Curbside Classic: 1986 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Coupe – Olds Takes A Holiday From The 1980s Blahs

Oldsmobile sold nearly one million cars annually during the 1980s, but trouble loomed beneath the surface of those hearty sales.  The Olds division was directionless, its cars largely mimicked other GM products, and its customer base was rapidly aging.  But in the middle of that decade came a car that could have rekindled the spark of Oldsmobile’s past – a graceful, distinctive coupe that seemed like an stylish counterpoint to the rest of the division’s lineup that had become increasingly… blah.

Ultimately, the Delta 88 coupe had no effect on Oldsmobile’s eventual outcome, accounting for just 1.5% of Olds’s total output between 1986 and 1991.  This car, though, makes for a rather frustrating case study because it could easily have been a contender.  In an era of boxy, lookalike Oldsmobiles, the Delta 88 coupe could have led a revival of the brand.  If only… if only… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In more vibrant times – say in the 1950s and ’60s – Oldsmobile sold exciting, innovative cars that people wanted to own.  Rocket engines, Ninety-Eights, front-wheel drive Toronados, Holiday coupes, 4-4-2s… they all helped to give Oldsmobile an aspirational image, and even its more pedestrian cars presented a solid, upper-middle class status.

Then came the 1980s.  Oldsmobiles were dull and uninspiring, but contrary to what logic may suggest, the brand’s cars became unexpectedly popular.  Gas prices stabilized, the economy improved and suddenly customers longed for the types of cars they drove before those nasty energy crises.  Older, financially well-off consumers were at the vanguard of this trend, likely because they rebounded quicker from the late 70s / early 80s recession.  And Oldsmobile was waiting for them.

Olds set sales records in the ’80s, peaking at over 1.2 million cars in 1985.  In retrospect, this surge in popularity likely damaged the brand’s long-term viability.  GM found easy sales to traditionalist customers to be almost intoxicating; the company became reluctant to do anything that might turn these buyers away.  From a mere numerical perspective, Olds was doing great, so GM instructed the division to continue whatever they were doing that brought in a million annual sales.

The Delta 88 range typified this state of affairs.  In the early half of the 1980s, Delta 88s were based on the rear-drive B platform – a novel car when introduced for 1977, but rather tired by 1985.  The 88s were solid, decent-looking, roomy cars that offered good value, nice-but-anonymous styling, and more brand cachet than a Chevy.

Of course, those characteristics could equally apply to Oldsmobile’s G-body Cutlass range and its A-body Cutlass Cieras, all variations on the same theme.

Source: Standard Catalog of Oldsmobile, 1897-1997.

Among this soporific model lineup, a certain consistency prevailed.  Roughly half of 1980s Olds sales were Cutlasses (A/G-bodies, Cieras and GM-10 Supremes), with the FWD Ciera taking a bigger chunk as the decade passed.  Delta 88s, meanwhile, drew a surprisingly consistent 20% of total sales – even through changes in the Delta itself and in the rest of Oldsmobile’s lineup.  However, overall customer demographics kept inching older, which of course was unsustainable.

1986 ushered in a big change for the Delta 88, courtesy of GM’s next wave of downsizing.  Migrating to the FWD H Platform, the 88 shed 22” of length, 3” of width, 300 lbs., and 2 cylinders.

This seems like a rather sweeping change for a traditional sedan, but in reality the change was somewhat superficial.  Olds kept the ’86 Delta as consistent as possible with its predecessor.  Oldsmobile’s chief engineer, Ted Louckes, noted that Olds strove to “save the attributes important to the full-size buyer” and to keep “road isolation and the ride rate as we have had… in the past.”  In other words: Don’t upset those traditional buyers!

Mission accomplished.  The new Delta 88 rode like a cloud and looked like a lounge inside.

Remarkably, this car was introduced in the same year as Ford’s visionary Taurus, which broke with the conventional principles that Olds sought to preserve.  The difference between those two Class Of ’86 domestic sedans couldn’t be blunter.

Let’s backtrack a bit and look at the outgoing B-body Delta 88 coupes.  These weren’t really “coupes,” but rather 2-door sedans, sharing the same roofline and upright backlight as their 4-door counterparts.  Though the 2-doors had few exceptional attributes (except among people who like long, heavy doors), they still they accounted for nearly 30% of total B-body Delta 88 production.

Given the traditional persona of the new Delta 88 sedan, one would expect its 2-door brethren to have stayed the course stylistically.  It didn’t.  What Olds gave us instead was a breath of fresh air – not daring and cutting-edge, but rather clean, crisp and classy.  Like Oldsmobiles should be.

This is one of the best-looking American car designs of the 1980s.  An airy greenhouse, sweeping C-pillar, sloping roofline and relatively high trunklid all create a stylish appearance with a subtle suggestion of power.  There are enough Olds styling cues (like the tail light design) to affirm that it is in fact a GM product, however this car’s overall shape evokes European, rather than American cars.

Olds wasn’t alone in offering this body style, since Buick sold its own version.  This LeSabre ad’s text articulates What Could Have Been.  These cars could have ushered in a new golden age of American coupes.  But they didn’t, for several reasons.

The timing for a coupe revival couldn’t have been worse.  Coupes – fashionable industrywide in the early 1980s – precipitously declined in popularity just at the time these models were introduced.

Source: Standard Catalog of Oldsmobile, 1897-1997.

Olds production figures tell the story.  Despite their good looks, coupes accounted for only 16% of the 234,000 Delta 88 sales for 1986, and that proportion plummeted for each of the following 5 years.  In the coupe’s final year of 1991, only 692 of the cars found homes.

Furthermore, the Delta 88 sedan itself struggled after its 1986 introductory year.  1987 sales fell by a quarter, and then kept on falling.  As for the coupe, even an outstanding car would have been challenged to stem such a tide of consumer disfavor… and the Delta 88, while competent, was hardly an outstanding car.

Engine and transmission choices were typical GM fare – in this case a standard 125-hp 3.0-liter V-6 or optional 150-hp 3.8, both mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission.  The base engine was unpopular, and disappeared after 1986.  Our featured car came equipped with the 3.8, a durable engine that yielded decent performance for its day.

When it came to handling, Olds tried to cover all its bases by offering three separate suspension setups.  The standard, boulevard-ride suspension was squishy in a way that made admirers of 1970s land yachts feel right at home.  For a slightly firmer ride, Olds offered a Level II suspension.

But the crown jewel was the Level III (FE3) package, featuring stiffer springs, bigger anti-roll bars, quicker-ratio steering and beefier tires.  Thus equipped, the Delta 88 transformed into an able road car.  Unfortunately, this option package wasn’t promoted anywhere near in proportion to the car’s ability.

Most Delta 88 marketing materials emphasized the car’s traditional credentials rather than any kind of ability to compete in the sports sedan market that was becoming increasingly critical for sales success.  As such, there was little to keep the car competitive among the non-senior crowd.

Even if younger buyers wandered into an Oldsmobile showroom, would they have found the Delta 88 appealing?  Probably not.  This car’s interior presented quite a different world than the svelte exterior.  Here is the very definition of traditional comfort, with pillowed upholstery, a dashboard with just two gauges, chrome-plated trim and so on.  Olds was rightly proud that its new Delta 88 nearly matched its predecessor in interior room, but this car was literally begging for more up-to-date packaging to take better advantage of that space efficiency.

Incidentally, the seatback’s “RB” monogram stands for Royale Brougham, one of the perks of this top trim level that included upgraded upholstery (standard velour; optional leather) and some niceties optional on the base Royale, such as a split bench seat and an interior Convenience Group (lamps, visor mirror, etc.).  For both coupes and sedans, Royale Broughams handily outsold the “entry level” Royales.

Lounge-inspired interiors and squishy suspensions weren’t uncommon in 1986, but the writing was on the wall: the future pointed to a more contemporary driver’s environment.  GM was negligent to completely disregard that fact.  While Oldsmobile offered plenty of cars to satisfy traditional tastes, it badly needed at least one model to capture a new wave of buyers.  The 1986 Delta 88 should have been that car.  With its pleasing exterior styling and reasonable size, a properly equipped and marketed 88 could have been a formidable contender in the then-powerful family car segment.

But the opportunity slipped by.  Part of the reason rested with Oldsmobile’s status in the GM organization.  Olds was a causality of CEO Roger Smith’s restructuring, which took away the division’s independence and made it a mere nameplate.  Individual divisions were not responsible for much – minor trim, options, marketing and advertising.  That’s where Oldsmobile’s mid-1980s success at selling traditional cars became a liability.  GM management was satisfied with Olds sales numbers, and became disinclined to change the division’s overly conservative course.  With a more independent leadership, Olds could have injected some sparkle under this car’s skin.  But that wasn’t the case.

Even given those constraints, Olds didn’t try hard to market Delta 88 beyond its existing audience.  This ad with Dick Van Patten and his family virtually duplicated a 1984 B-body Delta 88 ad, down to the same tagline of “The Family Car That Didn’t Forget The Family.”  Certainly this was meant to assure consumers of consistency between the RWD B-body and its smaller FWD replacement.  But this was not a recipe for attracting new customers.

Oldsmobile’s next advertising campaign again matched celebrities and their families with cars in Olds’s lineup.  The Delta 88 was paired with 35-year-old golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, but again there was a disconnect between the car itself and what actual young families wanted to drive.

Prior to the ’86 model’s release, Olds officials admitted that the new Delta 88’s average owner would likely remain older than the brand’s average… which was already over 50.  They were right.

That would prove to be Oldsmobile’s undoing.  While traditional buyers still formed a significant chunk of the North American market in the 1980s, virtually Olds’s entire lineup was geared in that direction.

Our featured coupe displays somewhat of a split personality.  It is perhaps the least broughamy Brougham ever made.  Not only is the profile a breath of fresh air, but there’s no vinyl top to be seen, no opera lamps, no ersatz accessories… and in place of wire wheel covers, this car features downright sporty alloy wheels (yes, wire wheel covers were available, but plenty of these were sold with alloys).  It’s almost like this car is yearning to be something it isn’t.

Hindsight shows us the opportunity that was missed here.  GM market share plunged in the mid- to late 1980s, and almost all of those lost sales came from its two “aspirational nameplates” – Buick and Oldsmobile.  And looking at Oldsmobile’s 1980s cars in toto, it’s easy to see how this happened.

The 1986 Delta 88 coupe is one the few cars that stands out.  For a brief moment, it seemed like Olds might offer an escape from the Blah cars that had overtaken its lineup.

But there was no such escape.  Though this generation of Delta 88 lasted through 1991, few major improvements were made and sales dipped with each passing year.

Looking at our featured car, one can’t help but wonder if this car – and its sedan counterpart – had been slightly more modern, would Oldsmobile’s fortunes have improved?  There’s no way to know, but that certainly couldn’t have hurt.  With its clean styling, efficient space utilization and flexible V-6, GM had the makings of an outstanding car here.  This may have been the last easy opportunity to save the Oldsmobile brand before it became indelibly associated with stuffy, dull, blah cars.

But alas, the 1986 Delta 88 will be remembered merely as a brief respite in Oldsmobile’s sad decline.  Or, in Oldsmobile’s parlance, a Holiday.  Like all holidays, this one should have lasted longer.


Photographed in December 2017 in Alexandria, Virginia.


Related Reading:

1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Brougham: “H” Is For Harmony   Laurence Jones