Only 458 were produced, and they’re even more exclusive today. Mac’s Motor City Garage checks out the 1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta.
For 1953, General Motors’ product planners wetted their fingers to the wind, took their first stab at what Americans desired in the hot new sports car trend, and introduced three limited-production, luxury “sport convertibles,” as they were called—one for each of GM’s top divisions. They weren’t true sports cars but flashy wolfmobiles built for prowling the boulevard, not for capering on lonely country roads. (Chevrolet came closest to sports car authenticity with its 1963 sports car concept, the Corvette, but that’s another story.)
Buick’s Skylark affected the sportiest pose of the three, with open wheel arches to show off its chrome-plated 40-spoke wire wheels. Cadillac’s version was the super-posh Eldorado, with a slick metal tonneau cover. The Fiesta, Oldsmobile’s vision of a boulevard sports convertible, is less well known today—except for its wheel covers, which have found a strange immortality in American car culture.
While the Buick and Cadillac customs were radical departures from the standard ragtops, the Olds was more conservative. The Fiesta’s key identifier was its Panoramic Windshield, developed by GM design vice president Harley Earl in partnership with glassmaker Libbey-Owens-Ford. The wraparound glass was a first for the Fiesta and Eldorado (the ’53 Skylark used conventional glass), and at three inches lower than the standard 98 windshield, gave the Fiesta a West Coast chopped look, especially with the convertible top in place. The Panoramic Windshield caught on with buyers, and definitely with Earl. Soon the entire GM line sported wraparound glass, even the trucks.
Oldsmobile’s avenue cruiser came standard with every available gadget, including power top, windows and seats (hydraulic, not electric), and Autronic Eye, a light-sensing automatic headlamp dimmer system. The signal-seeking radio (shared with Cadillac) included a useful foot-operated seek button near the dimmer switch. The Fiesta also featured special two-tone leather upholstery and paint combinations, along with distinctive chrome deck trim.
With a half-point higher compression, the Fiesta’s special 303-cid Rocket V8 was rated at 170 horsepower, 5 more than all other Oldsmobiles. In 1953, GM’s Hydra-Matic transmission plant in Livonia, Michigan burned down, and as the corporation scrambled to keep the assembly lines moving, some 23,000 Oldsmobiles were equipped with Buick Dynaflow transmissions. It appears the Fiestas, all Lansing-built (serial M), took production priority as none have turned up with the Buick slushbox.
At $5,715, the Fiesta was an expensive flop in the showrooms, lasting only one year. Curbside Casanovas could do their trolling from a standard 98 ragtop at about half the price, or even from a Cadillac 62 convertible at $1,600 less than the ultra-Olds. Only 458 Fiestas found buyers, and relatively few have survived. They’re among the most prized of postwar Oldsmobiles now and a rare sight at car shows, but their wheel covers are everywhere.
In the 1950s, the custom car crowd took a shine to the Fiesta’s spinner wheel covers—if you drive very slowly, their triple flippers put on a show. Accessory houses quickly offered knockoffs and modified versions (below) that are now highly coveted by traditional customizers seeking the correct retro look. Those three-bar wheel covers you see on all the lead sleds today? They’re called Fiesta spinners.
An earlier version of this story by MCG appeared in the July 31, 2000 issue of AutoWeek. Olds Fiesta photos courtesy of Mecum Auctions. At the Mecum Monterey Sale on August 18-20, 2011, the vehicle shown received a high bid of $130,000.