Just by looking at this Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, I can absolutely understand the fascination among many automotive enthusiasts – including a vast number of Curbsiders – for full-size American sedans, particularly those in the Brougham mould. This is the classic full-size American sedan: a V8 engine with good low-end torque, a pillow-soft ride and a spacious and comfortable interior.
This Ninety-Eight was sold during a time when you could walk into your local Oldsmobile (or Ford, or Chrysler, etc) dealership and option up your car the way you wanted it. You could choose between dozens of interior and exterior color combinations. You could tick off a heavy-duty suspension package to satisfy your handling or towing requirements. Most full-size domestics were available in sedan, coupe and wagon variants. Was there variety? You bet. Could you buy anything like a Ninety-Eight at a European or Asian automaker’s showroom? Not even close.
Between 1982 and 1992, market share of full-size, six-passenger sedans in the US market dropped from 15% to 8%. Despite this shrinking market share, the Big 3 were offering just as many vehicles in this segment. Some of them, like the GM H-Body sedans that included this car’s replacement, were a little smaller and lacking V8 power, although were more manoeuvrable and efficient. Still, more compact dimensions aside, the full-size sedans of the late 1980s were still recognizable to buyers of their early 1980s predecessors with many still featuring strip speedometers, cushy seats, column shifters, a wide range of interior and exterior colors, and lengthy options lists.
Considering the Big 3’s overall share of the US market shrunk from 84% in 1978 to 68% in 1989, it isn’t particularly surprising that many American nameplates would see a fall in market share. But how is it that the full-size domestic sedan would see such a sizeable drop when the Japanese were years away from offering anything of a similar size? Full-size wagon sales dropped like a stone, but you could squarely lay the blame on minivans for that. What was eating into full-size sedan sales?
Surprisingly, the segment – although diminished in numbers – survives to this day despite intermittent doomsday reports. First, it was near-luxury Japanese sedans that siphoned off potential full-size buyers. Then storming the citadel, in no particular order, were SUVs, crossovers, ever-larger intermediates and compact, luxury-brand sport sedans. Detroit tried keeping some of their full-size sedans defiantly traditional, like the Mercury Grand Marquis, only to see sales taper off. They tried to target the Japanese and the Europeans with more international-flavored offerings like the Oldsmobile Aurora and LSS and Pontiac Bonneville SSEi. They tried dragging out production runs and selling at low prices, like with the Chevrolet Impala. Radical styling? Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde. Interestingly, the Japanese and Koreans entered the fray with full-sizers of their own like the Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera and even they are facing stagnant sales.
While many of these American offerings had a very distinctive feel, it is true that many recent American full-sizers evolved concurrently with Japanese and Korean rivals and followed a similar format, typically employing front-wheel-drive, unibody construction and V6 engines. This Ninety-Eight is a vestige from a time when Detroit could still do things the old way, before fuel economy and emissions standards made body-on-frame, V8-powered vehicles virtually untenable.
This would appear to be a 1983 or 1984 Ninety-Eight Regency sedan. The Ninety-Eight was thoroughly restyled for 1980, adopting a crisper and somewhat less blocky look (and one I personally find much more appealing). The downsized Ninety-Eight had launched in 1977 with a choice of 350 or 403 cubic-inch Oldsmobile V8s, but both were gone by 1981. For the first time ever, the Ninety-Eight nameplate was available with a six-cylinder engine, Buick’s short-lived 4.1 V6; it, too, was gone by 1983. The 350 was replaced with the Oldsmobile 307 which survived until the end of this generation. Unfortunately, so did another Oldsmobile V8: the unreliable 350 diesel first added to the line in 1978.
The replacement FWD Ninety-Eight got off to a strong start despite less stately styling and no available V8, but eventually its sales numbers dwindled. The whole division was struggling, but rival full-size sedans were also losing sales. With time, automotive journalists started writing stories about the “dying” full-size segment, stories that persist to this day.
Don’t write off the full-size sedan yet. While most people don’t want them there are still enough that do, in particular fleet buyers and older consumers. But a modern full-size sedan looks a lot different to this beautiful Ninety-Eight. Common complaints from traditional full-size sedan enthusiasts include the dearth of interior and exterior colors and variety, the lack of V8 power and rear-wheel-drive, me-too styling and a fixation on “sporty” handling at the expense of a plush, comfortable ride. While there is some truth to some of those complaints – indeed, we may never again experience the days of sprawling color lists outside of Rolls-Royce and Bentley – there is a great deal of criticism that is unfounded.
Take the Chrysler 300, for example. It is available with a choice of gutsy V6 or grunty V8 and rear- or all-wheel-drive. You can opt for a base model, the sporty 300S, whatever Chrysler’s special edition is that year or the range-topping Platinum. If you’re tired of the usual black, gray and tan interiors of many modern cars, you can opt for a beautiful indigo-and-linen cabin. Sadly, the lairy 300 SRT-8 is gone – from North America, at least – but you can walk across the showroom floor and…
…take a look at a Dodge Charger. The 707 horsepower SRT Hellcat is the wildest full-size sedan to ever come out of Detroit, but the lesser 292 hp Pentastar V6 and 370 hp 5.7 Hemi V8 are nothing to sniff at. And lesser Chargers are graced with an admirable ride-and-handling balance, neither unmanageably floaty nor unpleasantly stiff.
If you’re a GM man through and through and you want a V8 full-sizer, the Aussie-built Chevrolet SS remains on the price lists. With a 415 hp, 415 ft-lb 6.2 pushrod V8 and a 0-60 time of under 5 seconds, the SS is an impeccably-appointed, fully-loaded rocketship. The best part? You can get it with a six-speed manual.
Those seeking a GM vehicle with a lower list price and greater fuel economy can choose between the redesigned Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Impala. The Impala has an available four-cylinder engine, the LaCrosse has optional all-wheel-drive. Both are sold with a 3.6 V6 that is impressively smooth and powerful, if missing that intoxicating burble of a V8. Both are also available with rich tan and brown interior options. No, there’s no willow green or red velour interiors nowadays, but GM has been the most enthusiastic proponent of differently-hued interiors: the outgoing LaCrosse had a “sangria” (purple) interior, Cadillac has offered both blue and red interiors, and orange has been seen in Saturn Auras and Chevrolet Malibus.
The Ford Taurus is looking a tad old but still offers a choice of turbocharged four- or six-cylinder engines or a naturally-aspirated V6, as well as available all-wheel-drive.
Then, of course, there are the domestic full-size luxury sedans, the 2017 Lincoln Continental and Cadillac CT6.
There are some who will complain that none of these full-size sedans have the character of full-sizers past. And it’s true that you won’t find the acres of fake wood, the overstuffed seats, the column shifters and bench seats of cars like this old Ninety-Eight. But it’s funny that in a supposedly dying segment, a domestic car buyer has so much choice: four, six and eight cylinder engines; front, rear and all wheel drive; turbochargers and superchargers; base models and fully-loaded Platinum and Premier editions; a smooth ride and/or a sporty disposition. These modern full-sizers are more powerful, better handling and more fuel efficient than ever, and all offer distinctively American styling.
If sales trends continue, the oft-read prophecies may indeed come true and this segment could die. For many car buyers today, a crossover’s extra practicality or a compact sport sedan’s prestige holds a great deal of value. But for enthusiasts, it would be a shame if these distinctively American (and one Australian) sedans were overlooked because of a perceived lack of character or because they don’t fit the traditional mould. If you’re in the market for a new car, take one of these for a test drive. You will find they have a distinctive character of their own.
Featured Ninety-Eight photographed in Red Hook, Brooklyn.