Curbside Classic: 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 – GM’s Deadly Sin #15 – GM Discovers Rubbermaid

(first posted 3/30/2011. Revised 11/14/2016)    It was the rear door that did it. I should never have opened it.

Yes, these mega-size GM cars have gotten a lot of love here over the years. And there’s a whole lot to love about them. But GM overshot the mark, and by doing so, turned a whole lot of buyers to mid-sized cars. And to pay for all that extra steel (and a few other things), GM really turned the bean counters loose. Their solution (among other things) was hard injection molded plastic, acres of it. Of a particularly nasty and deadly kind. It’s something that one might be able to excuse on a Vega, but not on a big Olds sedan.

It’s been an oft repeated mantra here: GM quality began to slide in the mid sixties, to one degree or another, and in different manifestations. But there were also improvements that compensated for them: the Turbo-Hydramatic transmission combined with the final maturation of GM’s smooth and powerful V8s made for a creamy drive train. Disc brakes appeared, and 15″ wheels reappeared. GM’s variable-ratio power steering was the best, and when it started applying itself to the science of handling, it quickly rose to the top too, in that regard. That’s why I called the 1970 Impala the Best Big Car of Its Time. Not everyone agreed, but it sure beat what was about to replace it.

The bigger, wider, heavier thirstier 1971 full-size cars by GM simply jumped the shark. Full-size cars had been getting too big, IMHO, since the 1958s replaced the just-right-sized ’55 -’57s (I’m referring to Chevys just now). Intermediate sized cars had to happen, and it’s no coincidence that when the Chevelle appeared in 1964 sitting on the same 115″ wheelbase as the tri-five Chevys, everyone made lots of references to that fact.

Perhaps this CC really ties in more to the CCCCC, since that’s all about the rise of the mid-sized Cutlass to the top of the heap. Anyway; the 1970 GM big cars just squeaked through the portal of acceptability and sanity; the 1971’s bulging sides didn’t. Amazing what a couple of inches and three hundred extra pounds will do.

Take a look at this engine compartment; the big 455 Rocket engine block is almost lost in there. Looks more like a Buick V6 hiding behind that long fan shroud. No wonder GM had a V12 engine program going at the time. Certainly plenty of room; V16, anybody?

By 1973, the Rocket had lost a bit of its thrust, rated at 225 (net) hp. Still, it was able to give a decent nudge in the backside. No, the problem with this big Olds lies not under the hood, but elsewhere; other than its excessive size, that is.

What brought it all crashing in on me was opening the back door, so that I could get a shot of the dash from there. Holy Taxi-Driving Mother of all Rubbermaid! I had forgotten just how cheap GM suddenly got with its interiors. I mean, I knew it, but had forgotten the nasty details.

In 1971, GM introduced its millions of buyers to hard plastics, and of a particularly nasty sort. It made its most memorable appearance in the Vega that year (above), where the whole door panel was one flimsy, flapping piece of hollow plastic.

But I had totally forgotten that this same stuff appeared in the doors of Oldsmobiles! And the exact same color too! Maybe that’s what really pushed me over the Deadly edge. This was one of the vaunted brands in GM’s upscale portfolio. And it looks just like a 1971 Biscayne taxi I drove. Well, that had all-black interior, and just as well.

And it’s not just the door panel, but the seat upholstery too. GM vinyl in the sixties was a wondrous thing; sleek and shiny, and thick and durable, befitting of the “Morrokide” moniker Pontiac branded its version. Suddenly in 1971, the vinyl looks and feels cheap, like a Tijuana re-upholstery job, back in the day.

That dashboard may have a certain bizarre visual period-piece appeal, but don’t look too close. GM’s heavy investment in plastic injection machinery was on full display.

Compared to the solid gleaming dashes that were in an Olds ten years earlier, well; nothing stays the same, sadly in some cases. But let’s get back to that rear door. It wasn’t just what I saw after I opened it; it was the act of opening and closing it that sealed the Deadly Deal.

Ok, this is an old car; but go open any rear door of a similar-vintage Mercedes. That has to be the pinnacle of the worn-out bank vault analogy. And, no; I didn’t and don’t expect a car that cost a third or so of a comparable ’73 Merc to do as well in that department.

It’s the vivid memory of how much crappier the ’71 GM doors felt compared to the ’70s. I know: I drove both a 1970 and 1971 Chevrolet taxi, each with maybe half a million miles on them. The 1970 felt a whole lot more structurally sound compared to the 1971; everything is relative. Just getting the doors on the ’71 to close at all on the first try was a serious challenge. Don’t ask me about the rear seat on the ’71 that kept coming loose; not the stuff from which tips are generated.

For what it’s worth, GM learned quite a big lesson from these cars; the downsized B-Bodies that appeared in 1977 were a major act of penance for GM’s Deadly Sin of Gluttony, and even the interiors improved from what has to be an all-time low point. Next time, I’ll just not open the door, and save myself a bit of trouble.