(first posted 2/6/2013) We had some lively discussion the other day about the J-body Oldsmobile Firenza, thanks to the beige sedan Paul found at a 7-11. Lansing’s version of the J-car may well be the rarest variant. The only one I recall seeing back then was a white ’87 coupe a friend’s mom owned. Perhaps the unusual grilleless nose was a little too ahead of its time; the Taurus was still nearly five years away–along with greater acceptance of smooth-nosed family cars. Oldsmobile did finally address it with the restyled ’88, but it would prove to be the little Olds’ swan song.
Like all the other divisions (including, sadly, Cadillac) 1982 brought the J-body onto the scene. While meant to replace the H-body Monza, Sunbird, Starfire and Skyhawk, the J added four-door sedans and wagons. The Firenza sold 30,108 copies and was rather handsome with its mini-Toronado nose.
The fastback was particularly fetching. I really like this one in ice blue metallic, with the mini-Super Stock wheels and white interior. I didn’t even know you could get a white interior in a J-car, other than the later Sunbird and Cavalier convertibles.
Now, granted, 1982-83 were not really great years for car sales, but the Firenza never really took off until 1984, when over 82K came off the line. That proved to be a one-year deal, as sales again dived to 49,041 in ’85, when corporate cousin Cavalier sold over 420,000 models. Sales steadily trailed off at that point: 46,701 in ’86 and 25,828 in ’87.
I did have some experience with Firenzas back then, as a neighborhood friend’s mom had a white 1986-87 notchback coupe. It had a blue interior if I remember correctly, and the steel rally wheels (not the super stock version) with chrome caps and lugnuts. Mrs. Brady was a schoolteacher at Denkmann Elementary, and she took immaculate care of her Olds. It was still pristine and rust-free when it was traded in on a rosewood metallic 1992 or ’93 Accord coupe (identical to this one), with a really sharp burgundy cloth interior. She had good taste in cars.
Which brings us to 1988. Now, although some styling changes were made to the Firenza between 1982 and 1987, nothing drastic was done, and it retained its mini-Toro front end during all that time. But in ’88, a rather thorough facelift was done, with a much more conventional, Cutlass Ciera-like nose, and new wheel covers, among more minor trim fillips.
At any rate, it certainly didn’t help sales, which sank to 12,260. This consisted of 2,724 coupes, 8,612 sedans, and just two apiece of the LC coupe and LX sedan–special export orders, perhaps? The wagon, like the tan metallic one I found online shown above, saw only 995 copies. This particular one is even rarer, as it has the five-speed stick. All wagons featured steel sides, as the Di-Noc Cruiser model disappeared. So too, did the S and GT hatchbacks.
Now, why did Olds go to the trouble? While probably trifling for GM as a whole, it still cost money to tool new headlights, grille, header panel and bumper. And since they did all that, why not at least continue the Firenza through ’89 like Buick did with the Skyhawk?
I suspect the arrival of the new-for-’85 Calais ate into Firenza sales, and since Chevrolet didn’t have a comparable N-body, the Cavalier was not affected from 1984. And I can imagine salesmen telling Olds showroom visitors, “for just a few more dollars a month, you could have a Calais Supreme with more room and comfort!” The ’88 Firenza coupe cost $9,295 and had sales of 2,724, while the standard Calais coupe was $10,320 and sold 48,998 copies. Add a few options to your Firenza and the gap would have narrowed even more.
The standard engine on ’88s was familiar to past Firenza customers: a fuel-injected 122CID I4 with 90 horsepower. For a little more oomph, an OHC version of the same mill was available, with all of 96 horses, though I understand it really woke the car up despite the small bump in power.
I recall the ’88 Firenza well, as one of my souvenirs to my very first Chicago Auto Show was the 1988 full-line Olds brochure. Something about the Firenza clicked with my eight-year-old brain, and I made a point to hang onto that catalog all these years. I only recall seeing one in person though, a rusty survivor spotted in downtown Rock Island in the mid-’90s. Good luck finding one today, after 25 years of attrition.
So then, may I present everything you ever wanted to know about the 1988 Firenza: options, models, standard features. Be sure to click on the pictures for bigger, easier to read images. Know this car well, and maybe, just maybe, you will run across one yourself. Enjoy!