Cars, Culture, Thank You

Farewell To A True And Faithful Friend

Blue at Weslemkoon

Our first Olds Cutlass Cruiser.

It’s strange how we can instill heart and soul into material objects. Because of that, this is a wistful moment, bidding farewell to a member of our family for over 25 years.

Back in 1990 when we bought our home, the real estate agent said, “Hey, you have a few dollars left over from your loan, why don’t you buy a car?” So we acquired a brand new Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser, a mid-sized station wagon.

330,000 miles later, here we are, standing beside Blue, who is resting quietly in the driveway.

You may think it is a stretch to give a soul to a machine, but it is not uncommon. Sea captains adopt their boats. Hearst had his Rosebud, and Davey Crocket, his trusty rifle Old Betsy.

Blue after a wash

Blue, fresh out of the shower.

Olds Plywood

A rare talent: a 4×8 sheet of plywood through the window.

Actually, Blue is resting on the driveway, not in it. Family only goes so far.
The reason why this departure is so touching is that we remember when we first got Blue. We traded in an earlier Olds wagon, the exact same model.

It was the easiest order a car salesman ever took:
“Yes sir, can I help you some how?”
“Yep, see that Olds wagon in the lot outside? I want another, just like it.”
“Certainly. Just like it?”
“Well, yeah, but with air conditioning, fuel injection, and FM radio.”
“Power windows and door locks?”
“Nope. If we drive into a lake I want to be able to get out.”
“Same color? Blue?”

The paperwork took much longer, but by the next day we had Blue.

Years later there’s no need to recount all the outings and family trips in Blue, but the car distinguished itself by its steadfast performance.   According to industry stats, Blue must have been made on a Wednesday, because he never suffered a quality issue.  Beyond the normal R&M costs, Blue lived a clean and pure life.

It was not until 14 years later, on a mild December evening in 2004, that we truly realized what a prize Blue was.  We had parked outside a restaurant for dinner, and walking in, spied a similar Cutlass Cruiser wagon, same vintage.

I was moved to scribble a note and leave it on the windshield:

“Hi! Great car!  We have one just like yours.  Look behind you. 210,000 miles, and runs like a clock!”

Olds Back Seat

Rear view treat: the seat of choice.

When we came out of the restaurant after dinner, the wagon was gone, but we found the note with a reply, under our wiper:

“This car just won’t die.   190,000 & runs great. Hope you make 300K.”

And here sits Blue today, well past the mark.

With a few makeovers mind you.   We have repainted Blue four times.   Maaco gives us respect, though honestly, the owner there may have succumbed to paint fumes.   On two different occasions we returned after a week to pick up Blue as scheduled, and he couldn’t remember us or the car.

Blue Possum

Varmint duty: airing out after trapping a possum.

But the new paint jobs breathe new life, just like a new suit, new carpet or a new kitchen.   People would stop to stare at Blue.

“What year is that?  How many miles you got on her?”

We never viewed Blue as feminine, but protocols demand the female gender for cars it seems, just like Pat Brady’s Nellie Belle.

Another common comment from admirers:

“We used to have one just like this.  Rode in the back seat.  Does it face backwards?”

You bet it does, kids loved it, but the D.O.T. put an end to that hazard, understandably.  Still, it was fun.

Olds Jerry's

The pitt crew: Don and the team.

But what Blue could do with its backseat and rear window was pack in a 4’x 8′ slab of plywood, thanks to General Motors’ patent on the hatchback window.   You can find the same feature on Cadillac Escalades today.

Unfortunately for Blue, General Motors lost its way, and designed a long series of geriatric, goofy looking Oldsmobiles through the 90s and into the new century.  Sales withered, and April 29, 2004, the last rolled off the line.

Mean time, Blue had become my main ride, and delivered me daily to work and home, racking up the miles.   One day, in 2006, around 229,318 miles, I filled in the new owner questionnaire.   I was 16 years late, but General Motors responded February 9, 2007.   Adam Dickinson, our designated Customer Relationship Specialist congratulated us.   After a stream of compliments, he suggested:

Olds March 2011 copy

15 minutes of fame, and a year’s free oil changes.

“We would be remiss, however, not to suggest that you look closely at our new Cutlass at your local dealership….”  That was three years after the demise of the Olds make.


We wonder today if Adam is in a small cube somewhere, still writing optimistic notes to holdouts like me.

In summer 2009, Blue was worried.   The CARS program lurked.   Car Allowance Rebate System, popularly known as Cash For Clunkers, was the federal government effort to compensate GM and others for turning out a decade of lemons.   To the automobile, this was like plague, emerald ash borer and mad cow disease, all rolled into one.

Blue's Worst Fear

Blue’s worst fear: to be stripped at Pick & Pull.

All told, the feds grabbed 671,000 vehicles off the street.  Blue wasn’t one of them.

As a celebration, Blue had his own Facebook page.   It was revealing, listing his favorite movies, shows and songs: Bullitt, Dukes of Hazard, Knight Rider and Deadman’s Curve.

January 2011, the miles continued to climb as Blue enjoyed continuous 100-mile round trip sprints to the office every day.   300,000 loomed ahead on the odometer.   We contacted Jiffylube, which had been Blue’s choice since May of 1991, mile 5991, 20 years earlier.

They sensed a PR opportunity when easy math showed a century of oil changes: 100 visits.

Blue in Hebron

Under the State Champs water tower, Hebron, IL.

Jiffylube’s ad agency jumped on Blue and he had a day’s coverage in suburban Chicagoland’s news, taking interviews from reporters and an FM station in Dubuque.  Best of all, a gift of free oil changes for a year.

Celebrity is emboldening, if also a heavy responsibility.  We bought Blue a new set of tires, with the slim whitewalls to complement his spokes.

The daily commutes were Blue’s opportunity to let the ponies go.  There is a 4-lane strip of highway north of Chicago where we pushed the speedometer over two digits a number of times.  Only for a mile, but long enough to let him smell and feel the brisk air screaming through the rad grill.

Blues new wheels

New tires. Sweet!

Sadly, things change.   With our retirement, the commutes stopped, and not too long after, Blue saw his first signs of slowing down.   Kind of an automotive hardening of the arteries.   Don, the pit crew chief, who has managed Blue like an uncle cautioned us:

Blue at Mars Bar

A ride in the country, Lake Como, WI.

“Yunno, he’s stiff.   You’re not running him hard.   So he gets tired.  He’s gonna stall on ya every once in a while.   Nothing serious, but he really needs a good long drive.   And some Gum-Out.   Use high octane every once and again, just to clear the injectors.”

Then last week, a new wobble.   Driving out for a visit to the hardware, Blue couldn’t make up his mind on which gear he was in.  3rd? 2nd? Drive?  We got him home by slipping into Neutral at every brake and corner, just to keep the revs up.

Blue at 330,000

Blue notches 330,000.

He wouldn’t talk about it.   When we pulled the hood release to check the engine, the wire snapped, locking us out of a closer look inside.   Blue was suffering his pain quietly.

Back to Don again.

“It’s the solenoid in the transmission.   We’ve tried everything, but it’s dead.  He’ll still shift, but you might have to change gears manually.   There’s nothing else we can do.”

At mile 332,879, the automatic Hydra-Matic transmission that was perfected by Oldsmobile in 1939 was out of the race.

Our worst fear is that Blue could end up in the jaws of a car crusher at some junk yard.  It is  unpalatable.   Better to hide under a tarp in a barn.

Blue at Sunset

Sunset, Butler Lake in Libertyville, IL.

So we are hanging onto Blue, and will nudge him past 333,000, maybe with a trip or two to the golf course, or to a grassy park overlooking the tollway, where he can hear and smell the noise and speed of the thousands of cars that whine and hum along the lanes below, unaware of his watchful gaze.

It’ll be a sunny, breezy day.





Marketing, Thank You

What Makes Your Brand Stick

1950 Chevy 990 copy

Our 1950 Chevy: ready to roll.

Some imprints last forever. Your first bank account. Your first cola. My parents’ car was a strong imprint for me. We had GM cars since the dawn of life it seemed. So my compass was frozen on GM: Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, even the Vega!

Old Olds

The 1986 Olds Cutlass Cruiser Wagon.

Our first big car in my family of four was an Olds Ciera wagon: the Cutlass Cruiser. We bought it 1986, and loved it so much, we bought another, just like it, in 1990.

Recalling the day, I walked in to our local Cadillac Olds dealer, pointed out our car to the sales rep, and said, “Just give me another, like that one.”

Within the day, I drove a new Cutlass Cruiser off the lot. Pretty much the same color, had the same cool rear-facing third bench seat the kids loved. The only upgrades: Electronic Fuel Injection had replaced the carburetor, and air conditioning and FM radio.

Olds Back Seat

People still ask if there’s a rear-facing seat today.

I kept the hand crank windows just in case we drove off a bridge into water and couldn’t get the doors opened.

When people asked why I liked the Cruiser so much, I had a bunch of responses, but always described how I could get a 4×8′ sheet of plywood in the back window without opening the rear door.

So the day came along when I decided to get a new wagon, and I returned to the dealer, walked in, pointed out my Olds to the sales rep, and I said, “Just give me another, like that one.”

The guy looked at me like I had just wandered in from the woods.

“You’re kidding, right? No wagons here. Not anywhere.” A bit of a smirk, “Oh wait, maybe you can get a Volvo, or a Saturn.”

I was stunned. I had been in the woods, asleep for at least 7 years during which time “station wagons” had been driven (haha) to extinction by GM.

“How about a Hummer?”

I walked out in a daze.

Olds Plywood

One of GM’s innovations: the hatch window.

Knowing I couldn’t let the Cruiser go, I chose instead to get it painted. I could live with it if at least it looked new.

Olds Cutlass 97-99

The last Cutlass in 1999. A low-fat ghost of prior greatness.

In 2007, I wrote GM a note about my car, filling in the owner’s survey.   I was 17 years late.

They wrote back: “It was especially interesting to hear your Oldsmobile has traveled 229,318 miles…”   I was pleased to get the response, and also from a real person.  I read on, “we would be remiss, however, not to suggest that you look closely at our new Cutlass at your local dealership..”

Alas, unbeknownst to GM, the last Cutlass had rolled off the line in 1999.

You can listen to the humming of the wheels...

It went for miles and miles…

Fast forward, the Cruiser became my commute car, and I tacked on the miles.

Incredibly, it never ground to a halt.  With the occasional makeover on wheels, alternators, batteries, brakes, suspension and mufflers, the Olds just kept on rolling.

How?  By regular, faithful tune-ups.

Olds March 2011 copy

Jiffy Lube gives me and my Olds a pat on the back.

Every 3,000 miles I drove in to JiffyLube and let them soothe the Olds’ jangled commuted nerves.  That’s where they knew my name, too.  Pretty cool!

Lo and behold, in March 2011, I notched 300,000 miles.

Jiffy Lube (Shell Corp) blessed me with a year’s free oil changes, and a PR push that got me radio interviews and some pub in the local news.

Olds New

A 2014 testimonial to a brand that won’t quit.

Is there a lesson here?  Several.  First off, stick with the one who brought you to the dance.   I still drive my Olds wagon. And I hold a torch for General Motors.  Who knows, the Cutlass may return.

Second, seek out faithful, loyal customers and celebrate them.  I always take my cars to Jiffy Lube.

Third, never smirk at a potential sales inquiry.  I have never purchased another car from the dealer who said, “no” in so few words.

That is the view from the rear-facing seat.


Customer Service: Loyal Forever

PeerlessOne simple act of thoughtfulness committed me to ACE Hardware forever.

Sunday morning, nearly 25 years ago, I discovered our kitchen faucet dripping uncontrollably into the dark spaces below our sink.

Ever notice how they bury all those pipes in tight dark spaces? If you are 2 feet tall, you have infinite opportunity as a plumber.

The ACE Hardware in our town was one of our happiest discoveries while moving to our new home. It was where I found that most plumbing solutions were assembled and designed for do-it-yourselfers like me.

Fully confident that I could replace the faucet, I walked into the store and with a foggy image of what I needed, armed with drawings and measurements, I bought stuff.

I had help. The plumbing guy there picked it all out for me.

At home, I took a break for lunch, and afterwards spread all the new parts across the floor, preparing to install a brand new faucet, with all the fixings.

One of the basic life rules that I adopted at early age is: “You will need to go back to the hardware store at least once.”

Indeed, after turning off the water, and undoing some foundational pipes, I realized I had measured badly. So packing up the merchandise, I returned to the store, and the plumbing guy set me straight with new stuff.

The afternoon slipped by as I puttered with the pipes, and rings and washers and bushings and other pieces I had never seen before in my life.

The truth is, we had a cold Sunday dinner as the water was still turned off, and I had encountered additional under-the-sink challenges which had telescoped my supposedly quick DIY job into a kind of major plumbing overhaul.

The kitchen floor was cluttered with wrenches and pipes and fittings lined up like the landing craft on D-Day.

A second life rule is: ” ‘At least once’ means ‘probably more like two or three times’ .”

As it turned out, I returned to the store 15 minutes before closing time, desperate to get my pipe problems resolved. The plumbing guy was there, packing up his stuff, thermos on the counter, ready to go.

He walked towards me as I held a plastic bag with the parts, the manufacturer’s instructions, and a look of defeat on my face.


I explained how some part wouldn’t work, how water oozed out, and how I was now the source of my family’s extreme disappointment.

With that, he emptied the bag onto the floor of the store. Next he arranged every piece in sequence according to the manufacturer.

“Yunno, the instructions don’t always account for little details.   Let’s add a couple of these.” He added an additional set of washers.

Satisfied, he watched as I drew the configuration onto my notes, and smiled.

“OK, that’s going to work. Count on it.”

He gathered up all the plastic and bars and steel fittings, put them back into the bag, and walked me to the door as the counter staff was heading for the light switch.

Back home, I was greeted by the family, who looked like relatives called to the hospital, waiting for the surgeon’s bad news.

Again on my knees in the kitchen, I assembled the pipes and clinched the last into place. Down in the basement, I turned the water back on.

Then upstairs to the sink where I flipped on the brand new sparkling faucet, and rejoiced with the steady clear stream of water. Under the sink: dry as a bone.

The lesson from all of this was that DIY is challenging, but also very satisfying when it works. More important, ACE’s plumbing guy had stuck by me, and saw the job through.

As a result, I have been a raving fan, ever since.