1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass • 25,000 miles

Hi, I have a 1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon sitting in my garage that belonged to my Grandfather that passed away when I was just a few months old. I was looking at it a few days ago and I was thinking that it would be really special for his car to be my first car. They car hasn't been used since 1991 (the year I was born). Here's what I know about the car: it has no body damage, one of the brake lights doesn"t work, my uncle took out the battery and a few other parts, it may have possibly needed a new muffler, and the driver side door won't open for some reason. So given the information I provided in your opinion how much would it cost to get it running again not including, new tires, paint job, radio, speakers, etc?
June 28, 2012.

What you're describing is normal maintenance and repairs, not a restoration. A true restoration involves replacing rusted sheet metal, painting inside and outside, and replacing the upholstery and carpet, ... Things like that. Cost for that depends on the quality of the body shop and how much work is needed. Every car is different so they usually go according to time spent on the car or they will give you a set price, then work on it as time allows. Regular body shops usually won't take on a full restoration. That is done by shops that specialize in that work.

I have a '72 Dodge Challenger being restored right now and it has been many years since it was started. A very involved job can easily cost over $40,000.00. From what you described, start with cleaning the car up to see what the body really looks like. Don't wax it yet if you think it might need a paint job. That would be just that much more they have to strip off.

If you look for an original radio from a salvage yard, do not buy one from a car that was missing the windshield. In that era, GM radios were not tolerant of moisture damage.

Jun 28, 2012.
Thanks. I washed some of the car yesterday and overall it is in good condition. There were a few rust spots. They are kind of circular and smaller than the size of a penny. As far as the radio is concerned I wanted something with a cd player and aux jack for my mp3 player but I still want the vintage look. I know of something that plugs into the cigarette lighter and plays mp3 files through an unused fm radio frequency so that might be an option. So in your opinion what can be done about the little rust spots and radio? Now that I know it's just normal repair and maintenance how much do you think it would cost to get it up and running again?

Jun 28, 2012.
Even a ball park figure is impossible for us to estimate because there's way too many variables. You should be aware that small rust spots usually turn into a much larger repair by the time the rust hidden under the paint is uncovered and the paint is blended in. Old paint will be faded and very hard to match. It's easier to paint an entire panel or at least up to a seam, body line, or some other natural break.

Paint has gotten real expensive too. $100.00 per quart is not unheard of. It can take over a gallon to paint some entire cars. Your best bet is to visit a few body shops to ask questions about your plans. Look at how clean the shop is. If the floor and window sills are full of sanding dust, so are the light fixtures. That indicates the guy painting the car will have a real hard time telling if the colors match. If the people are wearing uniforms with their names on them, the shop owner takes pride in his work. If employees are running around in tattered, paint-stained jeans, they may still be very experienced and highly skilled, but how they dress matches the shop's professionalism.

Most bodymen dislike repairing rust because they know it can be hard to get all of it and it's going to come back. They would rather be hanging new panels. They might tell you one of the younger employees will do the rust repair and they will charge less per hour. At another shop they might have a more experienced person do the work to get it done faster. The point is the shop with the lowest hourly labor rate is rarely the best value. Some may offer you a better deal if you'll let them take their time and work on it between other more pressing jobs.

If possible, lock in a firm price once they've seen the car. That will usually be higher than from those who only charge by the hour because they know they are going to run into surprises they didn't expect and they'll be planning for that when they calculate the estimate. If a shop will only give you an hourly rate and they estimate the number of hours, it is almost certain the final bill will be a lot higher than what you'll be expecting. They can estimate crash damage accurately because there are books that list every car, every part, and how long it should take to replace them. If they work more efficiently and beat those times, you pay the same amount but they make more dollars per hour and can get more jobs done in a week. If they work slower or have to do something over, you still pay the same but they make less per hour. That system is called "flat rate". It is used by most repair and body shops. That is only for standardized, repeatable procedures though. Every job is different when it comes to rust.

I'm getting ready to repair and sell car radios at the nation's second largest old car show swap meet in two weeks at Iola, WI. A few years ago there was a large vendor there who had dozens of new radios built to look like original radios but with hidden CD players and Ipod jacks. I haven't seen him the last few years but you might try doing an internet search to see what's available. You might also consider mounting a six-disc changer in the trunk that uses an FM modulator to play through the FM radio. I have one in my '93 Dynasty, but what I found is no matter which discs I stuck in at home, that's not what I want to listen to now. I prefer to listen to conservative talk radio now instead of music. That car only has 4,200 miles so you can see the CD player doesn't get used much.

Jun 28, 2012.
You have a good taste in cars I see. Thanks a lot for all of your help. I washed the car again today and what I thought were rust spots was actually just caked on dirt. Like I said it's been sitting in the garage since '91. The body is in mint condition and the only rust I found was on the outer edges of the rims. They would be getting replaced anyway so no big deal. I know you say there are a lot of variables but can you give me some type of number? I am saving money now and I just need some kind of target to shoot for. I am also interested in an '02 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that I found going for about $6,500. So I would like to know if it would be better to fix my grandad's car or just get the Trans Am? (Sorry I keep bothering you)

Jun 28, 2012.
I'd go with the '75 but I'm very biased against newer cars. The single biggest drawback to the older one is the distributor. It will most likely still have breaker points which require a lot of periodic maintenance, but on the '02 you have to worry about failing sensors that can leave you sitting on the side of the road or with a no-start condition when warm. GM used a very nice "High Energy Ignition (HEI) electronic distributor starting in '76. It can be retrofitted to older engines.

Newer cars are very clean out the tail pipe thanks to electronic fuel injection and computer controls but they also make use of numerous insane unnecessary computers that needlessly complicate what used to be reliable systems. Power windows, power locks, heating and air conditioning, automatic transmissions, head lights, interior lights, and the radio are all things you can expect to have a computer involved on newer cars, and they are all systems that cause a whole lot more trouble because of that.

Which car you pick is also determined by what your intent is as far as doing repairs yourself. Diagnostics on newer cars is very limited if you don't have a scanner, and GM doesn't release much information to the public when it comes to that. You won't have any trouble finding mechanical and electrical parts for the '75 engine. Body panels and interior parts will be harder. For both cars you can head to a salvage yard but you know there's going to be fewer '75s there.

One common heartache on the '02 is the generator. I write about this every day. Due to its design, starting with '87 models, it produces huge voltage spikes that destroy the internal diodes and voltage regulator, and they can interfere with computers and their sensor signals. It's real common to go through four to six in the life of the vehicle. The '75 uses a very nice generator design. Repair parts are very inexpensive and it's easy to take apart and fix. I have a page on my web site on testing and repairing it.

GM has designed in a lot of stuff to separate owners from their money after the sale. That started getting real bad with '02 models and is much worse today. I don't know if they had that mentality back in the '70s, but there isn't anything on the '75 that has to go back to the dealer. If your goal is to learn about cars in general, the '75 is a good starting point, then you can progress to what came later and in some ways are better. If your goal is to just know your own personal car inside out and do all the repairs yourself, go with the '75. If you want as little regular maintenance as possible and are willing to run to a mechanic with every problem, go with the newer car. There are still a lot of things you can do yourself but be prepared for more expensive repair costs. With the older cars, if you come back here and list the symptoms of a problem you're having, a half dozen people will respond with the fix. On the newer cars, a half dozen people will respond with a list of diagnostic tests that might lead to some suggestions.

Here's some of the comparisons in repair costs on vehicles I've owned or been involved with:

The last mechanical fuel pump I installed on a '78 Chrysler Lebaron 318, about 1995: $14.00 including a new fuel filter. (Very low failure rate, and even a leaking pump will still get you back home).

In-tank electric fuel pump on my mother's '95 Grand Caravan, replaced at the dealership ten years ago: $450.00. (Higher failure rate. Chrysler pumps typically fail to start up resulting in a no-start, but once running, they continue running).

In-tank electric fuel pump on a former student's parent's 02 Chevy Lumina APV, done at the dealership about eight years ago: $650.00. (Higher failure rate. GM pumps typically start up, then fail while driving letting you sit in a puddle of tears alongside the road).

Ignition coil last year on my daily driver '88 Grand Caravan: $0.00 because it was used, but a new one would have cost less than 20 bucks.

Ignition coil on a 2010 Chevy Colorado: $42.00, and there's four of them.

Alternator repair on my '88 Grand Caravan: $9.00 for the brush assembly and one hour to replace it.

Generator replacement for the third time on a friend's '98 Chevy Malibu three years ago, (diagnostics of internal parts is not possible, and disassembly without destroying it is almost as bad): $240.00 with a one-year warranty was available from one supplier. He found one with a lifetime warranty for $180.00.

About the only alternator repair my '72 Challenger or '80 Volare will ever need is a pair of brushes. I can buy them from a local rebuilder for $3.00 each. Your '75 may develop a defective internal voltage regulator. Diagnosis is very easy and the part costs less than $15.00, and comes with new brushes. A failed "diode trio" was also common, does not require immediate attention, and costs around five bucks. To learn more about that generator, go to:

Besides lower cost of repairs, keep in mind the '75 will be going up in value as long as it's kept in good condition. The '02 is going down in value, although not necessarily desirability. Value is not important unless you plan on reselling the car at some point.

GM builds about 80 percent of their own parts so they can somewhat set the prices to whatever they want for replacements. Chrysler buys about 80 percent of their parts from other suppliers so they can shop around for the best price. Most of those suppliers also sell to the aftermarket parts stores which try to sell to you at the lowest cost to remain competitive. Those are the only two manufacturers I know the history on because two very good Chrysler instructors used to work for GM so they knew both of them very well.

If you should decide you don't like the '75 with its carburetor and lack of unnecessary "toys" and gimmicks, you will have no trouble selling it. List it on eBay or a national internet site because you will attract buyers from all over the country. If you don't like the '02, it is a model that also will probably sell quickly, but no one is going to travel long distances to look at it because there will be plenty of similar models all over. There are always exceptions, but in general, there will be little chance of a buyer being surprised by that intermittent problem you didn't disclose on the older car. If it starts and runs, doesn't overheat on a test drive, and everything works properly, it is likely to keep on working properly. With newer cars with computer controls, it is real common to find unknown problems, even those the seller didn't know about. For that reason a buyer is taking a much bigger risk with a newer car. We read every day here about someone who "just bought this car", and they're having a problem. Very often people sell cars with problems to get rid of them rather than endure the cost of repair or the frustration of trying to determine the cause. People are less likely to sell a car privately that doesn't have a problem. The notable exception is like in your case when it belonged to someone else.

Jun 28, 2012.
Wow thanks a lot. I have no intentions of selling the car. I would like to keep it in the family because of how special it is. If I decided to just get another car right now what in your opinion would be a good first car. I want something fast, sporty, reliable and good on gas. The Cutlass is a V8 and with my current job and crazy price of gas I'm not sure if the '75 is the way to go right now. It's 66 miles going back and forth to work.

Jun 29, 2012.
I am prejudiced against newer cars so everything I recommend in that regard should be considered a one-sided opinion. There are others here who will disagree with me and their opinions are just as valid.

My personal favorite is the Dodge Shadow / Plymouth Sundance. They are real easy to work on, the common problems have inexpensive fixes, they aren't loaded with insane computers that do things computers were never needed for before, and they're REALLY tough little ostrich eggs. A friend who used to own a body shop had one. His girlfriend pulled into traffic and got broad-sided in the driver's door by an '80s Olds Cutlass going 35 mph. The inside door panel never got touched thanks to a heavy steel beam in it. Her only injury was a bad bump on the side of her head.

If you can find one of those cars with the 3.0L V-6 engine you'll have more than enough power to get yourself in trouble. You can identify them by the bulge in the driver's side of the hood. Most of them came with the 2.5L four cylinder which is just fine. That has been a very popular and reliable engine. It is not an "interference" engine. On an interference engine, if the timing belt breaks, the open valves will hit the pistons as they coast to a stop and be bent. That necessitates a valve job and new head gasket. About the only thing to watch out for on the 3.0L is if there's lots of blue oil smoke from the tail pipe. In the late '80s and early '90s they had a problem where the exhaust valve guides, which are hardened steel tubes pressed into the aluminum head, would slide down into the combustion chamber. The engine would run fine but that caused the oil control seal to pop off and oil would run down the valve stems into the combustion chamber where it was burned. There was a service bulletin and some inexpensive tools for fixing that by placing a wire ring around the inserts so they couldn't slide down again. By now I'm pretty sure all of those engines have had that repair. By the way, the 3.0L is also not an interference engine. I prefer the two-door models for looks but the four-door is the same car. Try to find one from the early to mid '90s because it will have an air bag. THAT is appropriate use of a computer. As I recall, you won't find one with anti-lock brakes; another nice feature in Chrysler products.

The next step up is the Dodge Spirit / Plymouth Acclaim. Not exactly sporty cars but still very reliable and inexpensive to fix. They only came in a four-door version and were advertised as six passenger cars, but at least some of them had better be pretty small. None of those cars mentioned so far came with factory CD / cassette players. In '94 or '95 they might have been available with a CD player, but any Chrysler CD / cassette will plug in and most will have the correct mounting ears. The combo radio is built by Mitsubishi and is very high quality. I sell a lot of them for factory upgrades. The CD-only radios were built by Alpine and had more problems.

For me, the top of the line was the Dodge Dynasty. I liked them so much that I ordered one when I learned they were in the last month of production. I ordered every option available except automatic temperature control for the heater / AC system. I'm smart enough to know how to slide a lever if I'm too hot or cold. I don't need a troublesome computer trying to do that for me. The anti-lock brake system on my car is almost identical to the system on the Chevy Caprice Classic but the Chrysler version has one extra valve to isolate the two rear wheels and control them separately. There's more to that story that I don't know because with the Caprice Classic, in an anti-lock stop, you'll keep going and going until they find you in the next county! Cops hated those cars because they took so long to stop from high speeds. That model without anti-lock brakes stopped much faster. You have to understand that the purpose of ABS is not to stop faster although that is what usually happens. The purpose is to prevent any wheel from skidding so you don't lose steering control. A skidding tire has little traction and no steering control. With my Dynasty, on the other hand, I purposely tried to do a panic stop in the dealer's parking lot from 40 mph in the area where sand collected by a large sewer drain. Not only did it stop REAL fast without skidding on that sand, we just about tore the seat belts off their hinges. Very few ABS systems are as effective as that Bendix-10 system. There was a recall on it to replace the piston assembly in the master cylinder. I have the part to do that repair but haven't done it yet since I rarely drive the car. As with all Chrysler safety-related recalls, those parts have a lifetime warranty but I don't know if that just applies to the original owner.

One important thing to watch for on a Dynasty if you're up north where they throw a pound of road salt on an ounce of snow, is the bottoms of the rocker boxes under the doors rust away. They can be entirely gone but you'll never know unless you get down there and look.

I'd stay away from any of the '80s "K-Cars", the Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries. There are a few models that have become somewhat desirable and collectible but for the most part they are a dated design. They were great in their time and helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy, but they aren't sporty, powerful, or outstanding on fuel mileage compared to many newer models.

Absolutely avoid the Stratus / Cirrus / Breeze models. I worked on a lot of them for very minor power steering noise complaints and replacing parts is frustrating at best and impossible without having the car on a hoist. I got spoiled as the dealer's only suspension and alignment expert from working on the older models. Whoever designed these cars should be made to go sit in the corner and reflect on what he has done.

The Sebring / Avenger seem to have more problems than normal and are low on my desirability scale. Same with the early '90s LeBaron convertible. I've never liked the Intrepid and its twins the LHS, 300M, and Concorde. They're hard to work on and seem to have more than their share of breakdowns. Remember, I only see busted cars. I don't see or know how many are out there just zipping along with no problems.

I'd avoid a Neon too. That was the replacement for the Shadow. In comparison, they are little tin cans with a lot of engine problems. I don't think they typically will get the 33 mpg they were rated at. My '80 Volare is twice the weight at 4400 pounds of steel and chrome, and it consistently gets 28.3 mpg in the summer. That's with old technology and no computers. Also avoid anything with the 2.7L engine. Chrysler made a bunch of really nice engines over the years. The 2.7L isn't one of them.

There is not a single Ford product I would want to own. Worst of all, I don't even want to talk with you further if you want a Tempo / Topaz or '80s Escort. Those are honest to goodness killer cars with outer tie rod ends that fall apart without warning leading to loss of steering control. While working at a Sears Auto Center in the '80s for seven years, we averaged over 40 tie rod ends for those cars each week. Our shipment of parts came in every Wednesday, and by Saturday we were buying more from the local auto parts stores. You'll find on those cars the front tires are tipped WAY out on top, over five times more than normal and there is no way to adjust them up straighter during an alignment. Tires will be chewed off in 15,000 miles but the cars ride much smoother than other small cars of the time so Ford sold a lot of them to unsuspecting customers. The Tempo was one of the first cars to have tiny little sheet metal strips going from the middle of the trunk to the wheels to hold them in position. We couldn't believe how flimsy a car could be and still hold somewhat together.

The Taurus / Sable has their own steering, suspension, and alignment misery designed in and is another one to stay away from. A girl turned in front of me about ten years ago with a Taurus and I hit her with my Challenger. That's why my car went to the restoration shop. Had I known I could have easily pulled the crumpled fender away from rubbing on the tire, I could have driven it home. In fact, I drove it like that for another year. On her car, I flattened the right rear wheel down to the ground and pushed over half way across the trunk to the other side of the car. Kind of like steel hitting cardboard. My head lights didn't even break. Her pile was totaled.

My distaste for Ford has mostly to do with the sneaky tricks they do to get people to buy their products. I could list a whole pile of problems with their older trucks and the Bronco 2, but I don't have any experience with the newer stuff after about 2000. A lot of the problems they had went on for many years with no attempt to fix them. Once enough people had experienced those things and learned how common they were, Ford would advertise some "new and redesigned" something to trick people into thinking the problems no longer existed.

I don't like GM for their business practices that cost unsuspecting buyers lots of money after the sale. I've written five-page articles on the tricks they pull and why they prove they don't have the customer's best interest at heart. Salespeople are trained to be extremely high pressure or they don't last on that job. They know all the tricks that while not illegal and not even unethical, they will get you to spend more money and make them more in commissions than at any other dealership. Since the '94 model year, they will no longer sell us radio service manuals or parts. They want to lock up all that repair business for them self. The average is $450.00 to have a cassette radio fixed. I used to charge dealers around Wisconsin $35.00 including return shipping. Their CD players all through the '90s had a 100 percent failure rate for the laser mechanisms. So far I've worked on over 2000 Chrysler radios since the early '90s and I've run into exactly five bad lasers, four of them on Alpine-built units.

Since few independent shops can repair GM radios, many people went to Best Buy to have a nice aftermarket radio installed. Once GM figured out they were losing money there, they started building the Body Computer into them beginning around 2002 on some models. That radio has to remain in the car for many other features to work. Genius! They found another way to bleed money from people but it doesn't do anything to benefit the car owners. GM also has most of their internet-based computer updates locked up so independent shops can't program replacement computers. You'll be stuck going back to the dealer. They only allow independent shops to program three computers because the government has mandated it since they affect emissions. Toyota and Chrysler allow independents to update all of their computers except the Security system for very low cost. Hyundai allows access to anyone for free.

GM also has designed in to their scanner the capability to press "lock" one time to electronically lock all the computers on the car to the radio / Body Computer. Once that programming is done, it can not be undone. If the Body Computer needs to be replaced after that, ALL the other computers must also be replaced and programmed. That takes days and can easily cost more than the car is worth. What possible reason would a company have for designing a car like that?

In many ways Volkswagen is even worse. They also have their tricks designed in that require dragging the car, in park, onto a flatbed truck for a trip to the dealer after simply disconnecting the battery. You don't want to disconnect the battery on a newer GM product either unless you know what will happen. Some cars will work just fine. Some will need to be towed to the dealer.

There's a list of the products I'm familiar with or have been to schools on. There are some issues with Chrysler products too related to their anti-theft systems. ALL manufacturers have common complaints about anti-theft systems that are very effective at preventing owners from driving their cars. I can answer about half of the Chrysler problems and there are a few tidbits of information that you'd want to know if it comes to that.

Keep in mind these are just my opinions, but it's opinions that cause people to buy one product over another. For every car I like, someone else is going to disagree, and that's fine. One thing you might look at is what kind of cars the mechanics are driving and why. Ask other people their opinions too. If you visit a used car lot and just tell them you need a car, without mentioning anything you saw there, the first thing they should do is ask what you'll be using it for. Part of their job is to find what will meet your needs. Instead, if they steer you to a certain car before finding out what you are looking for, that is probably something that's been there a while and they want to unload it. I don't know about all states, but in Wisconsin you can ask for the previous owner's name, then contact them to find out why they traded it and what problems they had.

Rather than try to bore you with any more of my opinions, it would be easier to answer questions about a specific car you're considering. I personally would prefer driving the '75 Cutlass over anything from the last 15 years but I know it will be hard on gas.

Jun 29, 2012.
Thanks a lot for all of your advice. I was thinking an '99 -'02 Firebird but if it is really going to cause that many problems I think I'll decide on something else. I was also thinking something along the lines of a '99 - '04 Monte Carlo SS. I know about the issues with the LS. I like the body of the '99 better. I would like a '01 - '04 Mustang GT (I know it's bad on gas). Maybe a Pontiac Aztek? I like the uniqueness of the car and the interior is kind of cool in my opinion. Also, I know someone who is selling a '99 Blazer. Is there anything you cant tell me about that?

Jun 29, 2012.
For some insite in 98 I bought a 83. Only problem was when I bought it. It sat like that and I had to replace all most all the parts from the car sitting so long. After I fixed it it was a good car. The car is considered a collecter car now and your not gonna find parts at the corner parts stores.

Jun 29, 2012.
You're right about finding parts specific to that car model such as body and interior parts but I think of engine-related electrical parts such as voltage regulators and ignition modules. I can drive to town today and find things like that at most hardware and farm supply stores. We have a small chain of about a dozen home and farm supply stores that even have mechanical voltage regulators for '60s Fords, Chryslers, and GM products in stock. Fan belts are easy to find, radiator hoses are available, and in many cases are easier to order than some of the newer molded hoses that are needed to prevent kinking.

There is nothing that can possibly happen electrically to my '72 Challenger that will let me sit on the side of the road that I can't find a replacement part in town, ... Because there isn't much that can happen. THAT'S what I mean by parts are easy to find and inexpensive. Finding replacement chrome moldings, ignition switches, and heater fan motors, now that's a different story.

As for the Blazer, they eat ball joints and you'll be replacing them every two years. The first ones are hard to get the rivets out for the upper ones, but you use bolts for the replacements. That makes removal real easy next time. The older models used torsion bars for the front springs, at least on the 4wd models. Those are easily adjustable when they sag from age. Funny that the GM and Ford fans used to laugh at the Chryslers that used them since the early '60s. Now both brands have used them in their trucks. The Aztek, in my opinion, was one of many models the engineers made a bet with someone that no matter how ugly they made a car, someone would buy it. Add that to the list of the Pacer, Gremlin, and Murano and its copycat look-a-likes.

No opinion on the Mustang. I haven't driven one and I haven't worked on one. If you're going to buy a car you know doesn't get good fuel mileage, you might as well drive the '75. I never had much appreciation for Ford's designs and I don't expect one car model will change that. The notable exception is one that the top dogs laughed and scoffed at. Later the designer went to Chrysler and they built it, ... The Caravan.

Besides my frustration over GM's business practices, my main complaint is with their miserable generators but I mentioned already that replacing the battery every two or three years will reduce that failure rate. What I would strongly suggest is finding out what will happen after you reconnect a removed battery cable or run the battery dead. I will be pleased to hear you only have to reset the radio stations and clock, then drive off. If you have to tow the car to the dealer to have computers unlocked or reprogrammed, owning a car with those designed-in headaches is not a bargain.

I should add a comment here that I always kept in mind when telling people their tv wasn't worth repair. If I make a recommendation and you buy that product and have problems, you're going to be unhappy with me. If you don't have any problems, you're going to forget about me. Either way I lose, so the best I can do is give you my opinions along with those of other people like cadieman. We all value different things too. I like low-cost repair parts, repair procedures I can perform in my driveway, and no computers for things I can do myself. I prefer being in control of as much as possible. Some people want 12 cup holders, and they value a heater system that can provide air that's two degrees warmer on one side. It depends if you want your car to be a spa or for transportation from where you are to where you're not. Will you get aggravated with every little thing that goes wrong or are you just worried about the big, expensive repairs? Knowing that everyone values different things, my last comment is one I always shared with my students. "You are welcome to prefer any car you want to, but don't tell me yours is better than someone else's unless you can tell me why". Even then, it's still one opinion over another related to one characteristic that might not be of value to that other person.

Jun 29, 2012.