Collector Classics: 1963 Oldsmobile Starfire

EDMONTON – When the Fabris family finally let go of their 1963 Oldsmobile Starfire convertible it only moved next door.

The Olds, purchased new by John Fabris, played a large part in their lives. And, when you’ve been together for almost five decades moving on can be difficult.

But their Edmonton neighbour Dino Chemello couldn’t have been a better match for the Oldsmobile.

Chemello grew up working around his dad, Luciano, who can fix anything – from a broken microwave to a ceiling fan to, of course, a recalcitrant car.

“I’ve always been around cars,” Chemello says. “My own first car was a 1974 Duster. I was racing it a bit, blew the original 318 engine and put in a bigger 360 with a cam.”

That was in the early 1980s, and since then a few cars have come and gone. But it was the Duster that Chemello remembered. He found a project 1974 Duster, and stored it at his brother’s house while he accumulated parts and built himself a 24’ x 26’ shop.

“That’s when Roberta (Fabris) came over, asking why I was going to work on the Duster,” Chemello says. “She said she had much better car for me – and that was the Olds.”

The Fabris’ are the kind of neighbours you’d like to have. Roberta often brings over hot supper for the Chemellos; Dino, wife Jeannine and teenage daughters Michaella and Justina. And, Roberta and John had a single-owner car tucked away in their garage.

In 1963 John Fabris was working in Whitehorse, Yukon. When he decided to buy a new car, he visited a local GM dealer and selected the Oldsmobile Starfire, something of a rare beast. The Starfire name was first used in 1953 on an Oldsmobile show car, and was then used to designate the convertible model of the 98 series, and finally the entire 98 series before being dropped one year later.

The Starfire name returned in 1961 on a convertible model, and was then applied to two-door hardtops and convertibles built until 1966.

For the 1963 model year, General Motors of Canada only produced 507 Starfire convertibles. Production numbers are slightly higher for U.S.-made cars. Chemello’s Starfire is one of six he’s located in Canada (

Equipped with a 394 cubic inch V-8 engine, the Starfire used GM’s Roto Hydramatic three-speed transmission. The Starfire convertible is almost 5.5 m long, and weighs some 2,038 kg. By today’s standards fuel economy wouldn’t be considered great; it used 14.7 L/100 km on the highway and 21 L/100 km in the city.

John married Roberta in 1965, and in 1967 the pair, with their 18-month old daughter, drove the car to New York where both the Olds and the family boarded a boat bound for Naples, Italy.

“It cost $663 to ship the car, and that was the same price as a single passenger ticket,” Chemello explains. “It took seven days to cross the ocean, and when they got to Italy they toured Naples, Rome, Milan, Venice and Croatia. They drove all around for six months in that car.”

After returning to Edmonton the Starfire remained their daily driver – until the early 1980s. It was starting to show its age. They had some restoration work done, but they eventually stopped driving the car due to niggling electrical issues.

“My wife always said she wanted a convertible,” Chemello says. “So, on her birthday in early September 2011, we pushed the car over into my shop.”

Chemello added a little oil to the cylinders, drained the old fuel, added fresh gasoline and installed a new battery. Worried that the heater core might leak after 25 years of sitting, he placed a pan under the passenger side dashboard.

The car fired up and ran, and the engine wasn’t knocking or making any other strange noises. As he expected, though, the heater core leaked, as did the radiator and the carburetor.

“That was OK, I knew it was running and that I had six months to get it ready for the 2012 cruising season,” Chemello says.

Chemello removed and repaired the radiator and heater core. All coolant hoses were replaced, and he rebuilt the carburetor.

At one point in the mid-1980s, the bumpers had been removed for chrome plating. In the process the rear had been lost.

Chemello installed the front bumper, and restored a replacement rear bumper he found in Oklahoma. All of the convertible top hydraulic system components required attention, and Chemello cleaned and repaired them all.

“I went through the entire electrical system, all of the contacts were dirty and things like the power seats and the headlights weren’t working,” Chemello says. “I repaired the alternator, and most everything else electrical.”

Upon inspection the brake system proved to be in good shape, but Chemello did replace the aging tires.

About two months into the process, Chemello decided to sell his Duster project. He says the Starfire is a better car for his family – plus it’s a convertible.

In the spring of 2012 the Starfire returned to the street. It wasn’t without some drama, however.

“The first few times we tried to drive it, I’d tell the girls we were going out for ice cream,” Chemello says. “The car would start and run fine, but half a block from the house it would stall, and they’d have to push it back.”

Chemello finally tracked the problem down to a pinhole in the carburetor float, and with a replacement installed the car has been driven regularly during cruising season.

“It’s time to enjoy it,” he says, and adds that there are still a few little projects on the Starfire that he’ll get around to doing – but that’s half the fun of owning an old car.

“The girls get a kick out of it and their friends love it,” Chemello says. “And the best part is, I get to take Roberta and John out for rides in their old car; they’ve got an incredibly long history with it.”

About Greg Williams