Buick and Oldsmobile. The former is still with us and the latter was abandoned by mother General Motors back in 2000 (after 35 million cars sold) following a long-fought battle to stay relevant in a rapidly changing U.S. market. Each had enjoyed enormous success and both also made some blunders along the way. Older readers recall, probably with fondness, the days when both the Buick and Olds were best sellers and dominated the mid-price field both before and after World War II. I’m thinking that a majority of readers either have owned a Buick or Olds or rode in their parent’s or grandparent’s LeSabre or 88.
Buick and Olds, let’s call them the B-O cars for convenience sake, both enjoyed being popular enough to reach third place in sales in the U.S. market. Buick held the third spot in 1955 and 1956 and Olds reached the number three slot in 1977 and 1978. Olds made additional history in 1977-78 when its sales total went over the 1 million mark for the first time. No other mid-priced brand had ever reached the million mark milestone before. Buick reached third place in 1955 when its sales shot up to 781,296, the best by far up to that point, to dislodge Plymouth from its usual perch in third place. 1955 was a banner year for the Big Three automakers. Nearly all the brands sold in record numbers, presumably because returning GIs had by mid-decade good jobs and the economy was a-booming. Why buy a Chevrolet when money was prevalent enough to afford a fancier mid-priced brand, seemed to be the question asked. All of GM’s mid-priced brands sold well but Buick shot to the top, outselling both the all-new Pontiac and division-mate Olds.
Then almost overnight Buick quickly lost favor with buyers. Sales started to fall almost immediately and by 1958, Buick sales had plummeted to around 240,000. Even the startlingly modern, finned 1959 models didn’t help as much as expected, with only an uptick in sales to 285,000. Some have ventured that Buick abandoned its core customer by the late 1950s with decisions like renaming their series’ names of Roadmaster, Super, Century and Special, to Electra 225, Electra, Invicta and LeSabre, and by styling their cars to look like spaceships. It seems clear with hindsight that Buick’s older clientele liked conservatively designed cars. Of course, there were other factors as well. The sharp but brief Eisenhower Recession didn’t help. Also, the swing to smaller cars that were more economical to own and operate also entered the picture in the 1956-58 time period. Thankfully, GM’s domination of the market, good reputation and strong fiscal health enabled Buick to right its ship by 1961. Attractive new models in the 1960s, starting with the fashionable and conservative 1961 models, did the trick. From then on the Flint-based division continued on selling a good number of cars and remaining competitive for the next few decades. It joined Olds in the million vehicles a year club with a production figure of 1,002,906 units built in 1985.
It’s of interest to note here that in 1955, when overall auto sales were booming and it seemed all the mid-priced cars were doing well, the officials at Ford Motor Co. gave the go-ahead to add a new model to their mid-priced fleet by starting the development of what became the Edsel. It seemed clear to them that GM’s Chevy was losing sales to the pricier B-O-P cars and Plymouth may have slipped to fourth place in sales because so many Mopar customers moved up to premium Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler models. The Ford folks wanted in on some of those more lucrative sales – and profits. We all know how that turned out. The Eisenhower Recession and the shift in buyer preference to smaller, more economical cars doomed the Edsel, the horse-collar grille styling notwithstanding.
The Olds story is similar to Buick’s, except the Lansing-based division peaked in popularity later in the century. Olds had their glory days in the ’70s when its evergreen Cutlass nameplate, especially the Supreme coupe, captured the imagination of American car buyers and eventually would become the best selling car in America in 1977 and 1978, and overall Olds sales soared past a million units. Olds then began a very slow descent in popularity. Fingers can be pointed in several directions: The division officials stuck the name Cutlass on too many of their offerings (Cutlass Supreme, Cutlass Calais, Cutlass Ciera, etc.), they didn’t keep their eye on the growing competition from Europe and Asia, and Olds – and GM overall – stopped being considered the best-built cars.
Olds’ leadership tried a number of tricks to try and stem the decline in sales, but new nameplates like Aurora, Intrigue, Achieva and Alero fizzled in showrooms, while new high-tech engines like Quad4 didn’t turn the tide either. Perhaps one of the biggest product blunders was rushing to production in 1978 a diesel engine during an energy crisis using existing V-8 engine blocks. This led to both poor reliability (massive failures with head gasket and water separator issues, to name a couple) and anemic performance. Together the diesel debacle earned the division a great big black eye, giving not only GM a poor reputation, but pretty much dooming any chance of a huge consumer swing to diesel-powered cars in the U.S., like what happened in Europe.
GM executives saw the writing on the wall and announced in 2000 that one of the oldest nameplates in the industry would build its last car in 2004. After 35 million units sold, the last Olds off the assembly line was an Alero that April. Dropping Olds didn’t solve GM’s problems, and as most readers know during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, GM was forced to file for bankruptcy. In rapid fire, decisions were made to cut their losses, and joining Olds on the chopping block were once-popular brands like Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab. But not Buick. In a previous column I covered the Buick story and answered the question: Why did GM drop better selling Pontiac rather than struggling Buick? One word: China. While Buick sales in the U.S. had fallen to below 200,000 level, the near-luxury brand is a flat-out best seller in China. In recent years over a million Buicks have been sold annually in the “Middle Kingdom,” making it one of the most popular cars on the Chinese market. Naturally the bankruptcy bean counters, when deciding which GM divisions to drop back in 2009, decided to sacrifice the more popular Pontiac and give Buick a lifeline. So far the strategy has been a success.
Interestingly, Buick has in the past 10 years become a truck builder. Nearly 90 percent of its U.S. sales are truck-registered crossovers like the compact Encore, mid-sized Envision and full-size Enclave. Ironically only the Enclave is built in the U.S. Encore is sourced from Korea and Envision from China. Whether Buick can continue to be relevant perhaps falls in the hands of Chinese consumers. If Buick sales slow in China, then all bets are off whether the 116-year-old Buick nameplate can survive for long in its mother country.
• Trivia answer: In some years, yes. But in latter years no. In its best year, 1955, top-of-the-line Roadmaster, Super and Century models fielded four portholes. The entry-level Special sported only three. Portholes, by the way, were introduced on the 1949 model and are non-functional.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.