How Oldsmobile Cars Work

Oldsmobile's Centennial Plan

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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