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How Oldsmobile Cars Work

Oldsmobile Restructures
The 1988 Cutlass Supreme Official pace Car convertible coupe shown here preceded Oldsmobile's structural changes of the early 1990s.

A happier 1990 Oldsmobile surprise was the first Supreme convertible in 18 years. Patterned on a prototype that paced the 1988 Indy 500, it was announced at $20,995 with SL trim and, sensibly, the 3.1 V-6 and four-speed autobox.

What Olds called a "structural top bar" partly made up for lost rigidity in what was basically a roofless Supreme coupe. The bar didn't add rollover protection, as PR types took pains to note, but it did make for a clumsy top-down appearance.

Actually, this evil was necessary because of the W-body coupe's B-pillar-mounted exterior door handles, which would have cost too much to change given the convertible's low planned production. Also, the bar was needed to provide convenient anchors for the mandatory front shoulder belts.

At least the Supreme came with a power top, which was more than a Cadillac Allanté or ragtop Corvette could claim, and lowering the top automatically lowered all four side windows with it, another boon for convenience. Also featured were a glass rear window with electric defroster and a low, tidy top stack.

These and other engineering details reflected the expertise of noted convertible converter C&C Inc., of Brighton, Michigan, which was tapped to build the reborn sunny-days Supreme. Brochures said it was "the first Oldsmobile that can go from zero to wide-open in 12 seconds."

Deliveries, however, took considerably longer, as C&C didn't begin production until April, mainly in the interest of highest possible workmanship. As a result, fewer than 500 of the 1990s were built.

Convertibles are always nice, but Olds looked to be in big trouble by now, partly because GM was, too. Where Ford and Chrysler had taken painful steps in the '80s to become leaner and more efficient, GM merely redrew its organizational chart to enter the '90s with the highest overhead and lowest per-unit profit in the U.S. industry. When the bottom dropped out of the market in a deep new recession, GM began gushing red ink.

By 1993, it had piled up a towering four-year net loss of $18 billion -- a U.S. business record. With cost-cutting imperative, some thought GM might take the easy way out and eliminate its weakest division, hence a spate of rumors that Olds would be killed. (The speculation wasn't wrong, just premature.)

But apart from corporate pride, losing Olds was unthinkable, given the political impact of laying off its thousands of workers -- and putting some 3000 Olds dealers out of business. Also, there were far less drastic ways to save money, even if chairman Bob Stempel wasn't moving fast enough in those areas to satisfy an increasingly worried GM board. In fact, after just two years in office, Stempel was ousted in an unprecedented 1992 "palace coup."

This set the stage for yet another reorganization under John Smale, the one-time CEO of Proctor & Gamble who became the first GM chairman not chosen from company ranks. John F. "Jack" Smith returned from GM Europe to take over as president. This dynamic new duo achieved fast results, and GM was making money again by 1994.

Olds may have been wounded in this period, but it was far from dead. Granted, calendar-year sales slid fast after 1989, going from more than a half-million to only 381,000 in 1993. And yes, Olds sustained these losses despite entering the two hottest segments of the market: minivans, with the 1990 Silhouette, and sport-utility vehicles, with the '91 Bravada.

Yet as grim as all this was, Olds ran a consistent fifth in domestic production (behind Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, and Buick) and sixth among all U.S.-based producers (after American Honda). What's more, model-year output turned solidly upward for 1994 to 478,872 units. The '95 tally was better still at nearly 481,000 vehicles. Though even that was a long way from the million-car years of the '70s and '80s, Olds was still generating sizable business that GM couldn't afford to give up.

Important to the future of that business was John D. Rock, who took over as division general manager in 1992 after a successful stint heading GMC Truck. A straight-talking "cowboy" type, Rock worked feverishly to restore employee morale and to burnish the confused, yet generally stodgy, Olds image that was hurting sales as much as all those rumors about the make's imminent demise.

He also began implementing some successful ideas borrowed from GM's new Saturn subsidiary, including "no-haggle" pricing (you paid what the sticker said) and "kid-gloves" customer service. At the same time, Olds looked beyond its historic 100th birthday in 1997 with the "Centennial Plan," a business and product road map through the year 2005.

Rock wanted nothing less than to "completely re-create" Olds, a task he likened to "overhauling the engines of a 747 in mid-flight . . . here's no place at the GM table for the 'old' Oldsmobile. No place for a division hell-bent on being a 'Me-Too Pontiac' or a 'Buick-Lite,'" he declared.

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