MILEPOSTS Garage - The Online Classic Car Magazine Farewell, Oldsmobile - It Was A Great Ride! 1897-2004
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Vol. 2, No. 13
April 30, 2004

Farewell, Oldsmobile
by Andrew Angove

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage



Yesterday was a sad day in automotive history. The oldest and one of the most respected brands in the business has added its final chapter to the history books. The last Oldsmobile was assembled on Thursday, April 29th, 2004. It will be placed on display at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum. The last car built to bear the Olds name was an Alero, painted a metallic cherry red, and along with the final 500 Aleros built, will have unique "Final 500 Special Edition" badging to indicate their status.

Oldsmobile joins great marques such as Plymouth, Studebaker, DeSoto, Packard, Nash, and many others that once ruled the roads. Oldsmobile's heyday came in 1985, when it built over 1.1 million cars, bumping Ford out of the second place position. One has to wonder what went wrong in the 19 years that intervened between the peak and the collapse.

Oldsmobile began to suffer with an identity problem, along with a few other GM brands in the late eighties, and since it was placed in the middle of GM's line, Olds got squeezed from above as well as from below. At the top, of course, was Cadillac, itself perilously close to extinction because its cars no longer looked like Cadillacs, and weren't selling well because of this. A rush restyle was forced on the Eldorado, because its fresh styling for 1986 resulted in sales that were dismal. And they should have been, because it didn't look like a Cadillac, but resembled an Olds Calais instead. The distinction was just not there, nor was the quality.

Pontiac was introducing a few new models during this time, most of them more luxurious than you would expect from Pontiac, and it no doubt took a few customers away from Oldsmobile in the process. Also at about this time, the imports were really becoming all the rage in America. BMWs were now a common site on the roadways, a big change from just a decade earlier when many Americans didn't know a BMW when they saw one. But why did all this have such a devastating effect on Oldsmobile?

GM spent a fortune advertising Oldsmobile in the late eighties and early nineties, in an attempt to change its image. But did its image really need to be changed? Priscilla Presley promoted the Oldsmobile quality that you could feel, which was followed by the declaration that Olds was no longer your Father's Oldsmobile. Nameplates disappeared, including Toronado, Cutlass, and Ninety Eight. They were replaced by the Aurora, Intrigue, and Alero. The rocket emblem became a stylized "O". In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Oldsmobile sales remained dismal, never recovering.

The 1985-1990 Oldsmobile Ninety Eights were very popular, but the ones that followed in 1991 and beyond were just plain ugly! This was Olds' top of the line offering, and nothing about them said "Oldsmobile." Cadillac's DeVilles were pretty awful styling-wise about this time as well, but Cadillac got it together and came out with a totally new and fresh design, making Cadillac a hot item on the market again, and it did so without dumping all of the old nameplates in the process. Perhaps GM should have done the same with Oldsmobile, instead of trying to reinvent the rocket, they could have just come out with a new and fresh design for the Olds brand, giving it back the distinction it once had.

The Aurora was close to what Olds needed to recover, but it wasn't supported by the rest of the Olds line. The other cars in the Olds line looked like imports from one angle, but stodgy and tired from yet another. Oldsmobile was drowning because of its lack of identity, when all it really needed was to emulate the Aurora throughout the rest of the line. Oldsmobile did this back in 1967, when the Toronado—new for 1966—was one of the most distinctive cars on the road. All of the Oldsmobiles for 1967 had Toronado inspired styling touches. And the entire line sold very well. The second generation Aurora totally lost it, as if Olds was so desperate to come up with something to save the company, they lost sight of their goal. You had to look a second time to make sure the second generation Auroras were Auroras. Or was it a Toyota that just passed us?

Perhaps GM will someday revive the Oldsmobile name, as a totally new kind of car. One at the forefront of GM engineering. With the latest technology and innovations. One that is powerful, and affordable, and distinctive. Sounds kind of like the Oldsmobiles of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, doesn't it? And perhaps they could adorn this new car with names that we all know and recognize: Ninety Eight. Eighty Eight. Toronado. Cutlass. 4-4-2. Starfire. Tell people they are what they once were: not expensive, but not priced at the bottom, either. Put a little bit of muscle under the hood, and put a rocket on the emblem.


Copyright © 2004, Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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