Curbside Classic: 2002 Oldsmobile Aurora – Into That Quiet Good Night

Most of you can’t probably remember where you were or what you were doing on April 29, 2004. I can.

As an auto enthusiast , I felt bad that I had missed the birth of the Olds Motor Works in 1903 , but I’d be damned if I was going to miss its death. I sat by the computer all day that day and watched the features and eulogies for what was then America’s oldest nameplate. Then I watched the final Alero GLS roll off the line. Just like that, history turned a page, and Olds began the trip to the GM corporate graveyard. But the end had already come over a year earlier for today’s Curbside Classic. The Oldsmobile Aurora was the final spasm of a dying marque, and some say it was one of its best. We’re not here to bury the Aurora, just to praise it.

Olds had been in terminal decline since the brand’s high water mark of over 1.1 million units in 1985. Remember, there was no Lexus, no Acura, no Infiniti in those days. The near luxury market was populated by lots of GM metal that was fat and happy, and resting on its laurels. A lot of the buy-up real estate was owned by the middle/upper divisions at GM. But a new wind was blowing from the east , and in its wake , there would be a seismic shift in America’s buying habits.

The combined Japanese/German axis had taken most of their conquest near luxury sales right from the sweet spot in GM’s corporate hierarchy. This set off a master alarm that even the most dullard management types on the fourteenth floor  couldn’t pretend not to hear by the mid nineties. The mid-upper divisions were where the real money is, then and now. Costs could be spread over models both above and below the target price points, but price premiums were pure gravy. That’s why the Aurora was carrying the division’s hopes on its shoulders when it hit the showrooms in late 1994.

I think that GM already had a death wish for the Olds division for some time, and that the Aurora gives hints that it was not intended to be sold or developed as an Oldsmobile. There were no Olds badges glued to the outside of the 1st gen models. The only Olds logo was on the radio. Brand identity was lacking, to a substantial degree. Or maybe it was still part of that “This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” fiasco.

Olds had always been the mother ship’s guinea pig (we now call them “early adopters”) division . Innovations like Hydramatic , power steering and high compression ohv engines first found mass market application at Olds. So it was when GM ( tardily) perceived a threat from the upmarket imports from Japan. The Aurora was a belated response to the exquisite fit , finish and attention to detail that was winning “conquest” sales from the Big 3.

There was historical precedent for GM the experimental division of the company to craft a response to the growing threat. The first gen Aurora (1995 -1999, above) was a masterpiece of structural integrity, power, and mechanical reliability.

With styling directly derived from the Olds Tube Car concept of 1989, the new Aurora’s striking new design was unique, lean and powerful. There was literally nothing else on the road like it. With a buttery smooth Northstar derived 4 liter V8 , there was substance behind that style. Sharing a chassis and other bits with the Buick Riviera on a version of GM’s G-Body platform,, it seemed for a moment that GM finally “got it”.

Likewise the  interior proved that GM could do a great job – when it wanted to. The first generation surrendered nothing to competitors when it came to the execution of a good design. It was second to none.

But it was all an illusion. After inexplicably skipping a Y2K model, the Aurora reappeared with an all new 2001 edition that added a 3.5L  “Shortstar” V6 to the previously exclusive 4.0L V-8 engine (in a nod to rising fuel prices) and a new, shorter body and wheelbase.

The new look was a let down after the stunning 1st generation. The design was sanitized for our protection and cutting off a half foot (mostly in overhang)  made the car look like GM’s hungry hippo. Olds also axed the full width taillight fascia that was such a distinguishing feature of the original.

The new Aurora was mechanically more refined and responsive, and more in keeping with the times, but the new “safe” corporate look was never going to woo buyers with the ransom demanded for the Aurora. There were cheaper alternatives for a predictable-looking sedan.

GM finally decided that Oldsmobile’s decline was irreversible and pulled the plug on its oldest division with a terse corporate announcement in December 2000 . Meanwhile , buyers that were considering an Olds worried about buying an orphan make and the death spiral began. Sales and resale value dropped immediately and dramatically as buyers wondered about warranty issues , parts and service for their soon-to-be orphan cars. Despite a steep near -$35K sticker when new, good used ones (with sub 100K on the clock) are now trading hands for less than $5000, if you find a motivated seller.

There are some ironies in the Aurora story that merit review. For one thing , GM then and now has been savaged for cynically badge engineering too many versions of the same basic car and muddying the image of each. Not with the original Aurora. There wasn’t an obvious corporate twin selling for thousands less in the same showroom.

Of course the  first generation Aurora shared parts (mostly with the Buick Riviera, seen here) , but that wasn’t transparent, and by 2000, the long-tailed Riv was gone.

Another irony was the fact that Olds had shipped a lot of crap starting in the mid 80’s, but that did not include Aurora. This was a solidly built car, especially in its first iteration, and it speaks volumes that GM had to see its upmarket customers defect before building something this good. By the time the Aurora hit the market , the target buyer had moved on.

Finally, irony of ironies, just when GM had a car to be proud of in this niche, they mucked it up with an accountant’s redesign. The daring first generation gave way to a car that could have been assigned to any GM division and not looked too out of place. The 2nd generation was a fine car for what it was, but hardly in the image of what had been. No matter. Olds was dead and the Aurora will forever remind us of what might have been.