Art of the Automobile

21 November 2013

Lot 128

1958 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Convertible

To be auctioned on Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sold for $258,500

  • Chassis no. 589M12628
History is important to us, and all lots offered are fully researched. All corresponding information and accessories, from certificates to tool kits, stays with the lots we sell. All of this is held at our library on site, under the Access the Knowledge banner, so please visit us there or contact us before the auction if you require further information.


  • The ultimate American automobile of Detroit’s “Chrome Age,” and the finest example in existence
  • Equipped with virtually every factory option, including the “J-2” engine and air suspension
  • Multiple-award-winning restoration


The story of Harley Earl has become a part of Motor City lore. The young coachbuilder’s son arrived from sunny, star-spangled Hollywood in 1927, and through his use of clay models, he showed General Motors just what he could do. He was essentially given carte blanche to set up the first in-house styling department at any major American automaker. By the time he reached GM’s mandatory retirement age of 65, in 1959, Earl had become a titan of the industry, with his offices across from the majestic Fisher Building in Detroit. He is given credit for everything from tailfins to the Corvette, and to this day, over four decades after his death, his shoes are those that American designers still try to fill.

What makes this all the more astounding is that, by most all accounts, Harley Earl could not draw, and as a result, he very seldom created a from-scratch design out of his own head. His talent was that rare skill of being able to recognize in others a gift that one’s own self does not have, and to shape and direct that talent towards a single goal.

In Michael Lamm and Dan Holls’s landmark, A Century of Automotive Style, stylist Orval Sanders told of his boss’s style:

"When Mr. Earl entered the studio, he’d first go to where we were doing the full-sized line drawings on these huge blackboards. Everyone in the studio would follow him and converge on that area. Mr. Earl would walk over, pick up one of the new Bertoia wire-mesh chairs, and walk toward the board, holding the chair cupped around his rear end. He would sit down around 10 feet from the board and would direct me to move the lines up or down as he chose, sometimes only 1/8 inch. As he was directing the placement of these lines, he would often also be pointing with the toe of his shoe."

It was those little changes, in the end, that would often make all the difference in the success of a finished design.

Earl’s hands may not have been as skilled as some, but his eye for beauty was undeniable. It was led by his famous credo that guided GM design for over 30 years: “Go all the way, then back off.”

The 1958 models for all General Motors lines began development back in 1955, when post-war America was in a very special mood and mindset. Suburbs were spreading and business was booming. Prosperity was everywhere, and Americans just could not get enough of those new cars that Detroit was building. They wanted models tailored to their new lives. That meant extra comfort, which meant extra size. Gasoline was 23 cents a gallon, so the more power for cruising those new interstate highways the better. Most importantly, the cars had to reflect the American persona, which meant that they had to not only lead the world, but they also had to look the part of a leader. That meant lots of steel, lots of glass, and, especially, lots of chrome.

Oldsmobile’s 1958 model arguably represented the ultimate expression of that idea. It was not larger than the 1957 model; in fact, the wheelbases and chassis remained largely the same. However, the body design was all new, and considerable amounts of chrome were used to make the car appear longer and lower, including long vertical strips along the rear fenders and the “eyebrows,” which trailed back from the quad headlamps. The effect was of a car that appeared to be “painted” with chrome. Massive front and rear bumper assemblies, with the rear incorporating Harley Earl’s beloved jet exhaust-inspired tail lamps, completed the ensemble.

The 1958 Oldsmobiles represent a turning point in General Motors design, as well as the ultimate expression of the corporation’s 1950s styling. Today, they are considered some of the most important and valuable of all Detroit-built automobiles, and none more so than the deluxe Ninety-Eight Convertible.

THE BEST OF THE BIGGEST

The Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Convertible offered here represents the top-of-the-line offering from Lansing in 1958, as it incorporates open-air style with such standard luxuries as a Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, a dual exhaust, an electric clock, and “lounge seats.” Some 5,605 were produced, at a staggering cost of $4,200 each.

Among them was this car, which is offered today from a very well-respected collection. It had remained in the care of the original family since new, until shortly before the owner’s acquisition, and he was thrilled to find it a solid, rust-free, original example, with only 54,000 actual miles recorded. A no-expense-spared restoration was conducted in Florida, bringing the car to superb, show-quality condition.

The crowning touch to an outstanding restoration was that this is among the best-optioned 1958 Oldsmobiles in existence, and it was fitted with almost every rare and desirable accessory. There is power everything, of course, but it also has the most desirable “J-2” 312-horsepower V-8, with its triple two-barrel carburetors. Inside, there is factory air conditioning and a new optional feature for 1958, the Trans-Portable radio, which can be slipped out of the dashboard and carried with the owner to the beach or on a picnic. Underneath is New-Matic air suspension, which was incredibly expensive when new; it is present on this Ninety-Eight and is still fully functional. Both the Trans-Portable radio and New-Matic suspension are incredibly rare, and to find a car with both today is almost unheard-of.

Since the restoration was completed, the Oldsmobile has been strictly a show car, and its career on the show field has been spectacular. Most prominently, it was shown at the Oldsmobile Nationals, where it was the highest scoring car present and won Best of Class. It earned AACA Grand National Senior honors, followed by the R.E. Olds Memorial Trophy in 2003, which was awarded by General Motors to the finest restored Oldsmobile shown at an AACA national meet.

Looking back at the 1958 models, particularly the Ninety-Eight, one might say that it took Earl 31 years to go all the way. When he retired shortly thereafter, GM would back off. It was as much about sales as it was symbolism, and it marked the end of an era when bigger was better, there was no such thing as “too fast,” and chrome was king.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alain Squindo


Detroit, Michigan

Alain Squindo joined RM Auctions in 2007, after graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in History. R... read more

Alex Classick

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+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Alex Classick joined RM Europe in 2011 as a car specialist, after graduating from Nottingham University with a degree in Business Mana... read more

Alexander Weaver

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California, USA

Alexander Weaver joined RM Auctions in 2011 as a car specialist, after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born into ... read more

Annette Abaci

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Germany

With post-secondary degrees in Economic Science and Mechanical Engineering, Annette Abaci initially worked part-time at Mercedes-Benz ... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

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+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a senior car specialist, after more than a decade in the collector car hobby... read more

Dan Warrener

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Ontario, Canada

Possessing a degree in Economics from Brandon University, Dan Warrener spent the initial stages of his career working around the globe... read more

Don Rose

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United States

Don Rose joined RM Auctions in 2006, after many years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputatio... read more

Donnie Gould

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Florida, USA

Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

Gord Duff

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Ontario, Canada

Gord joined RM Auctions in 1998, initially responsible for the transportation and logistics of the company’s auction and restora... read more

Ian Kelleher

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New York, United States

Ian Kelleher began his automotive career immediately following his graduation from Oberlin College, with a B.A. in Politica... read more

Jack Boxstrom

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+1 818 703 2816
Ontario, Canada

Jack Boxstrom joined RM Auctions in late-1996 to assist with the recently acquired, and subsequently record-breaking, auction in Monte... read more

Max Girardo

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+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Max Girardo started his career in the vintage automobile industry in 1998, joining Brooks Auctioneers (now Bonhams) as a car specialis... read more

Mike Fairbairn

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+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

As one of the three founding partners of RM Auctions, Mike Fairbairn has a longstanding interest in the classic car industry. Graduati... read more

Peter Wallman

pwallman@rmauctions.com

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Peter Wallman joined RM Europe in 2007, following nearly two decades in the international advertising industry, read more

Peter Giddings

pgiddings@rmauctions.com

+1 925 831 2048
California, United States

A life-long car enthusiast, Peter joined RM’s California office with over half a century of experience in the automotive and rac... read more

Peter Blond

pblond@rmauctions.com

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Peter Blond joined the RM Europe team in 2013 after being immersed in the collector car industry for more than 60 years. An... read more

Rob Myers

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+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

As chairman and founder of the RM Group of Companies, Rob Myers’s entire career has been devoted to the classic car industry. Ro... read more

Shelby Myers

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California, USA

Shelby Myers literally grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to w... read more

Vinnie Mandzak

vmandzak@rmauctions.com

+1 310 559 4575
California, USA

Vinnie Mandzak joined RM Auctions’ California office in 2012 as a car specialist, following more than 30 years’ experience... read more

Jeff Whiteside

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+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

Jeff Whiteside joined RM Auctions as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer following almost three decades in a diverse r... read more