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Oldsmobile's Sporadic Star

Starfire swung high in the swinging '60s.

If there’s a down side to the muscle car era, it’s the fact that full-size performance cars slowly faded or evolved into something much different during those years. Chrysler’s 300 series is a good example, as are Ford’s 406-cid and 427-cid Galaxies. It happened at General Motors, too, where Oldsmobile got an early start.

The division’s 1949 88 series combined the new 303-cid, 135-hp overhead-valve, oversquare V-8 with the smaller of its two bodies, but “smaller” didn’t quite have the meaning it would acquire as true muscle cars began to appear. The difference was a 5.5-inch-shorter wheelbase, and in the club coupe, for example, 285 lb. less weight, but it wasn’t long before increasing style and luxury came into the mix.

Nineteen-sixty-two was the first year for a Starfire coupe. Olds sold 34,839 examples like this one.

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The year 1953 was remarkable at Oldsmobile for two reasons — the Fiesta and the Starfire. The Fiesta was the highest of the high-end 98s, and available only as a fully optioned convertible. Its price reflected its position; at $5,715, it was nearly twice the cost of a 98 convertible, which explains why just 458 examples were built. The Starfire was something else.

The Starfire was a show car that, more than many, carried styling that could actually reach production. It used a wraparound windshield, as on the Fiesta, and was obviously connected to Oldsmobile’s overall look in the coming years. It crossed over to the real world in another way, too, when 98 convertibles became Starfires for 1954. The name was a good one, coming as it did from the Lockheed F-94 Starfire that undertook its first flight in 1949.

The end came for Starfires in 1966, when just 13,019 coupes were sold. The convertible had not returned after the 1965 model year.

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The fighter plane served the U.S. Air Force into 1959, but the car came and went. Olds named all of its 98s “Starfire 98s” for 1957, dropped the name the next year, and when 1961 rolled around, brought the Starfire back. Unlike the version of four years earlier, it was at least somewhat exclusive, being offered only as a convertible. It was also 1961’s most expensive Olds, but there was more. Besides the leather interior and the dual exhaust pipes, the Starfire stood out from the crowd, thanks to brushed-aluminum panels that ran nearly bumper-to-bumper on each side. It sounds gaudy, but it looks striking, and while those panels were a first for Olds, the new Starfire had one philosophical connection to the original 88 in that it used the biggest engine in the smaller, full-size body. Like the earlier cars, the wheelbase difference was minor at just three inches less than the 98 for the 88, and the biggest engine was a 330-hp version of the 394-cid V-8, as opposed to the lesser cars’ 325-hp unit.

Ads called it an “Adventure in Motoring Excitement” and Olds sold 7,600 Starfires in 1961, an impressive feat considering that it hadn’t introduced the $4,647 car until January. Management was thus convinced that a full-size performance car with luxury overtones was a good idea, so the Starfire returned in 1962 as both a convertible and a coupe. Mildly restyled with the other big Oldsmobiles, it retained the brushed-aluminum panels and high-end appointments, but its 394-cid V-8 now put out 345 hp. If anyone at Olds had doubts, they were now proven wrong; sales amounted to 7,149 convertibles and 34,839 coupes.

Full-size Oldsmobiles became more angular for 1963, and the Starfire adapted while remaining true to its concept. At $4,742 for the convertible, it was still the top of the line. Even the $4,129 coupe was outpriced, but only by several of the 98s. Power was unchanged, a somewhat restrained aluminum panel returned to each side and equipment was generally as it had been in the earlier Starfires, but sales were off. Only 4,401 convertibles and 21,148 coupes found buyers, despite ads urging drivers to “go adventuring ... Starfire style.” It got worse for 1964, when Olds was able to sell just 2,410 convertibles and 13,753 coupes.

Although there were no major changes from the 1963 models, two other factors probably came into play against the Starfire. One was 1964’s introduction of the 4-4-2 option on the smaller Cutlass, but a more curious problem was the odd decision to offer the Jetstar I, essentially a Starfire in performance but lacking the upscale features. Available only as a coupe, the Jetstar I represented a savings of more than $500 from a Starfire and sold 16,084 examples to the Starfire’s 2,410 convertibles and 13,753 coupes.

With the other full-size Oldsmobiles, the Starfire was restyled for 1965 to take away some of the boxiness. It also received new engine that, at 425 cid and 370 hp, was Oldsmobile’s most powerful; unfortunately, it was also standard in the Jetstar I, too. The numbers slipped very slightly for the Starfire and terribly for the Jetstar as the Starfire sold 13,024 coupes and 2,236 convertibles to the Jetstar I’s 6,552 hardtops.

If there was a message in all of that, it might have been that a full-size performance car should also be a luxury car; that message was not lost on Oldsmobile, as shown by 1966’s introduction of the Toronado. A landmark design, the full-size, front-wheel-drive coupe was impossible to miss, well-appointed and powerful. It added up to an assault on the Starfire, especially since the Toronado used the 425-cid V-8 with 10 more horsepower than Starfire’s engine. Anyone who couldn’t see where the Toronado was headed had somehow missed such signals as the Jetstar I’s disappearance and the Starfire’s abandonment of the convertible. All things considered, the Starfire stood up, at least fairly well, to the new car’s challenge by selling 13,019 examples, but the Toronado sold 40,963. However, with the Jetstar I gone, the Starfire probably should have done better.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, the Starfire died at the end of the 1966 model year, or it died 14 years later. As in 1961, the explanation is that automakers can’t resist reusing old names; Olds was looking for something clever to hang on its new compact in 1975, so it settled on Starfire. A world away from the earlier car, the 1975 Starfire was between two-and-three feet shorter than the full-size models (the exact difference depends on the year) and rode a wheelbase 26 inches shorter.

The two could not possibly be confused, but in Oldsmobile’s defense, the world had changed over the nine years between them. With few exceptions, there wasn’t much from any manufacturer to be thrilled about during the second Starfire’s time, although Oldsmobile and everyone else gradually got back to building cars that performed. The Starfire name wasn’t around to see it, of course, and most unfortunate of all, Oldsmobile itself was by then living out its final years.

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