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1961-1966 Oldsmobile Starfire

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Image: 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire ConvertibleThe U.S. auto industry had begun to change by 1953. The war was over, materials that had been hard or impossible to procure during the war were now available, and the automotive stylists had the time they needed to create new designs. One of the new cars for 1953 was the Chevrolet Corvette. A fiberglass-bodied, two passenger sports car with a six cylinder engine that was in response to demand from soldiers returning home after the war.

While overseas during the war, American G.I.'s had the opportunity to inspect the foreign sports cars up close, and they liked what they saw. When they returned home, the two and four door sedans and full sized convertibles just didn't do much for them. Truly, there was nothing built by an American car maker that compared to the European sports cars. Until Corvette. The Corvette was a bit utilitarian in that it didn't offer many of the conveniences Americans had come to expect from their cars. There were no roll-up windows in the doors, plastic side curtains were provided when it rained. Only one color combination was offered in its maiden year—a distinctive Polo White body with a red vinyl interior and black canvas top. Powered by a 235 cubic inch 150-horsepower six cylinder engine, the little car was not exactly fast, but it was a good performer. First year production was limited to just 300 cars, with the first 15 cars hand-built in the back of a customer delivery garage in Flint, Michigan. The first 1953 Corvette was completed on June 30, 1953. Priced at $3,498, just two options were available, a signal seeking AM radio ($145.15), and a heater ($91.40). Shipping and handling ran an additional $248. A new production facility to build Corvettes in St. Louis, Missouri was completed, and the American sports car was ready to go.

You might be wondering what this has to do with the Oldsmobile Starfire. We're getting to that. At the time, Ford and Chevrolet competed with each other model for model. The new Corvette almost demanded a response from Ford, and as the first Corvette rolled off the line in 1953, Ford was already well into the design stage for its new two passenger sports car. But Ford had a different way of looking at sports cars. Rather than build a basic, utilitarian car, Ford thought it should have all the modern conveniences and luxuries Americans had come to expect from their cars. So, Ford's new car would include things like a V-8 engine, roll-up windows, tachometer, and a telescoping steering column as standard, and offer luxury options such as power windows and seat so the car could be tailor made to suit the buyer's preferences.

Early advertisements for the new 1955 Ford Thunderbird referred to the car as a sports car, but it wasn't long before it became known as a personal car. Ford marketing predicted a market for 15,000 cars a year, and the stylish little Bird sold more than that during its first year. But soon after the T-birds hit America's boulevards, Ford began getting feedback from owners and dealers. The luggage compartment was too small. The interiors were too warm. It was hard to see out of. And there was no room for a family. It was obvious the market for the two passenger car was very limited, and many of the same people who clamored for a sports car a few years earlier, now needed more room for their family.

Enter the personal luxury car. The 1958 Ford Thunderbird was a stylish four passenger car, very compact in size but with all the room inside four people could possibly want. Individual front seats with a center console between them that flowed from the instrument panel all the way to the back seat gave the interior a totally new look. It was sporty, but not a sports car. It was luxurious, but not a traditional luxury car. It was a personal car. And it was a sensation. In its first year, the 1958 T-bird was one of only two cars to show a production increase during the recession year of 1958. And there was virtually nothing on the road to compete with it. Chrysler's 300 was introduced in 1955, but it was based on a full-size body, which it shared with other Chrysler vehicles. The T-bird was unique, and shared only mechanical components with other Fords. GM had virtually nothing like it, and knew it needed to respond quickly.

Image: 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire interiorThe first GM division to market a personal luxury car was Oldsmobile, with the introduction of the 1961 Starfire. This sleek two door convertible was introduced late in the model year on January 1, 1961. Based on the full-sized Eighty Eight series, it came with a slightly more powerful motor, rated at 330 horsepower with 440 lb.-ft. of torque at 2800 r.p.m. Dual exhausts were standard.

Brushed aluminum side panels swept down the side of the car giving it a distinct appearance. White sidewall tires were standard, as was a high-torque 3.42-to-1 rear axle. Inside, sporty foam-cushioned front bucket seats were separated by a center console. Genuine top-grain leather upholstery covered the seats, and a tachometer was provided in the console.

A console-mounted stick control was provided to operate the standard Hydra-Matic Drive, as was a lockable storage compartment between the front seats. Interior luxuries included power driver's seat and power windows, aluminum-accented carpet inserts, and a matching carpeted luggage compartment.

The Starfire was the best equipped and most expensive Oldsmobile you could buy in 1961. Priced at $4,647, 7,800 were built.

A two door Holiday Hardtop joined the line for 1962, expanding the appeal of the Starfire to a greater number of people. Sales exploded, and 34,839 of the hardtops were built, priced at $4,131. The convertible also was available, and 7,149 were assembled and sold for $4,744. Starfire would reflect styling changes to the Oldsmobile line each year, but would offer unique interior and exterior trim to set it apart that wasn't shared with the rest of the Olds line.

Model year 1963 would see GM's Buick Division launch its new Riviera, a sleekly-styled two door personal luxury hardtop. Also designed to compete with the Ford Thunderbird, the Riviera was initially envisioned for Cadillac, but Cadillac didn't want it as it was selling as many Cadillacs as it could build at the time, and was working with Oldsmobile on a new front wheel drive platform intended to launch new front drive personal luxury coupes a few years down the road. Buick limited production of the Riviera in 1963 to just 40,000 units to ensure exclusivity.

For 1963, Olds built 21,489 Starfire Hardtops at $4,129, and 4,401 Convertibles priced at $4,742.

Starfire styling continued to change each year along with other Oldsmobiles, and sales and production would drop significantly in 1964. Just 13,753 of the $4,128 Holiday Hardtops would be built, and convertible sales would drop to their lowest level ever at 2,410. The convertible cost $4,742. This sales trend would continue for 1965, despite a handsome restyle. The Starfire Hardtop sold for $4,148 and 13,024 were built. The convertible was $4,778 and 2,236 were built. 1965 would be the last year the Starfire would be Oldsmobile Division's only personal luxury offering. The front drive car Olds had been working on was ready to be launched the following year, and it would overshadow the Starfire.

1966 would be the final year for the Oldsmobile Starfire, and it's almost as if Olds decided to sacrifice the Starfire to make room for its new star—the Toronado. The glamorous Starfire Convertible was dropped, and just a two door hardtop was offered. Priced at $4,013, the new lower price reflected a reduction in standard equipment. Power windows and seats were now optional, and leather upholstery was nowhere to be found on the option list. Since these items weren't standard on the Toronado, Oldsmobile obviously couldn't continue to provide them as such on the Starfire. With the new Toronado receiving all the attention, production of the lone Starfire Hardtop for 1966 accounted for just 13,019 units. It very quietly disappeared at the end of the year.

The Starfire name would be revived in 1975 and applied to a 2-door hatchback coupe that was physically the smallest Oldsmobile that had been built in years. A derivative of the Chevrolet Monza, it was priced at the bottom of the Oldsmobile market instead of the top, as it originally had been. The Starfire was dropped in December 1979, after only 8,237 of the 1980 models had been built. It's unfortunate that the Starfire name was ever applied to this car, as it had very little in common with the originals.

All 1961-1966 Starfires are collectible today, with special emphasis on the first year models, and the convertibles. While many of the mechanical parts were shared with other Olds models, the unique pieces of trim found only on the Starfire can be elusive today.

The 1961-1966 Oldsmobile Starfire is scheduled to be published as part of Phase Four of Automotive Mileposts. This page will serve as a place holder until the various year sections are published, and will then serve as a main navigational page for the model.

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Image: Starfire