Curbside Classic: 1985 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency Brougham – I’m Sorry, That’s a Personal Subject!

Downsizing.  Doesn’t that word always generate a distinct reaction?  “We just learned today that our company is downsizing,” certainly prompts a reaction; conversely, “Hey, I’ve been able to downsize my waist size by three inches!” will yield a congratulatory response.

So why does the downsizing of a long-established line of automobiles always seem to generate a negative reaction, especially since it is of the waist-reducing variety?

The Oldsmobile 98 had a very long history (in automotive terms) by 1985. (CC had covered it through model year 1984 here).  It seems that this generation of Ninety-Eight (along with its Buick and Cadillac cousins) has been very much maligned as an automobile–but why?  Let’s explore some possible answers.

Possibility #1:  It was front-wheel drive.

Yes indeed, it was front-wheel drive, a configuration that started becoming ever more common in the United States in such late-1970s and early-1980s cars as the Chevrolet Citation, Dodge Omni, and Ford Escort–economy cars, all.  After all, had any luxury (or near-luxury) car ever had front-wheel drive?  That would be just plain wrong.

Many consider this a front-wheel drive luxury car, but the Cord, which was built in the 1930s, was truly remembered by very few people in 1985.  That’s the reason then, because of the front-wheel drive.  Certainly the Cord, as a front-wheel drive luxury car, was a fluke of nature, was it not?

How inconvenient, that pesky Oldsmobile Toronado.  It really blows that theory, now doesn’t it?

Possibility #2:  It was under-powered, as were all front-wheel drive cars of the 1980s.

Yes, a good number of them were under-powered.  You need only refer again to the infamous Chevrolet Citation and its derivatives, the Dodge Omni / Plymouth Horizon twins and the Ford Escort / Mercury Lynx for proof.  Yet think about it this way: The outgoing 1984 model Olds 98 had a 307 cubic inch (5.0-liter) V8 with 140 horsepower, and each horse was responsible for pushing 30 pounds of machine.  The 1985 model had a 3.8-liter V6 (231 cubic inches) with 125 horsepower, thus saddling  each of its horses with 26 pounds of car.

Talk to any horse owner and he’ll tell you that the more horses you have, and the harder you work them, the more they need to be fed.  With early 1980s forecasts of astronomical fuel prices for the balance of the decade and the EPA breathing down its collective neck, GM did what it thought was best and shrunk its belt size. General Motors did, wisely, keep the Chevrolet Caprice and the Cadillac Fleetwood around as an ace up their sleeve.

Possibility #3:  It never sold well.  People simply hated the new design.

In 1984, Oldsmobile sold 76,833 Ninety-Eights of all types.  The new, more svelte 1985 models sold a mere 169,432 units, more than any year during the previous generation of Olds 98 (model years 1977 to 1984).  By 1989, sales had dwindled to 66,000 units, a few thousand less than in 1974.

Possibility #4:  It was so…so…different.

Now we may be on to something.  It was indeed different from anything anyone had seen.  As with anything new, there was skepticism about every facet of it.

Ford still had the rear-drive, 302 cubic inch (5.0-liter) Town Car, Grand Marquis, and Crown Victoria.  Chrysler still had the Fifth Avenue, Diplomat, and Gran Fury, all pushed by their 318 cubic inch (5.2-liter) V8.  Now, both Oldsmobile and Buick had a front-drive car for their top model, one that weighed about 1,000 pounds less than the competition.  For traditionalists, the 1985 Oldsmobile 98 was a monumental change.

Do these possibilities hold any merit?  Perhaps.  If one thinks from a purely rational and strictly clinical standpoint, it can be argued the 1985 model was far superior than the 1984 model due to its greater efficiency in so many areas.  However, this line of thought should be approached with extreme caution: Doing so could expand this purely rational and strictly clinical line of thought, even to the point of tempting one to argue that the Oldsmobile 98 was an irrational creation in the first place. After all, automobiles are strictly transportation, are they not?

Perish the thought.

Any conversation about the merits and successes of automobile downsizing are highly subjective and a matter of personal taste.  This spectrum of subjectivity is a very healthy thing; if none of us had any subjectivity about automobiles, we would all agree with each other, and how profoundly boring that would be.

Personally, I was rather enamored with this 80,000-mile survivor when I saw it at the Ford dealership.  Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I have always liked the shape of these 98s–but that’s just me.  I also like peach wine, brunettes, and classical music, each of which involves a high degree of subjectivity and personal taste.

Yes, Oldsmobile downsized the dickens out of the 98 for model year 1985.  Did it work, or did it fail?  That is a highly subjective and personal issue, much like politics, religion, or one’s opinion of professional sports.  Although that could be debated for an eternity, you certainly know whether or not you like the car, and nothing will ever sway your opinion.