(first posted 9/9/2015) Sometimes I wonder, if I grew up in America, would I be as big a fan of General Motors? I wonder this because as I look at these pictures of the front-wheel-drive, A-Body Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, my blood starts to boil. Let me share with you why these humdrum cars make me so angry.
First, a clarification: early Century and Ciera sedans, coupes and wagons earn no such ire from me. The first front-wheel-drive A-Bodies were a smart repackaging of the trouble-prone X-Bodies, and while not perfect by any stretch, they showed that GM could make a modern, front-wheel-drive intermediate that could appeal to the masses.
Then, the 1986 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable came along and blew them away. Ford’s new intermediate had all-independent suspension, capable dynamics and utterly modern styling. Ford had been in big trouble early in the decade, but they were back with a vengeance. GM, meanwhile, had been shedding market share and the red ink was starting to spill thanks to the cavalcade of poor business decisions under my least favorite General Motors CEO, Roger Smith.
New intermediates – the GM-10 cars – were in the pipeline during the mid-1980s, but they were delayed and delayed and development was mismanaged (you can read more in my article on the GM-10 Buick Regal). By the time they arrived in 1988, they came only as coupes despite a market that was clearly far more inclined towards sedans, as evidenced by the success of the Ford Taurus and GM’s own A-Body cars. Sedan GM-10s took two long years to arrive, and Buick’s Regal sedan was delayed a further year.
The GM-10 delays were unacceptable but by the time they arrived, although they weren’t the Taurus-beaters GM had hoped for, they weren’t clunkers. Greater effort had been put into differentiating the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac versions, too. At this point, GM should have cancelled the A-Body Century and Ciera. Indeed, the Pontiac 6000 and Chevrolet Celebrity were dead after 1991, having been directly replaced. But GM was seduced by the profitability of the A (for Ancient) platform and their continued sales performance. Perhaps there were political reasons, as was common with GM, like a need for their particular assembly factories to stay open or an outcry from dealers who appreciated their availability.
The Century and Ciera, though, were redundant. The gas price fluctuations of the 1970s and 1980s had indirectly created a new segment of cars – populated by models like the Ford Tempo and the GM N-Bodies – that were positioned between compact offerings like the Buick Skyhawk and intermediates like the Buick Century. Then, of course, the GM-10 models had arrived and supplanted the Century/Ciera. And yet, the A-Bodies stuck around, priced around $2-3k less than a base Regal or Cutlass Supreme and thus right in the heart of N-Body Skylark and Achieva territory. To make matters more confusing, contemporary advertising positioned the N-Bodies directly against intermediates like the Honda Accord. In effect, GM was offering three intermediate platforms!
Defenders of the Century and Ciera models built during the 1990s will say two things. Firstly, that they were dirt cheap while new. Yes, they were and they were well-equipped for the cash. Maybe that suited a type of undemanding buyer who insisted on a new mid-size car instead of a nice, used one. Perhaps the kind of person who buys all their clothes at Wal-Mart.
Secondly, defenders will praise the Century and Ciera for their excellent performance in JD Power and in reliability and quality rankings. Do you know why they scored so high? GM built them so bloody long! It would have been reprehensible if they didn’t score so high.
In the early 1990s, General Motors was struggling with corporate belt-tightening and had to close numerous factories, so perhaps the easy money generated by the A-Bodies was a bright spot in a dark time. However, it was moronic to keep the Century and Ciera around, especially considering Buick and Oldsmobile were ostensibly two of GM’s more upscale divisions.
GM executives were probably scratching their heads in the 1990s wondering why their $7 billion dollar baby, the GM-10 range, was selling so poorly. They might have blamed the rise of the Taurus, Accord and Camry, but they should have also considered those aforementioned Wal-Mart shoppers. Those buyers – perhaps GM regulars, perhaps equal-opportunity bargain hunters – were going into Buick and Oldsmobile showrooms and picking the car with the smiley face special sticker on it. Never mind the GM-10 was a better car, it cost $2k more. The A-Body had similar cabin space and a few nice, standard features, and for those so inclined, there was also a wagon (most people weren’t so inclined, as the wagon only represented a fraction of A-Body sales.) Those especially frugal buyers may also have been delighted the Century/Ciera’s base engine was a 2.5 (later, a 2.2) four-cylinder.
In an attempt to stop the red ink, the GM-10 cars were decontented in 1995. The Regal interior, for example, was stripped of any brightwork and even of woodgrain trim. It was now almost the exact same plastic-fantastic, monochromatic mess as the Grand Prix, Cutlass Supreme and Lumina. There was less money available for GM to try and distinguish between four lines, especially considering GM-10 sales had been disappointing. Again, blame the A-Bodies: some years, the Century and Ciera outsold their GM-10 stablemates.
The GM-10 wasn’t the only thing damaged by the continued availability of the Century and Ciera. Both Buick and Oldsmobile’s reputations took a hit. Sure, both divisions had reached quite downmarket already with cars like the Skyhawk and Firenza, but both Buick and Oldsmobile were trying to reinvent themselves. Buick had been repositioned as a “premium American motorcar”, and were launching more stylish and distinctive full-size sedans and coupes like the ’92 Park Avenue and ’95 Riviera. Those were premium American motorcars. The Century? Not so much. And because of the sales success of the A-Body Century, GM felt compelled to offer a similarly low-rent version of the second-generation W-Body with the same name.
If the Cutlass Ciera didn’t ultimately kill Oldsmobile’s renaissance, it was definitely a collaborator. GM had seen its once hugely popular mid-priced marque start to slip in the 1980s, and one of their first steps to remedy this was the infamous “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign. That was just the start: Oldsmobile launched their first minivan and SUV in the early 1990s, and they were positioned as more premium offerings than their Chevrolet counterparts. Then, the 1995 Aurora made a splash with its bold styling and upmarket ambitions. GM was trying to turn things around for a dying brand, but by offering the ancient Cutlass Ciera in the same showroom with its low, low price, bench seat and decade-old styling, they were acting like a paramedic performing CPR on their patient as they stabbed them. “Really?” American consumers thought, “You want me to buy an Oldsmobile? Like the one I rented on vacation, or like my Aunt Mabel’s Ciera wagon? And you’re charging how much?!”
As an Australian, I grew up with just one General Motors brand: Holden. That was a lot less to mismanage, unlike the portfolio of brands GM North America was juggling. Holden’s decisions and product weren’t perfect during the 1980s and 1990s – nor for that matter were those of Opel/Vauxhall – but compared to the woes of their American parent, Holden’s issues were almost trivial. Consequently, it was a lot easier to be a cheerleader for our domestic GM division.
Which brings me back to my initial pondering: would I have been such a GM fan growing up in America? Despite my respect for a lot of GM’s offerings during the 1980s and 1990s, on a whole perhaps I would have been too soured on the company, not just for cars like the Century and Cutlass Ciera but also their fresher products that were built with less care. Fortunately, with the significant turnaround they have achieved in recent years – admittedly, aided by bankruptcy proceedings – I believe I would likely have become a GM fan again.