Curbside Classic: 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Brougham – “H” is for Harmony

(first posted 9/16/2012)    I’m well aware of the Church of the B-body.  I understand that for a lot of people, there’s no other way to make your average American sedan other than an overhead valve V8 mated to a driveshaft driving the rear wheels. And I’m here to offer the counter defense that you are far better off  in rain, sleet or snow and at the gas pump if you embrace the H-body.

Although the 1977 B-bodies were downsized, they weren’t (overall length-wise) all that much smaller than the 1961-64 B-body cars. Although they were more rational than what proceeded them, They were not much more than the Cutlass Supreme across the lot in a crisply tailored pair of bell bottoms.  Flash forward to the early 1980s.  New CAFE Standards, threats of $3.00 a gallon gas, and tanking sales of the B-bodies?  What is General Motors to do?

Get a little overzealous with the engineering and the blowtorch, that’s what.   Just in time for gas prices to ease.   Although the FWD C bodies first went out the door to meet the disaster, the former B-bodies became Wagon only, and their sedan and coupe nameplate mates became the “H” Bodies.  Nearly 2 feet shorter than they had been, once again playing that awkward showroom game of having “mid sized” Cutlasses actually being slightly larger (and cheaper).  Add in the fact that the Cutlasses still had a V8… and… we can see where some of the backlash became legitimate.  “You want me to pay more for ‘less?’   Show me that Cutlass Supreme with a ‘real’ rocket.”

If General Motors had any real ego left, the Cutlass Supreme would have disappeared/been rebadged as the new aero-back Cutlass Ciera Coupe in 1986 to make room for the new Eighty Eight.   But GM was too willing to milk the cash cow.   Or another solution would have been to forget developing the GM-10 W-body cars and pump redevelopment money back into the B-bodies for all of the customers that were crying foul and reintroduce “proper” DeVilles, Electras and Ninety Eights for 1991.

General Motors reportedly spent 3 Billion dollars on the H-Body cars, about the same amount of money Ford spent on the Taurus/Sable.   But the perception of the two platforms couldn’t be more different.   The Taurus is still lauded as a milestone Ford. Meanwhile everyone, GM included was confused on what exactly to do with the H-body cars (at least the first generation cars).  All the more amazing considering that in a few key configurations they were remarkably similar.  Space efficient, peppy, aerodynamic and economical.

Maybe they lost the plot with the styling?  Although the sedans are bores next to the Taurus, the coupes turned out to be the best lookers of the whole C/E/H/K downsize debacle.  But there is that infamous Newsweek(?) cover story of the four Front Wheel Drive A-bodies in red lined up next to each other, and only a true car buff could tell them apart.  You could accuse the various C & H bodies of having the same problem.  At least on the old B-bodies the Buick had that goofy shovel nose going on to tell them apart from the rest.

The proposition of paying more for “less” car also turned off a lot of buyers, in the same way the awkwardly styled 1962 Plymouth and Dodges didn’t help their case with the almost equivalent sticker prices to the much visibly larger 1961 models.  But there was more content available: Rack & Pinion steering for better maneuverability, efficient and ever increasingly strong versions of the 3.8L Buick V6, which would morph by 1988 into the legendary 3800.  You were able to go further with your gallon of regular… and maybe I should get to why I’m hyping and praising such an unloved General Motors car.

Roundabouts January 2004, after I had gotten the money from the totaled out LHS, I decided to make myself an Oldsmobile Man again.  My father had a pretty good relationship with his 1995 Eighty Eight, and remember all of the advertising from my youth on how the equivalent Le Sabre kept getting J.D. Power and Associates awards, starting around 1989 or so.

So off the the magical land of Craigslist I went.  Within my budget I found a 1991 Eighty Eight Royale Brougham in the same shade of Maroon as the above car, but with tan leather and all the options save the digital gauge cluster and astroroof moonroof.   Owned by a Lithuanian Doctor with a stack of maintenance records I couldn’t wait to hand over the $800.   My favorite option? The FE3 Suspension that meant I wasn’t purchasing one of the wallowing versions of the H body platform.

My car being the best of the original H body breed, I didn’t have to worry about frying a 440-T4 automatic (which seem to have a higher failure rate compared to the 4T60 version of the transmission).   The handling was remarkably adept for your average family sedan. In fair comparison, the base suspension of any C or H body car is barely any better than the B-bodies they replaced when it comes to aquatic body motions. My dads base suspension LS is remarkably floaty.

And I don’t know if I can praise enough the high 20’s MPG I achieved under my lead foot with the 3800 V6.  165 horsepower feels remarkably strong when paired with 210lbs/ft of torque, a 3,500 pound curb weight and a pretty well geared transmission.  I got my one and only speeding ticket of 96mph in this Oldsmobile.  The CHP officer was so furious at me that he forgot to write down how fast I was going.

Along the thread that “Florence” was a tireless performer, it’s the car that survived my lean college years with plenty of neglect.  I bought her with 197,000 miles on the odometer.  I sold her to a cousin 2 years later for $350 with 246,000 miles.  In that period of mileage, I performed 4 oil changes, 1 brake job for each end and one swap of spark plugs as a quasi tune up.   My cousin dumped another $400 in her and had a car that lasted to 285,000 miles before the signs of my neglect became too impossible to ignore.

It’s the one car I wish I had never parted with.  But I could not resist the rite of post collegiate “I scored my first job!”  euphoria and purchased a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta GLX VR6.  As I hear the collective groan of the readers, sometimes you can be convinced to put little to no money down on a used car because of an engine note, a sunroof and red paint.  If someone doesn’t get to it first, I’ll tell that story someday.

But there’s plenty of proof that General Motors got something right with the H bodies, each time I see them on the street 25 years later.  Some look like survivors from nuclear fall out, some looking painfully overstuffed on 22 inch rims and then another set perfectly preserved.  Controversial they might be, but they are thankless survivors from a collapse of a corporate giant.

Laurence Jones writes about vintage cars at his blog, Dynamic Drives