By on May 24, 2007

toronado1.jpgOf all of GM’s domestic brands, Oldsmobile most accurately represents everything that went wrong with GM’s divisional structure. Historically the most innovative GM division, its twilight years were spent pathetically proclaiming “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Olds rode a roller-coaster in the sales charts, hitting glorious peaks before its final, fatal free-fall. But the tragedy of Olds is that it could have been the instrument of GM’s redemption.

Ransom E. Olds founded his eponymous automobile company in 1897. In 1901, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile was the world’s first mass-produced automobile. Although expensive in absolute terms, it was the lowest priced machine of its day.

But Olds wasn’t Ford. By the time GM bought Olds in 1908, the brand had moved upmarket. Two years later, Oldsmobile unveiled The Limited, a stunning but expensive ($4600) achievement.

When a Limited won a famous race with the Twentieth Century Limited locomotive, Oldsmobile found its marketing niche. From then on, glamour, power and speed defined Oldsmobile’s appeal.

As part of his brand ladder strategy, GM boss Alfred Sloan knocked Olds down a couple of pegs, placing it right between Pontiac and big brother Buick. While Chevrolet and Ford fought for supremacy at the bottom of the market, GM’s Buick, Olds and Pontiac (BOP) line-up proved a formidable formula. It gave The General a seemingly unassailable stranglehold on America’s automotive mid-market.

When GM’s price structure began to compress in the forties and fifties, Olds embarked on a course of safe, predictable and increasingly boring GM fluff. Although the brand earned its keep with several popular products (e.g. the Rocket-powered 88), as the middle child, Oldsmobile felt the pricing squeeze most acutely.

It wasn’t long before Oldsmobile fielded essentially identical line-ups with both Pontiac and Buick. Style became one of the few distinguishing factors. Olds faired relatively poorly in GM’s inter-divisional beauty contests; the ’58 models are particularly loathsome examples of garish Detroit baroque.

As Pontiac and Buick expanded into Olds’ once happy hunting grounds, the division struggled to make a living in brand limbo. Oldsmobile had to find something substantive to sell, independent of pricing and fashion.

Technical innovation was the answer. Building on a reputation for mechanical creativity– sealed with the Hydramatic Drive of 1940– Oldsmobile became GM’s “experimental division.”

The Rocket V8 of 1949 was a perfect example; it was the first popularly-priced high-compression V8. The engine turned the light-weight Oldsmobile 88 into the first modern performance car, and ushered in the horsepower race. Olds went on to pioneer front wheel-drive (Toronado, 1966), turbo-charging (Turbo Jetfire, 1962) and air bags (1974).

In the ‘70’s, Oldsmobile finally hit its stride. The success of the Cutlass helped Olds leapfrog Pontiac and Plymouth to become America’s third most popular automotive brand.

In 1977, Oldsmobile ran afoul of GM’s increasing predilection for parts sharing. A shortage of Rocket V8’s led to the substitution of Chevy engines instead— on the down low. GM’s response to the uproar was to add the label “GM cars are equipped with engines produced by various GM divisions”. It was another milestone in the terminal decline of divisional brand identity.

With GM’s BOP price strategy in tatters, with the last vestiges of inter-brand mechanical differentiation cast aside, with Oldsmobile dealers demanding (and receiving) badge engineered copies of the genre of the moment (minivan, SUV, compact, etc.), Oldsmobile was on autopilot to oblivion.

In the mid-late eighties, Olds crashed and burned, as America’s mid-market tastes shifted towards imports. The inadequately-developed Olds diesel V8 spewed more fuel on the flames of GM’s quality woes. Between 1985 and 1990, Oldsmobile sales plummeted by 60 percent.

In 1985, GM desperately needed innovative design, engineering, production, quality control and customer service. Oldsmobile coulda/shoulda been the home of plastic panels, or hybrid propulsion, or flexible manufacturing, or any number of potentially liberating technologies.

Instead, GM Chairman Roger Smith spent billions creating an entirely new domestic brand: Saturn. The upstart start-up replaced Oldsmobile as GM’s innovative, experimental division, effectively sealing Olds’ fate.

On April 29, 2004, GM produced its last Oldsmobile: a cherry-red Alero GL. While the model has its defenders, the badge-engineered Pontiac Grand Am was still an ignominious end for a 110-year-old brand, whose powerful and charismatic eight cylinder engine inspired the world’s first rock and roll song.

Oldsmobile’s death taught GM an important lesson: it couldn’t afford to shutter its other moribund divisions, restore order to its brand portfolio and rationalize its business. Strict state-enforced automobile dealer franchise laws punished GM for pulling the plug– to the tune of over a billion dollars. Olds’ death also demonstrated that shuttering one amorphous GM division does nothing whatsoever to help the remaining brand’s sales.

And now Saturn is in the same boat as Olds was during the eighties: competing with its corporate siblings with platform-engineered cars and fighting for limited development and marketing dollars. What’s so innovative about that?

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55 Comments on “General Motors’ Branding Fiasco Part Four – Oldsmobile Pegs Out...”

  • avatar

    Of course, the part that really hurt is that, at the time of it’s demise, Oldsmobile was far and away the oldest surviving American marque – only four years newer than the absolute start of the American automobile (Dureya, 1893).

    I knew they were dead when they ran those “it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile” with Ringo Starr and his daughter. Talk about reeking desperation.

    And the Alero and Aurora were probably the best sedans GM was producing at the time.

  • avatar

    Sweet memories of borrowing dad’s Cutlas and the romps in the back with Suzie. Ah for the good ole days…

  • avatar

    Good series, Paul.

    I would point out that the Cutlass was the best selling car in America a couple of decades ago, with sales double that of today’s Camry. I never really understood why the Cutlass was such a big deal back then. Within a few years, the bottom fell out.

  • avatar

    I agree with sykerocker – the Alero and Aurora were probably some of the least offensive GM sedans at the time – I’ll even throw in the Intrigue in that mix.

    I think they shuttered the wrong division – Buick should have been the first to fall.

  • avatar

    Chrysler minivans took off at the same time the Cutlass faded. Coincidence?

    Maybe Suzie got knocked up.

  • avatar

    At the time Olds was shuurered it had arguably the best sedans in GM’s lineup, the Alero and Aurora.

    In fact, the 1st-gen Aurora was a groundbreaking car for GM, and had they developed it and cleaned up some of its problems, could have been a huge success for Olds and GM.

    Instead, the Intigue was killed, the Alero allowed to whither in rental-car Hell, and the Aurora died a slow death from lack of marketing.

    I agree with blautens, they killed the wrong division. But at the time, the LeSabre was the best-selling full-size sedan in the market, so Olds took one in the neck.

    And what did GM do for Buick? Why, they killed the LeSabre nameplate and all the equity built up in it, to give us…….the LaCrosse. Which has landed in the market with a distinct THUD.

    BTW, that 1st-Gen Toronado was SHWEET!

  • avatar

    Re: Buick’s survival at the expense of Oldsmobile. I still remember an article in the Wall Street Journal about the time of Oldsmobile’s demise. It’s a wonderful example of how badly too-little too-late can hurt.

    As mentioned earlier, the last Olds were quietly stylish, a bit on the European side, and an overall nice car, designed to appeal to a younger audience. Unfortunately, all those years of “not your father’s Oldsmobile” (which I think has become the touchstone of don’t-ever-do-it-again advertising) cemented the car as being the creation of my parent’s generation.

    Unfortunately the Euro Olds had bucket seats and floor shifters. And the majority of my parents generation still liked bench seats and column shifters. So they went next door to the Buick dealer. I clearly remember some elderly lady in that article commenting waspishly that Oldsmobile wouldn’t do a bench seat, even as an option.

    But Buick would, and wasn’t a Buick the next best thing to an Oldsmobile? So now Buick holds the aura of being the senior citizens car that used to be personified by the Sedan de Ville. And the LeSabre became the hot selling full-sized sedan due to all those disaffected Eighty-Eight owners.

  • avatar

    I believe that Olds’ demise, however necessary it may have been at the time, was ultimately the wrong move.

    Anecdotally, I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to of a certain age that all owned Oldsmobiles and now all drive something similar from the Japanese competition.

    A lot of people were still buying the much-derided Cutlasses, Cieras, etc. of the early-mid 90s and GM only succeeded in ceding market share and having to play with an ever-shrinking pie that makes their business model look even more disproportionate to said market share.

  • avatar

    Correct me I am wrong but I believe that the reason Olds was dropped instead of Buick is that Olds had the least number of stand alone dealers (Olds as the only GM car line). The number 63 comes to mind. All the rest were multi-line dealerships like my local one, a Pontiac/Olds/Buick/GMC Truck dealership.

  • avatar


    That’s interesting, how all the various GM dealers were arranged.

    Where I grew up, the most common arrangements were P/B/G/Cadillac, Chev/Olds, or full-line dealers.

    I can only imagine what happy places Chev/Olds dealers were circa. 1980.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    The Cutlass Supreme Coupe’s popularity was inexplicable to me. I chalk it up to herd mentality.

  • avatar

    Did not know about the first rock and roll song. Had to google it. Here it is, by Ike Turner, 1951:

    Lyrics for: Rocket 88

    You may have heard of jalopies,
    You heard the noise they make,
    Let me introduce you to my Rocket ’88.
    Yes it’s great, just won’t wait,
    Everybody likes my Rocket ’88.
    Gals will ride in style,
    Movin’ all along.

    V-8 motor and this modern design,
    My convertible top and the gals don’t mind
    Sportin’ with me, ridin’ all around town for joy.
    Blow your horn, Rocket, blow your horn

    Step in my Rocket and-don’t be late,
    We’re pullin’ out about a half-past-eight.
    Goin’ on the corner and havin’ some fun,
    Takin’ my Rocket on a long, hot run.
    Ooh, goin’ out,
    Oozin’ and cruisin’ and havin’ fun

    Now that you’ve ridden in my Rocket ’88,
    I’ll be around every night about eight.
    You know it’s great, don’t be late,
    Everybody likes my Rocket ’88.
    Gals will ride in style,
    Movin’ all along.

  • avatar

    At least the timing of shutting down Oldsmobile was dictated by GM's non-automotive financial considerations. At that time, GM expected to be selling its satillite TV operation, at a huge profit. It wanted a capitl loss to offset the capital gain. Shutting down Olds was the loss. As it turned out, though, the antitrust feds blocked the satillite TV sale, so GM ended up dealing only with the loss. 

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Can someone explain these state franchising laws that keep the big automakers from shuttering low-performance brands? My understanding of a franchise is that it’s a contractual arrangement between the franchisor (the manufacturer) and the franchisee (the dealer.) Wouldn’t the contract control? And do these franchise contracts contain any kind of escape language? It just seems that the franchisor must have some control over the franchisee, don’t they? After all, if the local McDonalds started letting their store’s appearance decline and neglected proper food handling procedures to the point where they were a feature on local news and business declined significantly, I’m pretty sure the franchisor would be within their rights to revoke the franchise so as to protect the franchisor’s reputation. Do automobile dealer franchise agreements contain similar ‘escape clauses’ for either of the parties?

    BTW, I’m racking my brain trying to figure out to which rock n’ roll song you are referring.

  • avatar

    I am so glad to see so many observers agree that Buick should have been killed instead of Oldsmobile. GM knew that Olds and Buick were competing directly with each other and so the decision was made to try to move Oldsmobile’s image to that of import fighter, just up from the Saturn line of small cars. There was even talk within GM of combining Saturn with Oldsmobile. You will recall Olds flirted with no haggle pricing for a few years.

    So, the investment came and Olds was given a “complete” product revamp to attempt the move. Aurora was distinct and Intrigue was a great GM version of a midsize import sedan. All the change was too much for the few remaining loyalist and the new Olds buyers were only trickling in. It was costing too much and taking too long so GM pulled the plug. Buick was also doing poorly but was profitable because they were selling basically the same folks 4 vrsions of the same 2 vehicles: LeSabre/Park Avenue and Regal/Century.

    Truth is, GM would have been better served to keep Oldsmobile and drop Buick. GM dropped serious coin to give Buick the LaCrosse and Lucerne and are now struggling to find he same buyers that Oldsmobile was 8 years ago.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised there was no mention of the name Cutlass. It went from being a popular model in the 1970s to being the most abused name of the ’80s and ’90s. Quick quiz: what’s the difference between a Cutlass Supreme, Cutlass Ciera, Cutlass Calais, Cutlass Cruiser, and just plain Cutlass? Whose bright idea was it to simultaneously sell three or four models with the same name on different platforms? They started to turn things around in the late ’90s, but I think it was probably too little too late. You can’t abuse a brand so badly and then expect to save it with nothing more than new names and new styling.

  • avatar


    I think the Cutlass was just the right car for the times; not too large, comfortable, came in a wagon that was similarly right-sized for the shrinking N. American family, and had available V8 power for a little grunt.

    Today the Camry (and in Canada, the Civic) is the right car for the times, or at least sales numbers seem to support that theory.

    To respond to your comment regarding herd mentality, absolutely! Oldsmobile still represented “middle class” well during its heyday. That’s been replaced in large part by Toyohonda today.

  • avatar

    Jonathan, the thinking at GM was to parlay the Cutlass name into a “family” of vehicles, cutting on ads costs while maintaining brand recognition. Much like Chevy later tried with the Lumina. Both were bad ideas.

  • avatar

    May 24th, 2007 at 1:50 pm
    …Whose bright idea was it to simultaneously sell three or four models with the same name on different platforms?…

    Yep, that was bad. And so was Chrylser in the ’80’s with the LeBaron coupe and convertible, the LeBaron 4 door, the LeBaron GTS, and the LeBaron wagon, which was called the Town & Country (this pre-dates the mini-van by the same name).

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    But the Cutlass was essentially identical (except for styling) to the Buick Regal, Pontiac LeMans, and Chevy Monte Carlo/Malibu. For some reason, the Cutlass was the annointed one during its reign at the top.

    • 0 avatar


      I know this is an old article, but I’m just reading it after kinda going backwards through some of the “Why GM Failed” type stuff.  Anyway, I’ve noticed several places that you’ve stated that you just don’t get the whole Cutlass sales popularity thing that took place in the 70’s.  I may have a little insight from my own perspective at the time:

      1)  Because of the factory hotrod (musclecars as they are now called) culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s (of which I was very much a part) Cutlasses became pretty neat cars because of the 442s.  I never owned one, but drag raced (street raced) a few, and they were as quick as comparable GTOs, so they got my respect for that.  They certainly had some options I didn’t know about back in the day … W-30 for one.  Anyway the 442s laid some groundwork for admiration of the later models I think, just on the basis of performance.  They also had a reputation for good handling, but I never drove one, so it was just hearsay to me.

      2)  Because of the sanitary styling of the ’70 – ’72 models.  These cars – the 2dr hardtops- were very popular in Oklahoma and Texas when they were new.  They somehow had cleaner styling than the equivalent Pontiac and Buick intermediates of the time, and even competed strongly with the Chevelle, which is saying a lot.  I even remember the girls being taken with these cars; and when I was 18 or 19, a girl thinking a Cutlass looks just as good as a Chevelle carried some serious weight.  Maybe a 442 was just as good as an SS396?  No, probably not, but I did think about it frequently – almost to the point of buying a ’72 442.  Good looking cars you bet, very much in the Bill Mitchell vein.  As well as the ’72 hardtops sold (Cutlass S and Supreme) others had to be thinking the same thoughts.

      3)  And finally, again the styling from ’73 to ’77 during the colonade hardtop period.  I placed an order for a ’72 Chevelle SS in March of ’72, but was informed in April that the order would not be fulfilled, but could be updated to a similarly equipped ’73 for the same money ($4300).  When I found out about that, I promptly cancelled, or said “No Thanks!”, or something.  You can still see why almost 40 years later; the ’73 colonade hardtop body style was a blasphemy of the ’70-’72 style.  I know I’m talking Chevelle SS here, but all the GM A-bodies for the ’73 model year were very ugly, plus they had those awful bumpers hanging off like afterthoughts!  Anyway, my point being that the ’73 cutlass, especially the 442, was much more tastefully executed than its divisional counterparts.  The bumpers actually looked like they had been designed for the car.  I guess others must have thought the same thing, because starting in ’74 or ’75 I started seeing way more Cutlass hardtops than I did Chevelles, or Skylarks, or LeMans.  By ’76 and ’77 the Cutlass was the only GM A-body selling in any quantity in this area (OK-TX).  It just had to be partly due to style that the other cars did not posess, and maybe a little due to reputation for reliability.  I think the ’78’s up to ’87 or whenever GM finally redesigned mostly sold on the strengths established in the mid 70’s.  I never did care much for either the colonade hardtop or its downsized successor, but the girls still liked them quite well as best as I can remember.

      So there you have my take on it.  It may not mean a thing to you, but I was there and remember it like it was last summer.

      Randy Callaway
      Ada, Oklahoma

  • avatar

    Why was the Cutlass Supreme so popular?

    The Cutlass Supreme coupe was a handsome car for the time. The styling was clean, and the car was far better looking than its competition from Ford and Chrysler.

    In the early 1970s – when the Cutlass Supreme started to take off on the sales charts – GM’s various divisions still meant something. For many buyers, a Chevy was too “plebian,” while a Buick was too stuffy. Pontiac lost its identity once the muscle car era ended.

    My parents were loyal Oldsmobile owners, who felt that they had “outgrown” Chevy and Pontiac, but weren’t ready to move up to a Buick. Oldsmobile was perfect.

    Also, don’t discount the aura of innovation that the first Toronado created. When I was a kid in the early 1970s, front wheel drive was still a somewhat exotic feature, and even we kids knew that, among the domestics, only Oldsmobile and Cadillac had it, and Oldsmobile had it first. Even the 442 had a reputation as the “gentlemen’s” muscle car – a step above the Mopars and GTOs in sophistication and style.

    While my parents preferred Delta 88s, many younger couples in the 1970s went with the Cutlass Supreme coupe, which had a more “with it” image.

    Two other factors were quality and reliability. In the early 1970s, Oldsmobiles really were superior in these areas to the vehicles of not only Ford and Chrysler, but also Chevy and Pontiac. The “Rocket” V-8s were great engines.

    That image carried over into the post-1976 era of downsized cars, when GM began obliterating the distinctions among its divisions. Remember that in the 1970s, there was no internet with sites such as to swap horror stories about declining quality and reliability. Oldsmobile and the Cutlass Supreme could coast on the reputation they had earned earlier in the decade. Plus, the competition – Ford, Chrysler and the GM divisions – really wasn’t any better. In some case, they were much worse.

    Today my parents drive a Buick Park Avenue, as they did not care for wholesale makeover that Oldsmobile underwent in the 1990s. The lack of split bench seats in the Aurora was a turnoff for them. Meanwhile, as someone who had switched to Hondas, I was suspicious of Oldsmobile’s quality (which was confirmed by reading the posts of Oldsmobile owners at So GM went too far…and not far enough…when it tried to remake Oldsmobile in the 1990s.

    As a former member of the Oldsmobile Club of America, and former owner of a 1972 Cutlass Supreme Holiday coupe, I was sorry to see GM shut down Oldsmobile. We lost a piece of American automotive history. In view of what Pontiac and Buick have since become, I’m almost ready to say that it was really a mercy killing.

  • avatar

    The Not Your Father Oldsmobile tag line should go down as one of the worst automotive advertising themes in history. To the fathers and mothers who were Oldsmobile’s core market this said that “we are not for you, and are ashamed that we once were”. To the kids who I guess it was pitched at this was a fast ball right into the no-strike zone. Kids who liked dad’s Oldsmobile would be turned off. Kids who hated dad and his Oldsmobile wouldn’t buy the advertising spin. GM made lots of mistakes with Oldsmobile, but this goes down as one of the biggest ones.

    GM has been struggling to field a special brand for “import intenders” for thirty years now. What those idiots don’t get is that every vehicle must compete straight up with the best import for every customer. GM also positioned Saturn as it’s import fighter brand. What a mess. Starting Saturn was an even bigger screw up than the not your father’s ad campaign. The Chevy Geo subbrand was another stab at going after the imports, in that case with imports. How can so many highly paid MBA graduates get so many things so wrong?

  • avatar

    I don’t see how state franchise laws prevent GM from skinnying down to one model per excess brand and then letting the thing just die off over several years. This is exactly what Isuzu USA is doing in the passenger car and light truck market. They are down to badge engineered versions of the Chevy Trailblazer and Colorado. The Silicon Valley California area is down to one Isuzu dealer in San Jose and I suspect it will not be there long.

    I have read nothing about massive costs to Isuzu from this winding down of it’s US passenger vehicle business. Isuzu continues to be a strong force in diesel engines and medium duty commercial trucks, but they are getting out of the passenger vehicle business in North America.

    The point is that GM could easily do the same, but instead they continue to try and butter every piece of bread when there clearly isn’t enough butter to go around.

  • avatar

    Congratulations on developing a compelling story for each car line of GM.

    Oldsmobile prior to the advent of muscle cars was the “hot rod” from GM, as silly as it might sound today, the Rocket V8 was a meaningful engine 50 years ago.

    Oldsmobiles were known as fast cars, when most of everything else had 6 cyl or flathead engines, here was an Olds with an OHV Rocket V8, and an 4 speed Hydramatic transmission at an affordable price. B&M started their business modifying Hydramatics.

    The Cutlass Supreme for its time was a car with market appeal, it was probably considered the “ideal appliance” at that juncture like the CamCords are the “ideal appliance” at this juncture.

    In the later years Olds and Buicks appealed to the same customer demographics, it was a question of customers preferring to do business with the Olds or Buick dealer.

    Should Olds have been dropped / killed? Its no longer there, it cost GM, and gave an opportunity the rationalise the dealer count.

  • avatar

    The relationship between a manufacturer and its dealers is adversarial, the best interest of each one is different.

    Where laws are not as protective of dealers as in the USA, the relationship works best on the premise of the manufacturer saying “jump” and the dealer saying “how high”.

  • avatar

    Multiple dealers: To give you an idea of just how much everything has changed, when my father was a Chevrolet dealer (1950-65 model years), you were allowed ONE dealership, ONE marque. Period. Dad was actually part of a chain (a concept that didn’t exist back then) called Hallman’s Central Chevrolet out of Rochester, NY. It was a group of eight Chevrolet dealerships: The father, six sons, and my dad.

    Note, eight separate dealership, gathered together rather tenuously under eight individuals. And each was a Chevrolet (period) dealership. GM wouldn’t allow any of those franchises to take on a second GM marque – and to take on another brand would be putting your GM franchise at risk.

    When I was a kid, multiple brand dealerships were rare – Johnstown had a Pontiac/Cadillac shop, of course you had the Lincoln/Mercury, but until Chrysler started combining its dealerships with Plymouth (after the death of DeSoto), such combinations were uncommon.

    How times have changed.

  • avatar

    With the Rocket engine as the keystone, in the 50’s and 60’s Olds built a tremendous amount of good will with an image of a powerful, well-engineered, solid and spacious mid-price car. It was GM’s BMW. Then the corporation’s missteps gradually eroded that image.

    Olds inspired not only the first rock and roll song, but also the first hit car-themed song, “In My Merry Oldsmobile” (1905):

    The song’s Lucille seems to have had a lot in common with jl1280’s Suzie:
    “They love to “spark” in the dark old park
    As they go flying along
    She says she knows why the motor goes
    The “sparker” is awfully strong

    Each day they “spoon” to the engine’s tune
    Their honeymoon will happen soon
    He’ll win Lucille with his Oldsmobile
    And then he’ll fondly croon…

    Come away with me, Lucille
    In my merry Oldsmobile
    Down the road of life we’ll fly
    Automobubbling, you and I

    To the church we’ll swiftly steal
    Then our wedding bells will peal
    You can go as far as you like with me
    In my merry Oldsmobile.”

    See a funny Fleischer cartoon of the song at:

    It’s hard to forgive GM for mistreating Olds and Buick, two of the greatest names in car history.

  • avatar

    skyerocker: If I recall correctly, the federal government forced GM to drop its requirement that a dealer sell GM cars, and not hold a franchise from any other manufacturer. This rule applied to Chrysler and Ford, too.

    This was an antitrust move, originally meant to benefit the independents, as their weaker dealer networks played a large role in their demise.

    The problem is that by the time the government rule took effect, only AMC was left…which meant that the domestic dealers could take on import car franchises.

    The Japanese, in particular, were quite clever about this, as they made an effort to sign up GM dealers. This gave their offerings more credibility. Once the first fuel crunch hit, GM dealers wanted credible small cars, and, presto, the Japanese were there. The rest is history.

    Here in Harrisburg two of the three Honda dealers were originally paired with GM dealers – one with an Oldsmobile dealer, the other with a Pontiac dealer.

    The Oldsmobile dealer is long gone and the Honda dealer left behind now thrives, while the other Honda franchise is now as big as the companion Pontiac/GMC franchise right next door.

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    My relationship with Oldsmobile lasted one furtive test drive with an Alero coupe. I was in the market to replace my feminine Mystique (hee hee), and wanted something smaller and more sporty. And used.

    So, the salesguy points me to a fiesty red Alero and we hit the road. Not an unattractive beast, and with decent interior accoutrements. But I had this odd sensation whilst driving that it was, well, a boat. I parked it next to the Mystique, and even in the dim glow of the streetlights, I could see it was a good six inches longer, and probably wider.

    “Uh, I think it’s bigger than the Mystique. I’d like something SMALLER.”

    “It is smaller! See, it’s a two-door!”

    “Yeah, but look at it. It’s all fat and stuff. *pout*”

    “Of course not! You are simply a weak-minded female and unable to appreciate the Alero’s stunning smallness!” (okay, he didn’t really say that, but it was close)

    Now, I may be a chick, but I’m not stupid. He gave a us a price on it, we thanked him, and walked. I hit edmunds the minute I got home… not only was it wider and longer, the price he quoted was a good $3k more than the car was worth (truly staggering depreciation). Never went back. It was about a year later that the last one rolled off the production lines. Me, I bought a fiesty red Integra instead.

  • avatar

    Franchise laws in every state do prevent auto manufacturers from directly selling to the public.

    Daewoo, prior to its implosion, did that in the UK to great success. They couldn’t do that in the US and ended up hiring college students on the cheap to prosyletize, but got shortchanged and in return they sued Daewoo for back pay.

    Of course, the mothership crashed and burned, got bought out by GM, and the Daewoo car line was totally abandoned as a result.

  • avatar

    It seems to me that Oldsmobile was just a bad name in this day of age. Until I read this editorial I had no clue that it was started by a man named Olds. It might as well have been called Geezermobile. Judging by the age of the people who drive big domestic cars, that name would not be far off.

  • avatar


    Ransom E. Olds started another car company called REO, which went under a bit faster than the first:

  • avatar

    Franchise laws in every state do prevent auto manufacturers from directly selling to the public.
    Really? Since when? In California Mercedes-Benz had their own dealer in Ventura. They closed it in the early/mid 90’s (can’t remember the year) because the private Mercedes-Benz dealers on either side (Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara) didn’t like competing against Mercedes itself.

    It was a shame, because I really liked the Ventura Benz dealer. They always seem to have their act together, always welcomed me, and had competitive prices. They didn’t try to become snobs, like my hometown dealer in SB. You know, making it clear that they didn’t want your “plebeian ass” in their refined presence. I guess they were more like their European dealers than the US dealer.

    Anyhow, I got the impression from the local Benz rumor mill that the closure in Ventura was from dealer pressure, not government laws.

  • avatar


    According to this 2000 article, “Traffic Jam – franchise laws restrict online car sales in many states”, it’s 48/50 states. They didn’t say which 2 were the exceptions.

  • avatar

    Whose Oldsmobile is that? Jay Leno’s? That’s awfully nice paint for a period correct picture. (FYI, my wife just walked by and said ‘Niiiiiiiiice car.’) Yes…it was.

  • avatar

    Ransom E. Olds started another car company called REO, which went under a bit faster than the first

    Thanks. Coming from a family that is basically a Honda family with european sports cars, I have found this series of editorials very interesting. I had no clue about how Pontiac, Buick, and Olds were supposed to be positioned relative to each other. Perhaps that is just an indication of how the brands have been coasting on their past reps. They may mean something to someone older, but they mean nothing to me. In fact, it’s hard to keep track of which brand belongs to which of the Big 2.5.

  • avatar

    Okay, seeing how Oldsmobile is my all time favorite domestic brand, I need to chime in, and offer the perspective of someone in their very early thirties. When I was a kid in the late eighties, my father bought a stunning black 1986 Cutlass Supreme Brougham, with red leather and chrome wheels. We were by no means a well-to-do family, but that car had presence, and it was obvious that people treated us a little nicer whenever we pulled up in that car. Even the school bullies had to nod in respect to me when they saw me get dropped off in it!!! For me, it epitomized everything that was great about the American dream, and I wanted one. I eventually got mine as an adult, in the form of a well kept 1987 Cutlass Supreme Brougham that I still wish I had. Part of the Cutlass mystique was the fact that it was a car that could be many things to many people. It could be a stylish yet practical family car, a sporty grand tourer, or when decked out in the uber luxurious Brougham trim, a true personal luxury car. But regardless of trim, it was still a Cutlass, and that seemingly magical name commanded respect for it's owner, much in the same way certain Toyota and Honda models do today. Today I am the proud owner of a 2004 Alero Brougham sedan ("Brougham"-ness courtesy of some tastfully placed vintage emblems-I had to do it), and for what it's worth, I like being able to say "I drive an Oldsmobile". Granted, it doesn't capture the imagination like it did back in the day, but it reminds me of those times, and I like that. Sadly though, when the time comes for me to say goodbye to my beloved Olds, I will in all likelihood join the ranks of Toyota and Honda owners, because they offer everything I will be looking for next time around. And for what it's worth, the Final Oldsmobile produced was in fact a Dark Cherry Alero GLS sedan, fully loaded, with the 3.4L V6. I know because I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to see, touch and photograph it at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, MI.

  • avatar

    Thanks for bringing up the fact that Rocket 88 was the first rock n’roll song. I very recently had a heated conversation about this subject with someone culminating in me screaming ‘It was NOT 12 O’Clock Rock by Bill Hailey and the Comets dammit! It was Rocket 88’.

    What you failed to mention is that the Rocket 88 is, in many circles, considered to be the first muscle car, predating the GTO by many years.

    When Olds was killed, did the Aurora V8 get killed along with it?

  • avatar
    jerry weber

    I think what was being aluded to in the franchise law debate is the fact that on dissolution of a franchise, each state has it's own laws. Therefore, GM or any mfg. can terminate a franchise. But, the local franchisee can go to his local state courts and sue for redress, ie. a large cash payout for the termination. It is this huge payout times all the dealers in all the states that make the termination so expensive for the mfg. Naturally, the State's courts or a local jury are going to nail the mfg. over the dealer who is a little guy in the neighborhood. It is the same logic that gets the mutlti-million dollar awards for damage to local plaintiffs when negligence in the car's design is alleged. As for olds yes they were successful up through the early eighties. But they stole chevy sales with a nicer cutlass than the malibu, and they even cannibalized caddy with the 98. A virtual clone of a sedan deville with different grille and tail lights. A deville was $12,500 in 1979 and a 98 with all trimmings was $10,000. We had two in our funeral business and the savings was $5000 in our pocket. The eighty eight was nicer than a caprice or bonneville and also sold well. Old's as many blogs above state had this mythical reputation of great rocket V8's (a carryover from the old stock car racing days) The olds dealer would tell us that the engine was better than the same 350 that chevy used. But then two things happened around 1979. First they introduced the 350 V8 diesel which could fill another editorial as to is't horrors. Secondly a court case proved that olds and chevy used the same engines (ie 350V8,s) at least for some overlap due to production problems. Thus olds took two hits on their highly regarded engines. (In the settlement, they had to tell owners that the olds engines were GM not olds exclusively built, I think some owners even got money back if their 350 was a chevy serial number.

  • avatar

    My grandfather bought one of the early Rocket 88s. He used to tell me stories about racing the local Ford guys with hot rodded flatheads and leaving them in his dust.

    My first car was a hand me down from my dad, a 1969 Delta 88 four door hardtop. It had a 455, gold paint and a flashy white interior. It was powerful, reliable and got decent fuel economy by the standards of the day. The car had its problems too, the suspension was junk and it had the normal quality control issues in the fit and finish area. The car still looked good and ran well when we sold it with 170K on it. I always thought that a modern version of this car with a decent suspension, fuel injection and overdrive would make a great vehicle.

    When I got my first job I also got my first company car. It was a hand me down from the owners wife, a 1972 Cutlass convertible. It had a 350, bucket seats and the power top. It was bright orange with white top and white interior. I still miss that car and would buy another one just like it if I could.

    The problem with Oldsmobile’s last models is that they weren’t my father’s Oldsmobile. Slightly flashy powerful rear wheel drive cars like those are what I wanted, not badge engineered Chevrolets with jelly bean styling, weak engines and mediocre performance.

    I don’t know whether Pontiac, Buick, Saturn and GMC can be saved. I suspect they are more likely to see a slow and painful death than a rebirth

  • avatar

    We had a ’68 Cutlass Supreme Coupe that was very cool looking – but died very suddenly 5 years later despite very good maintenance and not heavy use. I was just 14 when it died, but we still went back to the Oldsmobile dealer in State College, PA and got a Vista Cruiser to replace it.

    The history here re: GM brands is truly educational.

    GM had a lot of good ideas and then began to mess up in the 60s by offering everything to nearly everyone. That Cutlass Supreme, for example, was also available as a Buick Skylark and Pontiac LeMans in the late 60s.

    Considering how big and successful GM was then, I guess they never saw a downside until the 1973 fuel crisis and subsequent issues began to change everything in car buying. As a “car nut” even at five and six, I could tell American cars years and makes at first sight. And back in the 60s, that was a very high percentage of what was on the road. The imports were the utilitarian few like VW, sportier cars like the MG, or “high end” like an occasional Mercedes.

    In the early 70s, before the fuel crisis, Lee Iacocca’s comment on the Japanese imports was something like “We’ll push them back over the Pacific Rim.”

    Faced with fuel efficient and well made cars from Japan and Europe, instead, American manufacturers made more missteps than I could have thought possible.

    GM has earned its’ fate.

    Only possible turnaround would be, as I have seen others suggest, a real return to the brand differentiation that used to be part of what GM did – and build very good to great cars to match.
    Chevy – entry level cars
    Pontiac – sports cars
    Saturn/Buick – mid range
    Cadillac – Luxury
    GMC – ALL Trucks

    Don’t want to see brands go under or GM die, but cross branding/badge engineering and poor to mediocre vehicles other than the ‘Vette is a certain recipe for failure.

    Oldsmobile could have been the mid range car that GM needs now. It didn’t have to die.

  • avatar

    Paul Niedermeyer – please consider writing an article about the dealer franchise limitations to closing down another brand. It seems the perception is the tail is wagging the dog and there is no chance GM could close down another one of their brands due to lawsuits etc. I think most TTAC readers would be interested in the topic.

  • avatar

    Why didn’t or couldn’t GM have transferred the Intrigue and Aurora over to Saturn that would have given them the bigger cars they needed and they were the best most import friendly type cars GM had at the time.

  • avatar

    I was around when the controversy arose about Oldsmobile’s installation of Chevy V8’s into Olds cars.

    I thought , “what’s the big deal” ? After all, the GM smallblock V8 was the same basic design and all.

    Recently, somebody ( I think Mr Mondello ) claimed that Oldsmobile engines were actually assembled with some care and precision. I can’t say that they were balanced and blueprinted, however. They WERE supposedly assembled with more attention to detail (cleanliness and sealing ?) .

    So maybe the Olds customers had a legitimate beef.

    A shame really. The Cutlass Supremes of the 70’s were a good car, and sold well. The oil shock of 79-80 and the X-car debut was the beginning of the end for the Oldsmobile brand, IMHO. Young people no longer bought them.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Sherman Lin,

    Why didn’t GM just sell the Saturn in Olds showrooms like Scions are sold in Toyota’s? Would have saved billions on both ends of the equation.

  • avatar

    The Cutlass always sold well because they were the best styled – inside and out – of all its platform mates. While Chevy was experimenting with Baroque elements with the Monte Carlo, Pontiac with soft noses that looked like a mini-penis, and the Regal that had way too much fender and not enough tire, the Cutlass was neat, trim, and stylish. I distinctly remember when they were downsized in 1978 how awful the new Monte Carlo and Buick Ragal looked compared to the new Cutlass and the Cutlass just got better looking.

    When Olds went the way of the Aurora, Intrigue, and Alero, I really couldn’t believe the rumors that were starting to circulate about GM possibly pulling the plug. I feel that those cars represented a high point for GM in terms of style and value. The Aurora especially, is a great looking design even today. And let’s not forget that Olds had two of GM’s best engines at the end; the Aurora 4.0 liter V8 that put out 250HP and the 3.5 liter twin cam V6 that put out 215HP.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    The Cutlass was just the shnizzle wen I was in college. Between that, the Monte Carlo, and the Trans Am…..GM ruled.

    IMO, GM screwed up in the last 15 years with horrible styling, e.g. DRLs (ONLY associated with GM junk….), grill-less cars (Olds and Saturn), and cladding/clunky beltlines galore (Grand Am, Achieva, etc).

    I had the pleasure of renting a Saturn Aura last week and was truly impressed, especially with the interior styling. But why risk $22k when I can get the reliability and resale of an Accord for $1k more?

  • avatar

    “Why didn’t GM just sell the Saturn in Olds showrooms like Scions are sold in Toyota’s? Would have saved billions on both ends of the equation.”

    I honestly doubt GM could ever have thought of that. Plus (IIRC) they wanted Saturn to be less of a niche vehicle (and honestly, Scions are) and more of a full semi-independent brand. But we know how that’s going, don’t we?

    I absolutely love the design of the second gen Auroras. One of the best designs of those years for a midsize, IMO.

    /have a saturn, had and olds, getting a scion or mazda next time

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    I sold my ’71 Cutlass and bought a Volvo. Haven’t looked back yet, and it’s probably best that I never do. May Oldsmobile rest in peace, and may it never be brought back as a rebadged Hummer.

  • avatar

    Oldsmobile should not have been killed. Period.

    Like Paul, I think Olds could have easily been paired with Saturn as a seller of premium, large import fighters to Saturn’s small, affordable import fighters.

    That being said, it was clear the wholesale reinvention of the brand was doing the opposite of what it was intended to do, so if it was up to me I would have done the following:
    -Revert to traditional, easy-to-recognize upright rectangle rocket logo
    -Dump Alero and Silhouette
    -Rename the Intrigue the Cutlass and give it a grille
    -Import Holden Commodore as the 88 and offer a bench seat and a choice of V6 or V8
    -Import the Holden Statesman as the 98 and offer a bench seat and a choice of V6 or V8
    -Import the Holden Monaro as the 442 (that way the currency imbalance wouldn’t have stung quite as badly as it did when it was brought over as the GTO)
    -Offer the Bravada with a V8 to better distinguish it from the Envoy and Trailblazer, just as the Rainier that essentially replaced it was
    -Build a third-generation Aurora that would have beaten Mercedes-Benz to create the “four-door coupe” market and was packed full of cutting-edge tech (i.e. intelligent AWD/AWS, CVT or 5- or 6-speed automatic, giant sunroof option, V6-hybrid option, etc.)

    Of course, sadly, it’s all too late for that, and the General continues to reap the seeds it has sown.

  • avatar

    The sad thing about the end of Oldsmobile was that at the time the plug was pulled, Oldsmobile was selling to the upper-middle class demographic that they had been marketing to. Just not in very high numbers.

  • avatar

    As several people have pointed out, older drivers sure have a thing for front bench seats. I almost had my 70-something father talked into a Toyota Avalon, but they no longer have a bench seat option and that killed it for him. (He’s a very tall man and he says that his knee hits the console and it bugs him.)

  • avatar

    No brand is safe now and GM is indeed is in a mess. All the brands are damaged. Right now a car(CTS) truck and and suv are holding up Cadillac. It should not be this way. All of them lost sight of what their mission was in GM. You cannot have multiple platforms which cost you money and give every car to every division. That is competing against yourself. GM did not get in this mess overnight. This was 20 plus years of bad management, poor marketing, poor decisions and GM being insulated and isolated. It is also due to GM feeling since they were big and powerful, they could dictate to the public what we should buy. This is not so as they have found out.

    With that out of the way, I could name many things that went wrong besides poor interiors and styling, this is the GM I would think would work in todays market. Using what has happened, I will set GM up to that specification. I will use the GM of the 1960’s and past successful days as a model when the brands were semi independent and had fewer models. They made more with less. GM must globalize. There must be platform sharing across the world.

    Chevrolet will not get every car and every platform. Let me make that clear up front. It does not matter what they are doing at GM Middle East or at Holden.
    Buick will do a complete 360 in image. It will be a risky gamble.
    Oldsmobile will return.
    Pontiac will live with fewer models.
    This new GM will cover every segment of the market and this GM will reach the different types of buyers with fewer models.

    This GM will have:

    A beginning entry level mainstream” American” brand: Chevrolet
    A perfomance brand with an emphasis on affordable performance: Pontiac
    A “American” styled brand with an emphasis on technology and “American” styled luxury” Oldsmobile
    A entry to midlevel import fighter luxury brand: Buick
    A full on ultra luxury brand: Cadillac
    A luxury/ commercial truck brand: GMC

    The dealerships will be interchangable. There will be no stand alone Oldsmobile, Buick, Pontiac or GMC dealers. They will be housed at Chevrolet or next to a Cadillac showroom or together. No dealerships will be added. The metro areas will have fewer dealerships. Some will be consolidated. The rural dealerships will have the brands housed in the same dealer.

    This automatically cuts down on the number of dealers.
    The platforms will be Epsilon( fwd)
    Alpha/Zeta( rwd)
    Lambda( fwd and awd)

    Each platform can be lengthened, stretched, shortened or modified to ride according to market segment tastes.

    Each division will be marketed as they were in the past as a company owned by GM until the GM name can be rebuilt from its tarnished image. The Saturn approach will be used here. The dealership agreements will not be set up like Saturn. In order to get or maintain a GM franchise, certain criteria must be met.

    On to the divisions:

    Chevrolet: Mainstream and affordable entry level cars. The sports cars lead into Pontiac.

    Malibu( fwd sedan)
    Impala( fwd) ( large sedan)( no bench seat)
    Aveo(total overall make over)

    Some of Saturn’s models will end up at Chevrolet. The Chervolet dealers and everyone involved will be reeducated to a higher standard. No more thinking we are a bottom feeder and sell cheap cars. The dealerships must be given the same respect as a Buick dealer with less on the inside.

    Bonneville: rwd upper/premium midsized( will fill all the mission of all the old B and H bodies)
    Firebird/Trans Am: More features and options that Camaro and different styling.
    Grand Prix: rwd midsized coupe. Think BMW 6 Series and the old Grand Prix from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A GTO trim level can be spun off Grand Prix.

    No bench seats or cheap interiors. The beginning of the use of higher materials. Think of it as a cheap BMW like Bob Lutz said. If you cannot afford a performance Cadillac, this is the way to go.

    98: rwd or fwd. Will fill the mission of all the old C Bodies( 98, Deville, Park Avenue) with a contemporary twist. GM’s only traditional fullsized luxury sedan.
    Toronado: fullsized personal luxury coupe. Exactly what it was in 1966 and 1992.
    Cutlass/Ciera: The front wheel drive coupe. The only GM convertible other than sports cars will be here.

    Toronado and Cutlass will offer bucket seats as an option. If you make Cutlass rwd, it would be GM’s only midsized rear drive mainstream sedan. If you make it fwd or rwd, it would be GM’s only midsized coupe.
    A Custom Cruiser wagon is a possibility as well derived from Holden.

    This brand will be the only GM brand with bench seats and the use of the next level of higher grade materials and features. This division is GM’s test bed for new technologies. It will be the one with the “traditional” American things like digital gauges and bench seats and velour fabrics and more. They will soak up the Lincoln Town Car buyers and Grand Marquis buyers as Ford is leaving the segment. They will also take Chrysler 300 and Toyota Avalon buyers as well. Toronado and 98 will share instrumentation panels like they did in the 1970’s. I will not make the assumption Buick and hard line traditional Cadillac buyers will flock to Oldsmobile.

    Buick: Entry to midlevel import fighter. Returning to its roots as the up scale professionals car. Buick China will influence not dictate the American Buick.

    Insignia/Regal: Lexus ES fighter/Acura TL
    LaCrosse: As big as a Buick will get at a 197 inches. Acura RL Infiniti G35 clientele
    Saturn VUE/Opel Antara: Becomes Buick Rendevous. Loaded. Lead in to Enclave
    Holden Calais: A loaded rwd Buick aimed at the Lexus GS and Infiniti M Class.
    Astra: Entry level Buick for the budget conscious luxury buyer.

    No Buicks will have bench seats, be over a 197 inches, have less content, or come in multiple trim levels. They will come loaded with options that can be added.

    The tag line: Isn’t it time you consider “Buick”

    Cadillac: Ultra Luxury Brand. No excuses, no cuts, all out standard of the world luxury

    FTS: Rolls Royce Bentley Fighter at a cheaper price
    DTS: BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S Class and Audi A8 fighter
    CTS: BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E Class fighter
    STS/ETC: two and four door ultra luxury cars. Low volume. Think the big coupe at Mercedes and the four passenger Chinese SLS
    BTS: BMW 3 Series fighter
    SRX: Cadillacs crossover.
    Escalade: Range Rover and other upper crust SUV’s.
    Converj: the luxury Volt

    The CTS will have variations: coupe, sedan, and wagon.

    GMC: Luxury truck brand and commercial trucks. They will have to be brought up to a notch below Buick in terms of luxury and way ahead Chevrolet. Can be sold any any dealer except Chevrolet.

    The way it is set up now:

    fewer cars
    Chevrolet leads into Oldsmobile
    Pontiac leads into Cadillac: performance
    Buick: aimed directly at the heart of the luxury car market and connects with GMC.

    You have every segment covered by a fewer cars.

    Oldsmobile and Chevrolet will play up the “American” brand angle.
    Pontiac will play up the ” stylish affordable” performance.
    Buick as I stated is: ” Isn’t It Time You Considered Buick”. The Buick emblem will float with a black back ground. It will compare itself to the imports and leave many asking: “Was that a Buick?”
    Cadillac will go back to Cadillac Style that it used before but emphasis will be on the new definition of luxury.

    The end result is GM as Ford is Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Toyota is Scion, Toyota and Lexus.

    It will be like when you go to the supermarket and you know Kellogg’s cereal brands You know each Kellogg’s cereal caters to a certain segment. There are variations on that brand. You know General Mills also has different cereal brands too. They compete against Kellogg’s. The brands inside the company complement each other.

  • avatar

    As an aside, I remember the Chevy-engine-in-Cutlasses debacle of the late 70s. I worked in a full-service gas station then (I was in high school), and checking the oil for a customer one day I noticed that the engine in her new Cutlass was wrong. I can’t remember if it was the color it was painted, dipstick location, or what, but it was clearly not the normal Cutlass engine; in fact, it looked like it was a Chevy 350.

    I told the woman driving the car that it looked like she had a Chevy engine in her Cutlass. She didn’t seem to care. I mentioned it to the other guys and we started noticing more and more (keep in mind that at that time– at least in my part of Texas– the Cutlass was probably the best-selling new car, so we saw a lot of them) and telling the drivers.

    Most were pretty annoyed. Some were very annoyed and told us later how they had complained to the dealership or whatever they had done. (We were a small town station with regular customers who were practically family– leaving their credit cards with us so that all the family’s vehicles could fill up, etc, so we were on intimate terms with many families’ cars.)

    I moved on to college and didn’t follow the story. And hadn’t even thought of it until I read this fine article. In any case, I’m sure this extended episode didn’t help Olds.

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