At age 70, Skip Watkins of Casco is doing what he loves: restoring vintage Oldsmobiles. In the past few years he’s built a veritable museum showcasing about 25 of the best of a once-prominent General Motors brand. And though you wouldn’t know it, the family farm on Route 302 has become a destination place for automobile enthusiasts. Watkins is a genuine scholar of the ins and outs of the brand.

“They’re a balance of luxury and power,” said Watkins. “They’re my favorite. Most everyone builds Chevys and Fords; I wanted something different.”

The love affair began in the mid-1950s, a time of high popularity for Oldsmobile as an iconic American sedan. Watkins’ first project was a Ford coupe with a 1949 303 cubic-inch V-8. “I’ve had them ever since,” he said.

Then in 1959, Lee Petty, the father of racing icon Richard Petty, won the first-ever Daytona 500 with an Oldsmobile. The research and development gleaned from the racetrack ultimately found its way into production models like the infamous Oldsmobile 442. But Watkins understands this history far more intimately than a mere surface reading. He knows much more than 4-4-2 actually stands for 4-barrel, 4-speed and dual exhaust.

Watkins recognizes it was really the Oldsmobile Starfire that ultimately led to the 442 muscle car. Today two Starfire convertibles, a 1961 and a 1964, are part of his collection, as are two rare 442s: a 1970 W-30 and a 1970 W-31 convertible.

In the 1960s, Watkins competed at a Sanford drag strip with a 1933 Plymouth coupe he fitted with an Oldsmobile power plant. He said he owes much of his tinkering knowledge to the family farm, where he began working on tractors at age 10. “That’s where it started,” he said.

His right-hand man is Jesse Walkley, also of Casco.

“He’s my very dear friend and helper,” Watkins said. “He does quality work.” Most of the time the pair has their restoration work cut out for them. Watkins has amassed many parts cars over the years, which are all stored behind his body shop on Route 302. “I’ve got between 125 to 150 of them,” he says.

Watkins sells parts across the country, and if a recently acquired vintage convertible has a seized motor, Watkins often has a replacement true to the original. A case in point is a 1958 “Super 88” convertible with the rare “J-2” engine package: a 371 cubic-inch V-8 with three 2-barrel carburetors. Watkins has close to a dozen of these.

Watkins made national news in the Oldsmobile community this July when he showed up with a recently completed 1905 Oldsmobile “Pie Wagon” that took a first-place trophy in the Modified category at the Oldsmobile Nationals in Massachusetts, an annual event put on by the Oldsmobile Club of America. Next year’s will be in Reno, Nevada.

The custom-built street rod, crafted from scratch entirely by Watkins and Walkley, was part of a handful of the best offerings chosen from some 500 cars to be showcased in the event’s exhibition hall. “It’s what they delivered pastries in a hundred years ago,” Watkins explains. “Both Ford and Oldsmobile produced them.” However, Watkins put his own signature on the finished product, deciding to include a big block Oldsmobile 455 cubic-inch V-8 rated at 550 horsepower. “You can only use about a quarter of the power,” he said. “You just touch it and you’re at 50 miles per hour.”

The Oldsmobile Club of America has decided to tap Watkins’ knowledge, making him an adviser to its membership. He gets phone calls from people all over the world. “I’ve also been invited to judge at the Oldsmobile Nationals next year in Reno,” he said.

At this point in his life, the real reward is sharing the enthusiasm with everyone associated with vintage cars, including the local car club in Bridgton: the Maine Obsolete Auto League. “It keeps me going,” he said. “I’m just like a kid in a candy store. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.”

A couple of weeks ago a man visited specifically because he heard Watkins had an Oldsmobile exactly like one he and his wife were married in years ago, a 1959 “Super 88” convertible.

“He had tears in his eyes when he saw the car,” Watkins said. “He thanked me and said this was probably the last time he would ever see a car like this.”

A member of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, Watkins offers up his Oldsmobile collection as part of a tour of the history museum that’s also located on the family farm. For more information on museum hours, call 655-2194.

 

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: [email protected]