By Brian Earnest
At age 72, Gordon Garnett Jr. decided he wasn’t too old to pull off at least one more fantastic ground-up restoration on a tired old car. And his choice of cars seemed to be obvious. He had owned four 1955 Oldsmobiles in the past, and they were his favorites.
Still, for some reason he started down a different path, until he finally came to his senses.
“I love the ’55 Olds, but I bought a ’54 Ninety-Eight Holiday hardtop with factory air and I thought I would do it,” said Garnett, a resident of Hampton, Va. “I bought this other car more or less as a parts car. Well, I got to looking at this car and I though this was so much better than the Ninety-Eight car. I wound up selling the Ninety-Eight and going with this one.”
“This one” was a Super Eighty-Eight two-door sedan that had been sitting for the past 22 years, including about 20 years in a barn in Suffolk, Va. It didn’t look like much when he got it home, but Garnett warmed up to the car quickly. He knew it would be the perfect candidate for he and a group of old car buddies to tackle.
“It’s a crew of friends that I’ve worked with over the years,” Garnett said. “We’re old buddies and we do [restorations] over a period of time. Over the last 12 years or so this is the sixth national winner we’ve done. One of them was a Grand National winner.
“I’m 72 now and this was going to be my last restoration, and I said, ‘I’m gonna do this thing like I want it.’ You’ll notice that the interior is a little upgraded [laughs]! Fortunately, judges at the AACA didn’t cut me enough points that I was able to get my first junior with it.”
The car had originally been owned by a woman from Sacramento, Calif. The car then went to the woman’s son in the Washington, D.C., area. The Olds eventually moved on to the son’s niece in Virginia, where it sat in a barn for two decades. Another Virginia man bought the car with designs on restoring it, but health problems forced him to part with the car and Garnett bought it in October of 2010.
The Super Eighty-Eight was in such rough shape that Garnett could have started almost anywhere. “She was homely. She was the ugly sister, just ugly and homely!” he laughed. “The car was the most hideous colors that you ever saw in your life. It was red and white and had a green interior in it. It looked like a Christmas tree! It was really, really terrible … It had been repainted all white, and the paint was really lousy, but it came off easy. I knew I was going to go with different colors. To me, it was not a pretty color combination on that car.
“But once we got into it and got down to bare mental, other than one fender having some rust on it, the car was just as sound as a — well, I guess the expression is still ‘sound as a dollar.’ Everything about it just said, ‘Let’s do it right.’”
Garnett jokes that his first Olds Super Eighty-Eight back in the early 1960s was “bored out to the water jackets,” but he had no such plans for his fifth ’55 Olds. Of course, when it came to performance, the cars really didn’t need a lot of help. They were one of the first true “factory hot rods” — slightly smaller cars outfitted with big engines that normally went into full-size offerings. At Oldsmobile in 1955, that meant a 202-hp, 324-cid Ninety-Eight series engine was dropped into the Eighty-Eight body and fitted with a Rochester 4GC Quadra-jet carburetor.
Olds had introduced its potent overhead-valve “Rocket” engine in 1949 and sales soared in the years that followed. The Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight line became a fixture for the company and ran until 1999, leading company sales figures for a stretch of 24 years during that time.
The Rocket-propelled Oldsmobiles helped pave the way for the scores of muscle machines that followed in the 1960s and early ’70s, and they were the cars that many young pedal mashers — including Garnett — got hooked on first.
“I just like the tightness of it, for one thing. It’s a very quiet car,” Garnett said. “I have an Escalade that I drive and a Lincoln Town Car that I run around in, and this car is just as tight and quiet as those cars are.
“And those ’55s, that was the last year of the old-style Hydramatic. Those Hydramatics could beat just about anything off the line… Evething about it just feels right to me. It’s a touchy-feely thing. I like all the chrome. I like everything on it. It’s got vent shades. It’s got that little piece around the gas tank flap. And I like the ’55 because it still had the grille bar with the letters saying ‘Oldsmobile’ with the letters on it.”
Standard equipment included foam rubber seat cushions, stainless steel rocker panel moldings, front seatback robe cord, spun-glass hood insulation and rear window ventpanes. Upholstery choices were pattern cloth, leather and pattern cloth combinations and two colored leather combinations.
The Super Eighty-Eights were offered in five body styles: two-door sedan, two-door Holiday hardtop, convertible, four-door sedan and four-door Holiday hardtop. The sedans like Garnett’s car were not nearly as popular as the two Holiday hardtops or the bigger four-door sedan. Only 11,950 of the post sedans were built — not a ridiculously low total, but far below the two-door Holiday (62,534) and four-door Holiday (111,316).
The two-door sedans were the cheapest of the Eighty-Eight series with a base price of $2,436 before add-ons. Options included air conditioning, power steering, power windows, power brakes, power seat, deluxe and super deluxe radios, electric antenna, fancy steering wheels with horn rings, padded dash, spotlight and backup lights.
The unique bodyside trim arrangement, with a tapered teardrop running rearward above the back wheels, was a one-year-only look found only on the 1955s.
Garnett didn’t take the body off the frame when he began the restoration on his Super Eighty-Eight, but the car still got the full treatment. The rest of the car was completely disassembled and the shell taken to a friend’s house. The gas tank and lines were all relined or replaced, ditto for the wheel and brake cylinders and plumbing. The radiator, water pump, fuel pump and carburetor were rebuilt.
To make sure he didn’t harm the engine, “I poured in 17 additional quarts of 10-weight motor oil and pulled the plugs,” Garnett noted. “I took a battery syringe and filled all the cylinders with Marvel Mystery Oil, plus poured two quarts down the intake manifold to lube around the valve stems. I soaked it for about three weeks. What you want to do is fill it up to the point where it will almost run out of the engine. After about three weeks, I put a pull bar on the crank nut and it turned over with no effort at all. I drained the crank case and filled [it] with 10W30 oil and new filter ... Then I spun it over with the starter to blow oil out of the cylinders before installing spark plugs.”
Once the new valve cover gaskets, ignition system and gas tank were in place, the moment of truth came. “It ran great with the exception of one stuck lifter,” he said. “So I pulled the top of the engine apart, replaced all the lifters and push rods and was very glad to see there was no cam wear or wear on the bottom of the lifters.”
Garnett had friend Kevin Hedrick install a new dual exhaust system and weld in a patch panel on the driver’s side rear fender. From there he and friend Paul Anderson tackled the body work and sanding. That chore proved to be tougher than expected. “[Removing the paint] was a real bear! It had been repainted all white at some time in its life,” Garnett said. “Aircraft stripper took that white off, but it would not touch the original red and white. I had to sand and grind every bit of that. I guess the California sunbaking really set the finish.”
Garnett rented a paint booth and had another friend, John Hensley, give the Olds its new blue and white two-tone paint job. “We came as close as we could to the factory color,” Garnett said. “It’s called Diplomatic Blue Poly.”
Inside, Garnett went with black-and-white upholstery to match the Super Eighty-Eight’s two-tone dash and instrument panel. “The man who does [the interior] I think is the best in the state,” he said. “We changed material and I did rolls and pleats in places that it hadn’t had rolls before. And of course we went to plusher carpet and did the same in the trunk. I just wanted it to be really, really nice … I wasn’t sticking to exact tradition all the way … I wanted it to be what I wanted. It was a personal thing. On the other ones, I followed right to the letter of the factory.”
Garnett hasn’t had his beautiful ’55 Olds on the road that long, but he’s already had plenty of fun with it. He’s back behind the wheel of a familiar machine, and enjoying the miles more than ever. “We’re going to have a 50th anniversary in it next year, for one thing!” he laughs. “Mostly, we’ll take it to local shows and local runs with some of the guys around here.
“I’m very careful with it because there is a lotta, lotta hard work in it … I’ll probably have this one until I don’t feel like driving anymore.”
Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week“? We want to hear from you! E-mail us and tell us all about it.