In the early 1970s I was dating a girl who had a Cutlass Supreme convertible. My girl’s sister crashed the car sometime after we broke up.
I think of the car often and this year I decided to do some research to see if my memories of the details were accurate. Little did I know that the 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass, and Oldsmobiles in general, have a bit of a cult following. Nor did I realize that the car I remembered, a 1970 Cutlass SX, is now considered an iconic muscle car.
In doing my research I began to wonder if I could buy one and have it restored close to my girl's original. My wife began asking me why I was on the Internet so much and I had to confess. I guess she was so relieved that I was not engaged invirtual dating that she told me to go ahead and buy one. Life is short.
By coincidence, that week I watched a show on TV about car restoration and they featured Fred Mandrick in Arizona who loves Cutlass 442s. I emailed him and he referred me to Gary Riley of Level One Restoration in Denver. I emailed Gary and he called me a few days later, saying that he thought my story was really interesting and he would love to help me with the project.
Gary is astraight up, wonderful guy, and I trusted him within the first 5 minutes of picking up the phone. Up until that point I was still just feeling my way around the idea for the car, but it was when he called and I spoke with him that I realized that this was no longer a game, and if I pursued it any furtherthen I had to be serious or tell him I was just fishing. At that moment I madethe commitment.
Afte rresearching on the web I became a bit of a technical expert on the 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Convertible SX. There are some fantastic resources and archives, as well as a great forum for Oldsmobile. Learning the details of the car gave me some insight on what to look for, and to look out for, when evaluating the cars for sale on the web. I also had a lot of help from Gary Riley, who was able to spot things very quickly from some pretty poor photos.
The first car I actually went to look at was in Manchester New Hampshire, and my friend John and I drove up to see it. It was not an SX. It was a two barrel 350, in good shape, but the price was too high.
I spoke with a number of other sellers, and the second car I saw was in Chicago. This was an SX. It did not have AC, nor bucket seats, but it looked interesting. It was advertised as a W32 option. Gary flew out to Chicago and met me there and after spending a morning going over the car we decided that it was not a W32 but an L31 engine. More torque less horsepower. In many ways this was more interesting to me since I want to drive it, not race it. In addition, any car we bought was going to have the engine rebuilt and I could put any cam I wanted on it. The price had already been negotiated, and we decided it was a good deal. I bought the car and Gary helped me make arrangements to ship it to Denver. Three weeks later it arrived at his shop.
It is now October 2011, and Gary has been able to begin work on the car. I will be going outto Denver in a couple of weeks and learn about all the stories and problemsthat have arisen.
In November, Gary and his crew pulled out the big guns in late November to take almost every nut and bolt off the car. There were no major problems found thankfully; only a rustedout radiator support and a cracked exhaust manifold were worth noting. Thewindshield was original. The car was very straight, and aside from the driverdoor all the panels were original. The engine and transmission are being sent out for rebuilding, with stock specsbeing the goal.
IT IS CLEAR THE BUILD SHEET WAS FOUND UNDER THE SEAT
Some minor metal work was needed around the windshield, the trunk lid and fenders.
The car was taken off the frame and sent for media blasting which took a week or so. On return, new body mounts put on and the body reinstalled for filling.
What impressed me most about the car when I went to visit it in Denver in early December was the fact that it had been completely stripped of paint a week prior, and was sitting in the shop with the bare metal shiny and clean. If it had been in Bermuda, after the first day it would have had a sheen of rust on every square inch.
I have begun putting together the parts list for all the new things we will need. It is a pretty long list on a spreadsheet, with different suppliers, part numbers, and prices so we can select the best from each. We decided that price was notgoing to be the sole criteria to use when choosing suppliers (within reason), but rather quality and convenience in obtaining complete assemblies where possible.
Since we would like to show the car I am trying to stay as original as possible onparts, and picking good repos where possible. The only exceptions so far have been the suspension and radio/speakers. I am looking for new springs with slightly better handling specs, but same ride height, and new tech shockabsorbers. For the radio I am going with something designed to fit the originalopening, but with USB inputs and four channel output. Speakers will be a stereounit installed in the original dash speaker location, and two behind the rearseat enclosures.
The other changes to buildsheet specs will be the installation of bucket seats, floor console shifter, rally pac gauges, rear sway bar (alaFE2), and 225-70-14 radials. I am considering replacing the open differential, 3.08 gears (code SC), with a posi unit with 2.78 gears. Gary thinks I am crazy to go to 2.78 and I am still pondering the question.
The colors will be twightlight blue (code 28) on exterior, ivory (pearl white)on the inerior (code 977v) and a white top (code A). The original colours wereplatinum (code 14), blue (code 993v) and a blue top (code C). It seems that theoriginal platinum paint for that year was frequently recalled due to fading.
There was some rust holes in the front floor pan so Stew got out his weldingkit and went to work. He also put in the brackets for the new buckets. That completed the repairs to the rust areas; not bad at all.
Not wanting to wait too long, and the filling and straightening been done, Gary took it off the frame and popped it into the painting booth and began theprocess of priming, blocking, sanding, priming. I must say it looks pretty goodin its undercoat.
In January, notwanting to delay we began putting on the real colours in the new year. This is Gary’s forte. The car is sitting on a modified convertible frame attached tothe rotisserie so no door braces were used. Buffing and sanding, buffing andsanding make a brilliant finish.
Theinside is painted in red and the underside and firewall black.
The frame was taken to the blasters and then powder-coated. The powder-coating looks great but I wonder about how we could have mitigated the rust that must be onthe inside of the frame members. I would have liked to perhaps spray POR 15 inthere.
Februarywas a bit slow but finally got new parts in and the rear end blasted, powdercoated and rebuilt painted. I decided to go with new repo suspension and brakecomponents. Not being able to do any of the work myself it was less expensivefor me to go that route. I will have some very good original parts left overand hope to recover a portion of the costs.
The new front control arms from InLine were great quality, but the fit was a bit off and required some persuasion. The rear assemblies worked well. The new brake components, also from InLine fit well and went on with no issues at all. Newfuel lines, new shocks (Bilstien), original springs. I had thought about putting in new springs but the car had such a good stance that Gary convinced me to keep the originals so that we did not risk changing the ride heights. I am glad we did because the final result was right on the factory specifications.
The rearend was original except for a new Easton posi unit from Jim (MONZAZ), keepingthe 3.08 gears, new shocks, and a new (NOS) sway bar. And yes we will paint those shocks the regulation grey.
This is a pretty exciting part of the build, when two major parts come together. They had been separated and rejoined a few times, for body work and painting, but this is the last time I will see them apart. All things considered it went verysmoothly. I wish we had the engine back from the builders but it makes littledifference if you have put as many engines in cars as Gary has.
I went out to Colorado to do some menial work on the carand put in the Dynamat. That was an experience, not as easy as they advertise,but well worth the effort. The doors close with a nice reassuring clunk, andpanels sound solid.
While I was there I worked on the heater box seals,transmission and shifter.
I cleaned up the blower motor while I was about it. Thepaint job on that is not the best, but it is all inside and I just want to stoprust.
The shifter Gary had in the shop needed some work so I tookit all apart, blasted and painted it, only to find out it is a 1971shifter. The 1970 version has adifferent support bracket on the rear, and the pin mount for the shift cable isdifferent.
I had a go on the new pulleys too. I am being faithful tothe assembly Manual and putting in the three groove pulleys for the Y72 HDCooling and Generator option. Some will say that is not correct with AC, but thathas been debated elsewhere. I also picked up a nice 1100777 55 amp alternatorfrom Mark Stellar.
The transmission came back from the shop, and thankfullythey had not blasted the thing. I took some Simple Green, scotch pads and elbowgrease to it, and it came up nicely, while retaining the original stencil andalso the colour coded marking for the speedo (Green). The stencil on the IDplate has long been gone, but the 70 OD code is still there, and the VIN numberis clearly visible.
The new torque converter is pretty stock at 2075, and Imust say it is very driveable given my engine build (more on that later).
Because I am going to a smaller tire than original, CooperTrend Setter 215/75 R 14 whitewalls vsthe original G78x14 K2DB, I am changingthe 42 driven gear in the speedo housing to a 43 tooth purple driven gear. Thisworked out very well in the end with my odometer reading being about 0.5% lessthan my actual driven distance, or reading 995 over 1000 miles driven. If I hadnot changed the gears it would have read 1019 over 1000 miles.
We are waiting for the engine rebuild but rather than fallbehind Gary decided to go ahead and finish up the body by putting on thefenders, radiator assembly, bumpers and trim.
The fenders went on smoothly, with some beautiful straightlines. The dash went in and Stu installed my new AutoSound radio, with a singlestereo speaker in the dash and two box speakers attached to the rear seatsupport. I must say the sound is very good, even with the top down whichrenders the rear speakers useless.
Engine May 2012
The engine was finished up by Mountain High Performance andGary took it over to Verle Stevens for dyno testing. After breaking in we werehaving some issues with the carburetor. This had been rebuilt but the serviceprovided was not the best, and now it seemed there were some mechanicalproblems as well. The results we were getting were very poor and so the unitwas removed and taken apart. The first thing he noticed was that the linkageholding the secondary metering rod was broken and so just to be sure Verle dida complete rebuild of the whole thing.
Once the carb was put back on the engine ran much better.It was holding oil pressure and not showing any signs of temperature run up.They ran a number of tests, playing with the timing and decided that the bestoverall results were obtained with 32 degrees total timing. It was producing485 ft lbs at 3400 rpm and 357 hp at 4500 rpm.
I am really glad we did the testing. It cost me $600, butconfirmed the build and gave me the confidence in the engine I would need todrive it 2000 miles back to Rhode Island.
I was scrambling to find a console for a non dual gate autofloor shift. I had bought a console with the car, but at the time I did notrealize that it had been cut, or rather, was ignorant of the requirement forthe regular shifter. We had just assumed it would work so now we had a month togo and no usable console. There seems to be a fair number of consoles availablethat have been cut for the dual gate shifter but not too many virgin ones. Ihad several leads but they kept falling through. Finally I found one, had itshipped and wouldn’t you know it, it was cracked in shipping. Not just cracked,but the rear portion was shattered. A couple of hours of work with some epoxyand the jig saw like pieces were fixed together, and after painting it lookedOK.
The new wheels came in, Cooper Trendsetters and were put onthe newly painted rims. I am very happy that Gary convinced me to go with thewhitewalls.
Assembly continued and the engine installed. The car stilldoes not have its full interior and is sitting a bit high, but is starting tolook pretty good. Steering and suspension is roughed in and the beginnings ofthe exhaust system put on. The mufflers from InLine came in but were notcorrect so we went to the local muffler shop and bought two off the shelf. Eventhough they are generic I like the sound – it is close to stock, but with aslight rumble. I did not want anything loud and even she who must be obeyedwill hopefully not take offense.
I arrived at Level One at 3pm but the car was still at the upholstery shop having the top sorted out so I started to go through all the left over parts and decide which I was going to keep and which sell. There were still quite a number of things which were going to be used on the car that had not been blasted or painted so I tucked into that chore and stayed pretty late.
The next day the car came back, and it was evident that there was much to do. I had planned on having the car on the road by Friday the 25th, but it was obvious that that was not going to happen. The interior was still bare, no door glass, lots of things in the engine compartment. I discovered that the seats, which had had new covers put on did not have backs or sides, so those had to beordered, along with a number of critical items.
OnSunday Stu and I worked on the car from early till late. We played around with the power windows for quite a while and I am convinced there must be a more efficient way to adjust them than trial and error. I am sure that I will have to make some further adjustments aftert he top has settled in driving shape. I continued on Memorial Day, polishing the stainless window trim, blasting,painting and cleaning parts, and stripping the old door panels for parts. Istarted taking some photos of the undercarriage.
May 2012 - What a week the last few days were. Still waiting on quite a few parts which were ordered, I was expecting them to come in on the Tuesday following Memorial Day, but nothing. Found out that they had been ordered with regular shipping, not next day – AGGGGHHHHH. We started scrounging around to try and find some parts off of friend’s cars or hidden away in people’s barns. I saw some pretty amazing collections of cars and parts stored in some really grass roots conditions (no pun intended). I amamazed at what liberties you can take with metal parts in an environment likeDenver. I would love to live in a place where rust is unknown.
The next three days, we had four people working to finish things up. Still no parts arrived, but we had most of the interior done, and the engine was running so we took it sans hood to have the suspension and steering adjusted. The car drives great and the steering is nice and tight.
I must say it looks beautiful, with the twilight blue, white top and white sidewalltires.
Friday was another hectic day. We had been working 12 hours a day and were getting tired. At last the door parts arrived at 5:30 pm, along with window rubber trimand windshield wipers and other stuff. I was exhausted and so left Gary working on the finish. At this point we had not road tested the car at all, so Gary wanted to put some miles on it that night.
On Saturday we went on a short test drive in the morning and noticed that the seatbelts were way too tight. I am not a big boy, and they had no spare room for me. So once back in the shop we measured them – sure enough they were the wrong length. Gary had bought them from a guy who reconditions original ones, but his webbing was way off. Norm, a friend of Gary’s had a set for his GTO so he brought them around and we spent a good two hours putting those in, along with painting the spare, putting the decals on the car, changing the oil (Joe Gibbs) and fixing a vacuum leak on the brake booster line.
At last there was no more to do. There were so many things we had not tested, but time was critical; it was Saturday evening and we had to be in St. Louis to meet up with Jerry Wilson by Sunday evening. We packed up some spare parts,stopped at Sears so I could buy some basic fix-it tools, filled up with gas andheaded to downtown Denver to drop off my rental car. That was the final chore, and we were on highway 70 by 8pm. I plugged in my mp3 player loaded with 1970 music and left Denver behind to the tunes of Three Dog Night.