My first car in high school, shortly after getting my driver’s license, was a well-used 1974 Oldsmobile Omega. Picture a Chevy Nova with the grille of an Olds and federally mandated crash bumpers sticking out fore and aft.
Fun fact: GM’s four divisions that sold the X-body — Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick — named them the Nova, Omega, Ventura and Apollo, respectively. Notice the first letter of each name spells NOVA.
Urban legend has it that the Nova failed to sell in Latino-speaking countries because it translates to “doesn’t go,” although after owning one, I’m sure any sales slump based on the name was purely coincidental.
The anemic straight-6 was disappointing, but the idea of better gas mileage was a small consolation (although my teenage self drove anything but efficiently). The car was a two-door "compact," which by the standards of the early 1980s was actually quite large. Today, it would probably be right at home as a smaller car compared with the bloated, air-bag-stuffed, safety-enhanced, all-wheel-drive crossovers wearing 19-inch wheels plying parking lots still striped for the reasonably sized vehicles that used to be produced.
My Omega was average-optioned for the time, with 14-inch wheels and hubcaps, power steering and brakes, automatic transmission, vinyl bench seats, crank windows and AM radio. Plenty of Bondo in the rear quarter panels behind the wheels was covered with a fresh coat of copperish brown paint from Maaco.
For those who don’t know, Maaco, at least then, was known for cheap paint jobs but was considered a step up from Earl Scheib, who famously advertised they would paint any car for $19.95 back when he started out in the 1950s.
By the ‘60s, prices climbed to $29.95 and continued to rise through the years as Earl’s locations increased worldwide though the quality never improved much and cheap prices remained their hallmark. I personally don’t remember an Earl Scheib paint job ever eclipsing the $99.95 level.
Earl Scheib offered a menu of options, and it was always the brunt of some jokes among the car crowd. Some would say for an extra $10, they would wash the car before painting it. My buddy Dave used to say, “Leave the windows down, get the interior painted for nothing!”
My brother Neil had a mid-'60s Oldsmobile F-85 sedan around his undergrad years that he had painted at Earl Scheib in a sketchy section of Boston. He chose the color (gold) from the bargain selection of old paint cans to save a few bucks. When the Olds came home, most of his 8-tracks were gone and it looked like a shiny enamel olive drab Army staff car. Apparently, the gold pigment settled in the bottom of the can, never to reconstitute during mixing. You get what you pay for, but at least it was one color.
As much as I preferred a muscle car or sports car, the Omega was practical, potentially efficient and may have served me well if I ever got the automatic choke to work correctly. The rich running condition didn’t help the gas mileage or power output, and the black exhaust was a dead giveaway. Nevertheless, a fresh DieHard battery from our local Sears Auto Center helped keep it going even after plenty of time on “accessory” with the aftermarket cassette stereo cranking.
Yes, the stock Delco AM radio with single center-mounted speaker didn’t last long. A No. 2 Philips, a regular slotted screwdriver and a pair of needle-nose pliers had that ancient music box out, and in its place an AM/FM/cassette player. I was a kid on a budget, so no feature-laden unit for me. No preset stations, no auto reverse tape player, just a basic analog unit with rear-deck mounted coaxial speakers. But it had the ability to rock my first Bob Seger tape (flip it over to side “B” when side “A” was finished) and tune in a couple current music stations in genuine stereo.
Fortunately, with only a few wires, Dave and I managed to hook it up without shorting out the electrical system. If I remember correctly, Uncle Victor, who lived next-door, came over to bless the install. Who better than a guy who worked for RCA to look over stereo wiring? That guy saw some high-tech stuff, so this was child’s play.
I’d like to say I drove that Oldsmobile for a long and adventurous time, but the truth is, my young driving skills were no match for my showy driving style, and my first winter of carving up a slippery back road launched me into another passing car as I fishtailed that rearwheel drive, all-season-tired beast around a sweeping curve.
Many other cars followed me through high school: a Volkswagen Dasher, Honda CB360 motorcycle, Chevy Malibu, Datsun B210 and a Chevy Citation. All played a hand in honing my mechanical skills as a matter of necessity and a burning desire to never ride another school bus. The long list of previously owned cars continues to this day culminating in a business based on a lack of automotive monogamy.
As a kid, I wanted the cars I didn’t have. As an adult, I’m thankful I didn’t get them.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.