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Oldsmobile rides off into sunset

By Ed Garsten
The Detroit News

LANSING, Mich. – Sometime between breakfast and lunch today, a dark red Oldsmobile Alero will roll off the assembly line here surrounded by an invitation-only audience paying its last respects to America’s oldest automotive brand.

The car will be the 35,229,218th Oldsmobile built since Ransom E. Olds established the brand in 1897, and it will be the last.

For fans of Oldsmobile and other American brands, the passing is hard to swallow.

“I understand what’s going on as far as a business decision for GM,” said Ken Nicholas, an Eaton Rapids resident who heads the Lansing chapter of the Oldsmobile Club of America.

“But it’s hard to express the affection for the car. It’s like losing your favorite sports team.”

In December 2000, with its U.S. market share still shrinking, General Motors Corp. delivered Oldsmobile’s death sentence.

The venerable brand was guilty of sluggish sales as consumers turned to imports and other brands deemed more stylish or trendy — what the company calls “business realities.”

Oldsmobile’s best year was in 1984 when it sold 1.2 million units. But despite the introduction of well-received products such as the Alero, Bravada SUV and Aurora, sales continued to dwindle.

For all of 2003, just 125,897 Oldsmobiles were sold, but by then, most of its product line had gone out of production.

In later years, the brand was labeled by some as being an old person’s car, in part, because of its name. The ill-conceived ad campaign meant to assure customer’s that the brand was “not your father’s Oldsmobile” only made matters worse.

Despite its stodgy reputation, Oldsmobile was responsible for some of the most stylish and bodacious additions to automotive pantheon.

In 1925, Oldsmobile was the first to introduce chrome plating, and in 1940 was the first brand to offer an automatic transmission on a volume vehicle.

Nine years later, the Eighty Eight was launched, featuring “Futuramic” styling and Rocket V-8 power.

The first turbo-charged, fluid injected engine, called the Jetfire, was introduced in 1962 and the first air bag appeared on an Olds Toronado in 1974. Americans had their first chance to experience front-wheel drive in a 1966 Toronado.

Nicholas, who has owned dozens of Oldsmobiles, said the cars were more than just transportation.

“They were almost a member of our family,” he said. “The car went on our honeymoon, the kids came home from the hospital and family vacations were planned around them.”

The last Alero will be transported a few miles away to the R.E. Olds Museum in downtown Lansing where it will be on display from May 3 to Aug. 31 and no doubt be the center of attention of a reception under a white tent.

It is the last Oldsmobile and the final in the series of 500 commemorative cars that all wear the dark cherry red metallic paint, special badging and a medallion with its number.

The 78th in the series was displayed Wednesday outside the former Oldsmobile headquarters.

The RE Olds Museum will carry the responsibility in the post-Oldsmobile era to keep the brand’s name and heritage alive, executive director Deborah Horstik said.

“It’s hard to put into words about the loss,” Horstik said. “There will be a hole, something that’s missing. But it will always be here. Oldsmobile will not die out.”

The end of Oldsmobile means the end of the line at the old plant for about 1,500 workers. Many will transfer to the more modern Lansing Grand River plant that builds the Cadillac CTS, SRX and will soon add the new STS.

Others will retire and some will join the work force at a new plant being built in nearby Delta Township that begins production in 2006, according to GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter.

Lansing Car Assembly will continue producing the Chevrolet Classic, which is sold only to fleet and commercial customers, and the Pontiac Grand Am until it goes out of production later this year.

Art Baker began building Oldsmobiles in 1960. The first model he worked on was the F-85. As president of UAW Local 652, which represents workers at Lansing Car Assembly, he hasn’t worked on the line in several years, but his voice catches when he thinks of the fact he’ll never have another chance to build one.

“It’s the end of a product that’s been our identity,” said Baker as he stood outside the former Oldsmobile headquarters building. “A part of us is lost.”

Photo caption: Ransom E. Olds established the brand in 1897. Some 35,229,218 Oldsmobiles have since been produced.

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