1963 Oldmobile Starfire
1963 Oldsmobile Starfire
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Oldsmobile had some significant achievements over its 100- year history, the longest of any American automaker. Its Curved Dash model which bowed in 1901 was the first American volume produced car.

It pioneered the fully automatic “Hydra-Matic” transmission in 1940, and, along with Cadillac, brought out the modern short-stroke, overhead valve “Rocket” V-8 engine in 1949. It introduced turbocharging to production cars with its 1962 F-85 “Jetfire” model, and its 1966 Toronado laid the groundwork for GM’s later switch to front-wheel drive.

With the introduction of its 1949 V-8, Oldsmobile also developed a new model by replacing the tired, side-valve six in the Dynamic 76 model with its “Rocket” V-8. In the process it created the sensational Oldsmobile 88, a whole new kind of car, a spiritual reincarnation of the 1932 Ford V-8. It was a modern hot rod, and it immediately became the American performance king. Not surprisingly it started cleaning up on the stock car tracks.

The 88 led to the death of the 76 in 1950, and Oldsmobile carried on with its 88, Super 88 and 98 series until it joined Cadillac and Buick in bringing out an ultra-luxury, limited production model in 1953. This was Oldsmobile’s Fiesta, and although it would be produced for one year only, it whetted Oldsmobile appetite for a true luxury offering.

Oldsmobile, like other General Motors divisions, was developing concept, or “dream cars,” for GM’s annual Motorama extravaganzas. In 1953 it had introduced its fibreglass bodied Starfire, a luxury 5-6-passenger sporty “personal car.” Its name was inspired by the Lockheed Starfire fighter plane, and it carried such futurist styling cues as a wraparound windshield, low beltline, and spinner type wheel covers.

The Starfire proved so popular on the show circuit that Oldsmobile introduced the name to its 1954 lineup as the top-of-the-line 98 convertible. It was used on this model until 1957, when it was discontinued.

Then in the middle of the 1961 model year Oldsmobile revived the Starfire name for its entry into the new “personal luxury’ market that Ford had so successfully opened up with its four-seater 1958 Thunderbird.

This new Starfire was now a series on its own, not part of the 98 series as previously, although it did share its 3,124 mm (123 in.) wheelbase with the 88. It was 5,385 mm (212 in.) long, and weighed in at a hefty 1,964 kg (4,330 lb). Its styling was strongly influenced by the 98.

As a distinctive model, the Starfire was lavishly equipped, with power steering, brakes, seats and windows. It came with an automatic transmission only, and under the hood was the most potent Olds engine yet, a 330 horsepower, 6.5 litre (395 cu in.) V-8. The interior featured leather seats and a tachometer, the latter to indicate that the Starfire had sporting pretensions. It was the most expensive Oldsmobile.

The ’61 Starfire came only as a convertible, but for ’62 the line was expanded to include a two-door hardtop coupe. The ’62 also enjoyed the complete restyling that Oldsmobile applied across its model line.

Adding the two-door coupe was a good move by Oldsmobile because it became a popular seller. With almost 35,000 Starfire coupes and over 7,000 convertibles sold, 1962 would prove to be the Starfire’s best sales year.

New competition entered the fray for 1963 with the Riviera, sister division Buick’s attractive new personal luxury car. Also, Oldsmobile didn’t help the Starfire’s cause by introducing its own new 98 Custom Sports Coupe model, essentially a competitor for the Starfire. The result was a decline in Starfire sales to just over 25,000.

In spite of its size and weight, the Starfire had excellent performance. Car Life magazine (5/63) tested a Hardtop Coupe and reported that the big V-8, now up to 345 horsepower, could accelerate the Starfire from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 8.5 seconds, and reach a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph). The testers were generally impressed with the Starfire, although their preference was definitely for Oldsmobile’s smaller, turbocharged F-85 Jetfire model.

With stiff competition from Buick’s Riviera and Ford’s Thunderbird, and Oldsmobile’s own division, particularly the Cutlass’s new 4-4-2 performance package option, Starfire sales continued to slide. It found only 16,163 buyers for 1964.

Sales held at about the 15,000 level for 1965, and then for ’66 Oldsmobile brought out its sensational new, front-wheel drive Toronado, and it was all over for the Starfire. The stunning new Toronado immediately assumed the Oldsmobile personal luxury mantle, and the Starfire was quietly discontinued in 1966. Although Oldsmobile would revive the name later on an economy car, the magic was gone.

The early Olds Starfires were big, powerful cars that epitomized their era. They were Oldsmobile’s first personal luxury cars, and were every inch an Oldsmobile. To Olds enthusiasts, they were the only real Starfires.

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