The One That Got Away


Well there was more than one that got away, but in this case it was a 1968 Oldsmobile 442 Holiday Coupe.

Two years before I came across this particular vehicle I had sold a 1969 Camaro convertible that I had restored down to the last nut and bolt, a car as close to perfect as I could realistically achieve. An immense wave of regret grew deeper with time and the realization that I would never come close to owning a car like that again. Like getting your kids a new puppy soon after the passing of a dearly loved pet, what I really needed was a new project that would help me forget my self-induced misfortune.

My search led me to the Olds 442. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw it. An original-paint muscle car seemingly untouched and in completely original, though well aged, condition! 

Unlike most, this one didn’t seem to have been messed with. To us car guys this is a big deal; so many desirable cars end up ruined by well-meaning but unskilled and under-financed owners. Of course we all have to start somewhere – yeah I’m guilty too – but the reality is that these types of cars can be a nightmare to restore, usually ending up costing far more time and effort than expected.  

Picture a rat’s nest of wires overflowing from under a dashboard filled with holes hastily drilled for something or other that doesn’t belong there. The thought makes me cringe.

If you’re not familiar with this particular model, the Oldsmobile 442 was a high-performance version of the Cutlass and a pretty unique machine in its day.  Built on the same GM platform as the Chevy Chevelle SS, Buick GS and the GTO, the 442 was arguably the most upscale drive of the bunch. Somewhat ahead of the times, Olds improved 442 handling by adding a rear sway bar.  The interior was well finished, from its metal dash knobs, racy inset gauges on the dash, to the fine detailing on the comfortable bucket seats. And who can forget the sporty console shifter and the dual trumpet exhaust tips. Way cool!

So there she was, resplendent in faded Silver Green paint and rust spots. A tattered black vinyl roof and split bucket seats were also evident. But amazingly there were no telltale signs of previous body work and it had the original Rally I wheels. Every factory part seemed to be in its place, down to the smallest of parts.  But for a muscle car restoration, it’s the engine that counts. It has to be original to the car. This one was even better. It had a running Olds 350 in it, obviously not original, but the big, beautiful, bronze, numbers-matching Rocket 400 four barrel came along with the car. Meaning I could drive it while I took my time to restore the original engine back to its factory-born glory. Nice!

Hands shaking, I closed the deal right then and there for a reasonable sum, although I would have gone higher if needed. This was pre-Barrett-Jackson so it was, by today’s standards, cheap. I couldn’t wait to get home and really check her out,  I had finally found a project that was well worth the effort (read that as sweat, money, busted knuckles, time away from family) to finish.  They say that a car is only original once so, to me, I felt privileged to work with the worn out factory parts and bring them back to life. 

It was all a dream. I even found an original factory service manual to guide my way. I savoured all of the interesting things I learned about the car as the mostly cosmetic restoration progressed. GM of Canada provided a letter documenting the car, its colours and options. Nothing was out of place, no hidden surprises showed up anywhere on the car either – highly unusual for one of my project cars.

So over the next nine months in the family’s farm workshop, made cozy by its crackling wood stove, and a Labrador named Duke by my side I laboured, content. All the while, and you may be too young to remember this, the shop radio streamed the breaking reports of the tumultuous Gulf War. What a strange experience to be so happy, immersed in my favourite pastime, while men and women were dying on the other side of the world. How could we possibly be getting into another war? Would my kids have to go there too, eventually? I counted myself as a very fortunate man, the frozen bolts and rust a trivial joy.

Wielding a gas torch, along with a little guidance from more skilled craftsmen who seemed to pop in regularly, I eventually welded up all the typical rusty bits you always find on a GM A-body – the bottom of each fender, around the back windshield, top of the dash, around the wheel wells. There was one bigger problem, the passenger side quarter panel was too far gone and you couldn’t get new replacements back then. While I looked for a used part, I continued my work on the rest of the car. 

I was still feeling the remorse – three years later! – and in a fit of sentimentality I painted it Scarlet Red, a shade similar to the Camaro that got away. What was I thinking? I really should’ve painted it the original colour. I suppose I really was on the rebound.

I’d spent the fall, winter, and the spring in that comfortable workspace and now harvest season was coming. The farm workshop was needed for actual farming, so it was back to my just barely one car garage at home. The Olds suddenly seemed a lot bigger!  Eventually I located a perfect rust-free quarter panel from a wrecker in Spokane and spliced it in. On a nice sunny day I painted the quarter panel in my driveway. It’s amazing what you can accomplish just by reading car magazines and making lots of mistakes.

The dashing black vinyl top was replaced, along with a new carpets and replacement seat covers. To top it all off, I installed the newly re-chromed rear bumper with the cool cut outs for the coveted trumpet exhaust tips. I was happy. The car really looked great and I finally got to drive it. 

Sadly, the Rocket 400 never did get installed, at least not by me and eventually the realities of life overcame my ability to keep the Olds.  I sold her for what I paid, plus the price of parts and supplies. Yes, I let another one get away.

Wasted time? Maybe, but looking back I see how fortunate I was to have the experience of working with a classic artifact from an especially exciting time in automotive history,  a piece of history itself, all with junkyard parts and at no cost.  

But here’s what strikes me most about it now: experiencing the camaraderie of family and friends and a good dog in that lovely warm workspace, smelling of axle grease, car paint and welding, making mistakes and learning new skills, and the supreme satisfaction of re-creating a beautiful car with my own hands; all while the shocking events of the faraway war were layered between crackling firewood, the staccato bursts of air tools, and the inner silence of being at peace doing what you love. 

So while I say the Olds got away, the experience is mine to keep.

A lifelong car hobbyist with broad automotive interests, Stephen has restored a number of classic cars in his spare time. Reach him at 

Originally published in the Duncan Journal 2015


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