’”
The paint and bodywork were only the first steps. The interior was completely redone. A new radio was put in, the bumpers were re-chromed and some minor mechanical stuff was taken care of.
“I didn’t do a total frame-off or anything like that. I guess you could call it a frame-up,” Severson said. “We did the bodywork and paint first. I had some really bad experiences. I contracted one guy to do the paint work and he charged me a lot of money and never did the work. What work he did do was very shoddy. So then I had to scout around and find another fella to paint it and do some bodywork on it.”
The odometer didn’t work, so Severson isn’t sure how many miles have been covered by his Olds. According to the paper trail he has been able to follow, the car was bought new in Chicago in 1936 for $1,145 by a man who traded in a 1926 Oakland at the time to knock $125 off the bill. “And I think they charged him $3.50 at the time to Simonize it,” Severson chuckled.
Severson figures he and his wife, Cheryl, rolled up about 17,000 miles on the car since he’s had it back on the road, and it’s doubtful the car’s original 213-cid, 100-hp straight eight has ever sounded better. Oldsmobiles were available with either inline sixes — in the more popular R Series — or straight eights. The four-door touring sedans like Severson’s car were by far the most popular eight-cylinder model that year with 29,373 built at a base price of $935.
The L-Series cars rode on 121-inch wheelbase chassis, a half a foot longer than their six-cylinder siblings. Styling was similar between the two series, but the grille designs were slightly different, the sixes had only a left-hand tail lamp and the L-Series cars were a bit larger. Aside from a few minor tweaks, not much was new for the model year. The Oldsmobile lineup had been restyled the previous year and another remake was on the way for 1937.
Oldsmobile was not known for taking a lot of chances with radical styling, but their 1930s era cars were undeniably handsome and nicely equipped. The 1936 Olds sales brochure gushed about the cars, bragging they were “smartly styled and luxuriously appointed cars in every respect — comfortably roomy — amply powered… There is nothing more attractive to the eye and nothing more pleasing to drive than this Style-Leader Oldsmobile Eight. Mechanically, it is the sum of Oldsmobile’s entire experience in balanced engineering and precision workmanship. It’s hundred-horsepower engine is unexcelled for smoothness, quietness, and efficient operation… Naturally, it has every modern fine-car feature in body and chassis. Naturally, too, a car of this quality character is designed to give you everything you want, everything you have a right to expect … in style, performance, comfort and value — 'The Car That Has Everything!'”
Among the finer points that company tried to hammer home with prospective buyers were “Fisher No Draft Ventilation,” solid steel turret-top bodies, standard safety glass, Knee-Action suspension, hydraulic brakes, ride stabilizer, “All-Silent Shifting”, and interior amenities like door arm rests, ash trays, vent windows, assist cords and a recessed foot rail.
Options for those who wanted to dress their Oldsmobile up included fender skirts, bumper guards, radio, heater, clock, seat covers, defroster fan, grille guards and a home battery charger.
Severson’s car still has the original wood graining on the dash and all the original gauges. Of course, that’s not the only “wood” on the car, as Severson found out not long after he brought the car home. “I believe the car spent most of its life inside because it does have a wood frame. The skeleton is all wood,” he said. “I did have to do some adjusting on the doors. I didn’t know it had a wooden skeleton until I tried to adjust the striker plates on the door and I thought somebody had Mickey Moused it and put wood screws in there, but then I found out from one of the old Oldsmobile guys that that’s how they did it.”
The big sedan is a quintessential 1930s machine in many ways, from the swoopy fenders and teardrop headlights, to the split windshield and suicide doors. When Severson wants to play up the “gangster car” image, he applies some stick-on “bullet holes” to the Olds and puts a mannequin in back. “And she’s got a Thompson submachine gun,” he adds.
According to Severson, only 11 1936 L-36 sedans are known to exist in Oldsmobile collector circles, which means he doesn’t see many cars like his. Still, he admits the car often gets overlooked a bit by the younger set when it appears at car shows. “The interesting thing is the muscle cars are the big things now and the young people that walk by, they don’t look twice at this car. It’s the older people. Most of the people that could associate with these cars are dead!” he laughs. “It’s been a real fun driver... and you don’t see many of them. I like the conversation that it generates. I get to meet a lot of interesting people and find a lot of people to talk to, and a lot of ‘Yeah, my dad had one just like it except it was a little different color.'"
"There are a lot of great people that come around to look at it.”
Ironically, the barn find car Severson never really wanted and wasn’t looking for is now the car he will never part with. And the only time it will be back in a barn is if his family parks in there long after Larry is gone.
“We always joke that when I die, Cheryl is going to prop me up behind the wheel," he says, "and we’re going to dig a ramp and drive ‘er down in there!”
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