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Ron Cherry: High school deja vu ‘50 Olds

Olds was a styling and performance trend-setter in the late 40's and early 50's, coming out with their Rocket 88 model with an overhead-valve V-8 engine in 1949. Then they brought out the Holiday hardtop in 1950, meant to simulate the sporty look of a convertible by having no center post.
Submitted photo by Ron Cherry |

Often you hear about high school sweethearts who are reunited later in life and sometimes you hear about car guys who find their first car, or one much like it, later in life, but how often do both happen to one person?

Dick Engles is one such lucky dude. In high school, he owned a ‘50 Olds 88 convertible and dated Patti, who he’d known since he was eight years old and she was six. But after graduating, Dick went to ‘Nam. Both of those first loves became things of the past.

Fast forward thirty-five years to when Dick and Patti reconnected on Classmates.com and married. Then all that was missing for Dick was that other first love, a ‘50 Olds.



While Dick had built many hot rods over the years, they were not his first car love. Dick tried to be satisfied with a substitute, a ‘49 Olds coupe. “It really wasn’t what I wanted,” Dick said.

His first car had been a convertible, but the price for one had gone through the roof, without the top down. “I’d been putting the car together in my mind,” Dick said. “I wanted to do the Olds my way, but I knew I didn’t want to cut up a convertible.”




Then, in 2012, Joe Andre, a fellow member of Buzzards Racing of Bonneville notoriety, told him of a ‘50 Olds Holiday hardtop that had been kicking around the local area for some years.

It had originally been brought to Colfax from Montana ten years before by a guy who planned to restore. He took it apart but found the restoration “was way over his head, with lots of rust issues.” So he sold it to a hot rodder in Auburn five years later and it sat there for another five years.

Then came the negotiations. “I called and asked if he’d be interested in parting with his Olds,” Dick said. “First it was yes, then no. We went back and forth and finally agreed on a price I would pay and he would take.” So Dick hauled the Olds to its new home. Then he had a few trips to Colfax to locate as many of the parts as possible that had been left in the previous owner’s garage.

To say that there were rust issues with the car would be like saying that Swiss cheese has a hole or two. But as an experienced rod builder, Dick was up to the task.

First, he had the body media blasted to remove the rust. Then he replaced rusty areas in the trunk, floorboards, doors and rocker panels with patch panels, scrounging to find ones that fit. They included ones for Olds, as well as Chevy and even one for a Ford.

Veteran body man Rick McLemore then did the body work, including standardizing body gaps, and paint prep. Painting in black over Nankeen Cream was done by Craig Wallace, well known for his quality work. All the glass was redone by Dan Fletcher.

For front suspension, Dick opted for a Mustang II-type with disc brakes from Heidts and retained the stock rear suspension, even having the original shocks checked and cleaned before reinstalling. Bill Fitting provided expert assistance in adapting and restoring.

While keeping the car’s legendary 303 cubic inch Olds Rocket V-8, Dick kicked it up a notch or two.

He bored it and added a torque cam and heads from a ‘56 Olds that were ported, polished and relieved. On it, he used an Edelbrock 600 cfm four-barrel carb and an electronic ignition. With an adaptor plate, he was able to use a modern 700R4 automatic-overdrive trans.

After checking out and cleaning the original third member, Dick re-installed it in the rearend. Since the add-on air conditioning compressor and power steering reservoir required room under the hood on the left side, Dick remade the left inner fender to mimic the right side one that had clearance for the battery. To accommodate a larger, more efficient four-core radiator, he moved it forward for clearance.

Finally, he smoothed the firewall (filled in all unused holes and creases) for a clean look.

Inside exemplified Dick’s philosophy, which he described: “The whole idea was to make it look original, but do it my way.” He had the instrument cluster restored to original appearance, but changed from 6 volt to 12 volt.

Rather than cut holes in the dash for aftermarket air conditioning, he built a frame under it to house controls and ducts. “I wanted it to look like it came from the factory that way,” Dick said.

One ingenious change was to make the original speaker grill open to reveal an XM radio. After adding sound insulation throughout the interior, Dick had Mike Miller re-upholster it in cushy black BMW leather with heavy weave carpet.

Attention to detail was important to Dick.

The stock 19” steering wheel was just too big for the modern power-steered front suspension. Con2R made one like it, but in 15”. To get a horn button that looked right, Dick found a reproduction Holiday fender bezel and adapted it to the horn.

Since finishing the Olds in 2016, Dick is pleased with the result. “If an Olds person looks it over, he says, ‘You changed a lot of stuff, but you don’t know it unless you know what you’re looking for,’” Dick said. “I’d say that’s a success.” Another success is being able to cruise around town with Patti, his high school sweetheart, in an Olds much like his high school one. It’s a bit of high school deja vu.

Ron Cherry’s four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His next book, a mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills, will be out soon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.


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