Curbside Classic: 1991 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight – GM’s Deadly Sin #20 – A Sad End To The Oldest Oldsmobile

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(first posted 11/25/2013; Updated with several revisions)    This GM Deadly Sin has been long overdue – the 1991 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. At such a critical time for the division, why did they ever go ahead and roll out one of the most illogically styled cars in the history of automobiles? Could this be the car that killed Oldsmobile?

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To answer my own question, “No”. This is not THE car that killed GM’s oldest division, but it’s certainly one of the reasons Oldsmobile went dissolved a decade later. You see, Oldsmobile was once a cash cow for GM. Its middle position in the GM “step” hierarchy meant that Oldsmobile could compete with both ends of the spectrum. Olds could offer Chevrolet levels of equipment with more show, as well as near-Cadillac levels of luxury without the ostentation – and everywhere in between.

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For the most part, Oldsmobile was always seen as an “upscale” brand, making it especially popular with upwardly mobile clientele. Olds’ portfolio offered plenty of options to keep these customers returning and trading up. Cutlasses would be traded up for Delta 88s, which in turn were traded for the Ninety-Eight, the largest Oldsmobile one could buy. The Toronado was a possible pinnacle to this succession, but reserved for only the most elite Oldsmobile clientele.

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Ninety-Eight sales remained strong through the ‘70s and ‘80s, despite threats such as questionable interior materials, the energy crisis, and two downsizings. However, by the late-‘80s, consumers’ automotive tastes were decidedly different than in previous years. Opera windows, pillowed velour seating, and total road isolation, qualities that had once made the Ninety-Eight so popular, were falling out of favor. Full-size American luxury cars were no longer the ultimate expression of success, nor what most hard-working Americans aspired to. Instead, both old and young drivers alike, but especially younger individuals, aspired to own cars from European or Japanese premium/luxury brands or SUVs.

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Without that important consumer group to target for a future customer base, the Ninety-Eight’s purpose in life was threatened. Adding insult to injury was that with the 1985 redesign, to the average person, the car’s anonymous shape could easily be mistaken for almost anything under the GM umbrella.

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Thankfully, GM recognized this and began designing cars that actually looked different from one another. So what became of this scrawny, generic-looking Ninety-Eight? Well…

THIS. Yes, this was what buyers were greeted with for 1991. You wanted something distinctive? You got it.

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Let’s start with the good. In attempt to correct the ’85-’90 model’s “compact” appearance, the Nineteen Ninety-One Ninety-Eight (sorry, that never gets old) was nearly 10 inches longer and 2 inches wider. Power from its 3.8L Buick V6 was also up slightly compared with its predecessor. Its 4-speed automatic transmission was now electronically controlled. I’d continue, but I think that’s all there is. Regarding the bad, where do I even begin?

Although considerably longer, wheelbase remained the same, resulting in considerable front and rear overhangs. And then there are the skirted rear wheels. This styling feature stopped looking good on cars somewhere around the time of Watergate. Still, GM kept trying to make this look work on a number of models all the way through 1998. Combined with the convex body sides, it gave the car a bulging look in my opinion. A scaled-down “beached whale” B-body, if you will.

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Moving up, we get to the greenhouse. Notice how it appears to sit on top of the body, rather than be integrated with it like just about every car design since 1970? For another throwback, designers gave it a long and flat trunk that was just… so awkward.

I’m not sure if this was the intent of the overall design, but the 1991 Ninety-Eight’s profile actually evokes that of the 1961 Ninety-Eight, albeit the front- and rear-ends reversed. Some retro styling features return to prominence, but not everything is destined to come back in style. I don’t think we’ll ever be seeing Dagmars or tail fins again.

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Add that to a sad, droopy face, with an egg crate grille and protruding front bumper. Then there’s the horribly tacky (and very cheap, as we all soon found out) lower body trim. I was surprised to find it all intact on the one I photographed.

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However, you can see how damaging a minor scuff could be to it. The majority of Ninety-Eights saw their trim pieces peel off in a matter of years. Now here I really could go on, but I think I’ve made my point clear: This was one stylistically challenged car.

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Especially so when you compare it to the redesign of its platform mate, the Buick Park Avenue. How could the redesigns of two heavily related cars, once 99% identical in appearance, go so differently?

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I came across some early design sketches of the ’91 Ninety-Eight that reveal a stronger resemblance to the Park Avenue.

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 Here is a prototype with a more Park Avenue-esque roofline, shorter overhangs, and open rear wheel wells.

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And here’s a more slab-sided model that bears a strong similarity to the production model. The Cutlass Supreme-inspired front- and rear-fascias, simpler lower trim, and squared-off appearance do it wonders. It’s a shame this much more stately, almost Town Car-esque Ninety-Eight didn’t make it into production. More images can be found (here), as well as many design sketches for the 1985 Ninety-Eight.

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Things were marginally better on the inside, which actually greeted occupants with a fairly attractive design, considering they even wanted to open the door to step in. The dash and door panels capitalized on the in-vogue “cockpit” look, despite the expected 55/45 divided bench seat and column shifter being standard in Regency and Regency Elite models. The limited-production Touring Sedan gained special Lear-designed bucket seats with many power adjustments, as well as real polished burl walnut trim and a console with floor shifter.

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One only has to wonder what would’ve happened if the Aurora could’ve made it to the market a few years earlier. It certainly would’ve made a better 1991 Ninety-Eight in every aspect. Cutting-edge styling, luxuriously appointed interior, and return to V8 power. Or just badging it as the 1991 Aurora, and dropping the Ninety-Eight altogether could have made even more sense. That was part of Oldsmobile’s struggle. Trying to modernize its image without alienating its traditional clientele — neither of which it was able to successfully pull off.

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Fantasizing aside, the fact is that this was the production Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. As you can guess, it didn’t draw in many buyers. In fact, sales for ’91 models actually decreased over the outgoing ’90 models, whose design was 6 years old. As a young child when they were new, I never saw many of these cars. From a pathetic 54,000 units in 1991, sales steadily fell to a measly 15,000 by 1996, the Ninety-Eight’s last year on the market.

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My own personal account to add, is that my grandfather owned a 1992 Medium Slate Gray Metallic over Garnet Red velour Ninety-Eight Regency (pictured above in the driveway of their Cape house, Falmouth, MA), and it was a car I spent a lot of time in the first four years of my life. In fact, it was the first car I ever rode in as a living human being, on my way home from the hospital as a newborn.

oldsmobile_surfdrivebeachmid1990s(Photographed: Surf Drive Beach, Falmouth, MA c. 1995-1996; Clearly not in summer)

I actually never really cared for the car in particular as a child, as the all-burgundy interior wasn’t so easy on the eyes, and combined with the minimally opening rear windows and the fact that my grandmother always over-bundled me up in layers, made for an uncomfortably hot riding experience. Nevertheless, it is a car I very much associate with both my grandparents, and my happy young childhood in general. For those reasons, this car will always hold a special place in my heart, despite its many shortcomings and its ramifications for the Oldsmobile brand.