Automotive History: Shockingly Low Volume Production Cars – The Oldsmobile Edition

(first posted 5/31/2017)       It’s time once again for our ongoing exploration of low volume regular production cars.  Today, we look at Oldsmobile, one of the few car brands to have had at least two enduring songs written about it.  As has been the case so far, we are looking at cars produced between 1946 and 1995 having a production volume of less than 1,000.

The differences in how car makers report output are considerable and their method of reporting may vary year to year.  In this case, Oldsmobile is generally like Chevrolet in breaking production numbers down by engine.  While this list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, it is definitely extensive, with some models having repeat performances for consecutive years.

So come away with me Lucille, in my merry Rocket 88…or something like that.

1946 Special 66 wagon

Production:  140

Despite the periodic angst with the numeric and alphanumeric model names currently used on cars, the concept is far from new.  In 1946, Oldsmobile had the 60 series, the 70 series, and the 90 series.  The second digit, six as seen here, denoted the number of cylinders.  Thus, the “66” was the base model 60 series powered by a 100 horsepower straight-six.  This was the only Olds wagon available that year.

As we’ve seen throughout, with the exception of Pontiac thus far, wood bodied cars subsequent to World War II just weren’t a popular commodity.  At $1,795, these were within $45 of the 98 convertible.

Production for the 1946 Oldsmobiles began October 15, 1945.  On November 21, 1945, the United Auto Workers went on strike, with the strike lasting until April 1, 1946.  This, combined with an unreceptive market, explains the paltry production number.

1946 Custom Cruiser 98 convertible

Production:  874

The 98s were simply the least popular Oldsmobiles volume wise.  Priced at $1,840, it was well into mid-range Buick territory (back when the Sloan Ladder meant something) and the UAW strike as outlined above played a distinct role.

1947 Special 66 wagon; Special 68 wagon

Production:  968 and 492, respectively

As was the case in 1946, the wood bodied wagons simply weren’t appealing to very many buyers.  Of note is the 68 designation – Oldsmobile had opened up an eight-cylinder engine option on their base model 60 series.

In a reflection of post-war inflation, base prices were up nearly $400 to $2,175.

1950 Futuramic 76 convertible, Holiday hardtop coupe, Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupe, four-door wagon, Deluxe four-door wagon

Production:  973, 144, 394, 121, 247, respectively

1950 Futuramic 88 Deluxe four-door wagon

Production:  552

How’s this for both being complicated and reflecting tepid sales volumes?

Perhaps the most concise explanation for such a formidable list is that Olds was in a transition period.  1950 would be the last year for both the 70 series and six-cylinder engines, a combination of which help explain five of the six cars seen here.

The first inclination with these findings for 1950 was whether or not the song “Rocket 88” may have influenced buyers, as the engine was introduced in 1949.  Such is not the case as the song wasn’t recorded until March 1951.  However, if looking at ads for the 1950 Oldsmobiles, one could easily interpret there being no Oldsmobile on the market other than a Rocket 88.  It is true that name has a more appealing sound than does, say, Torpedo 76.

Yet there is the wagon seen here that possesses the Rocket 88.  For 1950, Olds captured only 1.7% of the domestic station wagon market, prompting its hiatus in wagon building until 1957.

1953 Ninety-Eight Fiesta convertible coupe

Production:  458

This was a limited production run of a speciality car introduced mid-year.  At $5,715, it was over twice the price of the regular $2,963 Olds 98 convertible.  The Fiesta was introduced along with the Buick Skylark and Cadillac Eldorado convertibles.

1965 F-85 wagon V6

Production:  714 (base) and 659 (Deluxe)

There is an old adage that cylinders sell.  For proof, look no further than this 1965 Olds F-85 wagon.  When equipped with Cutlass or Jetfire Rocket V8 engines, these sold much better as the V8 equipped wagon in Deluxe trim was the second best selling model of any F-85 that year.

Yet when equipped with the “Econ-O-Way” V6, you get the results seen here.  According to some sources providing a higher level of detail, similar sales volumes were realized by some F-85 wagons in 1961, 1964, and 1966.

1967 Cutlass six-cylinder convertible, four-door hardtop, and station wagon

Production:  567, 644, and 385 respectively

Take your pick of body-style on the base model Cutlass in 1967.  If it was equipped with a straight-six, there’s a 60% chance it sold less than 1,000 units – and with examples such as the wagon, it may land far below the 1,000 unit threshold.

Variations of this theme repeated themselves in 1968.  And again in 1969, when all six-cylinder models were under 1,000.  And 1970.  Oh, and in 1971, also.  For 1972, Olds wised up and dumped the six-cylinder option.  Having it was likely more trouble than it was worth.

The lowest of the low was the 1971 wagon as seen here in yellow.  Only 47 were built with a six-banger, down from 85 in 1970.

In a sense, given the notoriety of the Olds Rocket 88, getting a six-cylinder Olds seems a bit like going to Burger King and ordering a Triple Whopper only to wash it down with a Diet Coke – it just seems inconsistent.

1978 shown

1979 Omega hatchback coupe

Production:  956

The model year was abbreviated, making way for the new front-drive X-cars.

The Omega hatchback, nothing more than a Chevrolet Nova hatchback with a marginally snazzier header panel and tail lights, had been around since 1973.

1980 Cutlass Salon Brougham coupe

Production:  865

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this speaks for itself.  Not a hatchback and not a sedan, these were a galactic styling miss for Oldsmobile.  Olds was not alone in embracing this body style as Buick had similar on their A-body Century.

These A-body Oldsmobiles soon received a greenhouse transplant from the Cadillac Seville and sales quickly rebounded.

Brougham series shown, but differences are negligible

1986 Ninety-Eight Regency coupe (not Brougham) 

Production:  803

This one was a mild surprise.

The 98 Regency coupe sold well enough during the prior, rear-drive generation, selling 11,000 to 14,000 units per year from 1981 to 1984.

With the downsizing of 1985, to the front-driver seen above, Regency coupe sales volumes dropped considerably to a level of 4,700.  However, 1985 saw the coupe split into two series, Regency and Brougham, with combined sales in 1985 being in the 14,500 range.

That split continued for 1986, and combined 98 coupe sales were down to 5,800 with the Brougham (at 5,007) proving itself to be the stronger of the two.  GM applied Darwin’s Law and the Regency coupe did not return for 1987.

1990 Cutlass Calais International Sedan 

Production:  877

If it weren’t for ads and magazines, would anyone know the International Series even existed?  When the J-body Firenza was terminated at the end of 1988, the Calais became the small Oldsmobile.  Therein lies the likely problem.

On the low end, the Calais had a VL series, standing for Value Leader, a de-contented car intended to appeal to and/or recapture Firenza buyers, with a base price of $9,995.  Moving up the food chain, one could find a Calais in S, SL, and then the International series trim.

The rub?  At $14,495 (and $100 less for the coupe shown here), this Calais had a base price nearly 50% higher than the VL model.  In turn, this base price was $100 to $200 higher than the base price of a Cutlass Supreme.  This is perhaps a case example of one car trying to cover too much sales ground.

Incidentally, the Calais International coupe sold only 1,454 copies.

1990 Cutlass Ciera International coupe and sedan

Production:  411 and 959

This is a watered down version of what can be seen with the Calais directly above.

While base prices of the various Ciera models had a narrower spread than the Calais, the matter of significant price overlap was quite real.  With a base price of $15,995 for the International series coupe, and $800 more for the sedan, one could change their mind and drive home in a base model 88 and save money in the process.  How much?  A few hundred, regardless if you popped for the 88 Royale sedan or coupe.  It also netted the buyer what was often viewed as being substantially more car.

By this time not only had the Sloan Ladder been splintered, it had been used for kindling to keep the sales flame alive for some of these models.

1990 shown

1991 Eighty-Eight Royale coupe and Brougham coupe

Production:  234 and 458

For 1991, sales of the Eighty-Eight were just dandy – if you didn’t look at the coupes.

Olds had dumped the two-door Ninety-Eight after 1987 due to dwindling sales and the Eighty-Eight (referred to by Olds as “88” in other years) had experienced similar.  To illustrate how coupe sales were in the dumpster, Olds sold roughly 57,000 Eighty-Eight sedans for 1991 and less than 700 coupes.  Tastes were changing and this was the last year for an Eighty-Eight coupe.

1993 Cutlass Supreme International Series 

Production:  395 (coupe) and 645 (sedan)

Once upon a time, the Cutlass Supreme reigned supreme on the sales chart.  By 1989, it wasn’t even in the top 25.  Things only got worse by 1993, when sales literally bottomed out at 83,000, a small fraction of its sales from a decade earlier; how the mighty had fallen.

For 1993, the Cutlass Supreme had a roughly $7,000 difference between the base “S” and the International series, putting the higher trim four-doors well into Eighty-Eight territory.  To make matters a bit more awkward, there was a $200 spread among the convertible, coupe, and sedan – with the convertible having the cheapest base price of the three.

Stay tuned; there is still much more to come in this series.