Stunning, one-of-a-kind wagon

It’s a fairly common story. A guy is into cars in his youth, but then acquires family and professional obligations and his hobbies, quite properly, are pushed into the background. That’s how it was for Ron Walder.

Fast forward a couple of decades, though, and “all of a sudden the kids are older and I’ve got a little more money and I started playing with cars again,” he says.

One day in 2000, Walder was driving north of Calgary when he made a discovery that would affect the next decade of his life.

“I saw this thing from the road and I didn’t know what it was,” he recalls. “I drove in the yard one day and I bought it.”

“This thing” was a 1958 Oldsmobile 88 Fiesta station wagon — and it was in pretty rough shape.

“The last plate was 1979,” Walder continues.

“The transmission was blown — that’s probably why he parked it. It was parked outside that whole time, unfortunately, because the mice got into it. They just ruined the whole thing — wrecked the whole car.

“There was terrible rust on it, as well — huge holes.”

Walder says the rodents had built nests in the tailpipe and mufflers all the way up to the engine itself. The interior was also destroyed.

With the car in such terrible condition, the wise course would seem to have been to quit before even starting.

“I went ahead because it was rare,” Walder explains. “Nobody’s ever seen one. Most station wagons didn’t survive because people starting using them as trucks. It’s only in the last 10 years that people started wanting to restore station wagons.”

The term “station wagon” was first used to refer to specially-bodied vehicles used by hotels and resorts to transfer customers and their luggage to and from the railroad station.

In the 1950s, however, the station wagon became the vehicle of choice for suburban families that needed to carry the children of the baby boom, as well as a week’s worth of groceries. The Oldsmobile division of General Motors was a little late getting to the station wagon party, taking until 1957 to offer cars in this configuration.

Since he was buying the car from the son of the original owner, Walder was able to get some of its history.

It was ordered at General Sales Limited (now GSL Chevrolet) and still wears the dealer badge on the tailgate. The buyer, owner of a Calgary tire business, actually wanted a ’57 but was told he was too late and would have to take a ’58.

Once the car was built at the main Olds plant in Lansing, Mich., he travelled back East and took delivery there. This was often done back then, both to save the freight charges and to allow the owner a chance to break in the car on the long drive back.

The records indicate that only 3,249 wagons like Walder’s were built in ’58. He was to discover that his car was a lot rarer than the numbers indicate.

“I had the whole thing apart,” Walder explains. “I had the body off the frame and the serial number is stamped in two places on the frame. I looked at the numbers and I thought, ‘That’s weird. There’s a lot of zeros, and a one.’ It was a real surprise to me.”

Walder’s project was the very first Oldsmobile built for the 1958 model year.

“I believe the first ones in those years were built off-line, by hand,” he says. “They didn’t want to get a thousand cars on the assembly line and find out something didn’t fit.”

Walder began to find other clues to the car’s unique story.

“There are some funny things about it,” he says. “The welding on one side of the frame is perfect. The other side was the worst welding I’ve ever seen in my life. Every weld was gobby and patchy and cracked. I had to grind out all those welds and reweld the frame on that side of the car. They must have been teaching somebody.”

Other oddities are the backup light wire, which is separate from the rest of the wiring harness, and the induction system on the 371 cubic inch V-8.

While rebuilding the power plant with some help from the SAIT automotive technician program, Walder discovered that the single two-barrel carburetor is mounted on an intake manifold originally built to take three.

“When I realized what I had, I had to do everything exactly the way it was made,” Walder says.

“I couldn’t change anything.”

To further his aim of keeping the car correct, Walder built a rotisserie. “It’s maybe not the best thing to do because once you have it up on the rotisserie, you realize you have another couple of years of work. Another problem is that the car gets about five times as big once you take it apart. You need a huge (storage) area. It’s a good thing I have a good wife because there were car parts all over the house for 10 years.”

Although he was able to do much of the metal work himself, Walder had an outside shop do the upholstery.

“They were able to find the original Olds cloth. It’s all the original colours,” he says.

The transmission was rebuilt, after being turned down by numerous local shops, by a technician who learned to work on GM Hydra-Matic units working on buses in his home country.

In the summer of 2009, Walder put the Oldsmobile on the road.

“These old cars, they just float,” he says, adding. “For a heavy car, it has a lot of power.”

The car was driven about a thousand miles each summer and the odometer is still under 100,000.

“My family kept saying, ‘You can’t do it,’ when I first got it,” Walder says, adding that he thinks the challenge kept him at it.

“I’m not out to make any money on it, so it doesn’t matter how long it takes. When you’re working on each individual little part, you can do your 100 per cent work. That’s the reward you get out of it.”

Photograph by: Gavin Young, Calgary Herald