This Incredible ’71 Oldsmobile Lowrider Cruises New York
Lady Gaga’s bandleader Brian Newman takes us for a ride in his show-stopping Olds Ninety-Eight.
This Oldsmobile was once destined for a gruesome death via a demolition derby in Englishtown, NJ. “Those demo guys love wrecking really nice old boats,” Brian Newman says. “I’m glad I got to her before that. It would’ve been a shame to see her go that way.” The Olds couldn’t have been rescued by a finer fellow, one who looked beyond the steel, rubber and chrome to the soul of the car, seeing the potential to make something special. Shortly after the Brooklyn resident procured the majestic coupe, he bestowed her a moniker—Christine—and she became one of the most important ladies in his life.
The other leading lasses? His wife, Angie Pontani, a renowned burlesque dancer, and their adorable newborn daughter, Sissy Jo. And a woman he works with, whom he simply calls Stef. That’s short for Stefani Germanotta, though you’re likely more familiar with her stage persona, Lady Gaga. Newman’s been a longtime friend, collaborator and bandleader for the chanteuse, accompanying her into studios and onto stages across the world.
An accomplished jazz musician and phenomenal trumpeter, Newman was an integral part of the Cheek To Cheek album and tour. “Playing the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City with Stef and Tony [Bennett] was amazing,” the 34-year-old says. “My favorite show was in Tivoli Gardens, this outdoor space in Copenhagen. It was the end of the tour and there 16,000 people crowded all around us. It started to pour rain, but everyone stayed to sing along. The wind was whipping and we were playing balls to the wall. It was incredible.”
One memory from that period of Newman’s life is literally indelible. Bennett was doodling one evening, sketching a trumpet on a scrap of paper. Newman and Gaga were so taken with the finished drawing, they grabbed it and immediately went out to have the image tattooed on their forearms. “Later, I was shocked to see it on Christine,” Newman chuckles.
Mirrored images of the Bennett’s trumpets, and signature, indeed appear on the c-pillars of the Olds, an unexpected gift from Jesse Barratt, the man who helped Newman procure the vehicle. “Jesse owns Blue Sky Performance, a great restoration shop in New Jersey and knew I was looking for something. He thought this would be a perfect match,” Newman recounts, adding Barratt was on the money.
“I just liked the car,” Newman says. “I’ve always loved Olds, Buicks and Caddys. I’ve been a huge fan of GM since I was little and I wanted to get a nice low rider, a really long coupe. I didn’t have ‘71 Caddy money, but this Olds ticked all the right boxes. Low miles, driven sparingly by a grandma and garaged. What more could you want?” The Ninety-Eight’s body was in great shape for the 57,000 miles it had seen, and the 455 7.5-liter Rocket big block ran decently, though the rest of powertrain and mechanical components would need some refurbishing love. Newman was hooked, handed over $6,000 and arranged to take delivery of the wallowy land yacht.
The Olds reminded Newman of his youth, growing up in Ohio. “My dad was into cars, and so was my grandfather, who worked in an auto body shop. We didn’t always have money, but there was a GM discount the family got. I remember a ‘61 bubbletop, some Corvettes, a Pontiac Sunfire later on. It wasn’t always the the nicest stuff, but it was the coolest. We took care of every car, always washing and waxing them and as my dad got going, we got nicer cars.”
Christine underwent some cosmetic mods - chopping the springs and painting the roof white - before the real work began under the hood. The setbacks were immediate. “She spent the first six months in a garage. I made the mistake of initially trusting this one mechanic,” Newman laments. “He turned out to be an idiot. He screwed me in a bunch of ways, but the worst was when he took out the gas tank, rinsed it but didn’t seal it. Rust particles kept getting in the fuel line and clogging up the carburetor. I blew three carbs in the first two months.”
Enter Stephen Tizio, proprietor of Hamilton Autoworks near Newman’s home in Brooklyn. “That dude knows everything about old cars. I wish I had gone to him from the start.” Tizio rectified the leaky gas tank, righted the wrongs from the floundering mechanic, and got that Rocket in top shape. With the powertrain restored, the air suspension was added, and Christine was treated to a new paint job, that creamy mint you see here. “We matched the exact color that they used back in the Seventies,” Newman beams.
After investing $6,000 in upgrades and restorations, the Olds emerged as a mean, low-slung cruiser. “I love bombing around the ‘hood, and taking a long drive down the Southern State Parkway early in the morning when it’s quiet,” Newman says. “Or taking her to my gigs in New York.” Though Newman plays across the country with his own trio, he’s got a number of residencies as a musical director in New York City, including at the Roxy Hotel, Gramercy Park Hotel and the famed Rainbow Room. There, he performs old standards as well as new tracks off his latest album, “Eyes on the City.” At those shows, Christine sits curbside, beckoning passersby in.
When he swung by our office for this interview, Newman took us for a spin, including a visit to Tizio, while our cameras rolled. Check it out below. That song you’ll hear while we cruise is "New York Tune," off his album.