Missing Oldsmobile?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

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.

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 exciting lineups of distinctive cars that offered something different than competitors offered. The 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. Or Plymouth’s outrageous fins.

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 Olds.

The same is 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.

Ditto several of GM’s still-around divisions, GMC especially — a brand whose continued existence makes ever less sense for an automaker whose share of the pie 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?

GM kept Pontiac and Saturn around for probably 20 years longer than it should have, mainly because it had no choice — or rather, faced choices as unappealing as ditching the brands themselves. It had to deal with obstreperous unions, of course — 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.

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

Many people don’t realize that dealerships are independent franchises not directly under GM’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 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.

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 really couldn’t fford to do it — but it also could not continue to keep on pouring money into unproductive, duplicative brands, either. An impossible situation that led to predictable results

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 probably plenty.

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. Of the “Big Three,” Ford seems most seaworthy now.

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.

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.

There are lots of very smart people at GM and Ford and Chrysler who know all this stuff — but their hands have beentied by institutional barriers, legal/contractual ukase and the same sort of lethal inertia that kept the Titanic speeding toward the iceberg even after the ship’s helm ordered hard to port.

By then, of course, it was already too late.

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


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