We were standing outside the showroom of Brooks Oldsmobile in Denison, Texas waiting for dad to finish the paperwork. My father had just purchased the first new car the Dye family had ever owned. It was a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale. Dad splurged on the “Royale.“ I don’t know if we pronounced it right but in north Texas vernacular we called it “Roy – Al,” so as not to be confused with English nobility. This wasn’t a Delta 88 Royal. It was a Roy-Al. The name had a decidedly Spanish flair and it meant, “fully loaded.”
Dad’s new car was a light blue two-door beauty with a white vinyl top and a 455-rocket v8. We had arrived. In 1969, Oldsmobile was the symbol of upper middle class America status. The creme de la crème. Nobody wanted to drive one of those cheap Japanese brands. This was America, “Made in America” was the envy of the world.
Then came the Arab oil embargo of the early 70’s. Full size was out. Economy was in. Japan had taken a page from our book and discovered the benefits of quality control. Next thing you know, brands like Honda and Toyota are setting industry standards for excellence. But like an old brontosaur, Oldsmobile continued to rock along, oblivious to the winds of change.
Magazines like “Car and Driver” and “Road and Track” routinely hammered Oldsmobile’s bland production line and antiquated engineering. Still, Oldsmobile refused to listen. Why should they. They were the envy of the upper middle class, right?
Meanwhile, Toyota introduced a new luxury brand called Lexus. Honda soon followed with Acura. Nissan, known more for sports cars, expanded and refined her lineup with the flagship Maxima.
Oldsmobile barely noticed. They had the mid-size staple called Cutlass. Why would anybody want an Accord or Camry when for a little more you could get a Cutlass? The Cutlass brand was so popular that Oldsmobile started tagging almost every new car with some form of the name. There was the Cutlass S, the Cutlass Brougham, the Cutlass Supreme, the Cutlass Calais, the Cutlass Ciera, and even a station wagon named the Cutlass Cruiser. If a person didn’t know any better he might think that the design teams of that venerable institution were running low on creativity.
For the conspicuous consumer of the 1980’s that wanted more than a Cutlass, Olds still offered those upper-end behemoths, the Deltas 88 and 98. How could they be afraid of the Japanese; Lexus and Acura didn’t have anything that weighed three tons!
The world was changing but Oldsmobile wasn’t. A new generation of drivers that didn’t share my father’s affinity for the brand came of age. By the early 90’s Oldsmobiles had started to gather dust in the showrooms.
Someone at General Motors finally pushed the panic button, and sometime in the late 1990’s Oldsmobile tried to awaken from the stupor. They buried the Cutlass moniker and trotted out a whole new line of cars.
In order to emphasize the “New” Oldsmobile (I know its oxymoronic), the marketers came up with a strange new jingle, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile!” Unfortunately, by then it was too late. Oldsmobile, that venerable staple of the middle class American dream, had died and it didn’t even know it yet.
A few years later, GM announced it was ending the brand. Nobody seemed to care. I was glad that dad wasn’t around to see it.
I was thinking about dad’s old Delta 88 Royale as I drove past some crumbling churches in our area. The thought suddenly came to me, “Churches can be like car companies you know.”