There was a time when Oldsmobile, not Chevy or Ford, was America's leading car producer. That time was 1903-05, when Lansing rolled to success with Ransom Eli Olds' little curved-dash runabout, which was then selling in the thousands each year. Ransom had cobbled up his first car in 1891, strictly as an experiment.
Regular production got under way in 1897, the same year the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was formed. (The concern was reorganized as Olds Motor Works two years later.) Ultimately, Oldsmobile became the only American automaker founded in the 19th century to survive into the 21st.
A decline set in soon after Ransom left to form Reo in 1904. General Motors bought Olds Motor Works four years later, but that didn't help sales right away. Not until its side-valve V-8 of 1916 did Oldsmobile again do healthy business.
The make's best pre-Depression years were 1919, 1921, and 1929, when it finished ninth on the industry chart. Its worst model year during the Depression was 1932: only 18,846 cars.
But the division recovered rapidly, notching more than 191,000 sales for 1936. A recession cut 1938 output to 85,000, but Olds rallied quickly, then reached a new high with 1941 domestic volume of nearly 266,000. It would do far better in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.
Innovation was an Olds hallmark in the 1930s, the make (among others) pioneering Dubonnet-type "Knee-Action" independent front suspension for '34, a semiautomatic transmission for 1937-39, and completely automatic Hydra-Matic Drive for 1940. Features like these earned Olds its longtime reputation as GM's "experimental" division, a role it would play through the late '60s.
Much of Oldsmobile's technical daring in the '30s was spurred by Charles L. McCuen, who had been chief engineer before becoming division general manager in 1933. To take his place as chief engineer, he recruited another innovator, Harold T. Youngren.
Working under him were experimental engineering manager Jack Wolfram and dynamometer wizard Harold Metzel. The last two became division chiefs in later years. Youngren left in 1946 to help develop Ford's engineering department.
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Oldsmobile suffered less from the Depression than most other makes, thanks to conservative but salable styling and a fairly consistent lineup of six- and eight-cylinder models. Its L-head six began the decade at 197.5 cubic inches and 62-65 brake horsepower.
Olds' first straight-eight, another orthodox side-valve design, arrived for 1932 with 240 cubic inches and 87 bhp. These smooth, quiet, and reliable power plants received important improvements as the decade wore on, such as aluminum pistons for 1936. The eight was otherwise unchanged, but the six grew to 213.3 cid and 74 bhp for 1932.
A major redesign for 1937 took the six to 230 cid and 95 bhp, the eight to 257 cid and 110 bhp. Additional changes that year comprised full-length water jackets, stiffer piston skirts and crankshaft, stronger cams and valve lifters, and longer valve guides. The eight continued in this form through '48, after which it was retired for the history-making overhead-valve "Rocket" V-8. The six would remain unchanged through 1940.
Oldsmobile's 1930s styling followed general industry trends: classically square through '32; slightly streamlined, with angled radiator and skirted fenders for 1933-34; "potato" shapes for 1935-36.
After that, the pace of change picked up. Though the division used the same GM B-body as Cadillac's junior-edition LaSalle and the smaller Buicks, its cars managed to look quite individual. More-massive fronts with cross-hatched or horizontal-bar grilles appeared for 1937; the 1938-39s had GM design chief Harley Earl's flanking "catwalk" auxiliary grilles, plus headlamp pods partly faired into the front-fender aprons.
Prices in these years were carefully contrived to target a precise area above Pontiac and below Buick and LaSalle. The range was $900-$1100 through 1932, after which Depression-prompted cuts lowered Sixes to as little as $650 by '34. Prices then inched upward again, returning to the initial spread by '38.
Beside choices in wheelbase, engine, and trim, Olds offered styling options such as side mount spare tires and -- a bit ahead of most rivals -- a choice of trunkless or "trunkback" sedans starting in 1933.
Two notable innovations were Fisher Body's "No-Draft" front-door ventwing windows from 1934 and all-steel "Turret-Top" roof construction from 1935. Convertible coupes were always low-production items. Oddly enough, considering its pioneer ways, Olds was relatively slow to abandon side mounts and rumble-seat body styles, persisting doggedly with both through 1938.
Lansing's 1930-31 line comprised popular period body styles in Standard, Special, and Deluxe trim, all on a 113.5-inch wheelbase. Trim variations then disappeared for 1932, when the Eight arrived and wheelbase grew to 116.5 inches across the board. Thereafter, Eights were mounted on chassis of 119 inches (1933-34), 121 inches (1935-36), and 124 inches (1937-38). Sixes rode a 115-inch platform from 1933 through 1936 except for '34, when they mysteriously lost an inch; they then graduated to a 117-inch length.
The two transmission innovations noted earlier deserve special comment. The first was "Automatic Safety Transmission" for 1937. This was a semiautomatic four-speed unit for eight-cylinder models that was similar in operation -- but not mechanically identical to -- Chrysler's subsequent Fluid Drive.
Before moving off, the driver depressed the customary clutch pedal and selected Low or High range. The transmission then shifted between first and second in Low; or first, third, and fourth in High. Changes within each range were automatic via oil pressure and two planetary gearsets. Shift points were preset according to vehicle speed.
Olds said AST delivered up to 15-percent-better gas mileage than regular manual shift, but that was due to the numerically lower rear-axle ratio specified. The "safety" aspect referred to the claim that, with less shifting to do, the driver could keep both hands on the wheel more of the time. AST was an option for all 1938-39 Oldsmobiles, and some 28,000 were installed. But its real significance was in leading to Hydra-Matic for 1940.
Though Hydra-Matic also had four speeds, it was fully automatic, using a fluid coupling and a complex system of clutches and brake bands. It arrived at only $57 extra. That surely didn't reflect its true manufacturing or development costs, but both would be offset by high volume.
Indeed, by the early '50s, Hydra-Matic had become not only a popular Olds option, but was also being offered by Cadillac and Pontiac as well as Lincoln and independents Nash, Hudson, and Kaiser-Frazer.
Oldsmobile's 1939 line boasted newly styled bodies in three groups: 115-inch-wheelbase Series 60, new 120-inch Series 70, and the similarly sized eight-cylinder Series 80. The 70 was powered by the 230 six; a 90 bhp 216-cid six drove the 60.
All three series listed business and club coupes and two- and four-door sedans, the latter pair available in the 70 and 80 lines with "Sunshine Turret Top," an optional sliding metal sunroof that saw few installations. The 70 and 80 also included a convertible coupe. Prices ranged from $777 to $1119.
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Oldsmobile’s basic 1939-lineup repeated for 1940 with slightly higher prices, reassigned wheelbases, somewhat smoother looks, and two new models. The 60 now rode a 116-inch platform, adopted the 230-cube six, and included a structural-wood station wagon bodied by Hercules.
Replacing the 80 was a new 124-inch-wheelbase Series 90 that included Oldsmobile's first convertible sedan -- called "phaeton" per GM practice -- an odd latecomer, considering this body type was fast waning at other automakers.
At $1570, the Series 90 phaeton was the costliest 1940 Olds, and production was predictably limited: just 50 in all. Styling throughout the line was typical of GM that year, with wider grilles and front fenders, semi-integrated headlights, and, on the 90s, smoother tails and rear rooflines.
A more massive look arrived for 1941. Grillework was lower and wider, and headlights now firmly resided within even wider front fenders that blended more smoothly into the bodysides. Series doubled as Olds offered both six and straight-eight models in two trim levels spanning a narrower $852-$1575 price range.
Series designations denoted cylinders. The low-end Special 66 and 68 rode a new 119-inch wheelbase, while the Dynamic Cruiser 76 and 78 shared a 125-inch chassis with the top-line Custom Cruiser 96 and 98. The six was bored out to 238.1 cid for 100 bhp.
The same body styles returned for '41, but most were now available with either engine. The sole exception was the phaeton convertible sedan, which came only as a Custom Cruiser 98.
Its production was again minuscule at only 119 for the model year, after which the division followed everyone else by dropping four-door convertibles. Fastback styling bowed in new Dynamic Cruiser four-door and club sedans. Four-door Custom Cruiser sedans again sported a handsome notchback profile with semi-closed rear-roof quarters.
In March, the 66/68 expanded by adding a four-door Town Sedan with styling like the Series 90 model. Despite record model-year production, Olds finished sixth in the annual industry race. Though the division had risen as high as fifth for '36, it would usually run sixth or seventh into the mid-'50s.
Olds slipped to seventh for war-shortened 1942, but enjoyed respectable volume of just under 68,000 units. Styling for that year's "B-44" line featured "Fuselage Fenders" -- elongated pontoon types faired into the front doors -- and a busy, two-tier "double-duty" grille bisected by a prominent horizontal bar. Longer rear fenders tapered beyond the deck, but remained bolt-on components. Engines stayed the same, but not models.
The six-cylinder 96 departed and the 98 was cut to convertible coupe, club sedan, and four-door sedan on a new 127-inch wheelbase. All series now offered "torpedo-style" club sedans, with plain and Deluxe versions for 76/78.
To help win World War II, Oldsmobile turned out 350,000 precision aero-engine parts, 175 million pounds of gun forgings, 140,000 machine guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition. It officially became the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors on New Year's Day 1942, thus ousting the Olds Motor Works title dating from 1899.
Like most everyone else, Olds returned to peacetime with warmed-over prewar cars. Business was good in the sell-anything market of the day -- close to 118,000 for 1946 and about 200,000 for '47 -- yet Olds again ran seventh.
Most '42 offerings returned with no changes in wheelbase, engines, or body styles. An exception was the Series 68, which wasn't reinstated until 1947. Prices did change in a big way, thanks to postwar inflation. The cheapest '47 Olds, the 66 club coupe, sold for $1407, and the 98 convertible topped the line at more than $2000.
Styling was cleaned up via a four-bar grille shaped like a wide, upside-down U; a shield-type hood medallion rode above it. Front fender moldings were enlarged for '47. Hydra-Matic was increasingly popular, and Olds began producing more self-shift cars as a percentage of total volume than any other make.
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Though called "Dynamic," the 1948 Oldsmobiles saw only detail changes: round hood medallion, "Oldsmobile" spelled in block letters below, and full-length chrome rocker-panel moldings.
Then, in February, Olds got a jump on most rivals with the "Futuramic" 98, arriving simultaneously with similar styling from Cadillac as GM's first all-new postwar cars. Both were created by Harley Earl's Art & Colour staff with inspiration from the Lockheed P-38 fighter aircraft (well-known for having prompted Cadillac's 1948 tailfins).
The 98s comprised a convertible, four-door sedan, and fastback club sedan that were beautifully shaped to look longer and lower despite a slightly trimmer 125-inch wheelbase. Sedans offered a choice of standard and deluxe trim. Prices ranged from $1920 for the base two-door to $2466 for the Deluxe-only convertible.
The public responded strongly to the '48s, particularly the 98s, which saw better than 65,000 sales. More than half were four-door sedans.
Olds followed up with Futuramic styling for all 1949 models, plus two new innovations. One was the landmark overhead-valve "Rocket" V-8 designed by Gilbert Burrell. Again, Olds shared honors with Cadillac, which also had a new high-compression V-8 that year, though it was developed independently of Lansing's.
Both divisions had been encouraged to outdo each other, and Cadillac actually raised displacement to maintain a "proper distance" from Oldsmobile's V-8. The Rocket arrived at 303.7 cid; Cadillac had started at 309, then went to 331 cid.
A five-main-bearing unit with oversquare cylinder dimensions, the Rocket was initially rated at 135 bhp. Putting it in the lighter 119.5-inch chassis of the six-cylinder 76 created a Futuramic 88 with power-to-weight ratios of about 22.5 pounds/horsepower -- quite good for the time.
Torque was also impressive at 263 pound-feet. Initial compression was a mild 7.25:1, but the Rocket was designed for ratios as high as 12:1. Engineers had anticipated postwar fuels with ultra-high octane, though levels never became quite high enough to make such ratios practical.
Management had originally planned the Rocket only for the 98, but dropping it into the smaller B-body was a natural move, and the 88 soon began rewriting the stock-car racing record book. Meanwhile, the Olds six was enlarged to the old eight's 257.1 cid for 105 bhp. It continued through 1950, after which Olds offered nothing but V-8s.
Oldsmobile's other '49 innovation was the 98 Holiday, a new $2973 pillarless coupe that bowed alongside the Buick Riviera and Cadillac Coupe de Ville as America's first volume-production "hardtop convertibles."
Presaging another industry trend was Lansing's first all-steel station wagon, offered in 76 and 88 guise. As at Chevy and Pontiac, it appeared at midyear to replace an existing part-wood wagon, and looked much like it. Not predictive at all were fastback Town Sedan four-doors added to the 76 and 88 lines. None sold that well, and would be dropped after this one year.
With so much new, Olds had a rollicking 1949, with home-market production soaring from the 172,500 of 1948 to a record 288,000-plus. The 1950 tally was nearly 408,000, helped by new 76 and 88 Holidays.
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Weighing 300-500 pounds less than a comparable 98, the Rocket-engine 88 wowed race-goers in 1949. Oldsmobile was the most winning make in NASCAR that year, taking five of eight races. Red Byron won the '49 NASCAR "Strictly Stock" title by driving an 88. In 1950, an 88 broke the class speed record at Daytona with a two-way average of 100.28 mph.
That same year, an 88 won the first Mexican Road Race, besting such formidable competitors as Alfa Romeo, Cadillac, and Lincoln. Back on the stock-car ovals, Olds won 10 of 19 NASCAR contests in 1950 (when young Olds pilot Bill Rexford copped the driving title) and 20 of 41 in '51.
Though displaced by Hudson's amazing six-cylinder Hornets in 1952-54, 88s continued to show their mettle. Paul Frere, for example, drove one to victory in a 1952 stock-car race at Spa in Belgium, and a 1950 model nicknamed "Roarin' Relic" was still winning the occasional modified race as late as 1959.
Such goings-on kept sales going strong even after the postwar seller's market went bust around 1950. Olds tapered off to 213,500 orders for '52, but was back up to 354,000 by 1954, when it finished fifth in the model-year production race. Interestingly, Olds managed these triumphs with only three basic series and no station wagons for 1951-56.
Not content to rest on its styling laurels, Olds took advantage of GM's new 1950 B-body to give 98s a one-piece windshield, plus a general look that was again lower and more massive despite another wheelbase cut, this time to 122 inches.
The junior 88 and 76 lines received a mild update of their new '49 styling and were granted Holiday hardtops of their own. Fastback sedans were in their final year. Curiously, the lower level ragtops -- 76 and 88 -- were now offered in standard trim only.
The big event of 1951 was the Super 88 with a new 120-inch wheelbase and a styling resemblance to that year's face-lifted 98. Prices were in the $2200-$2700 bracket. Canceling the 76 left the 88 as the entry-level Olds, with models pared to just two- and four-door sedans, each around $2000. Those repeated as Super 88s along with a notch-back club coupe, convertible, and Holiday hardtop.
The 98 was trimmed to a Deluxe sedan and convertible and standard/Deluxe Holidays. The Futuramic label was abandoned as styling became more "important," though the grille was formed by simple bars and side decoration was minimal. This basic appearance continued for '52, when the 88 became a detrimmed Super with a retuned 145-bhp Rocket V-8; horsepower on other models moved up to 160. Also, the 98 now had its name spelled out: "Ninety-Eight."
Along with the Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Skylark, 1953 brought a limited-production Olds convertible, the Fiesta, a $5717 midyear addition to the Ninety-Eight line. Custom leather interior, wraparound "panoramic" windshield, and a special 170-bhp V-8 distinguished it from the normal Ninety-Eight ragtop. Hydra-Matic, power brakes and steering, and hydraulic servos for windows and seat were all standard. So were distinctive "spinner" wheel covers soon copied by most every accessory house, appearing on scores of hot rods and custom cars. Though only 458 were built for this one model year, the Fiesta did serve as a styling preview of the next-generation Olds.
That duly arrived for 1954 with a new B-body bearing squared-up below-the-belt sheet metal, fully wrapped windshields, curved back windows, and distinctive L-shaped bodyside moldings that delineated contrast color areas on some two-tone models. This was arguably the most-attractive Olds of the decade. Happily, its basic look would persist through 1956.
So would body styles: 88 and Super 88 two- and four-door sedans and hardtop coupe; Super 88 convertible; Ninety-Eight Holiday, Deluxe Holiday, Deluxe sedan, and Starfire convertible. Holiday four-door hardtops bowed in all three lines in mid-1955, half a year ahead of other make's offerings save the Buick Special and Century (introduced along with Oldsmobile's). Wheelbases shifted to 122 inches for 88/Super 88 and to 126 for Ninety-Eight.
The Rocket was bored out for '54 to 324 cid, good for 170 bhp in 88s, 185 in Super 88s and Ninety-Eights. But the "horsepower race" was escalating throughout Detroit, so power was bumped to 185 and 202 for 1955, then to 230 and 240 for '56.
Olds set another record by building about 40 percent more cars for '55 than '54 -- some 583,000 -- and held onto fifth in a booming industry. A substantial facelift gave the '55s a bold oval grille and jazzier two-toning. The '56s gained a large "fish mouth" front like that of the 1953 Starfire show car. Despite a general industry sales retreat, the division did quite well to turn out some 485,000 of its '56s.
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Another new Oldsmobile body arrived for 1957 with sleeker styling and the first Olds wagons since 1950.
Called Fiesta, the revived wagons comprised a pillared 88 four-door and pillarless 88 and Super 88 versions, the latter reflecting the public's evident passion for hardtop styling. Both 88 lines were subtitled Golden Rocket (after a 1956 show car) to mark Oldsmobile's 60th anniversary; Ninety-Eights gained Starfire as a first name.
The Rocket was enlarged again, going to 371.1 cid and 277 bhp. Also new was a three-by-two-barrel carburetor option called J-2, good for 300 bhp. With the high-profile exception of driver Lee Petty, Olds was by now largely absent from stock-car tracks, but the J-2 made it a force to be reckoned with on the street: A J-2-equipped 88 could do 0-60 mph in less than nine seconds.
Priced in the $2700-$4200 range, the '57 Oldsmobiles were rather cleanly styled for GM cars that year. The wide-mouth grille was mildly reshaped; windshield pillars were more rakishly angled; a broad, stainless-steel sweepspear dropped down from the middle of the beltline, then shot straight back to the tail to define a two-toning area; and there were finless rear fenders ending in peaked, oval taillamps.
But GM styling was beginning to seem a bit passé next to Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" at Chrysler; Harley Earl's reign as America's automotive styling arbiter was at an end. Still, Olds built nearly 385,000 U.S.-market cars for the model year to finish fifth once again.
While most makes faltered badly in recessionary 1958, Olds moved up to fourth, though on lower volume near the 315,000 mark. Offerings stood pat except that two-door sedans were now restricted to the base series, renamed Dynamic 88. Wheelbases stretched a nominal half-inch across the board.
Styling, as most observers declared, was atrocious. Ford designer Alex Tremulis satirized Oldsmobile's four horizontal rear-fender chrome strips by drawing in a clef and a few musical notes on a photograph. And indeed, Dearborn's '58s were somewhat more attractive than GM's, while Chrysler's mildly facelifted cars were in another league entirely.
Yet for all the overchromed dazzle, Oldsmobiles sold pretty well for '58 -- aided, no doubt, by more power choices: 265 bhp for 88s (a nod to buyers suddenly concerned with fuel economy), 305 bhp standard on Supers and Ninety-Eights, and an optional 312-bhp J-2 setup for all.
The '59s might have looked even worse, but GM responded to Chrysler's 1957 initiative with a crash restyling program that produced generally cleaner cars than first envisioned -- plus a significant divisional body realignment. Chevy and Pontiac would now share the corporate A-body, the junior Buicks and Oldsmobiles a new B-body, and senior models a slightly different C-body with Cadillac.
Olds and Buick wheelbases were set at 123 and 126.3 inches, respectively; Pontiac's was slightly shorter, Chevy's shorter still. This program had repercussions. Chevy and Pontiac, for example, had to drop their all-new '58 platforms after only a year; Olds, Buick, and Cadillac after two years. Still, this change helped hold down production costs, thus enabling the company to put that much more time and money into developing a squadron of new compacts.
As ever, divisional styling strived for distinct looks, though the '59 Olds ended up more like Pontiac than Lansing might have liked. With a new emphasis on "Wide-Track" handling, Pontiac outpaced Oldsmobile in production, something it hadn't done since 1953.
But Lansing's '59s were hardly slim, swelling nine inches in width on a new "Guard-Beam" chassis and 10 inches in overall length. Naturally, they shared basic elements of the new corporate styling: vastly enlarged "Vista-Panoramic" windshields, curving non-dogleg A-posts, big rear windows (fully wrapped on new Holiday Sport Sedan hardtops), thin-section coupe rooflines, narrow pillars, and fuller lower body sheet metal.
To this Olds added a simple dumbbell-shaped grille with four widely spaced headlights and straight-topped rear fenders with vestigial fins above elliptical taillights. Division ad types called all this "The Linear Look."
No matter: The '59s were a vast improvement on the sparkly '58s. But there were still gadgets aplenty, including "New-Matic Ride," Lansing's year-old version of air suspension that was costly, unpopular, and about to disappear. At least power was still plentiful. Dynamic 88s retained a 371 V-8 with 270 bhp standard, 300 optional.
New for Ninety-Eights and Super 88s was a bored-out 394 making 315 bhp with four-barrel carb but slightly reduced compression (9.75:1). Not at all obvious were many internal changes made to this year's Rocket as well as the "Jet-Away" Hydra-Matic long ordered by most Olds customers.
For 1959, buyers could choose from a convertible, two- and four-door Holidays, and a pillared Celebrity sedan in each line, plus Dynamic 88 two-door sedan, and four-door Dynamic and Super Fiesta wagons. Prices were higher than ever. Only three Dynamics started below $3000, while the ragtop Ninety-Eight was now close to $4400.
Even so, 1959 was a good Olds year on balance, the division notching another fifth-place finish on slightly improved volume of nearly 383,000. Though it had come a long way from the first 88s, Olds still retained something of a performance image (aided by Lee Petty's photo-finish win in the first Daytona 500), which it would shine anew to great success in the '60s.
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The market began fragmenting soon after the new decade's dawn, and Lansing responded with other makes by issuing a variety of new Oldsmobile models. Most sold very well. The division never fell below seventh in industry output during these years and ran as high as fourth, rising from about 347,000 cars produced for 1960 to 635,000 by decade's end.
Olds jumped on the 1961 bandwagon for upscale compacts by fielding the F-85, which together with its later Cutlass variations saw steadily higher annual production through 1968.
This reflected an astute matching of product with customer tastes: small V-8s for 1961-62, larger compacts with an optional V-6 for 1964-65, the high-performance 4-4-2 series from 1964. Each year's junior Olds line was invariably right on the money. The division's standard-size cars also sold consistently well.
F-85 was one of GM's "second-wave" compacts, evolved along with the Buick Special and Pontiac Tempest from Chevrolet's rear-engine 1960 Corvair. All thus shared the first-generation Corvair's basic Y-body platform, albeit reworked for an orthodox front-engine/rear-drive format.
Tempest, with its curved driveshaft and rear transaxle, was the most radical of the B-O-P trio. Special and F-85 were resolutely conventional. Both carried an all-new, all-aluminum Buick-built V-8 of 215 cid and 155 bhp, which gave reasonable go (typical 0-60 mph: 13 seconds) and fuel economy (18 mpg). In appearance, the Olds was a bit cleaner than the Buick, with a simpler front end (a small-scale rendition of that year's big-Olds face) but the same sculpted bodysides and crisp roofline.
Naming the F-85 had been a small problem. Starfire was the first choice, but seemed to denote a big sporty car, as it had in the past (and ultimately would again for '61.) "Rockette" was rejected for projecting an unwanted image of the Radio City Music Hall dancers. The final choice looked to the Corvette-like F-88 show car of 1954, with "85" selected to avoid confusion with the big 88s.
F-85 initially offered a four-door sedan and hatchback four-door wagon in standard and Deluxe trim with a $2300-$2900 price spread. All rode a trim 112-inch wheelbase. At midyear came a pair of coupes, including a $2621 job with bucket seats and luxury interior called Cutlass, a name that would eventually supplant F-85. Base and Cutlass convertibles bowed for 1962.
All '62 Cutlasses offered a 185-bhp "Power-Pack" V-8, but greater interest surrounded another new derivation. This was the turbocharged Jetfire hardtop coupe, which shared honors with Chevy's 1962 Corvair Monza Spyder as America's first high-volume turbocar. With blower, the Jetfire V-8 churned out a healthy 215 bhp -- the long-hallowed "1 hp per cu. in." ideal -- but carbon buildup with certain grades of fuel necessitated an unusual water-injection system (actually, a water/alcohol mix).
While the Jetfire was remarkably fast (0-60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, top speed around 107 mph), the water-injection proved unreliable. As a result, Olds abandoned turbos for 1964 in favor of a conventional 330-cid V-8 of 230-290 bhp; at the same time, Buick's new 155-bhp 225-cid V-6 became base power for the F-85 line.
The compact Oldsmobiles grew to intermediate size after 1963, GM taking note of the huge sales generated by Ford's 1962-63 Fairlane. Wheelbase went to 115 inches, when Cutlass Holiday hardtop coupes were added.
For '68, the line was split into 112-inch-wheelbase two-door models and 116-inch-wheelbase four-doors. Styling improved over time. The original look became squarer and more "important" for '63. The '64s were bulkier but still very clean, with an even closer resemblance to big Oldsmobiles. Straight beltlines yielded to more-flowing "Coke-bottle "contours for '66, when models again expanded via hardtop sedans in Cutlass and F-85 Deluxe trim. Appearance began getting cluttered again after '68, with busier grilles and sometimes clumsy vinyl tops.
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The most-exciting F-85s were called 4-4-2, which meant four speeds (or 400 cubic inches beginning with '65), four-barrel carburetor, and dual exhausts. The debut 1964 edition was a package option for any F-85 except wagons, comprising a 310-bhp 330 V-8, heavy-duty suspension, and four-speed manual gearbox.
The '65 (confined to two-door models) was hotter still with a 345-bhp 400 -- a debored version of the full-size Olds' then-new 425-cid V-8 -- plus heavy-duty wheels, shocks, springs, rear axle, driveshaft, engine mounts, steering and frame; front/rear stabilizer bars; fat tires; special exterior and interior trim; 11-inch clutch; and a 70-amp battery -- all for about $250.
Performance was terrific: 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds, the standing quarter-mile in 17 seconds at 85 mph, top speed of 125 mph. The 4-4-2 proved, as Motor Trend magazine said, "that Detroit can build cars that perform, handle, and stop, without sacrificing road comfort."
Each year's 4-4-2 was eagerly awaited. Though the 400 V-8 wasn't pushed much beyond 350 bhp, Oldsmobile's hot middleweights remained handsome, fast, and fun. They were also better-balanced overall than rival muscle machines that had too much power for their chassis.
The '69s wore large "4-4-2" numerals on front fenders, rear deck, and on a body-color vertical divider ahead of a black-finish grille, plus a unique "bi-level" hood with contrasting paint stripes. If a bit outlandish, the '69 was no less a performance car than the first 4-4-2. It was also a fine value at base prices as low as $3141.
Debuting for 1966 was the most innovative Olds in a generation. This, of course, was the intriguing front-wheel-drive Toronado, a hardtop coupe offered in $4617 standard guise or as a nicer Deluxe model priced $200 higher.
Toronado represented a clean break with the past -- and a commitment to front drive that would involve every GM nameplate by 1980. Toronado was also a big surprise for a company that had once panned the front-drive Cord, but GM planned it well.
The goals for Toronado were traditional American power combined with outstanding handling and traction. Its 425 V-8 came from full-size Oldsmobiles, but delivered an extra 10 horsepower -- 385 total -- and teamed with a new "split" automatic transmission. A torque converter mounted behind the engine connected via chain drive and sprocket to a Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission located remotely beneath the left cylinder bank. The chain drive, flexible yet virtually unbreakable, saved weight and cut costs.
It also resulted in a very compact drivetrain that opened up extra cabin room. (A generous 119-inch wheelbase helped, too.) Most previous front-drive systems had put the engine behind a transmission slung out ahead of the axle.
Toronado's split transmission allowed the engine to be placed directly over the front wheels for a front/rear weight distribution of 54/46 percent, good for a big front-driver that some said could never work simply because it was so large and heavy (over 4300 pounds).
Toronado's styling was as sophisticated as its engineering. The C-pillars spilled gently down from the roof, there was no beltline "break" behind the rear side windows, the rakish fastback roofline terminated in a neatly cropped tail, the curved fuselage was set off by boldly flared wheel arches, and there was a distinctive front end with hidden headlamps. Automobile Quarterly editor Don Vorderman termed the result "logical, imaginative, and totally unique."
It was just as superb on the road. Understeer wasn't excessive for a front-driver, 100 mph was a quiet business, and top speed was near 135 mph even with the fairly rangy standard final-drive ratio. Unquestionably, Toronado was the most outstanding single Olds of the '60s. It would also prove to be the last truly innovative product that Lansing could call its own.
Toronado improved for '67 by offering optional front-disc power brakes and radial tires. Save detail changes, styling was mercifully left alone. Sales, unfortunately, took a big dive, dropping from 41,000 to about 21,800.
The 1968 Toro looked heavier in front, gaining a simple but massive combination bumper/grille. The following year brought added rear-end sheet metal, an apparent effort to create a more conventional notchback appearance.
The same reasoning prompted an optional vinyl roof cover that didn't work at all with the clean C-pillar line. Horsepower declined by 10 for '68 despite a switch to the giant new 455 V-8 offered in that year's full-size Olds line. However, an optional W-34 version served up an even 400 bhp thanks to dual exhausts, special cam, and other modifications.
Little else but exposed headlamps distinguished the 1970 model, last of the first-generation Toros. Sales were erratic in these years. The total was near 26,500 for '68, an encouraging gain over dismal '67, then rose to almost 28,500 before easing back to 25,400 for 1970.
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Despite the likes of Toronado and 4-4-2, big cars remained Oldsmobile's stock-in-trade in the '60s. The 1960 models were basically the expansive "Linear Look" '59s with simpler, more-dignified lines from a below-the-belt reskin.
Pointy "rocket" rear fenders and busier bodysides marked the '61s, followed by more-involved grilles and rear-end treatments for '62. Wheelbases and series remained unchanged: 123 inches for price-leader Dynamic 88 and extra-performance Super 88, 126.3 for the luxury Ninety-Eight. A 1961 newcomer was the bucket-seat Starfire convertible on the Super 88 chassis. A companion hardtop coupe was added for '62.
Further full-size expansion occurred for 1964, when the Dynamic moved up a notch in price to make room for Jetstar 88s. Among them was the bucket-seat Jetstar I sports coupe with a concave backlight a la Pontiac's Grand Prix.
Super 88 was renamed Delta 88 for 1965; two years later, Dynamics and standard Jetstars were rolled into a single Delmont 88 series. But Delmont would be short-lived, giving way for 1969 to standard, Custom, and Royale Deltas, all on a 124-inch wheelbase. That year's Ninety-Eight moved up to a 127-inch platform.
Despite complete body changes for 1961, '65, and '69, big-Olds styling was remarkably consistent. The dumbbell grille shape persisted through '66, after which the first of Oldsmobile's split grilles appeared.
Lines were crisp and straight through 1964, then progressively curvier and bulkier. Body styles were the usual assortment through '64, after which big station wagons were dropped in deference to new F-85/Cutlass-based haulers, including a Vista Cruiser with a raised, glassed-in rear superstructure (shared by Buick's contemporary Skylark-based Sportwagons) and a 120-inch wheelbase. For 1968, the Vista Cruiser chassis grew to 121 inches, though lesser Cutlass wagons were five inches shorter.
After a carryover 1960, big-Olds power through 1964 was provided by 394 V-8s delivering from 250 bhp in base 88s to 345 bhp in the 1962-64 Starfire. The low-priced '64 Jetstar used the F-85's 330 V-8. The 394 was stroked to 425 cid for 1965, and power rose gradually, reaching 375 bhp by 1967.
A still longer stroke created 1968's massive 455, but it made only 365 bhp, with some power lost to the advent of emission controls and necessary detuning. The '67 Delmont offered both the 425- and 330-cid engines. The latter was boosted to 350 cid and 250 bhp for 1968.
Of Oldsmobile's two big bucket-seat performance cars, only the Starfire had any success. Production zoomed from 7600 for debut '61 to almost 42,000 for '62. But that would be the peak, output tapering fast through the end of the series in 1966. Jetstar I was the same idea at a more-popular price, but it didn't catch on; only about 22,600 were built for 1964-65. Though neither was anything like a true sports car (despite Oldsmobile's claims), they were distinctive and handled well for their size.
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Like sister GM divisions, Oldsmobile's responses to the tumultuous events of the 1970s were quick and usually correct. The 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo and the resulting energy crisis dramatically highlighted the need for smaller, thriftier cars in every size and price range, and Olds needed them as much as any medium-price make. At the start of the decade, its smallest models were two-door intermediates.
Yet by 1980, it was offering no fewer than three model lines on wheelbases of less than 110 inches, plus more sensibly sized full-size cars and the trimmest Toronado yet. Still, GM's decision to downsize its entire fleet came well in advance of the fuel shortage. That the first of the new breed appeared barely two years after the crisis had passed was merely happy coincidence.
Oldsmobile's great sales success in the '70s was not a coincidence but the result of canny, calculated marketing. In fact, Olds usually ranked third behind Ford and Chevrolet -- remarkable considering its products were basically corporate designs available under other nameplates for the same or less money.
What undoubtedly attracted buyers was the extra prestige of the Olds badge on more nicely trimmed cars priced only a little above comparable Chevys and Pontiacs and slightly below equivalent Buicks. The full-size B-body Delta 88 and the mid-size A-body Cutlass were far and away the division's biggest money spinners in these years.
Cutlass firmly established itself in the 1970s as one of America's favorites, often topping the individual model-line sales charts. Although it remained essentially an upmarket Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu, Cutlass always offered a broad range of model and trim choices at competitively attractive prices. Another plus was more august Oldsmobile styling.
Among the most popular of this popular line was the posh range-topping Cutlass Supreme, which debuted as a single 1966 hardtop sedan, then became a separate full-range series (bolstered by a convertible for 1970-72).
By 1973, the two-door alone accounted for nearly 220,000 sales, greater than the combined total for all other Cutlasses. Most buyers specified V-8s, especially early in the decade, though sixes were available beginning with the '75s. Coupes far outsold sedans and wagons in most years.
Given this popularity, the downsized 108.1-inch-wheelbase Cutlass/Cutlass Supreme of 1978 seemed very brave at the time, but buyers took to it with no less enthusiasm. The sole exception was the 1978-80 "aeroback" two- and four-door sedans, which were too dumpy-looking even for Oldsmobile's mostly conservative clientele. Conventional notchback styling was thus applied to the four-door after '79, and was greeted with immediate acceptance.
The enthusiast's Cutlass fell on hard times in the '70s, as did every other Detroit muscle car. The last of the traditional high-power 4-4-2s appeared for 1971, a convertible and Holiday hardtop coupe packing the division's big 455 V-8. Sales dropped fast: from 19,000 for 1970 to less than 7600.
After this, the 4-4-2 was reduced to a mere option package and a shadow of its original performance self. With GM's redesigned "Colonnade" intermediates of 1973, Olds tried a new approach in the Cutlass Salon, an American-style sporty sedan series somewhat akin to Pontiac's Grand Am.
Though it failed to catch on, the name kept popping up on later midsize and compact models. As for the 4-4-2, you could still get a car so badged in 1979, but it was far more show than go.
Olds followed Buick back to compacts in 1973 -- and with the same basic car. Omega was Lansing's version, one of three badge-engineered derivatives of the 111-inch-wheelbase X-body platform introduced with the 1968 Chevy Nova.
Though it managed a respectable 60,000 first-season sales, Omega was never a big winner. Sales actually fell for 1975 despite a handsome new outer skin and an improved chassis. When the X-body was shrunk around more space-efficient front-wheel-drive mechanicals for 1980, Omega vied with Pontiac's counterpart Phoenix for low spot on the sales totem pole, though an avalanche of highly publicized reliability and safety problems severely hurt all of these corporate cousins.
A similar fate befell another "company car," the subcompact Starfire. Introduced for 1975, this was Oldsmobile's edition of the Vega-based Chevrolet Monza 2+2, with the same hatchback coupe body and the 231-cid V-6 used in Buick's near-identical Skyhawk.
Though the name once attached to Lansing's largest and most opulent cars, this 97-inch-wheelbase Starfire was the smallest Olds ever, and thus should have done well in the post-energy crisis market. But big cars were on the rise again, and Starfire captured a mere six percent of division sales in its first year. It wouldn't do much better through the final 1980 models.
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Upper-middle-class luxury remained Oldsmobile's mainstay in the '70s, and its big cars never strayed from it. What they did stray from, eventually, was needless bulk, which had become an increasing liability in the more-energy-conscious climate of late decade.
GM bowed the largest full-size cars in its history for 1971, so Oldsmobile's B-body Delta 88 and C-body Ninety-Eight acquired extra inches and pounds on wheelbases unchanged from '69. Big-block 455 V-8s prevailed, but were progressively detuned to meet ever-stricter emissions standards.
Wagons in this design generation had an interesting "clamshell" rear window/tailgate that retracted electrically into the body like a rolltop desk. The big Chevy, Pontiac, and Buick wagons all had it too, but it worked none too well.
As with Cutlass, the full-size Olds lost none of its appeal when downsized for 1977. If anything, these smaller big cars sold even better than the bigger old ones, doubtless due to improved fuel economy and maneuverability with no sacrifice in passenger room and ride comfort. Wheelbases contracted to 116 inches for Delta 88 and the Custom Cruiser wagon, and to 119 for Ninety-Eight, sizes that would persist through the mid-'80s.
Substantial weight reductions allowed the use of 350- and 403-cid V-8s without compromising performance. DieselV-8s and Buick's 231 gas V-6 were standard or optional from 1978 on. Model choices changed several times, but sedans and coupes usually ran to base, Royale, and Royale Brougham Deltas, and Luxury and Regency Ninety-Eights. The Custom Cruiser hung on in this form all the way through 1990, mainly because GM elected not to replace it with a smaller front-drive model that would have been less useful as a full-size wagon.
The personal-luxury Toronado evolved through the '70s more or less in step with the full-size Oldsmobiles. For 1971, it also became as large as it would ever be, going from mild sportiness to outsized opulence on a 123-inch wheelbase. Styling also changed -- mostly for the worse -- becoming more contrived and Cadillac-like through the end of this second generation in 1978.
Two Toronado styling developments in these years bear mention. One was a throwback to the early-postwar Studebaker Starlight coupes: a huge rear window wrapped around to the sides in a near unbroken sweep on the XS model of 1977 and XSC of 1978. More laudable was a second set of brake lights just below the rear window, the precursor to an idea that would later be mandated by Washington for all cars sold in the U.S.
Despite its innovative engineering, the Toronado had no direct technical bearing on GM's linewide switch to front drive that began with the 1980 X-body compacts. In fact, it would probably have sold just as well with rear drive -- as indeed did Buick's Riviera, which used a rear-drive version of the Toronado platform after 1965 but was always more popular.
Save 1973, when sales neared 56,000, second-series Toronado volume was hardly exceptional: about 23,000 in most years. The new downsized generation of 1979 was smaller than even the 1966 original, with a 114-inch-wheelbase E-body platform and adequately potent small-block V-8s. It immediately garnered a bit more than 50,000 orders, then pulled in from 34,000 to 48,000 a year through 1985.
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Oldsmobile's fortunes in the 1980s were decidedly mixed. Lansing had sold a record 1.14 million cars for '77 and nearly as many for '78 and '79. With the second energy crisis that began in late '79 came a deep national recession that held division sales well below the one-million mark through 1983.
But then Olds bounced back to set another record: a smashing 1.17 million for 1985. In the yearly production derby the division continued to run its usual third, just ahead of Buick, but it also managed to beat Ford for second spot in 1983 and '85.
Yet by 1987, Olds was down below 671,000, its worst total since the mid-'70s, and Pontiac had regained third. The decline continued, Olds averaging but 534,000 for 1988-89, then dipping under half a million for 1990.
What happened? One problem was that Oldsmobile's role and image became confused with Buick's -- no surprise given similar model lines that had evolved pretty much in lockstep since the mid-'70s at least.
Another problem was Pontiac, which in the early '80s began offering the kind of performance-oriented machinery that had served it so well in the '60s. By that point, Oldsmobile's one real marketing asset seemed to be the Cutlass name, and even that had lost much of its appeal by being indiscriminately tacked onto too many models.
Olds also suffered from GM's policies of "identicar" styling and divisional duplicates of most every platform in the corporate stable.
Then, too, there was the wholesale corporate reorganization hatched by chairman Roger Smith in 1984. This was a well-intentioned attempt at addressing many ills, including blurred divisional identities, but it only squandered valuable time and untold employee morale.
Compounding this confusion was Smith's headlong rush to buy Hughes Electronics and the Electronic Data Systems company of one H. Ross Perot, in the mistaken belief that expensive computerized-manufacturing systems would increase both productivity and profitability.
Instead, the acquisitions only sapped funds that might have been more wisely spent on much-needed new models. Meantime, the hastily installed automation only worsened the build quality of existing products.
Symbolic of the near-chaos that then reigned was the highly touted "Poletown" plant opened in the mid-'80s in Hamtramck, near Detroit, where robots painted each other instead of cars and driverless parts carts scurried around aimlessly.
A final problem, and perhaps the most telling, was the inability -- or was it the refusal? -- of top GM managers to see they had any problems at all. Of course, some executives were quite insulated by GM's size, and their "business-as-usual" attitude was not harmful as long as the market remained healthy.
But when the market turned weak in 1990, GM began hemorrhaging cash like it hadn't done even in its earliest days. Huge losses continued to pile up over the next three years. By that point, rumors were circulating that Oldsmobile -- then about to celebrate its 95th anniversary -- might have to be sacrificed as part of saving the corporation.
With all the problems of the times, the 1980s was not one of Oldsmobile's happiest decades. For a while, Lansing tried swapping roles with Flint, emphasizing sporty luxury as a sort of "American BMW" while Buick reasserted its traditional blend of substantial size and smooth-riding softness in what it now called "premium American motorcars." But this game plan worked only for Buick.
By decade's end, Olds seemed hopelessly lost and increasingly unnecessary, squeezed by an aggressive Pontiac from below and a resurgent Buick from above. It was all eerily reminiscent of what happened to DeSoto in the late '50s -- and, come to that, the Edsel.
The cars that carried Olds to this uncertain state of affairs were workaday intermediates and full-size models. Surprisingly perhaps, given the difficult early-'80s market, the big rear-drive Delta 88 and Ninety-Eight took over as the division's top-sellers through mid-decade. Together, they attracted a quarter-million buyers a year through 1982 and more than 340,000 in 1983 and '84.
Both soon moved to smaller front-drive platforms (except, as noted, the Custom Cruiser wagon) as part of a second-wave GM downsizing program. The 1985 Ninety-Eight was thus put on a new C-body, shared with Buick's Electra; the 88 was similarly transformed for '86 on the related new H-body also used for the Buick LeSabre and Pontiac Bonneville.
Like the first-wave '77s, these smaller big cars sold just as well as their predecessors. But aside from styling and equipment details, all these Oldsmobiles, rear-drive and front-drive, differed little from counterpart Buicks.
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Number-two on Lansing's 1980s hit parade was the midsize Cutlass, which involved two distinct lines: continuations of the 1978-vintage rear-drive series and its erstwhile front-drive successor, the A-body Cutlass Ciera, new for '82. Each accounted for upward of 200,000-300,000 sales in their best years. Rear-drive Cutlass coupes received a sloped-nose "aero" facelift for 1981 (similar to the full-size cars' 1980 redo).
Model years 1983 and '87 saw the end of Cutlass wagons and sedans, respectively. Two-doors adopted flush-mounted "composite" headlamps for '86. Signaling the imminent arrival of a new front-drive Cutlass Supreme, the rear-drive '88s -- produced in a short run -- were renamed Supreme Classic.
Of interest to collectors is the trio of low-volume, period muscle-car revivals based on the rear-drive Cutlass coupe: a 15th anniversary Hurst/Olds commemorative for 1983, a similar 1984 follow-up, and a reborn 4-4-2 option package offered for 1985-87.
The H/Os wore special badging and modest decklid spoilers. All three packed a four-barrel, 180-bhp version of Oldsmobile's 307-cid small-block V-8 (170 bhp in 1987) and were quite fast. Their mild engine tuning would have seemed laughable in the '60s, but nobody had to be concerned with corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) in those days.
CAFE was a definite motivation for the smaller midsize Olds, the Cutlass Ciera. It was, predictably, much like Buick's new-wave Century, derived from the front-drive corporate X-car compact and initially offered as a notchback coupe and sedan; glass-hatch wagons arrived for 1984.
Engine choices included a standard Pontiac-built 151-cid four-cylinder, 181-cube gas V-6, and a 262 diesel V-6. For mid-1986, the Ciera coupe gained a smoother, slightly abbreviated roofline. Sedans got a similarly rounded backlight for 1989, when a new 160-bhp 3.3-liter V-6 replaced the 231-cid Buick V-6 optional since '85.
The rear-drive Cutlass and front-drive Ciera typically offered a choice of plain and fancy trim (the latter usually dubbed Brougham). There were also sporting versions: GT and Euro-style ES Cieras through 1987, plus Calais and Salon Cutlass coupes -- all with fortified suspensions and less traditional interiors.
From 1988, the enthusiast's Ciera was retitled International Series, but retained the usual black-finish exterior trim, bigger wheel/tire package, and special body addenda (front and rear spoilers, later matched by rocker-panel skirts).
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Somehow, Oldsmobile was less successful with small cars than Buick, let alone Chevrolet. Perhaps they weren't sufficiently different enough, or maybe Oldsmobile customers just couldn't resist the bigger jobs.
Whatever the reason, Lansing's smallest cars were slow movers. The front-drive X-body Omega, for example, peaked at nearly 148,000 for 1981, then tailed off to less than 54,000 by '83. Lack of change didn't help, and it was summarily dismissed after 1984.
Firenza fared even worse. Arriving in March 1982 to replace Starfire, Lansing's version of the front-drive 101.2-inch-wheelbase corporate J-body subcompact failed to attract more than about 45,000 customers in most years -- except for 1984, when it garnered a creditable 82,500 -- even though Olds tried most everything it could think of to sell it.
By 1988 the Firenza had offered all the J body styles, sporty GT and SX variants, overhead-valve and overhead-cam fours, optional V-6, and a confusing procession of price-leader and luxury models. But nothing seemed to work, and Olds gave up after '88.
Firenza was no great loss, though, because 1985 brought a more-saleable small Olds in the N-body Calais, called Cutlass Calais after 1988. Sized between Firenza and Omega on a 103.4-inch wheelbase, it bowed as a rounded, short-deck coupe in two versions: base and -- just to confuse things -- Supreme. Four-door sedans were added for 1986.
There was a lot of J-car engineering under the "modern formal" styling, and initial engine choices were the Ciera's familiar Pontiac-built four and 3.0-liter Buick V-6. Even so, customers generally liked this new bottle of old wine, snapping up 100,000-plus in the first year and better than 150,000 of the '86s -- about midway between the similar Pontiac Grand Am and Buick Skylark/Somerset.
For 1988, Calais coupes and sedans grouped into base, luxury SL, and sporty International Series (the last replacing a GT package option), but the big news was the first twin cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine in American production, the Quad-4. Designed and built by Olds and offered as an across-the-board Calais option, it delivered 150 rather rough and noisy horses, but was claimed capable of much more.
Olds proved it by adding a tuned 180-bhp version for 1989. A more-useful option that year was a new 3.3-liter derivative of the 173-cid Chevrolet-sourced V-6. Replacing the Buick-built 3.0, it also produced 160 bhp -- and more torque than even the "High Output" Quad-4. To fill in for the departed Firenza, prosaically named Value Leader Calais models appeared for '89 with less standard equipment and restricted options but lower prices.
Enthusiasts surely shuddered when the 442 returned (sans hyphens) as a performance option for the base 1990 Calais coupe. Olds said the name now designated "Quad-4, 4 valves per cylinder and 2 camshafts."
Included in the $1667 package were the 180-horse Quad-4, five-speed manual transaxle, a specific version of Oldsmobile's FE3 sport suspension, meaty 215/60R14 performance tires on alloy wheels, full instrumentation, a cute rear-deck spoiler, and bold "442" exterior I.D. "Buff books" gave this latest 442 a lot of ink, but customers mostly gave it the cold shoulder.
Even a hallowed name on an honestly speedy little car couldn't convince many that Olds still specialized in high performance the way it had in the '50s and '60s.
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Oldsmobile observed 20 years of Toronados with a new fourth generation design for 1986, which should have been cause for celebration. In many ways it was: 18 inches trimmer and 550 pounds slimmer on a new 108-inch wheelbase; just as quick despite switching from V-8s to the Buick 231-cid V-6 (making it the first Toro without eight cylinders); clean and contemporary styling, with hidden headlamps for the first time since 1969.
In early '87 came a companion model aimed straight at enthusiasts: the Trofeo (pronounced tro-FAY-oh, "trophy" in Spanish and Italian), with a more subdued exterior, standard leather interior, and FE3 "handling" suspension.
Yet for all that, buyers didn't respond. Toronado had long been eclipsed in sales by cousins Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado. The '86 was no different, except that sales were less than half of what they had been: fewer than 16,000 in the debut season versus 42,000-plus for the last of the third-generation cars.
The Riv and Eldo fared little better. Critics blamed this poor performance on styling uncomfortably close to that of the much cheaper Calais, and a package that was evidently downsized a little too much for most personal-luxury buyers.
Sadly, there was little Olds could do to improve matters right away. The '87s thus received only new engine mounts plus roller valve lifters that helped lift the V-6 from 140 to 150 bhp.
For 1988 came a revised "3800" engine with another 15 bhp, a new antilock brake system (ABS) devised by GM and the German Alfred Teves company became optional, and there were minor mechanical and ergonomic changes. More details were attended to for '89, when Trofeo picked up extra standard equipment, including ABS.
Cadillac and Buick had made their E-bodies more impressive looking for 1988 and '89. Olds was finally able to do the same for the 1990 Toronado, adding 12.4 inches to overall length, mainly at the rear, complemented by minor facial surgery. The result was handsome, and the extra length yielded an extra 2.5 cubic feet of trunk space.
Olds also threw in a standard driver-side airbag and larger wheels and tires for both the Toro and Trofeo (the latter increasingly marketed as a separate model). Nevertheless, sales remained a fraction of what they'd once been, although the 1990 total of just over 15,000 was a heartening gain on the previous year's dismal 9900.
By now, GM had learned the folly of fielding too many cars that looked too much like each other. The all-new front-drive Cutlass Supreme that bowed for 1988 provided striking proof.
Though it shared the W-body/GM10 platform with that year's Buick Regal and Pontiac Grand Prix, this newest Supreme had its own roofline and outer sheet metal so it would not be confused with the others (nor they with Supreme). Hallmarks included a low, tapered nose; slim Olds-trademark split grille; curvy flanks; large wheel openings; crisply clipped tail; and a glassy notchback superstructure with semi-concealed C-posts and thin A- and B-pillars.
The front-drive Supreme's initial power team was a five-speed manual transaxle driven by the workhorse 173-cid Chevy V-6 in 125-bhp port-injected form; for 1989, cars with optional automatic received a 3.1-liter/191-cid enlargement boasting 135 bhp.
At the same time, optional ABS arrived to fortify the standard all-disc brakes. Model choices through '89 comprised Oldsmobile's now-usual range of base, SL, and sporty International Series -- all coupes. The I-Series came with quick-ratio power steering, tuned exhaust, full instrumentation, and, for '89, cassette tape player, power door mirrors, and central locking.
Buyers had been conditioned to expect rebates or low-interest financing offers even on new models. The front-drive Supreme bowed without them, and thus got off to a relatively slow sales start: a little less than 95,000 made despite the extra-long 1988 model year.
Olds took the hint, offered incentives, and watched sales pass 100,000 for '89, then 119,000 for '90. But what really made the difference was the belated 1990 arrival of four-door Supremes, which critics said should have been introduced first. At the same time, the engine lineup was curiously juggled.
Base power with five-speed manual was now the 180-bhp H.O. Quad-4, with the 160-bhp version reserved for cars with optional three-speed automatic. The 3.1 V-6 again teamed solely with extra-cost four-speed automatic, but that combination was no longer available for the I-Series, which could have used it just as much.
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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 . . . [T]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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Unfortunately, John D. Rock couldn't do much about existing Oldsmobile models and a couple of new ones in the pipeline. Thus, the Toronado and its Trofeo offshoot were left to languish through 1992, then dropped for lack of sales (a mere 6436 that last season).
Both finished out with the improved "3800" V-6 and electronic transmission controls adopted for '91, the year antilock brakes became standard for Toro as well Trofeo. It was a sad end for a car once so innovative and compelling.
Likewise, the big rear-wheel-drive Custom Cruiser vanished after 1992 and a two-year stand as a clone of Chevy's restyled '91 Caprice wagon. Just slightly more than 12,000 were made. Nineteen-ninety marked the last use of the 307 V-8 descended from the original '49 "Rocket." It was another sad ending for Olds, but the engine was simply no longer needed.
With GM down to a handful of rear-drive cars, economics dictated that all but the Cadillacs use Chevy power. And in fact, Chevy's 5.0-liter V-8 was made standard, and its 180-bhp 5.7-liter V-8 was added as a '92 Custom Cruiser option. Both were too late to help sales, but the bigger engine's bountiful torque and 10 extra bhp were appreciated in the weighty wagon.
The Ninety-Eight observed its 50th anniversary with a substantial 1991 makeover. Wheelbase was unchanged, but the new four-door styling was handsome in its chunky way. Both the Touring Sedan and new Regency Elite boasted ample interior space, all kinds of no-cost amenities, and a smooth new "3800" V-6 with 170 bhp.
Like Toronado, however, sales were but an echo of Oldsmobile's best days. Though some 55,000 buyers were persuaded for '91, demand tapered off despite the '92 addition of a lower-priced standard Regency (at $24,595) and a 205-bhp supercharged V-6 option for the Touring Sedan. By 1994, sales were down to around 26,600.
The Eighty-Eight, also still front-wheel drive, got its own redesign for 1992. Coupes were gone, but Royale and uplevel Royale LS sedans wore attractive new styling to stand crisply apart from H-body cousins Buick LeSabre and Pontiac Bonneville. Here, too, was a "3800" V-6 and, for LS, newly optional traction control.
Arriving in spring was the suave LSS (Luxury Sport Sedan) option package with front bucket seats and a handling-oriented chassis with 16-inch wheels and performance tires. Overall sales were good: some 115,000 for the model year.
All Eighty-Eights got a bit more torque for '93, plus standard antilock brakes (formerly optional). The '94s sported minor cosmetic changes and a tidier dash with a passenger-side airbag to complement the already included driver-side restraint. For '95 came an improved "Series II" V-6 with 35 extra bhp, and the LSS was available with a 225-bhp supercharged "Series I."
Sales see-sawed despite the rising technical progress, falling to about 62,400 for '93, then swinging up past 82,000 before easing back to some 75,400. But this was still one of the most pleasant and practical of family cars, and the Eighty-Eight remained the third-most-popular Olds after Cutlasses Ciera and Supreme.
Once the country's best-selling car line, the Supreme wasn't even in the top 25 after 1989, a huge comedown for a mainstream midsize. There were two likely reasons: the increasingly negative image of the Olds name and wave after wave of new, highly appealing competitors.
Regardless, Supreme hit a modern sales low with model-year '93 and barely 83,000 units -- at best, only a fourth of what it had done as recently as the mid-'80s. Lansing was thus surely relieved when volume went solidly over the 100,000 level for 1994 and '95.
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In a way, it's a wonder Oldsmobile sales didn't fall further, for aside from a mild '92 face-lift and annual power train shuffles, the Supreme saw no notable change through mid-decade.
At least the convertible was still around as a customer lure. Though it was always peripheral to overall sales, production climbed steadily, reaching 1515 for '91, then zooming to 4306 for '92 and 6751 for troubled '93.
Recovery 1994 saw a healthy 8638 units, but even that wasn't enough for GM accountants, so the droptop Supreme was dropped after 1995 and a final 4490 examples. Many dealers were sad to see it go; it had done much to brighten Olds showrooms during a dreary time.
An interesting new standard engine arrived for Supreme's 1991 I-Series coupe and sedan: a 3.4-liter V-6 with dual overhead camshafts and four-valve cylinder heads. Quaintly named "Twin Dual Cam," it delivered 210 bhp with five-speed manual or 200 with optional four-speed automatic. Though a much more satisfying performer than any Quad-4, it wasn't nearly as racy as its specifications implied.
The following year's restyle was a good one, announced by a tidier version of the trademark split-theme Olds grille. New "mini-quad" headlamps flanked square parking lights for a Pontiac-like "six-lamp" visage, and additional body-color components gave some Supremes a more-integrated look. Sensibly, the Quad-4 was axed for '92, and no one missed it. A car of this class with four-cylinder power, no matter how "advanced" on paper, just wasn't what the market wanted.
Also that year, the I-Series got an aircraft-type Head-Up Display (HUD): Readouts of speed and other information projected onto the windshield for easy viewing. Olds offered this as an option in the search for "a difference to sell." Like the Quad-4, though, it mainly drew blank stares.
Supreme marked time for '93, though the 3.4 V-6 was now optional for the ragtop and all models gained automatic power door locks and a front cupholder. The '94s benefited from a standard driver-side airbag and antilock brakes, but the I-Series vanished and SL trim became a package option as Olds turned to emphasizing value with a new "one-price" Special Edition coupe and sedan starting at $16,995. Internal improvements added 20 bhp to the mainstay 3.1 pushrod V-6 (still hanging on).
Besides a swan-song convertible, the '95 lineup offered just SL coupe and sedan (replacing S) in "Series I" and "Series II" trim/equipment levels. Prices again spanned a narrow $1000 range ($17,500-$18,500), with the convertible way upstream at $25,460. A more-ergonomic dash with standard dual airbags then carried Supreme through a quiet 1996, after which both car and name finally stepped aside for a better midsize Olds.
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Oldsmobile's most popular car of the early '90s was something far older than the W-body Supreme. Against all odds, it was the hoary Cutlass Ciera, whose surprising sales stamina was probably as much an embarrassment to Olds as it was a relief.
This was, after all, a very old car by now and quite at odds with the more "with it" image Olds was trying to project. But Olds needed every sale it could get, and every Ciera made money, as GM had long since amortized the cost of the vintage-'82 design.
What kept Ciera going were steadily improved quality and dollar value. The former reflected a gradual but wholesale reengineering effort that put this Olds (and Buick's related Century) near the top of GM's internal quality audits by 1993 -- and on a few independent surveys, too.
As for value, Ciera discarded its I-Series after 1990 and coupes after '91 to focus on workaday sedans and wagons in basic S and nicer SL guise. SLs alone carried on for '94 "one-price" Special Editions as part of the effort.
A decent supply of standard features included driver-side airbag (optional before) and GM's low-cost "ABS VI" antilock brake system. By that point, Ciera had exchanged the old "Iron Duke" base four for a 2.2-liter Chevy-sourced engine with 120 bhp; for '94, the 3.3 Buick V-6 gave way to a similar 3.1 Chevy unit with 160 bhp. Respective transmissions were three- and four-speed automatics. The game plan changed for '95, when the SLs returned in Series I and V-6 Series II price levels.
Despite inflationary pressures, Ciera prices rose only as far as $17,000 by mid-decade, making this Olds a tempting buy even for a relic of a bygone age. Volume fell substantially after 1990, but the old soldier rebounded with 140,000 or more per year for 1992-'94. Though more "rental car" than driveway dream, the Ciera did more than its share to pull Olds through some very rough years.
There was far less help from Achieva, the redesigned 1992 replacement for Cutlass Calais. The name was a last-minute decision prompted by surveys showing that buyers were confused by three different cars called Cutlass. Besides, Achieva had a modern upscale sound to it -- just what Olds wanted.
Unfortunately, Lansing's new N-body compact was rather less than its name implied. Like cousins Buick Skylark and Pontiac Grand Am (also redesigned that year), Achieva owed much to Chevy's L-body Corsica/Beretta, using the same floor pan, inner structure, and suspension.
Each model had its own styling, though. Achieva was cautiously inoffensive: more conservative than Grand Am, far less weird than Skylark. Four-door sedans were rather "junior Ninety-Eight," but coupes were disappointingly GM-generic, with elements of Chevy Cavalier and even the new Saturn SC. At the 11th hour, designers determined the two-door looked better with rounded rear wheel arches instead of the sedan's flat-top openings, a change that delayed the start of sales for the entire line by some three months to January 1992.
Like Calais, Achieva emphasized Quad-4 power, including a cheaper new version of the Olds design with a single-cam eight-valve cylinder head. Oddly named Quad OHC, it provided 120 bhp as the standard engine in entry-level S models.
Mid-range SLs had the familiar twin cam Quad-4 with 160 bhp, while the 180-bhp H.O. unit was reserved for manual-shift versions of a sportier coupe prosaically titled SC. Optional across this board was Buick's 160-bhp 3.3 V-6.
Added a bit later was the even hotter SCX. Like the previous Calais Quad 442, the SCX featured a 190-bhp Quad-4, close-ratio manual five-speed, unique 14-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, and suitable exterior I.D., plus standard ABS VI as on other models.
Olds pushed Achieva hard, pitting it against the popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in a splashy 100,000-mile consumer-comparison test. The SCX provided bonus publicity by scoring major victories in IMSA and SCCA road racing.
Yet for all the horn-blowing, Achieva didn't achieve its hoped-for sales. The '92 total was fair at just shy of 80,000 (including a few exports), but Pontiac moved far more Grand Ams, and Olds managed only some 48,000 for 1993 despite adding value-priced Special Editions.
Achieva did share in the division's '94 recovery, surging to 62,000, but none were SCXs, as that model was dropped after just 1146 of the '92s and a mere 500 of the '93s.
Achieva really retrenched for 1995, listing just an S coupe and sedan in Series I and II equipment levels respectively tagged at $13,500 and $15,200. The OHC and H.O. engines were also dismissed, but the surviving twin cam finally got what it had always needed: twin "balance shafts" to quell inherent rock-and-roll roughness.
The result was a somewhat smoother, slightly quieter Quad-4 with five fewer horses. Another belated drivetrain improvement was a four-speed automatic transmission to replace the outmoded non-overdrive three-speed as standard with the V-6 (by now a 155-bhp 3.1 liter) and optional with the four.
Olds naturally thought all these changes would help sales, but they didn't, and Achieva model-year output sagged to a bit over 57,000.
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As a minivan, Oldsmobile’s front-drive Silhouette should have sold like crazy, but it, too, failed to live up to expectations. Befitting an Olds, this was a more luxurious version of the new plastic-paneled "GM200" design used for the Pontiac Trans Sport and Chevy Lumina APV.
The Olds cost the most at an initial $17,195, but came with the novel seven-passenger seating package that was optional for the others, with light, easily movable middle- and third-row buckets. There was even a hint of "grand touring" in an available FE3 handling package.
But the 3.1-liter V-6 was a thrashy plodder, and the shared "anteater" styling proved a real turnoff for many buyers. Standard ABS and a 3.8-liter V-6 option didn't turn them on for 1992, nor did a unique power-sliding right-rear door as a new '94 extra.
Thus, after finding slightly more than 28,000 buyers for debut 1990, Silhouette settled into the 17,000-26,000 range through mid-decade -- not great when Plymouth and Dodge each sold more than 200,000 minivans a year. There was nothing to do but start over, and Olds would with a new all-steel 1997 replacement bearing a more conventional shape.
Announcing a bold course for future Oldsmobiles was the all-new 1995 Aurora, the most exciting car from Lansing in 20 years. Originally planned as the next Toronado, it was built on the same new G-body platform as Buick's latest Riviera coupe, but ambitiously targeted upscale sports sedans with unique four-door styling, state-of-the-art V-8 power, a taut front-drive chassis, and loads of luxury, all for less than $32,000 to start.
Aurora's engine wasn't brand-new, being a smaller-bore 4.0-liter version of Cadillac's two-year-old "Northstar" 4.6. But it was a sweet, strong contemporary V-8 with 250 bhp, so despite fair heft (nearly two tons at the curb), Aurora clocked 0-60 mph at a brisk 8.2 seconds in Consumer Guide® tests.
A computer-controlled four-speed automatic was the only transmission. Options were limited to power moonroof, cloth upholstery (a no-cost alternative to standard leather), heated front seats, and an "Autobahn" package with firm shocks, high-speed tires, and slightly tighter final gearing.
As the first of a new generation for GM's most-troubled division, Aurora naturally drew lots of media interest, and Olds confidently sent out pre-production examples for press drives more than a year before sales began.
Initial verdicts were generally quite positive. Enthused Motor Trend: "The new Aurora has us believing miracles can still happen." Car and Driver called it a "combination of value and sophistication that will make an ideal birthright for the new Oldsmobile," while Consumer Guide®'s Auto '95 termed Aurora a "huge step in a new and better direction for Oldsmobile. It's competitive with Japanese and European sedans that cost thousands more."
How odd, then, that Aurora wore a stylized "A" logo but almost no Olds identification, perhaps a tacit admission of how tarnished the old Rocket badge had become. Then again, Aurora was intended to stand somewhat above the rest of the line as a more exclusive "halo" car.
Indeed, the model was sold by only two-thirds of Olds dealers, those who met rigid new divisional standards for everything from showroom display to technical proficiency in the service department. Of course, that was only right for an image-building flagship, and it paid off with strong debut model-year sales of close to 48,000, tops among premium sedans.
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Unfortunately for Oldsmobile, the debut model-year sales would be the peak. Aurora sales plunged about 50 percent for model-year '96 and stayed at roughly that level until 1999, when fewer than 20,000 were built.
Why the sudden fall? A big factor was tougher-than-ever luxury-class competition, especially from Japanese rivals Acura and Lexus. Aurora, by contrast, got but one major innovation in its first five years: GM's new OnStar communications and assistance service as a dealer-installed option for '98.
While Olds had promised no gratuitous changes, hindsight suggests it might have done more to keep Aurora fresh. Then again, this flagship was never intended to be a high-volume moneymaker. Not so the cars that would follow in its image, with nothing less than Oldsmobile's future riding on their success.
GM as a whole still had too many models that cost too much to build and weren't selling as expected. As a result, the company's market share was down to less than 34 percent by 1995, and would ultimately sink to the low-20-percent range.
But GM began cutting costs and was soon making money again, helped by a tech-driven boom economy that fueled an upsurge in demand for profitable trucks. Meanwhile, Olds still struggled. GM bean counters were particularly dismayed by the continuing slide in Olds sales, which were now barely a third of record 1985's nearly 1.2 million units.
Volume was even lower by the time Oldsmobile's centennial rolled around on August 21, 1997 -- 100 years to the day since the formal incorporation of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.
Despite the dreary sales situation, Lansing happily welcomed thousands of celebrants from all over the country, many of whom brought vintage Oldsmobiles for a memorable birthday parade comprising nearly 100 vehicles. Also highlighting the festivities were the next Centennial Plan models, all bearing a "soaring rocket" emblem instituted by John Rock, who felt the old '60s-vintage logo resembled a "chicken track."
Two of the newcomers went on sale before the birthday bash as 1997 entries. Though not central to this book, the second-generation Silhouette bears mention for offering more-conventional minivan looks and construction in regular-length and new extended-body models. All boasted seating for seven, dual sliding rear side doors (the left one optional at first, later standard), a torquier 3.4-liter V-6, and more-upscale furnishings and features than sisters Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport.
It was a big improvement. Though performance was just adequate, handling was tops among minivans, with standard antilock brakes and available traction control enhancing "dynamic safety." Versatility, convenience, and value earned high marks, too. But Silhouette and its siblings were visibly narrower than most minivans, and that turned off many buyers. As a result, they never threatened the sales-leading Chrysler Corporation minivans. Of the GM trio, Silhouette was the most-expensive and, thus, the least-popular.
Oldsmobile's other '97 debutante was yet another Cutlass, a replacement for the long-serving Ciera. Though just a dressier version of Chevy's new Malibu sedan, it fit neatly between the compact Achieva and midsize Cutlass Supreme in size and price. Differences from Malibu were confined to Aurora-look wheels, minor trim, and a standard instead of optional V-6. Both the base Cutlass (later GL) and uptown GLS offered good value, delivering for $20,000 or less with air conditioning, ABS, and many other expected amenities.
An unexpected bonus was the "Oldsmobile Edge," a comprehensive customer-service program launched a few years earlier for all Olds models. One of its provisions allowed a dissatisfied buyer to return a car within 30 days or 1500 miles for a full refund. That might have won a few sales, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Though this Cutlass was a match in most ways for the popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry it targeted, production was less than 20,000 for '97, poor even discounting the short model year. The '98 tally was also underwhelming at 52,600. With that, Oldsmobile's junior midsize was buried, taking the once-magical Cutlass name with it.
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The Centennial Plan envisioned "more international" Oldsmobiles designed with high appeal for the younger, more affluent customers who typically bought imports.
If the Malibu-like Cutlass didn't quite fit that template, the Cutlass Supreme was an even bigger mismatch. Accordingly, the Supreme departed after 1997 with no further changes of substance. A decent car to the end, with Consumer Guide® "Recommended" labels to prove it, the W-body Supreme had simply grown too old to be as competitive as Olds needed it to be.
Achieva, never that competitive in the hard-fought compact class, also vanished after '97, though Olds ran off some 27,000 carefully equipped 1998 sedans for the rental market -- anything to make a sale.
Even less relevant to the emerging new Olds order, the Ninety-Eight was quietly dropped after '96 -- no great loss, as model-year volume was down to just 15,000, less than even the Aurora's.
But Olds was reluctant to abandon traditional full-size luxury, so it retained the old Regency name for a top-line 1997 addition to the Eighty-Eight line. This offered similarly posh trappings and even a bright grille reminiscent of the last Ninety-Eight's, but drew only about half as many orders despite a slightly lower price.
To no one's surprise, the Eighty-Eight Regency vanished after just two seasons in another money-saving move aimed at breaking completely with the past.
Other Eighty-Eights got a mild makeover for '96, including a slim twin-nostril grille, reshaped front fenders, and new headlights and taillamps. The sporty LSS became even more so, gaining more-supportive Aurora-style front bucket seats and a massaged supercharged V-6 option with an extra 15 bhp, 240 in all.
For 1999, Olds marked a half-century of Eighty-Eights with a limited-production 50th Anniversary Edition, a specially equipped version of the mainstay LS priced $2245 higher. But this gesture soon looked very hollow, because the Eighty-Eight would not be back. Dealers howled once they found out, saying a full-size family car was still vital to their business, but their protests went unheeded.
One reason is that GM had discovered something that seemed sure to cure all its ills. "Brand management" wasn't a new business practice, but it was new to the auto industry. It assumes that products of a given type are all pretty much the same, so consumers tend to choose one over another based on their perception of the label or brand; the better the image of a brand, the better the sales of the products that wear it.
Chairman John Smale was a strong believer. So was Jack Smith, Jr., who succeeded him in 1996. Ditto G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., who replaced Smith as president in 1998. But the real push for brand management came from Ronald Zarrella, recruited from optics maker Bausch & Lomb to succeed Wagoner as president of GM's North American operations in 1999.
Under Zarrella, GM reorganized -- again -- and greatly expanded marketing staff and budgets. Meantime, overlapping or underperforming models were pruned from product portfolios, hence the deaths of the Ninety-Eight and Eighty-Eight.
But critics said cars don't sell in the same way as "commodity products" like soap and eyeglasses, and in time they were proved right. Not only did brand management do little to improve GM's fortunes, it actually added cost, time, and complexity in getting out new models, which tended to wind up as overly cautious, even bland products.
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Brand management was bad news for Oldsmobile, reducing the make to just three car lines by 2000. The most commercially promising was Intrigue, a new import-flavored midsize sedan arriving in May '97 as the 1998 replacement for Cutlass Supreme. Though related to the latest Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Regal, it was arguably Detroit's strongest challenger yet to the all-conquering Accord and Camry.
Intrigue rode a 109-inch wheelbase, the same as the Regal's but shorter than the GP's. Styling, previewed by the 1995 Antares concept, was clean and understated, with more than a hint of Aurora. The interior, also tastefully restrained, featured clear, well-placed gauges and controls; plus comfortable space for four adults, five in a pinch.
Roadability was another asset. Said Car and Driver: "What's genuinely surprising is how the Intrigue's chassis mimics the behavior and feel of the imports -- European imports at that. The structure always feels solid and tight [and] the suspension keeps a very tight rein on body motions."
The only engine at first was GM's decidedly un-European "3800" pushrod V-6, but its 195 bhp made for brisk acceleration (just under eight seconds 0-60) despite a mandatory four-speed automatic. For 1999, Olds phased in a new 3.5-liter twin cam V-6 derived from the all-aluminum Olds/Cadillac Northstar V-8. Dubbed the "Shortstar" by some, it made 215 bhp despite less displacement, but it had little more torque than the 3800, so performance was comparable. Even so, the 3.5 was quicker to rev, sounded neat, and backed up Intrigue's credentials as a serious alternative to imports.
Intrigue bowed in plain and fancier GL trim, followed by a late-arriving, leather-upholstered GLS. All came with premium features like front bucket seats and console, all-disc antilock brakes, traction control, and 16-inch wheels and tires at low- to mid-$20,000 prices, the heart of the market. A worthy new option for 2000 was an antiskid Precision Control System, which helped the keep the car on course if it started to slide.
Consumer Guide® welcomed Intrigue as "more sophisticated than the brash Grand Prix and more nimble and poised than the Ford Taurus or Camry V-6. If you're looking for a midsize car with a thoughtful blend of features and performance, don't decide until you've driven this pleasant and surprising new Olds."
Yet despite that and many other endorsements, Intrigue sales tapered off right away, going from nearly 108,000 for extra long model-year '98 to just under 94,000, then to about 80,500 for 2000. But this wasn't the car's fault. Other factors were at work, as we'll soon see.
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Complementing Intrigue for 1999 was a more competitive Oldsmobile compact, the Alero. Pontiac's redesigned Grand Am used the same platform and power trains, but Alero was very much a junior Intrigue, with similarly handsome Aurora-inspired styling inside and out.
A 107-inch wheelbase, rangy for compacts, served sedan and jaunty coupe body styles, each offering GX, GL, and top-drawer GLS trim. A 170-hp 3.4-liter twin cam V-6 (with roots in 1980, by the way) was standard for GLS models and available for GLs in lieu of a 150-bhp 2.4-liter "Twin Cam" four-cylinder, a more-civilized version of the Quad-4 and one of the few carryover items from the last Achievas.
Like Intrigues, all Aleros had standard all-disc antilock brakes, but also traction control (albeit a simpler setup). GL and GLS added a handy electronic tire-pressure monitor, and a firmer Performance Suspension Package was available for GLS coupes.
Alero tilted even more toward sportiness for 2000, when a five-speed manual transmission -- supplied by the renowned Getrag of Germany, no less -- replaced the four-speed automatic as standard for some four-cylinder models. Olds shuffled prices and some features that year and again for 2001. Model-year 2002 introduced GM's new 2.2-liter "Ecotec" four-cylinder engine, then phasing in for all the company's smaller cars. It made less power than the superseded 2.4, but was more refined and easier on gas.
Like Intrigue, Alero was greeted as another sign that Olds might just be turning itself around. Car and Driver judged its V-6 GLS coupe "downright world-class." Road & Track, after testing a similar car, praised "expressive styling, a lively chassis, and…satisfying torque."
Being smaller and lighter than Intrigues, V-6 Aleros posted slightly quicker 0-60 times and were even more nimble. Four-cylinder performance was adequate, though also rather noisier.
But if not perfect -- what car is? -- Alero gave value-minded shoppers another reason to visit their local Oldsmobile dealer. As Consumer Guide® observed: "This new Olds comes across as a refined car that's not embarrassed by a twisting road. Alero feels more mature than [Grand Am], and with a long list of standard features and competitive prices, shapes up as a good value."
Despite the impressive one-two punch of Intrigue and Alero, Olds sales kept sliding. Buyers were hardly reassured by some journalists' persistent doubts about Oldsmobile's future, a chorus that only grew louder once Chrysler announced termination of once-mighty Plymouth. Nothing, it seemed, was sacred in Detroit at the turn of the millennium, not even America's oldest surviving nameplate. after model-year 2001.
Heavy symbolic freight thus attached to the all-new 2001 Aurora that reached dealers in spring 2000. Actually, there were two now: a 4.0-liter V-8 model and a more-affordable companion with Intrigue's snappy 3.5 V-6. Both were slightly smaller in most dimensions than the original Aurora and looked more conservative, but the trusty G-body platform was reengineered to be stiffer and thus more protective in a crash, and quieter with it.
Options were few, as both models were lavishly equipped with standard leather-and-wood interior, automatic climate control, all-disc antilock brakes, GM's OnStar assistance system, and much more. V-8s added 17-inch wheels instead of 16s and the antiskid Precision Control System.
At just over $30,000 to start, the V-6 Aurora was basically a stand-in for the departed Eighty-Eight, bringing distinctive style and surprising performance to the family-car market. The uplevel V-8 version was arguably less-special than its predecessor, but it also cost a few thousand less.
And true to the Centennial Plan, each was a fine road car. Said Motor Trend: "This fresh Aurora is a fun-to-drive, remarkably well-executed sport sedan that nicely balances the luxury-comfort and responsive-agile sides of the driving equation at a reasonable price. Less can be more, after all." But not for GM managers, who by now were more pressured than ever to boost the company's bottom line and especially its stock price.
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Oldsmobile wasn't the only GM unit in the red, but estimated losses of $120 million a year made it a prime target for cost-cutters. Thus, barely two weeks before Christmas 2000, GM announced plans to phase out the Oldsmobile line over the next several years. All future-model development was stopped (it already had been in some cases) and advertising and marketing were cut to the bone.
Needless to say, Olds dealers were stunned, then angry. So were many within Oldsmobile itself. As it happened, the death notice was issued during the press preview of a new and better 2002 Bravada sport utility, where the news took Olds designers, engineers, and marketers completely by surprise.
The following May, Olds supplied 90 or so of the new SUVs for service at the Indianapolis 500 -- including pace car duty, a first for a truck at the Brickyard. This was no sentimental gesture, however. Olds had signed on as a race-day sponsor some time before its termination was decided. AutoWeek reported that dealers were to offer regalia decals for Bravada owners who wished to dress their vehicles like the specially equipped pace truck, but the factory issued no Indy replica. There was no point.
Ironically, Olds car sales finally turned up for 2001, the first year-to-year increase since 1994. It wasn't a big gain -- less than five percent on a model-year basis -- but it did suggest a nascent turnaround. As Zarella told AutoWeek: "Our strategy [with Olds] was starting to work -- we ended up with a lot of positive demographics. The problem is, there just weren't enough of them." Public relations director Gus Buenz put it more succinctly: "We've got good product, but not enough people know about it."
At first, GM planned to keep building existing Olds models "until the end of their current life cycles or as long as they remain economically viable." By September 2001, however, the company announced "Oldsmobile production has remained unprofitable," and said the end would come with model-year 2004. Intrigue and the V-6 Aurora were killed off quickly, ending production in June 2002. The V-8 Aurora went to its grave in May 2003.
For 2004, Olds sold only Bravadas, Silhouette minivans, and Aleros. As a farewell gesture, the last 500 units of each model rolled out with special "Collector Edition" wheels, badges and interior trim. The very last Oldsmobile, a black Alero, came off the line on Thursday, April 29, 2004. It was immediately sent to the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, the city where the story had begun 106 years before. The one possible consolation for legions of Olds loyalists was that the Bravada was quickly reincarnated (with optional V-8 power) as the 2005 Buick Rainier.
The protracted phaseout gave General Motors plenty of time to settle with Olds dealers, many of whom suddenly found themselves without a business. By some estimates, GM spent over a billion dollars in buyouts and other dealer compensation between 2001 and 2006 -- proving, perhaps, that one must sometimes spend money to save money. But though killing Olds may have been a necessary, if painful, step, it was far from enough to cure what ailed GM -- as subsequent events would show.