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For now, 1961–66 Oldsmobile Starfires are safe, sophisticated Thunderbird alternatives
Over its 107-year lifetime, Oldsmobile built 35.2 million cars and was a pioneer in mass production, front-wheel drive technology, and overhead-valve V-8 engines. When GM axed it in 2004, Olds was the oldest automotive maker in the U.S. and one of the oldest in the entire world. Despite all that, many people today don’t remember Oldsmobile for much other than the 442 their uncle washes in his driveway every weekend or that all-beige ’85 Cutlass their grandma still drives.
That’s a shame. Oldsmobile had plenty of bright spots, particularly in those golden years of car design during the 1950s and early 1960s. One of those moments—which “sparkles with distinction,” as one ad put it—was the 1961–66 Starfire. Handsome, powerful, sophisticated, and relatively rare, it’s an interesting alternative to other classic personal luxury cars like the Ford Thunderbird. The ’61–66 Starfire isn’t exactly a cheap classic, but it’s no unattainable showpiece, either.
The Starfire’s story stretches back to the 1953 GM Motorama show. More than 1.4 million people turned out to see GM’s latest dream cars, including the Buick Wildcat, Pontiac La Parisienne, and a prototype of the all-new Corvette. Oldsmobile, meanwhile, showed off a flashy, fiberglass-bodied turquoise convertible dubbed the Starfire. There aren’t many names cooler or more characteristically Jet-Age than “Starfire,” and the show car was indeed named after Lockheed’s F-94B Starfire all-weather fighter jet. For 1954–56, Oldsmobile used the Starfire name again to designate top-of-the-line versions of its full-size Ninety-Eight convertible. Olds used it once more for the 1957, fifth-generation Ninety-Eight, which was called the Starfire 98, before giving the badge a three-year hiatus.
The Starfire became a separate model series for 1961, based on the Super 88’s 123-inch wheelbase but with some styling cues from the larger Ninety-Eight. Available as a two-door convertible only, the Starfire took aim at the Ford Thunderbird with a competitive price of about $4600 and combined flashy styling with extra power to distinguish it from the lower-tier Eighty-Eight. In addition to a beefed-up chassis, the Starfire offered an “Ultra High Compression” version of the 394-cubic-inch Olds Rocket V-8. A period ad claimed it “breathes pure fire!” Probably not, but with 330 horsepower and 440 pound-feet of torque, you had a lot of grunt to work with, and Olds dressed it up with chromed valve covers, oil filler cap, and air cleaner.
Oldsmobile also loaded the top-of-the-line Starfire with standard leather Strato bucket seats, which flanked a gleaming center console, complete with tachometer, and a floor shifter for the three-speed Hydra-Matic. Power steering and power brakes came standard as well. And even though the Starfire didn’t have its own unique body, the four-inch-wide brushed aluminum trim running all the way down each side made the Starfire one of the most distinctive new cars in 1961. Sales for the year totaled 7604 Starfires, but Ford was still king of the personal luxury market, since it sold nearly 10 times as many Thunderbirds that year.
For 1962, however, a Starfire coupe burst onto the scene and Oldsmobile sold nearly 35,000 of them compared to just over 7000 convertibles. The Starfire also got a compression bump to 10.5:1 (up from 10.25:1) and an extra 15 horses for 345 total horsepower. The Starfire changed again for 1963, this time with a nifty-looking concave rear window on the coupe and narrower brushed aluminum side trim. Unfortunately, it couldn’t match the sales of the year before, which were the model’s best, and less than 26,000 were sold (including roughly 4400 convertibles). Pontiac’s Grand Prix was cheaper than the Olds and offered a similar package (although without a convertible option) for hundreds of dollars less. Buick’s new Riviera lured buyers away from the Starfire as well; in 1963, Buick sold twice as many Rivieras as Olds did Starfires.
Although its huge brushed aluminum trim was arguably the coolest thing about the Starfire, Olds dropped it for the 1964 model—and, as sales continued to decline, that year marked the beginning of the end. The last hurrah came in 1965 with a new 425-cubic-inch Rocket V-8 mated to a Turbo Hydra-Matic or the optional (and rare) four-speed manual. With 370 hp and 470 lb-ft, it was the most powerful engine in the Olds lineup that year, offering more oomph than even the 442. A little over 15,000 buyers stepped up for a ’65 Starfire, and just 2236 of them ticked the box for a soft top. The convertible was gone altogether for 1966, as Oldsmobile brought the Starfire downmarket with less standard equipment. The revolutionary new front-wheel drive Toronado took up the personal luxury mantle and marched on to sell over 40,000 units. Though Oldsmobile brought back the Starfire name in 1975, that was essentially a rebadged Chevy Monza; 1966 was the true end of the Starfire line.
These days, Starfires aren’t particularly well-known, especially compared to later muscle and personal luxury cars, but they remain collectible. The later 1965–66 cars have bigger engines with more power, but the earlier cars, particularly the 1961–62 model years, are more attractive and command higher prices. The 1961 Starfire, being the first of the line, is worth by far the most with a #2 (excellent) condition value of $66,900. The cheapest is the 1966 model, which was hardtop-only and carries a #2 value of $16,400. Convertible values for 1962–65 Starfires in #2 condition range from $32,100–$35,500 and hardtops (marketed by Oldsmobile as Coupe, Holiday Coupe, or Sport Coupe, depending on year) in #2 condition range from the high-teens to the mid-20s.
Starfire values have been mostly flat for the past five years. Things look more uncertain in long term since Starfires are much more popular among older buyers, with 43 percent of buyer interest coming from Baby Boomers and nearly a fifth from Preboomers. For now, though, things still look steady for the attention-grabbing but somewhat-obscure Starfire. Its appeal? Full-size luxury and a potent V-8, in a package that’s a bit out of the ordinary.