Oldsmo ... ummmm ... Crapmobile Memories

People learn from their life experiences. Someone who gets food poisoning from oysters may never eat them again. Whack part of your finger off on a table saw and you may give up woodworking as a hobby.

In the field of automobiles, people make purchases based on past experiences. Much has been written about the quality improvements of Detroit's recent offerings. But Detroit is still plagued by the sins of its past. Many of those who owned poorly-built Detroit cars in the 1970s and 1980s have abandoned domestic vehicles for more reliable Asian brands. And they won't be back anytime soon.

Detroit's target buyers - in the 25-45 age group - may be the children of these dissatisfied customers and may well have memories of a Ford, Dodge or Buick - which was always in the shop - and later memories of a family Honda or Toyota - which was a reliable workhorse. Therefore, these target buyers have an ingrained reluctance to visit a showroom full of Detroit iron; they tend to take their business elsewhere.

Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler have a real uphill battle on their hands. Here's a specific example:

In August of 1980, I bought a new Oldsmobile, my first - and last - Olds. I wanted a 4-door because I occasionally needed to haul clients around and my kids were growing up and needed more back seat room.

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At the time, there was a lot of turmoil in the Middle East and pundits were predicting $3.00 per gallon gas. (In those days, we hated Iran and Saddam Hussein was our newest best friend.) When I bought my last car, my wife made me sign a pledge that our next car would have an automatic transmission. I wanted front-wheel drive to handle the occasional snow and ice storm.

I looked around and found generally slim pickings. Finally, in early August 1980, I found a white Oldsmobile Omega Brougham in Eugene, Oregon. It was a 2.5 liter, 4-cylinder, four-door sedan with power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission and comfortable camel-colored, veloury-cloth bucket seats. Sticker price was $8,035. I made a deal and traded my problem-plagued VW Scirocco for the Olds.

The Olds rode on a 105-inch wheelbase, was 181 inches long and the overhead valve engine made a puny 90 horses pulling 2,500 pounds. But ... it was rated at 22 mpg overall by the EPA - take that you Iranian bastards!

Let's not forget that its sibling, the 1980 Chevrolet Citation was named the Motor Trend's Car of the Year. GM introduced the mid-size, front-wheel-drive X-cars (Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark) with great fanfare in April 1979 and made 1,146,642 of them for the 1980 model year.

This Oldsmobile was my business car until April of 1984, when it got passed around to other family members.

August 1982: Parked by my manufacturing plant, the company Oldsmobile rests peacefully while the interior trim fades and discolors in the summer sun. By the following year, we had outgrown our 8,000+ square foot plant and were looking for larger quarters.

The Omega had a host of problems throughout its life. In 1982, when I was driving on a twisty road between Yreka and Eureka, California, I lightly tapped the brakes to slow down for a sharp curve. The Olds suddenly went out of control, spun 720 degrees and slid off the road over a steep embankment. As this was happening, I ripped off my seat belt and jumped out the window as it slid down the slope. (How I fit through that little window, I'll never know - I guess I was just very motivated.) The Olds ended up 40 feet down nestled against the only tree in the area - a big Douglas fir with low branches. Otherwise, the car (and maybe me) would have rolled (the embankment steepened into almost a cliff) and ended up 200+ feet below in the Klamath River.

Retrieving it wasn't easy - they had to close the road to winch it back up. All I suffered was a twisted ankle. The Oldsmobile was undamaged except for twigs sticking out of every crevice and a torn-off front license plate.

Puzzled about the car's bizarre behavior, I did some research and found that there were many reports filed with the Center for Auto Safety about the instability of GM X-body cars (Chevy Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix). Unexpected brake-lock up, unstable handling, etc., etc. GM seemed to vacillate between denying there was any problem at all or saying it was intrinsic-to-the-car's-design and couldn't be fixed and wasn't really unsafe anyway, so was, therefore, not a problem.

I wrote a letter to the Center for Auto Safety with a copy to Roger Smith, then chairman of General Motors, relating my near-death experience. Both letters were sent by registered mail. Within a week, I got a phone call from Detroit, instructing me to bring the Olds to the dealer in Eugene. I did and was given a loaner car. They kept the Oldsmobile for five days and returned it. The brakes never gave me a problem afterward.

In a 1983 article, the New York Times documented the problems with GM’s X-bodied cars, noting, "Tens of thousands of 1980 General Motors X-cars now on the road have a hazardous tendency to lock their rear brakes, two Government tests indicate. Hundreds of car owners have complained, and General Motors and Federal safety officials have known about the hazardous condition for more than three years. However, only a fraction of the cars have been recalled to be repaired at company expense."

Car blogger Jack Baruth of The Truth About Cars wrote, "It's a little-known fact that the infamous General Motors X-car brake problem was actually, according to certain very well-respected lifestyle journalists, a counter-engineering attempt to make sure that Citations, Phoenixes, Omegas, and Skylarks would spin 180 degrees before hitting a stopped Pinto ahead of them. This prevented the Citation driver from being unduly concerned by the sight of the impending Pinto ass-ramming and allowed the Pinto's fuel tank to be cushioned by the Citation's more thoroughly-engineered fuel tank."

My business partner continued to refer to the company Olds as The Death Car. The family nickname for the car was The Marshmallow - white and mushy. The Omega rode softly but didn't handle very well.

The car had other problems in its life - the transaxle failed at 45,000 miles. It was fixed under a "secret" GM warranty program. Then, the car started to rust. Now, vehicles just don't rust in the Pacific Northwest - except my Oldsmobile. GM's 'tissue paper and tinfoil' construction - one of my friends called it. One Saturday, I drove the Omega to work; hoisted it up in the air with our 6,000-pound capacity Hyster (with 8-foot-long forks), then patched and repainted the rusty areas. (On a 1992 visit to Minnesota, I happened to park next to a 1980 Olds Omega and couldn't believe the amount of rust. There was practically nothing left.)

After about five years, some of the tan/beige/camel plastic interior pieces started to fade to pink. And warp. And crack.

GM called the Omega's little four-banger engine The Iron Duke - as if to sucker people into thinking it was John Wayne-like or something. In truth, it was a gutless little motor which should have been called The Limp-wristed Earl. (With apologies to anyone named Earl.) The engine later suffered warped heads and a host of other problems - small and large.

Oh yeah, and sometimes it just wouldn't start. No reason - I guess it just didn't feel like it. Maybe I shouldn't complain because we did get 126,000 miles out of it. (Many were miserable miles, though.) In summary, that Oldsmobile was always a dog. Aeternum vale!

My daughter took the Omega to college and kept it until early 1993 when the Olds was really on its last legs. It barely made it to the dealership (to be traded in for a new car). Literally. I coasted the last half-block because the engine died. And the Iron Duke engine wouldn't restart.

The dealer resold the car to some gullible soul. Three weeks later, the State Police found the Omega abandoned on Interstate 5. (We found out because the title transfer hadn't been done properly and the cops thought it was still our car.) The orphaned Olds was soon auctioned and sold for scrap. Caput mortuum.

I'll summarize my ownership experience with the same one we all use when we buy something that doesn't quite work out: 'Well, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time'.

The Oldsmobile has been out of our lives for over 13 years now. My children are grown. Both drive Asian-branded vehicles. So does my wife. The Omega is, I'm sure, partly responsible.

'Nuff said. (posted 8/9/06)

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copyright 2006-21 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


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If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of giving me free cars to try and change my mind.

If I have slandered any people or corporations, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.

Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.