1977-79 Oldsmobile 98 Regency – The Thinking Man’s Cadillac

From 1971 to 1976, General Motors had the market covered when it came to the finest in upper-crust land yachts: Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, Buick Electra, and the Cadillac Sedan de Ville and Fleetwood.  It was the last stand for true full-size luxury. No diets, no exercising, full steam ahead with room, space and wheelbase! And velour. Lots of velour. But times were changing. Fuel economy was slowly but surely becoming more important to buyers, especially after the 1973-74 gas crisis. Could one still get all the Broughamage they wanted, yet with better economy? Have plenty of stretch-out room despite dimensions being trimmed? Indeed, they could!

GM proved it with the downsized 1977 B- and C-body full-sizers. Easier to drive, easier to park, yet with power everything, room, space and the ever so important gadgets, gizmos and nameplate prestige! And if you didn’t want to spring for the high-priced Cadillac version, you could still get nine-tenths of its luxury in an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency.

The big, brash, no-holds-barred FULL-SIZE dammit! Ninety-Eight was the least expensive way to get into a plush C-body. They were particularly popular in the Midwest among folks who wanted comfort but didn’t want to flaunt their financial status. And the top-tier Olds gave up very little in dimensions to the Cadillac, especially in the Texas-sized 1976 model.

The ’76 Ninety-Eight came in two versions, the LS, short for Luxury Sedan, and the more upper-crust Regency, with floating-pillow seating and additional niceties. For 1977, the Ninety-Eight remained top of the heap in the Oldsmobile lineup. In the mid Seventies Oldsmobiles were making money like never before, as the mid-sized Cutlass was America’s best-selling car. Especially the Cutlass Supreme coupe. But for those who’d “made it” nothing but a Ninety-Eight would do.

The 1977 Ninety-Eight Regency was, according to the brochure, “A new luxury car that meets the demands of the times we live in–yet preserves the traditional qualities you’ve come to expect from Oldsmobile.” That was a nice way of saying the new Regency was still comfortable, but had had a lot of excess weight trimmed. Much like some of the Baby Boomers at that time, who were combating middle-age spread by jogging.

The slightly-less lush Luxury Sedan and Coupe were still available, with a few less standard features and more modest seat upholstery compared to the Regency. The Regency was where it was at; it handily outsold the slightly plainer LS. Regency standard equipment included a digital quartz clock, storage pockets on the front seat backs, sail-panel opera lamps (you HAD to have opera lamps back then!), power windows, power steering and brakes, and an automatic transmission. And, of course, a 350 CID Olds V8 and Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission.

The downsized Ninety-Eight was much more space-efficient. Anyone could tell, just by walking around one at a showroom. At the same time, interior room remained much the same as the 1971-76 version, and the trunk held 20 square feet of luggage. As previously mentioned, the 350 V8 came standard, with the 403 available as an option.

“Regency presents a beautiful marriage of logic and luxury to meet the new demands of our times”, so said the 1978 Oldsmobile brochure. The 1978 Ninety-Eight was changed only slightly changed from the ’77 model. The expected annual grille-and-taillight revisions were in evidence, but that was about it for the year. One new talking point was the availablility of the new Olds 350 diesel V8, which sold quite well.

Of course, there were issues with the Olds diesel. Part of it was due to owners not being familiar with diesel engines. People who had a 350 Olds in the past were used to just hopping in, firing it up and taking off. But diesels need a little more care and feeding compared to the tried-and-true gas Olds 350 V8. At any rate, many people had issues with their diesel engines, and GM had a lot of ticked off people on their hands as a result. By the early ’80s the 350 diesel was much more robust, but by then bad press and angry owners had effectively eliminated demand. However, friends of my parents bought a new Dark Jadestone ’82 Delta 88 Royale coupe with the diesel and they drove it well into the 1990s with no issues.

The Regency’s interior was the primary reason for purchasing it over a less-expensive LS. Button-tufted, loose-pillow seating, accompanied by dressier door panels, was the big draw. Talk about cushy! Leather was also available, but velour was much more popular, and the standard upholstery.

Our featured red and white Ninety-Eight Regency is upholstered in the standard crushed velour, with floating cushions. I imagine driving one of these was like piloting the streets in your favorite easy chair. All that was missing was the hassock, TV remote and side table with your favorite beverage and snack, although the latter situation could be corrected by pointing the crystal Rocket hood ornament into the local McDonald’s.

In addition to the aforementioned seat back pockets, digital clock and pillowed velour, ’78 Regency interiors also came with a split front bench seat with dual controls and red and white door-open warning lamps a la Cadillac. In effect, you were getting a Sedan de Ville for about four-fifths the cost. A good deal to many of us flatlanders in Iowa and Illinois. Perhaps that is why Oldsmobile was king throughout my Midwestern youth. They were literally everywhere when I was growing up, despite the fact that my parents drove Volvos.

With its Broughamy luxury, proven powertrains (well, except for that diesel) and tidy (for a full-sizer) 220.4″ length and 119″ wheelbase, the 1977-79 Ninety-Eights sold great. Inaugural 1977 was the best sales year, with 139,423 units produced. Sales of 1978 models dipped by about 20,000 cars, to 118,765. 1979 sales rose by about 10K, to a total of 127,651 LSs and Regencys.

1978 Ninety-Eight Regency and Starfire

Not bad at all for what was a rather expensive car at the time–a 1978 Regency sedan was base-priced at $8,063. For comparison’s sake, the cheapest 1978 Oldsmobile, the Starfire, was $3,925.

1979 Ninety-Eight Regency

The 1979 Ninety-Eight represented the last year for the original 1977-style sheetmetal. As in 1978, only minor trim details distinguished it from the previous year’s model. The typical new grille and taillamps were the primary changes. However, Regencys did get new door panels with even more fake wood than before. Curb weight was up by about 80 pounds–perhaps due to the additional simulated wood-grain?

The LS interior continued unchanged from 1977-78. To modern eyes, it seems much less baroque than the Regency thrones. I really, The pastel green shown on the ’79 LS coupe seen above was a one-year-only color. Perhaps due to its resemblance to “hospital green” maybe! it was also available on other 1979 B- and C-bodies; I’ve seen it on Electras, Bonnevilles and Caprices too.

Buyers were spoiled for color choices, as you can see in the period brochure pictures and our two featured 1978 Regencys. Note: the green had been on offer at Gateway Classic Cars but sold as of this writing, and sold for $13,995. I think the days of these being cheap $500 used cars are gone. Now where was I? Available 1978 colors included carmine red metallic, russet metallic, light green metallic (your author’s preferred color), light camel beige, pastel blue and dark blue metallic. Interior colors were just as bright, what with red, blue, green, camel, black and white hues all on offer.

Some new colors, including pastel green, pastel yellow and dark brown metallic (replacing dark carmine metallic), were added for ’79. Yes, in the late ’70s, color selections were much more diverse than today. I mean, look–there’s only one silver! However, many of these late ’70s Oldses were brown or gold–just as so many of today’s cars are gray, white and black.

This white Regency with its red interior and vivid red top looked really good to me, although I’d have tossed those Tahoe/Suburban alloys and replaced them with factory alloy wheels or wire wheel covers. Still, it was a pretty clean survivor, considering the winters we endure around here. And I am VERY glad it hasn’t succumbed to the purple-with-lime-green-trim-and-honking-big-wheels syndrome so many vintage GM luxury cars are saddled with today.

I saw this car one Sunday in January 2013 while driving through downtown Moline. There was a flash of red off to the left and I had to investigate. It was certainly a nice bit of color on what was a typical gray, gloomy winter afternoon. As you might be able to glean from the pictures, the top has been painted–but to my eyes, that didn’t detract from anything. Brighter than the factory red vinyl top, but not bad.

As the 1970s tagline said, “There is a special feel in an Oldsmobile.” I still believe that’s true of these Ninety-Eights today. And I still miss Oldsmobile.

7 Replies to “1977-79 Oldsmobile 98 Regency – The Thinking Man’s Cadillac”

  1. John C.

    You think of the small town leaders in cars like this. I wonder about the young priests, bank clerks, and young legal associates accompanying their older collegues to lunch or a meeting in a car like this. Still probably driving an old Nova and dreaming about a Cutlass. The future was still bright.

    Reply
  2. Yesac13

    See that picture with the caption: Ninety-Eight: Under all that elegance, a lot of solid engineering.

    That one… EXACT same one my late Gramps drove. 79′ one. Same wheels, same color interior, same color top, same color interior. Metallic brown.

    I drove it in 1998 just before he gave it away to my cousin who promptly killed it within two years… The steering was surprisingly decent feeling, power was ok but not wow. Plenty of torque. It did average 24 mpg on the highway which is pretty damn good. Ran real good and smooth – better than most cars of that time but suspension did bounce up and down too much in some potholes. From a 1998 context 165,000 miles were amazing to me, most cars I knew was junked long before that mileage was reached. All orginal. A/C ran cold. Almost no rust, it wasn’t driven in winters much.

    The headliner did sag and my Gramps used screws to hold it up. Ugly! He also taped over the power window switches. I pressed them hard and found out why he taped over them… FASTEST MOST POWERFUL power windows EVER. So much that I was afraid I would shatter the windows. So I had to press slowly… the tapes helped me modulate the up/down more safely. I never got to ask my gramps but the taped down switches probably is an indication he did shatter a window. These power windows really were terrifying. I wouldn’t be surprised of some people lost their fingers with these windows.

    That Olds was my gramps primary car in the early to mid 1980s. Then it became his second car mostly driven in Maine summers. He drove Lincolns usually… The Olds was the only one he did not pass down after 5 years.. kept it for 19 years which says something. All of his Lincolns he passed down to my uncle or aunts after 5-6 years old and 100k. They then drove them into the ground… 200-300k miles which is impressive in the 1990s context… still impressive even today!

    Reply
  3. Glenn Kramer

    Tom,
    Another great article. I remember when the downsized ’77s came out, I had hoped that GM would focus on the interiors to divert from the smaller exterior dimensions. It was sad that particularly Cadillac ( I had a ’76 Eldorado convertible and was really disappointed with the interior quality) had actually gone cheaper, in the guise of saving weight. The ’77s were very well engineered, but suffered from the typical GM bean counting inside. At least the 98 Regency’s velour seats held up!

    Reply
  4. carnut1978

    My mom had a 1978 Ninety Eight Regency, dark brown with tan vinyl top and brown leather interior. Back in those days, the law did not require you to wear seat belts. A lady riding with her to work fell in the floor one day when mom put on brakes because the leather seats were so slick.

    Reply

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