Back during the late nineties, a conversation at a swank Auburn Hills, Michigan, French bistro turned heated when the talk shifted from personal pleasantries to discussing the ending of one of the most storied names in the automotive world: Oldsmobile. Gathered together in a separate room, the eight men and one woman were tasked with the responsibility of plotting multi-brand strategy for General Motors as well as to discuss concept cars that would make it off of design team drawing boards and onto production lines.
Suddenly, a red faced, balding middle aged man got up and left the group, and walked at a clipped pace through the crowded restaurant and out onto the front sidewalk. The remaining group was stunned, but the silence was soon broken by the leading EVP who announced what everyone already knew: the Oldsmobile name would be abandoned and Saturn would take its place in the GM line up.
This scenario is, of course, fiction but it is representative of some of the behind the scenes jockeying that took place leading up to the decision for General Motors to lay the venerable Oldsmobile name to rest. Dealer buy outs, model shifting, and brand reassessment were all to dominate GM meetings for several years until the deed was finally completed.
In 1897, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was formed in Lansing, Michigan by Ransom Eli Olds, a manufacturer of gasoline engine and Frank Clark, the son of a small carriage shop operator. From that point forward through the time that the company became part of General Motors and until the final car was shipped in 2004, the “Olds” represented American motor history like no other. It was that sense of history, nostalgia, and purpose that brought about the turmoil and anguish experienced by those affected by the brand’s demise.
GM’s decision to go with Saturn was not an easy one, but it was predicated on two things: the dealer network and brand potential. Saturn’s biggest plus has always been its “no haggle, no hassle” price policy. The sticker price on the car was the sticker price consumers paid. No need to enter into protracted and uncomfortable negotiations when purchasing a car, instead the atmosphere in a Saturn showroom was unlike any in the business: cordial, folksy, and friendly. Olds dealers, although given an opportunity to adopt the Saturn sales strategy, never could quite incorporate the Saturn way of thinking.
As far as brand potential, some felt that Oldsmobile had the better chance since Olds was a 100 year old name and Saturn barely 10 years old. Perhaps a generation ago that would have held true, but with the onslaught of new, foreign brands in the US market, customer loyalty for Olds had been eroding for quite some time. Not since the Cutlass dominated the line up in the late 1970s and early 1980s had a model captured the amount of sales that the Cutlass had. Indeed, a steep and steady drop in sales over the years exposed Olds’ weaknesses while Saturn was perceived by some as having the best chance of the two divisions of not only succeeding, but thriving.
Could Oldsmobile ever be resurrected? Never say “never”, but the logistics behind bringing Olds back make the possibility of that happening remote. As it stands right now, GM is looking at possibly cutting additional brands, such as Pontiac and Buick, each of which are considered to be at risk. Quite frankly, changing tastes and market conditions warrant a reduction in car lines, not an increase.
For Olds fans all of this is sad news. However, much like the retired Packard moniker, Oldsmobile will likely live on for a generation or more in the form of existing models on the road and in car clubs dedicated to the Olds name [they are legion]. Olds’ loss is Saturn’s gain and the division’s demise ultimately benefits General Motors as well as consumers.
Matt Keegan is an independent writer and contributing essayist for the Auto Parts Warehouse [APW]. At APW, we furnish premium Oldsmobile accessories for your Delta 88, Cutlass, Intrigue, Alero or other awesome Olds.