Who Misses Oldsmobile?

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Does anyone miss Oldsmobile? Not what Oldsmobile was in its heyday back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – the era of the Rocket 88 – but what it had become by the mid-late 1990s, just before GM pulled the plug?

Probably not.

Same goes for Plymouth. And Pontiac, for that matter. Saturn, too. None had a memorable car in its lineup in the years (in some cases, decades) before The End finally (mercifully) came.

RIP – but RIP.

Like Olds, there was a great history. Once upon a time, Plymouth and Pontiac and Saturn, even, had been great brands defined by an exciting lineup of distinctive cars that offered something different than competitors offered. The famous Oldsmobile Rocket V-8, for example. It was one of the very first high-compression, high-performance overhead valve V-8s ever mass-produced. Or Saturn’s innovative dent-resistant (and rust-proof) composite plastic exterior body panels.

Pontiac’s stylish muscle cars.

Or Plymouth’s outrageous styling.

But Plymouth and Pontiac and Saturn all eventually faded into badge-engineered irrelevance, re-selling the same basic cars sold under the Chrysler and Dodge (and Buick and Chevy) nameplates. There was nothing unique or even especially interesting about any of them.

Just like the final run of Oldsmobiles.

The same ‘s equally true of Ford’s soon-to-fade-away Mercury division – which likewise once had some purpose as Ford’s “not quite Lincoln but nicer than Ford” division. That was relevant 30 years ago, before there were any Japanese entry-luxury brands. But times changed.

Sadly, Mercury didn’t.


Ditto several of GM’s still-lingering remaining extraneous divisions, GMC especially . GMC is a brand whose continued existence is hard to fathom given GM’s share of the U.S. car market has dwindled from a high approaching nearly 60 percent of all vehicles sold in North America circa 1979 to around 22 percent today. What sense does it make for GM to re-sell slightly nicer (and pricier) versions of the same trucks and SUVs it sells already as Chevys? And also – on the higher end – as Cadillacs?

Wasn’t that the same fatal flaw that led to the death of Pontiac and Saturn?

Arguably, GM kept Pontiac around for 20 years longer than it should have. The last real Pontiacs (those equipped with Pontiac-built V-8 engines) were made in the late 1970s. The last interesting/unique Pontiacs (like the Fiero) were made in the ’90s. By the time Pontiac tried to fix things with models like the G8 and Solstice, it was already way too late.

Saturn had little left by the end to set it apart beyond the trademark “no haggle” pricing system – which meant, pay full MSRP sticker. Wonder how come not many folks signed up for that… .

So why didn’t GM do something sooner? In part, the answer is inertia. Huge companies do not turn on a dime. The other reason was obstreperous unions – the leadership of which seemed and still seems determined to kick the rank and file in the nether regions rather than do what’s in the long-term interests of anyone who hopes to work for GM in the future.

Before the Great Collapse in 2008, the union bosses dug in their heels as adamantly as our former Chimp-in-Charge did when it came to admitting that there might be trouble with the “mission” in Iraq. The union muckety-mucks refused to give GM any breathing room at all – which helped create the conditions that ultimately left GM on the floor not breathing at all.

GM’s dealers didn’t help matters, either.

Many people don’t realize that individual car dealerships are independent franchises not directly under the automaker’s control. So GM wasn’t able to just close up unproductive dealerships (or limit the number of dealers in a given geographic area, as Toyota does). GM (and Chrysler, too) was also legally bound to provide “product” (vehicles) even if those vehicles don’t sell well. If that sounds odd, bear in mind that many dealers (perhaps most) don’t make the big bucks selling cars. They make them servicing cars. So there’s not much incentive for a dealer to close up shop – even if he is selling a brand that has become an also-ran – so long as he’s still got a steady stream of people coming in for tuneups and timing belt changes.

This left GM in the position of having to dig deep and make generous buy-out offers (as it did with Olds). The money involved was enormous. GM couldn’t really afford to do it – but it also could not continue to keep on pouring money into unproductive, duplicative brands, either.

This impossible situation led to predictable results.

One of the toughest challenges GM had, pre-Collapse, was the task of eking profit out of a structure that’s too diffuse for the market it had – even when times were good.

Toyota managed to grow into the world’s largest automaker with fewer than half the brands GM had before The Great Collapse. Not one of the major Japanese nameplates has more than three divisions. Most have just two, usually a “standard” brand (e.g., Honda, Nissan, etc.) and a “prestige” line (e.g., Acura, Infiniti).

That’s all – and it’s plenty.

 

The fast food industry may be the best example of how this works – and why. Everyone knows the menu at McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Chipotle. These joints focus on their core product and try to avoid being all things to all people. Yes, there are now salads and so on at McDonald’s, but this is a sop to political correctness and the Food Police. People go to McDonald’s for burgers and fries and shakes. Providing these staples of the American diet with amazing efficiency and consistency is what McDonald’s and the fast food industry in general have honed into an art form.

The most successful imports hew to the same philosophy and it’s that coherence – along with good value and pleasing the customer – that has made them into the juggernauts they’ve become.

No one seems to miss Plymouth – and Chrysler doesn’t appear to have lost anything for having bid the brand adieu. There’s a “standard” line (Dodge) and a “prestige” line (Chrysler) and that seems to be just about right.

Not many of us miss Olds, either. Or Plymouth. Or Pontiac. Or Saturn. At least, not what they had become in their final years. Ten years from now, another generation will be saying the same thing about Mercury and probably GMC, too.

But we’ll remember the great stuff from the good old days forever.

Throw it in the Woods?

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