There’s been plenty said and 20/20 hindsighted about the fall of Oldsmobile and the historic brand’s demise in 2004. In reality it was a mixed storm, and an amazing bellwether of where consumer tastes had gone alongside the pursuits of ultimate profits by behemoth corporations.
In the crosshairs of being one of America’s legacy brands was the longest lasting legacy flagship, the Ninety Eight. Since 1941, the nameplate graced either the priciest or nearly most pricey proposition in the Oldsmobile showroom. By the time it was aging into being an AARP senior citizen in more ways than one, it found itself condensed down in Oldsmobile’s attempt to assert value priced luxury against the shifting tides towards international flair for fancy, while abdicating the throne to something new in Oldsmobile’s sky, the Aurora. How does one step down from such a profound legacy?
At the end of the story, the Olds Ninety Eight wore the last gown it was bestowed on 50th Anniversary on the market. After sharing too many details that were indistinguishable from the Buick Electra-Park Avenue from 1985 through 1990, The Ninety Eight was perhaps the first example of executing retro-futuristic design on an American car. Where the updated Buick Park Avenue went with sporting curves far more athletic than any post war Buick sedan had offered, the Ninety Eight looked over its resume and pulled many design cues from its storied past.
With a vague aerodynamic nostalgia for the 1965 through 1970 models specifically, large cathedral tail lamps, skirted rear wheels and a split eggcrate grille were molded into the now required wind cheating shape. The return to longer and wider (altho it was fractionally taller than the previous generation car) once again made the Ninety Eight look more like a real full sized car, less a brougham left in the dryer too long.
The traditional cues ran counter to late 80’s ad campaigns that positioned other Oldsmobiles in the showroom as “not your father’s Oldsmobile” tho.
The Ninety Eight itself tried to play to different audiences as well, holding traditional Regency and Regency Elite models for customers that reliably traded in for a new Ninety Eight every 5 years until death alongside the de-chromed Touring Sedan with the optional Supercharged 3800 V6 to go after competiton as varied as the Chrysler LHS, Lincoln Continental and the Mazda 929.
The “until death” part perhaps lead to the Ninety Eight’s demise more than anything. Traditionally being the last stop for buyers of the depression era that loved isolated luxury, the customer base for such cars got thinner by the day in the early 90’s. Already an overly conservative lot of the market, those folks might have ultimately splurged on a Cadillac before dying, or a Lincoln Town Car with its traditional Body-on-Frame ultimate isolation, V8 engine and rear wheel drive. By the final two model years, the Ninety Eight was only offered in Regency Elite Trim, with “Special Edition” pricing in two tiers.
There were styling proposals that aimed the Ninety Eight in a more sporting direction similar to the Buick Park Avenue, but it was all for naught. In the short term, the Oldsmobile Aurora seemed to be the bright light over Lansing to heard Oldsmobile into a brighter future in the meat of the consumer market. Realistically, what had been the medium price market for middle class buyers was rapidly deteriorating, as wage stagnation increased under the Clinton Administration, and more buyers switched to leasing more expensive luxury offerings on revolving lines of credit rather than buying and paying off a middle of the road quality good. For those more youthful seeking status in size to make up for their inadequacies, the boom in Sport Utility vehicles took the place where land yachts, muscle cars and personal luxury coupes had been decadent choices in the immediate post-war.
While surviving for 55 years on the market, the Ninety Eight proved how ephemeral even ‘traditional values’ are. Some read the bible for their stories, while others look at the history of Oldsmobile to understand our collective past, and what that means for our current mind state and future.