IN MEMORIAM: Watching The Rise And Fall Of Oldsmobile

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Being a child of the 1970s means first seeing Oldsmobiles sell in record numbers, and then watching GM’s popular upscale division diminish and disappear.


Eleven years after the end of Oldsmobile production on April 29, 2004, we take a look back at watching Olds’s rise and fall.

The Fifties and Sixties saw Oldsmobile at its glamorous peak. Confident styling and innovative engineering characterized the brand, and Olds was generally accepted to have legitimate prestige.

Then came the 1970s, which started auspiciously enough. The cars were becoming more like their fellow GM platform-mates, but there were still opportunities for the Rocket Division to distinguish itself, as with the Ninety-Eight Regency…


…and its rich, Blaine Jenkins-designed pillowed interior.


The pillowed style spread into other Oldsmobiles, including this Cutlass Supreme Brougham. This is about when I chimed into awareness about Olds.


Cutlass Supreme Brougham: to a kid’s ears, it was a car that sounded like royalty. And the styling – with the square-headlight steady gaze and commanding waterfall grille, the Cutlass looked like success. Lots of American car buyers agreed, enough to put the Cutlass at the top of the sales charts.


Olds hit an important milestone in 1976, when it sold more than a million units in one model year. It was official: Americans loved Oldsmobile.


As a youngster, I really, truly liked the GM H-body hatchbacks. I learned later that they were European in inspiration, but all I cared about was the dramatic and tailored look they had. Much nicer than the Vega they were based on, and that was a good-looking car in its own right. Olds revived the Starfire name from the Sixties for its version.


The waterfall grille didn’t have the grace on the Starfire as it did on the Cutlass Supreme, but the nosepiece was pretty much the only place where Olds could make a stylistic mark; the rest of the car was a close share with its siblings from Chevy, Pontiac and Buick.


The commonality that was leaking into Oldsmobiles from other GM makes kept increasing as the 1970s progressed. But Olds’s offerings still had the fancy touch, like the clean-lined Delta 88. A couple of my uncles had these 88s, and that seemed appropriate, with upright lines that were conservative and masculine.


Then came the Oldsmobile diesel engine, which at first seemed like an impressive feat, as it wrung 25 miles per gallon and more out of its eight cylinders. Alas, it was underdeveloped, which was another aspect of GM that was finding its way into Olds.


I was eight years old when the GM X-car hit the streets, and it too was a small miracle that quickly showed the threads of its abbreviated development. My music teacher bought an adorable Brougham coupe, maroon with a white landau top, and he constantly cursed it as it fell apart.


Any American car was a tough sell to me as a teen; I’d had already watched the family Chevrolets disintegrate, even as the Hondas and Subarus that were filtering into our suburb managed to hold it together. Like many Americans back then, I wanted a car that was peppy and efficient and well-built.

Olds had a car that could have fit the bill – its version of the Chevrolet Cavalier, the Firenza.


I drove ’87 Firenza and ’87 Accord hatchbacks back-to-back, and it was no contest. The Accord was a fresh design, with a heroically low instrument panel for wide-open visibility, along with steering and brakes that made you want to push the car further. The Firenza was the opposite, with an early-’80s high dash and narrow interior. Steering felt nervous, and the brakes were indistinct. And while the Accord’s four-cylinder engine hummed, the Firenza’s was boomy and strained.

It would have been better if it had this Firenza GT’s V6 engine, but then economy would have taken a hit.


That’s pretty much when I gave up on Olds: it didn’t seem interested in making truly competitive small cars. Pretty soon, many among Oldsmobile’s clientele felt the same. The Calais and Ciera models were dragged into the Nineties with styling that only senior citizens seemed to like, and the more modern models were a mish-mash of formality and vague Euro-ness.

And buttons. Lots and lots of buttons.


By the time it found its new aesthetic with the impressive Aurora, Olds had jumped the shark, with sales volumes that were a quarter of what came before.


We look back fondly on Oldsmobiles now, partly because they could be so darned appealing. “There Is A Special Feel In An Oldsmobile” was a tagline, and for a time, there really was.


Tell us in the comments – what did YOU think of Oldsmobile?