Special thanks to Brendan Saur, my art director and collaborator on this piece.
“ I believe in America. America has made my fortune. And I grew my car company in the American fashion. I gave my marketing department freedom
but I taught them never to dishonor the brand. They found a research firm, not one familiar with automobiles. They ran focus groups and consumer clinics. They spent my money. I didn’t protest.
Two months ago they conducted a ride-and-drive, and then they tried to take advantage of me. They extrapolated conclusions and advised a sales strategy based on sloppy and incomplete research. When I went to their offices, our brand was was shattered, held together by nothing but a weak and mostly dualled dealer network. I wept. Why did I weep? They killed our cars. Beautiful cars. Now they will never be beautiful again.”
I shall never forget that conversation. It had taken great courage for the former head of Oldsmobile to come forward and risk the wrath of the bosses at GM, who had, he said, forced him to sign a non-disclosure upon his departure; the penalty for violating the agreement was, as he said, “sleeping with the Marlins and Barracudas.”
He’d seen the end coming when GM called a meeting of the five divisions—Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac—where they learned what everyone already knew: Two in particular were not good earners. One would be axed as a lesson to the other, and Olds had drawn the short straw.
The car business gets into your blood. Gasoline in the veins, they call it, and this guy had 100-octane coursing through his. Eventually its siren song proved irresistible, and he met with the heads of two other defunct families, Mercury and Isetta, in the hope that together they could introduce a new automobile into the market. (While most associate Isetta with BMW, the Isetta microcar was originally a purely Italian creation.)
The feeler to Mercury and Isetta had met with positive responses, and an advent company was formed. Thus was the genesis of Omerta, a portmanteau formed from the three failed nameplates. The plan was to introduce the Omerta at the Sicily Auto Show, which, for unknown reasons, was usually held somewhere in the Cayman Islands.
Now a product was needed, and the partners set out to acquire a production facility. Their first choice was a factory whose owners had initially refused to sell; in a stunning coincidence, the plant’s executive offices burned to the ground just a week later, and Omerta was able to acquire the remainder of the facility at a drastically reduced price.
Next came the hiring of engineers and stylists. In deference to its legendary creator and designer–Renzo Rivolta and Ermenegildo Preti, respectively–Isetta drew the prestigious engineering assignment. Meantime, Olds and Mercury would collaborate on styling the new car. Fortunately, the former Isetta boss had smuggled out plans for a future model before the Germans seized control of the Iso factory; while slightly larger than the original Isetta, it retained its predecessor’s three-wheel design.
A conventional fixed instrument panel replaced the original’s hinged dash-on-door setup.
A significant design issue emerged almost immediately: The little Isetta had no trunk. Not only had the American partners demanded one, but insisted upon “a four-abreast” trunk (to avoid confusion between metric and non-metric measurements, common measurement standards had been created), which meant that the original layout had to be scrapped. The solution was direct if not elegant: Isetta engineers decided to tack a modified bustle back at the rear, which in plan view gave the vehicle the look of a gigantic pregnant housefly; still, it did satisfy the 4x cargo requirement.
“But what of the displaced fuel tank”, you ask. There was a solution for that as well. Taking a cue from Northrop’s “flying wing” aircraft concept, fuel was stored in a series of thin tanks that completely enveloped the body and were connected by a network of tubes and pipes.
On this side of the Atlantic, Olds and Mercury had done an admirable job of interior and exterior styling, given the hard points they had to work with. The Mercury team penned exterior lines that attempted to mask the “pregnant fly” look, but only so much could be done. Taking inspiration from their own Montego, they came up with a concept code-named “Manateego”.
Meanwhile at Olds, interior stylists pulled out their venerable playbook and went to work. Their seat material of choice was “jumpsuit velour” which unfortunately had not been manufactured since the 1980s–or so they thought. Apparently the upholstery gods were smiling down on them; a virtual warehouse of leftover jumpsuits turned up in the basement of the Ravenite social club in New York. Although the owners were eager to sell, they still insisted that the tailoring be done by their own crew.
While tailors on the East Coast proceeded to convert racks of XXL jumpsuits into car seats, a unique Paulie Walnut-grain applique was applied to the prototypes’ dashes and door trim panels, as were special panoramic mirrors that better allowed the driver to watch his back. Once the seats (which had arrived on a truck from New York along with hundreds of cartons of gray-market cigarettes) arrived, attention turned to prototype assembly.
Finding skilled production workers did not prove easy. While the Olds and Mercury sides did an effective job of keeping labor unions away from the project, their Italian partner was less successful. To placate hordes of unemployed and potentially dangerous Eastern European workmen gnawing at their border, it was decided that craftsmen from the now-defunct Yugo plant, along with a cadre of ZIL and Moskvitch quality-control inspectors, would be in charge of assembly and final finish. The finished interior modules were thus sent back to Italy, where hand-hammered bodies would be crafted around them.
Ultimately, four prototypes were produced, one in each available color: Moe Green, Gunmetal Gray, Wedding White and Sonny Black. One proposed color, Come-and-get-me Copper, was deemed a bit too flashy for a car of such stature. The prototypes were at last ready for display, and the partners seemed pleased with the result. The Omerta was, in the words of one of them, “a car that cannot be refused.”
Unfortunately for Omerta—but not for the world—the cars never made it to the Cayman Islands, thanks to the newly-enacted RICO (Ride In COnfidence) regulations that imposed ultra-strict passenger-protection standards on all new cars.
Omerta had always assumed that its vehicles would pass inspection so long as the right people were made aware of what, and for whom, they were testing. Inspectors were duly invited to the Omerta test track to confirm compliance—that is, after a long night of factory-sponsored feasting, drinking and female companionship.
And then came the morning after.
The problem involved the test track; specifically, in that none of the prototypes actually got there. Due to a perfect storm of in-body fuel storage, sloppy workmanship and Soviet quality control, every car exploded at startup. The Federal inspectors, barely escaping injury themselves, were horrified and immediately shut down the factory. “In retrospect”, as one Omerta partner reflected, “we shoulda used a guy to start the (g**damn) cars for us before the Feds came poking around.”
The testing debacle had destroyed all the prototypes; now all that remained was to liquidate the company assets, and to agree that no one would ever speak of this venture again. Omerta never got the chance to sell the factory; in a spectacular coincidence, it burned a second time, destroying the building and its contents, all of which had been heavily insured. There was a congressional investigation into the whole Omerta operation, but it came to nothing as potential witnesses refused to testify or in some cases, simply disappeared. As for the partners, each went its own way.
Iso was acquired by a leading demographics-measurement firm and became Iso Metrics.
The Federal lending agency, Freddie Mac, seized Mercury’s assets and folded them into a dummy corporation known as Freddie/Mercury.
In perhaps the oddest amalgamation, Olds allied with both TresSemme hair care products and electronics giant Samsung to form Semme Olds Sung (but with a different beat since you’ve been gone).
And that’s that.