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Dream Build of the Day: 1959 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight—Cuban Style!

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1959 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday Sport Sedan. Image via The Old Car Manual Project.

It seems like every time we write about a car, we find something to love about that car–even if its nothing we’ve contemplated in the past. Loving a car means dreaming about it, and dreaming about it often involves a certain level of “what if?” How would we want the car equipped, painted, et cetera? For some of us, that may include going beyond what the factory intended. These builds will never happen, but talking about them is one of our favorite pastimes. Now we loop in the Hemmings Nation into these office bench-racing sessions.

Today’s topic is inspired by a recent feature in Hemmings Classic Car (#173, February 2019) on the Cars of Cuba. It’s well known that importation of American-made cars to Cuba stopped in 1960 when Cuba aligned itself with the USSR and made the Soviet-realm its trading partner of choice. The Soviets never had enough cars for themselves, let alone for export, so the island is largely stuck relying on old Yank Tanks for its transportation needs, and in time the anachronistic, pastel ’50s cars have become a cultural icon there.

Cuban mechanics are widely recognized as tireless innovators, keeping vintage Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Fords, Mercurys, Dodges, and De Sotos on the road in a total vacuum insofar as replacement parts go. Their ingenuity in adapting things like European diesel engines is what inspired today’s build: a 1959 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight four-door hardtop.

Immediately after the revolution, Fidel Castro traded in his Willys Jeep for a ’59 Olds. Photos don’t make it clear the model or body style, but nothing says tropical cruising quite like a four-door hardtop–or Holiday Sport Sedan, in Olds’s nomenclature. Especially if equipped with air conditioning. We northerners like convertibles because we try to milk every bit of sunshine out of our short growing season, but folks in tropical locations prefer a fixed roof for shade–but days with fresh breezes warrant rolling down that massive expanse of unfettered side glass.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with the 394/Hydra-Matic combination that came from the factory in these cars, but for effortless and economical cruising it would be highly tempting to install a diesel. No, not some ex-Soviet truck engine belching black smoke (er, “rolling coal”). One of those nice turbocharged Duramax units that have been available in GM trucks since 2001 seems like it would be just the ticket. Duramax diesels come in ratings from 250 to 397 hp (compare to the 315 hp from the Olds gas V-8) and pumping out torque to the tune of 460 to 765 lb-ft (versus 435 lb-ft from the Olds).

Backed with a stout overdrive automatic and equipped with a modern high-efficiency air conditioning unit, it seems like this would be a land yacht perfectly equipped for both cruising and road trips. Obviously with the heavy diesel up front and the likelihood of highway driving in the future, disc brakes would be a must–and while the Olds differential was renowned for its strength back in the ’60s, when it was the drag-racing rear of choice, a Ford 9-inch may be a better bet for our dream car for sheer ease of getting parts far from home.

Crystal Green seems like the most appropriate finish for our Caribbean cruiser, along with a set of wide-whitewall radials. Since this is just a dream, perhaps those should be wrapped around a set of 16-inch (or larger) custom alloy wheels replicating the stock wheel covers. Not as a “donk” thing, mind you, but to provide clearance for some appropriately large disc brakes.

And yes, if you think this was partially inspired by the 1959 Buick boat car that was in the news back in 2004… well, you’re not wrong.

What is your Cuban-flavored dream build? And what should we do with all these leftover Oldsmobile parts–build a gasser?