THE MINISTERS always bought them in black, these Oldsmobile Ninety-Eights. They'd get them in black and put little crosses on their license plates. And for those preachers who worried that the public might not get the message, they'd get a cross with a caption that said "Clergy."
Both the car and the crosses were part of a grand sociopolitical scheme in black New Orleans, where I grew up. There, it was okay to be a minister and drive an "Olds 98," the top of the Oldsmobile line. An Olds was not a Cadillac, after all, even though an Olds was just as big and comfortable. The thinking was that a Cadillac would be too showy for a man of the cloth. And being "too showy" could get you into trouble with the congregation and the local police, some of whom apparently thought that the segregationist laws of the period also applied to the kinds of cars blacks should drive.
Anyway, the Olds Ninety-Eight was a neat compromise. It displayed the right amount of humility, rectitude and taste. The cross, too, had multiple meanings. It signaled the ministers' affiliation with a Christian church, of course. But in those times when black men worked on the New Orleans riverfront by day and preached at storefront churches at night, the cross also demanded respect.
"My real job is workin' for the Lord," lots of those preachers would say with conviction. They believed with as much conviction that their Ninety-Eights would crank up every time and get them to wherever they were going.
Hmph. If the proof of faith is in the longevity of an idea, those old black preachers were right. This week's test car, the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan, marks the 50th model year of the Ninety-Eight's existence. That's some kind of run. Amen.
Background: In terms of engineering and mechanics, the Ninety-Eight has changed drastically since its 1941 introduction. Rear-wheel drive is out. Front-wheel drive is in. Double-barreled carburetors have given way to electronically fuel-injected engines. Computers control the car's operation.
Still, though, the bigness of the Olds Ninety-Eight is there -- space for five well-fed passengers and loads of room for their luggage. It's an unapologetic oldsters car, and even Oldsmobile's marketers admit that. The "average buyer" for today's Ninety-Eight is 55 years old, affluent and married with kids who are now -- please, let it be true -- living on their own.
The Ninety-Eight comes in two models, the base Regency Elite and the luxed-out Touring Sedan.
Complaints: Though based on the sumptuous, Jaguaresque Buick Park Avenue Ultra, the Ninety-Eight is distressingly staid for my tastes. I get the feeling that it wants to rock. At 43, I still wanna roll.
Another thing, the test car came with leather seats that squeaked over bumps. Nothing major, but the noise didn't do much to relieve the anxieties of middle age.
Praise: An overall splendid road car. You can cruise forever in this thing, especially if you oil up those leather seats. Other kudos go to the air bag on the driver's side and the Touring Sedan's anti-lock braking system.
Ride, acceleration and handling: This section should be relabeled "float, acceleration and float" for this car. The tested Touring Sedan is supposed to have a harder, more sporting suspension than the Regency Elite. If so, the Regency Elite must be a real marshmallow. This is a soft-bottoms car, folks.
The Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan is equipped with a 3.8-liter, 170-horsepower V-6. It moves just fine, y'all.
Sound system: Six-speaker electronic AM/FM stereo radio and cassette from GM/Delco. Excellent.
Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon (20-gallon tank, estimated 469-mile range on usable volume of 87-octane unleaded), mostly highway, running with five occupants and light luggage.
Price: Base price on the Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan is $28,595. Dealer's invoice price is $24,677. Price as tested is $29,774, including $599 in options and a $580 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: These are hard times for big cars. Dealers willing to make a deal understand that, under the circumstances, it might be better to give than to receive. You have bargaining room here.
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.