Maybe the name was a drawback: “Old,” as in Oldsmobile. Passe. Antiquated. Obsolete. Dated. Outmoded. Stale. An old fogey in a nation that prizes youthfulness to the point of obsession. Now it's R.I.P. for the fabled nameplate as it heads into oblivion, proving that the buzzards who've circled for years knew dead meat when they saw it.
Corp., in a sweeping restructuring that also includes white-collar cuts and plant closings, in mid-December confirmed that Oldsmobile will be phased out, stripping the Oldsmobile name from 2,800 dealerships. America's first volume-production marque, Oldsmobile winds up on the mat after a 103-year run.
GM's marketing geniuses are offering recent Olds buyers “a certificate of at least $1,000 toward the purchase or lease of a new Oldsmobile or other GM vehicles.” In this era of big rebates and low-interest financing, that's insulting to say the least. Still, in GM's upper echelon, that measly $1,000 is taken as serious stuff. Too bad. But then, GM hasn't nurtured Olds for years, allowing the once-proud and profitable division to slide without much of a fight.
And make no mistake: Oldsmobile for decades was an American automotive heavyweight. I still have a gold lapel pin Olds gave me in 1976 that says “Cutlass, No.1,” marking the nameplate as the best-selling car in the United States. Cutlass held that title until 1981. As another measure of Oldsmobile's glory, from 1983 through 1986 the division racked up four straight years of sales exceeding 1 million units. Someone obviously liked what Olds was doing
It has been mostly downhill since then, even though starting in 1989 Olds added its first minivan and followed in 1990 with its first sport/utility vehicle to beef up its numbers. In 1999 the division sold 281,989 cars and 70,208 light trucks for a total of 352,197, a mere third of its high-flying sales in the mid-1980s when it sold only cars. In 2000, Olds car and truck sales were expected to reach a little better than 200,000.
Olds has been on the endangered list for more than five years. Former Vice President and General Manager John D. Rock, who headed Olds from 1992 to 1996, famously — and profanely — defended the division against hot reports that Olds was on its death bed by roaring for the record that “someone is pissing on my boots.”
As GM's then-new brand marketing scheme began to take hold, reducing the once nearly autonomous divisions to defanged marketing operations, Mr. Rock headed into retirement, and sales continued to slide.
The “why's” behind Oldsmobile's demise will be argued long into the future. From my vantage point of covering Olds for more than 30 years, here are some of the reasons — and scenarios on how things might have wound up differently:
GM should have continued giving Olds the resources to remain its technical leader, assuring its birthright. Cadillac now has that mantle, but it hasn't been a boon; Cadillac's still losing sales and market share. In its dying days, Olds had no image at all to speak of, despite the bright folks GM hired to carry out what I call its brand-management fantasy. Olds had no technical champion, becoming just another faceless entity in GM's largely faceless lineup. They don't do that at successful outfits likeand . Olds could have stood on its technical merits, and should have been given that priority. But instead of steak, GM tried to sell sizzle — and Olds fizzled.
During the 1970s and '80s, foreign-based automakers —in particular — targeted Oldsmobile dealers, apparently concluding they were A) damn good B) damn vulnerable, or both. We press types saw this happening at National Automobile Dealer Assn. ( ) conventions. Apparently GM's brass didn't, or had no workable strategy to protect the brand. Olds was still strong, but quickly became easy pickings for lack of a cohesive counterattack.
Cutlass was golden, cash in the bank. But in its declining years, GM diminished and then dropped Cutlass and every other name that meant something to buyers. Cutlass, sadly, was reduced to a Chevy Malibu lookalike, a travesty for a great name that made GM billions. Toronado, 88 and 98 — true brands with vast followings — gave way to a batch of nondescript names like Achieva, Alero, Bravada, Intrigue and Aurora — apparently anything ending with a vowel. Who knew what an Oldsmobile really was? Shame on whoever dreamt up this name game. An Accord is still an Accord, a Camry still a Camry. Stupido. Sticking with the venerable nameplates and designing them to stand for something could have saved Olds.
The geezer factor. An old friend from Omaha had purchased 98s for years. Suddenly it was downsized, a shadow of its former self. She bought a Mercury Marquis and never looked back. I don't think people buy a particular car or truck because it simply aims at a specific age bracket. Young and old, they buy cars for all sorts of reasons. No.1 is a belief in the value of the product — and value can be everything from price to design. Olds had that for decades, in spades. By running amok after the so-called “youth” market, Olds deserted its heritage and tilted toward an increasingly amorphous lineup boasting no compelling distinction.
The competition. Japanese and European automakers have been feasting off Olds for years, but to say that GM's Saturn had a hand in its demise is stretching it. Sure, Saturn has been stealing sales inside GM and I know some Cutlass owners who have opted for Saturns. But the fact is the two divisions have very little significant overlap. GM, and Olds, could have fended off foreign competitors by borrowing a page from their book: Studying what makes them great, then one-upping them. But GM, as usual, chose the cheap route. And now it's paying the humiliating price of throwing in the towel.
The scent of Wall Street bloodhounds plays out over this entire sorry retreat. Kill a loser, win on Wall Steet is the message. In a postmortem, Merrill Lynch Automotive Analyst John Casesa coldly comments: “GM's restructuring, especially its discontinuance of the Olds brand, is undeniably a step in the right direction.”
Oldsmobile deserves a more gracious epitaph, John.