Monday, October 14, 2013

The Omega Concern

Omega Red
  A lot of guys have fond memories of their very first car.  I'd even warrant every male does, in some way.  When I ask guys about it, it elicits a pause, a rolling up and to the left of the eyes as if to remember and access that lost, hidden part, followed by a rush of a smile on their faces.  The next thing that happens is a nodding, "Yeah...!" which is a wonderfully mixed-emotion tidal wave of both good, awkward, and bad memories, and I understand why.

1980 Oldsmobile Omega in "Cinnebar" maroon.
  Very few women respond in-kind.  They may grudgingly remember it but my query will not create the same response.  They usually react as if it's some kind of punishing quiz-show where they can win the initial $50 question to move on (an annoyance), thanks to my apparent and suddenly unexpected persona of Phil Regis.  They usually remember their first car pretty well, but the response is pretty matter-of-fact.  A girl's first car isn't that big a deal for them, just a means to an end.  Sometimes you get a nice, cross-wired chick like Marisa Tomei's character in My Cousin Vinny (undeniably hers having "poo-aw'si tree'yack-shin") [positraction for the uninitiated as a limited-slip rear differential option on 1960's GM cars with rear-wheel drive so you wouldn't get stuck in the mud] but for the most part, sans hyper-cute, soul-melting, chipmunk-y tomboys you could take home to your parents, they aren't wired the same way.  Not their fault, it's just how dem girls is.

Tomboy fatale, Marisa Tomei in the 1992 film, My Cousin Vinny


 Now, a lot of us started out on some kind of junker of a car, and it was usually woefully underpowered, used, and had a lot of pre-existing issues.  Either by parents or a summer job, most of us who didn't go to a vocational school for auto-hobby had minimal knowledge of what we were getting into and got a beat-up relic that our parents would insist we "learn" from and restore, and that it'd be "good for us".  Unless you were some rich kid and your parents secretly wished you'd die by way of a Porsche 911 with a whale-tail or thought somehow you were on the same responsibility level because you were an "adult" at 17 due to their own mild case of undiagnosed Asperger's, that's what you got.  I've noticed in the aviation field, as I took a few months of that until the money-well dried-out, you're ALSO started on dangerous pieces of sh*t as well, though I might add it's a bit more interesting with engine-failure and no runway in-sight at 9000 feet, but again, that's part of the "training". 

  I guess it would have been nice to have received a brand-new, though responsibly anemic, great-working Honda Civic EX loaded to-the-gills or some other car that never breaks down due to negligence but... nope, I'd say most of us got a used clunker.  ...but we loved that clunker.

  Used "clunkers" are interesting and undeniably have a LOT OF CHARACTER.  Mine had roll-up windows and no air conditioning and other such faults and was moderately reliable on good days, but I was learning maintenance with OJT on Live TV so-to-speak.  Made for some interesting nights, the carburetor over-rich requiring a monkey-wrench to hold-open the butterfly-valve after unscrewing the wing-nut on the round air-filter.  Yep, mine was carbureted:  a 1980 Oldsmobile Omega!

  Oldsmobile was a car company founded in 1897.  Yeah, it's old.  It's also regrettably dead.  Last car to roll out of their production line was an Alero in 2004 some nearly 10 years ago.  GM was downsizing their cars and Olds' didn't make the cut, later they axed Hummer, Saturn, and even more regrettably, Pontiac in 2010.  Should'a been Buick.  Should'a been, instead of catering to the Chinese who prefer Buick and buy 'em by the shipload.  It's not all about money, Bob Lutz.  You'll go to Hell for that one you know, Bob, for killing America's soul, and you'll go soon.

   Aside from the "Super 88" in the 1950's, they really didn't start making badass cars until the mid 1960's with the "Olds 442", "JetStar", "StarFire", "Cutlass", "Delta 88", and "Toronado".  These cars were big and had big, bad V8s in 'em.  Until then, Oldsmobiles were old-people cars, but these had a little pizzazz.  In the 1970s, GM borrowed a lot of Chevy Nova parts to make the Oldsmobile Omega as a sort of upper-class-trim version, then later from the Buick Skylark.  Huge, boat-of-a-car.  Massive.  Trunk could hold 20 bodies.  Heavy cars weighing-in at 3300 pounds, a "Rocket" 5.7 Liter V8 engines producing ... 115 horsepower.  Though in GM's defense, there was an SX Rally model that had 176hp in limited numbers.  I did not have any of these variants.

1980 Oldsmobile Omega (getting rather hard to find, now).  Hey, what's that guy doin' back there?  Could that be a time-cop version of me looking at my third car, a 1981 Chrysler Cordoba?
  Instead, in 1980, the OPEC crisis caused a lot of people to go small.  At 2400 pounds, the smaller, leaner, weaker, Oldsmobile Omega had an "Iron Duke" 4-cylinder engine producing 92 horsepower.  There was an SX model again with a V6 at 130hp, but I didn't have that one, nor the slightly up-trimmed "Brougham Edition" which had a stock, factory-installed CB radio (before cell-phones kid, though I'll laugh back at you when people wonder what iPod connectors are for in cars sold now but in 20 years no one will know what an I-anything is).  Top speed, 103 mph (the speedo stopped, as many cars did in the 1980's at 85mph).  0-60 in 11.8 seconds.

A throwback from the 1970s when every car had a mandatory BROWN option.


Mine was officially and apparently "Cinnabar" red (sort of a maroon color)  though I didn't know the actual name of the GM-chosen nomenclature for the car's "maroon" paint until just recently.  It came in an amazing fourteen different colors!  Astounding.  Just found that out.  That's pretty cool.  Mine had a maroon interior as well as maroon cloth seats.  Yep, maroon on maroon on maroon with maroon accents on maroon.  This was a popular option in the early 1980's as was the color codes of choice for a Chevy Monte Carlo at the same time.  My Omega was an automatic transmission 3-speed (that was an option.  Normally cars all came with standard transmissions in 1980).  Weaker than the more popular "Cutlass", the Omega got about 35 mpg or so for the economy-minded, which was surprisingly adequate at the time when gas was about $1.80 per/gallon (which was rather high in 1987).  Olds was trying to make smaller cars seem.. luxurious, as in the booklet on the bottom of this blog, shows lots of room for luggage and higher-end parts..  Yet I had roll-down windows like I mentioned, and it was a coupe, meaning it had oversized doors to look cooler.  Driving was hot in the summer, and the windows down and that hot Boston air at 70 mph didn't sooth sweaty shirts for anyone.  In-dash radio had AM and glorious, high-fidelity new-ish FM Stereo!  I think the AM/FM was about 10 watts, 4 speakers.  Oh so rich sound.  No cassette option for me, though I think it was offered.  Pretty bare-bones.  I ended up taking a Panasonic boom-box that ran on 8 D-Cell batteries with dual, auto-reverse cassette decks and a 5-band graphic equalizer behind my seat to play Iron Maiden's 1988 album, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.  If I placed it right, I'd get stereo right behind my seat.  I got good at ejecting a tape and putting a new one in with my arm pinned between the door and the driver's "bench".  Yep...  Luxurious BENCH seats all-around! which meant if I wanted to move my seat forward, we're all going forwards!  There was an optional center armrest I didn't get, but it made for having the girlfriend able (and a bit required) to sit right next to you while driving and snooze on your shoulder or you could put your arm across the top of the seat to half-hold her while the left hand was on the top of the steering wheel which made you look super-cool, cuz' I was 17.. and I had a girlfriend.. and a car!  Yeah.  Ah, what younger girls had to put up with, right?

Actual interior shot of my car's setup.  Note*  The dash was a hard, plastic with bumps not kind to Armor-All or detailing.

  I was ignorant of cars when I got it.  I knew how to park, drive, etc., but maintenance was unknown to me.  I didn't know when to change oil or if one should actually wash a car in a carwash if that was a ripoff or not.  The car suffered for both of those things.  I was in a few minor fender-benders with it too, and my deductible was several hundred dollars in a day when insurance companies would charge more than the car was actually worth.  I got the Omega as a sort of graduation present from my dad for $1500 in 1987.  It had 50k miles on it with leaves in the air-vents and had been sitting for a year.  It needed bearings as when driving it squealed like a squeaky whorehouse bed.  At the time I really didn't choose the car for myself.  My uncle and dad had picked it out for me as a mutual deal they had wrangled.  Honestly, I wouldn't have known what to get at the time and didn't know a hawk from a handsaw.  The original owner was a distant family friend named Paul Romano who owned a small chain of pizza stores known as Romano's Pizza.  He ended up dating a girl named Karen who lived down the street from me, though the car and himself lived in Reading, Mass.  He was a bit husky a fellow, but honestly that's a good sign for a restaurateur.  I'm not sure if he married miss Karen or not, who was a bit of a tomboy herself in a '70s sort of way with long, to-the-skull-straight brown hair.  I'm pretty certain they enjoyed marijuana a lot.  I don't recommend it for most.  By my logic, they are not successful because of it, though it's possible they did "okay".  I did a quick search and it seems to have gone downhill to only 1 or 2 Yelp stars and most of the restaurants have been bought-out from what I can tell.  He was only about 3 years older than me so he either retired or failed.  Let's hope Paul did okay for himself.

 It seems Paul is still with Karen?  Doing a Google search it looks like he sold the place and she left him for the dude who bought it out.  Ah, you can't go against the power of Pizza!  Heroes in a half-shell!  Turtle Power!

I started learning maintenance on this 1980 Oldsmobile Omega.  In the 2 years I had it, I changed the spark-plugs and went through 3 separate thermostats (I over-torqued the thermostat housing coupler and cracked the flange twice, causing an instant leak, and had to schlep over to a well-visited junkyard called "Frams" owned by an old, angry man named, not surprisingly, "Fram" who seemed like a WW-II vet, who was not unlike a more-grumpy, crusty, "Frank" from Jabberwocky and I assume eventually "died of anger".   I had replaced various parts from some of those fender-benders (cosmetic).  Had to change the exhaust (rusted-out utterly due to New England salting the roads 6" deep in the winter).  Changed out the headlights (closed box-like structures).  Changed the flasher bulbs in the front.  Changed the taillight bulbs (and learned I needed the 1157A variety dual-filament, not the 1157 single-filament bulbs as such rookies make said-mistakes).  Changed wiper-blades.  Learned to fill the gas tank because by 1987, full-service gas-stations were nearly gone.  Learned about octane and oil viscosities (the hard way, I never recommend 20W-50 for anything, ever unless you're living in Tucson, Arizona in the summer and the low is 130F).  Learned about topping power-steering and brake fluids.  Changed the failing "master cylinder" for said-brakes (well, had it changed, that's a big to-do).  Changed and learned about over-tight squeaky fan-belts and the oh-so-important "tensioner pulley". Had to replace the fan motor as that died, and a radiator fan dying is not a good thing as the car will overheat and melt the engine block (I avoided this fate).  Changed a broken alternator and carburetor each.  Replaced tires, a whole fender, and a windshield.  Replaced a side-window due to it being smashed-in because of a theft of my Whistler 300 radar detector.  Fuses also replaced occasionally.  Badly-tuned carburetor (after I replace it) caused "dieseling" meaning thought the car-keys was out of the ignition and you turned the car off and walked away, the car was STILL RUNNING!  Fuel was still being combusted continuously through gravity-feed and combusting in the cylinders without a spark from the spark plug (which, when replaced were melted).  This continued due to a perpetual explosion pulling the fuel in via a vacuum line.  Not good.  Possessed!  Fixed though.  

Ah, this image is very familiar to me and gave me grief, and joy of success.

  Because I was often broke and used the car as a pizza delivery vehicle (my job at the time at Capri Pizza.. (good pizza, still in business)) I had to buy parts from Fram's.  He'd grumpily not want to help me pull the parts and charge exorbitant fees.  Sometimes he'd take pity and help me, usually not.  Sometimes he'd lend me some tools, sometimes not.  Kinda good I guess as I learned a lot this way.  I had to get to work.  I had to get the car fixed.  I was often annoyed that my parents didn't just throw $100 at the problem anytime something came up with the car, but they were teaching me in a way to cope with the Universe and I'm better for it now, though sometimes I think a tiny bit more guidance would have been nice, but I was too na├»ve to ask for it I guess, and honestly, my dad was only 35 at the time and was still figuring Life out himself.   Still, my folks did a fantastic job despite everything.  That car taught me a lot by breaking down so much.

  Heck, just about everything went on that car at one time or another.  Amazing I wasn't killed by it.  Ran out of gas on a few occasions.  My brother Steve would announce, "Start walkin'!"  Yep.  ..and I did.

Dude!  Wanna lift?  I'd do me. Wuh?

  Got downright greasy overall in those two years (and many rapped knuckles and bruises).  Gosh, just put over 30k miles on the car and with that much trouble!  This was considered "normal" back in 1987!  There are folks who pine over older cars, but, as Barrett Jackson's Auction Company mentions, "Those collectors often never actually owned that car they're bidding on, but wished they did back when it was considered cool."  Normally, those cool cars were pretty crappy, but then again, so was everything else.  A 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge 0-60 time was 6.6 seconds.  A boring, 2013 Honda Accord can beat that now with room to spare, and handling in a basic, modern econo-box will crush a 1980's Lamborghini Countach in every possible way, the coolest car with a bikini-model of it's time, and probably the only car that the bikini model was ignored and shown-up in the poster.  Now considered a slug (albeit a gorgeous slug).  That car was actually one of the least reliable cars of all time, the plastic fuse box by Lucas Co. in the UK placed over the exhaust manifold, often melted, and caught fire.  Treat!

 Though I changed the oil for the first time after 10k miles without too much doom (woops), and continued a more regular regimen after that., the engine eventually seized at 87k miles due to a failed water-pump and a flakey temperature gauge, the end days learning you can limp a car along at 60mph if you crank the defrost on highest-heat, highest-fan setting to pull air out of the engine bay (even though it's 110 degrees outside).  Note* This was also the technique I used to good effect when the electric-powered radiator fan went kaput. 

  This blog is not a requiem of the Oldsmobile Omega, but a homage.

 I was new to all things cars.  I didn't know about 0-60 times (11.8 seconds is pretty slow) or suspension mods, when or where to change fluids, etc.   It was just.. a car.  Yet, despite my ignorance and innocence, the Oldsmobile Omega gave me freedom, and that's a big deal.  It was a cheesy, grandma's car, not some symbol of virility or wealth.  When I'd go on a date, the girl would sort of warmly smile.  I was the '80s nerdy kid trying to make ends meet, not the edgy, cool guy.  I was the kid who was trying to win the girl with a bouquet of hastily-picked daisies in-hand (often from the next-door neighbor's lawn) and an out-of-the-plastic-wrapper Arrow white-collared shirt hoping I might win a kiss by evening's end.  The goofy, unsung hero against such competition as those harder-core hard-knock-school'ed ruffians that learned cool-car-cred in auto-hobby shops early-on and drove an IROC Z/28 or a Ford "5.0" Mustang.  By 17, I hadn't focused on that kind of thing, and I realized I was against some odds.  Still, I managed to "get the girl" by personality alone.  Even still, I hadn't learned how to be as kind and compassionate as I am now, indeed, I failed by way of ambivalence, not seeing both points of view, and, well, being 17.  I was still a bit selfish and self-oriented and my mind didn't always think things through, and some girls I had lived with suffered for my neglect and inexperience.  I never meant malice, I was just .. well, dumb.  I learned from these things though, grew, improved.. I'd like to say I'm a better man now than ever.  I'm sure now that I've reached this point in my life I'll probably start to degrade physically as is Life's little joke and start crapping my pants and forgetting my own name as age sets on.

  So now I have a rather impressive Corvette Grand Sport and I've done a few light mods to it already to personalize it.  I've learned to appreciate the "car" in my life.  I've learned to take care of it, what to listen for, what symptoms mean what oncoming, future disasters.  I honestly didn't really start getting into cars until I was 23 and didn't get really, really getting into them until I was about 30, when all men's brains start to finally gel.  Women figure-out things a bit earlier-on.  Still, I don't value "Rosie", my 'Vette as a representation of myself, or something to show-off like a teen might.  Indeed, I simply find it as a friendship that will grow over the years.  Sure, there'll be problems like any friendship, but things can be overcome, and like my old Oldsmobile Omega (which I miss, actually) will become an endearing, long-term kind.

  Here's the original brochure for the Oldsmobile Omega for your my amusement:

  Do you remember your first car?  Ah, I see you rolled your eyes up to think, and there!  There's that warm smile.  Enjoy the night, friends, and keep driving.


  1. My first car was my dad's 1981 olds omega. Bright orange. It had two mirrors and they were molded plastic. Wire wheels and "leather" seats. Tan. I drove it from 87-92. Went through aboit 6 altinators and belts. Had bucket front seats and a trunk that would hold my 10 sets of skis and boots. Seriously. Did it once. When i first started driving it to HS I hated it. Then when I was the only one in my group with a car i realized the freedom it gave me. I learned a lot about car ownership from that car and found your post while searching for pics to show my teenagers. Lol. Thanks for walk down memory lane.

  2. My first car was my dad's 1981 olds omega. Bright orange. It had two mirrors and they were molded plastic. Wire wheels and "leather" seats. Tan. I drove it from 87-92. Went through aboit 6 altinators and belts. Had bucket front seats and a trunk that would hold my 10 sets of skis and boots. Seriously. Did it once. When i first started driving it to HS I hated it. Then when I was the only one in my group with a car i realized the freedom it gave me. I learned a lot about car ownership from that car and found your post while searching for pics to show my teenagers. Lol. Thanks for walk down memory lane.