Time to revisit a GM model that gets little love. An offering that seemed to click a few right buttons while missing on its ultimate mission; to bring new buyers into Oldsmobile’s fold.
On paper, the Delta 88’s specs showed promise of it being a satisfactory product. And in the flesh, it was decently and cleanly styled, with the coupe being the best looking of the lot.
As Car And Driver said, trouble started as a ‘personality crisis’ appeared under driving: the Delta ’88 had a good chassis that offered respectable performance, but controls and sensations that felt oddly isolated. The cabin was ‘astonishingly quiet’ in perfect Oldsmobile tradition, with seats that dated ‘from the overstuffed-furniture period of Detroit interior design.’ Meanwhile, the dashboard’s layout was wholly traditional, though styled under the severity of Giugiaro’s origami thinking, and sprinkled with bits of ’80s neon.
In all, the car was a mix of new driving dynamics and amenities that aimed to keep loyalists pleased, while attempting to contort itself into impressing import buyers. It was ‘the meshing of two contradictory temperaments.’
Indeed, the ‘personality crisis’ affected GM as a whole, who had lost the market’s grip by then. To be fair, the mix of Detroit-tradition with whatever curious idea US-execs had about ‘Euro-traits’ was a common malady in many American cars of the time.
By most accounts, these were decent cars. A number of items in the ‘to do’ check-list passed muster: the H-bodies had decent packaging, and with the proper suspension setup (the test’s FE3), they didn’t wallow like Lt. Kojak’s colonnade Century. Owners have praised these vehicles and referred to them as a ‘lot of car for the money’ (mostly when bought used).
While lagging behind Ford’s trendsetting ‘aero’ lineup, I found this generation of H Bodies pleasant and attractive enough. The problem? I never found them sufficiently compelling to purchase. Most Gen-Xers agreed and stayed away from Olds in droves. A shame, as I had a sentimental fondness for the brand.
A sympathetic view on the Delta 88:
Curbside Classic: 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Brougham – ‘H’ Is For Harmony
Reading these old reviews always has me questioning, “Didn’t anyone on the 14th floor read these?” Obviously, if they did, they didn’t take them seriously.
On the contrary, I think this test strongly suggests that management DID read these reviews — but only the spec sheets. It’s really very revealing in that respect: You have a car that hits all its numbers very well (all the objective measurements are quite competitive for 1986), but that evidences a massive disconnect between the engineers and the product planners.
This review reinforces my feeling that these cars would have been game-changers for GM if they had arrived in 1982, succeeding the downsized ’77 B-bodies. At that point, the retrograde features (like having a big unsporting coupe like this) would have been far less jarring and it would have seemed like GM was continuing to move the game on. By 1986, they started feeling old-fashioned right out of the gate, which was a huge problem despite the car’s actual merits.
These were indeed originally planned for 1983 along with the similar FWD C bodies that were pushed back to spring 1984 intros as 1985 models. Chevrolet initially was going to get an H body of their own. Instead, sales of big V8 BOF RWD cars rebounded in 1982 to the entire industry’s surprise. The halfhearted and tardy effort to bring the H bodies to market (with Chevy opting out and Pontiac importing the Parisienne just in case) led to the Delta 88 competing with the Taurus/Sable. Both they and the 88 were new in 1986, but the Taurus looked, felt, and drove a whole lot newer.
The fwd Delta 88, LeSabre, and Bonneville (the latter which arrived a year later had to wait a year longer to arrive than its platform-mates to 1987 for some reason) were likeable and mostly competent cars but were unmistakably insubstantial compared to the either RWD B body it replaced or the newer competition like the Taurus and even the Dynasty/NYer.
In 1990 we were ready to buy a new sedan, something midsized, midpriced and with at least a driver airbag. The 3 choices you mentioned were the only ones available: Taurus/Sable, Dynasty, and Delta 88 (the other H-bodies had the idiotic GM passive belts). The Japanese competition was still using mouse-motor seatbelts.
The winner in my mind was obvious — Ford, with our choice being the Sable LS with the Vulcan 3.0-liter V6. We selected the Sable over the Taurus because it rear seat head restraints and standard a/c.
Why did Chevy leave the program? It’s not like the remaining B Bodies got a major mid 80s update
My Stepdad bought a new ’86 Delta 88 Royale 4 door.
It had a quiet pleasant ride and the 3.8 V6 provided decent pep.
Turned out to be the most unreliable car he ever owned….It went through 3 transmissions and was in the shop for various electrical and mechanical issues….It made it to 147,000 miles but was on its last legs by then when he traded it in 1993.
He was so disgusted with it that he went to a foreign car for the first time for the trade-in.
He bought a new 1993 Camry and drove it 225,000 miles with nothing but normal maintenance.
Unfortunately, the transmission in the early FWD C bodies and the H bodies was a weak point, prone to failure. It’s been said a million times before: In typical GM fashion, the issues were worked out and later versions were generally decent reliable cars. I think it took until 1989 or 1990 to get things squared away.
The H and C bodies used the same transmission and brakes as the smaller lighter A bodies. Except with a numerically smaller final drive on the trans. The transmissions were fine on the A, but the extra torque plus the extra weight of the H/C was just too much. But they sure did float along like riding on clouds. I believe this is why GM initially refused to put the 3800 in the U van, even though they already had all the parts from the 3800 Ciera or Century. They knew it would be too much weight. They waited for the 4T60E that came in the redesigned C/H, and for 92 put the same upgrades in the van including the brakes.
I actually remember this article. It’s oddly timed, like C&D had a leftover article and finally ran their review of the new 1986 Delta 88 in the September issue, just as the 87 models were coming out. I like the 86 face better. 87 got composite headlights, which I don’t think look as good.
The car is probably a rare beast today. The coupes didn’t sell very strongly, and probably not too many came with the FE3 suspension set up. The few ones sold likely got used up like the Jack Ryan story with him driving non stop around Detroit’s abusive roadways.
It’s easy to see why these coupes weren’t very popular. They were not what most younger buyers were interested in, and most older traditional type buyers preferred the sedan. Maybe it they had called this car Cutlass Supreme it would have been more successful. Those were still pretty popular, but rapidly declining.
As the article says, if you wanted a sporting larger American coupe, the Mark VII or T-Bird were more compelling packages. Still, I’ve always thought the roofline on these and the LeSabre was one of the better looking greenhouses of the era.
That’s probably exactly what happened. I assume that as with most magazines, automotive writers have no idea when their article is actually going to run, so this was probably written during the press previews for the ’86 cars. It then likely kept getting bumped as the editors did the usual juggling of editorial and ad pages, probably because a big, relatively old-fashioned American sedan was not wildly appealing to the typical C/D reader — which to some extent was part of the problem. (They certainly weren’t going to put an Oldsmobile Delta 88 on the cover.) I imagine the editors eventually realized that if they didn’t run it in this issue, they were going to have to trash it after it had already been paid for, so they cut it down to two pages and stuck it toward the very back of the editorial.
(That’s been my experience writing for magazines, anyway, and while I’ve never written a new car review for one of the major auto magazines, I can’t imagine it was terribly different.)
Trouble was weren’t they calling way to many cars Cutlass “whatevers” about this time, Ciera, Calais, etc.? These cars definitely had good bones, but the parts you feel and touch were woefully out of step. Give it some decent bucket seats, a floor shift and center console, along with a better instrument panel and they might have had something.
Had 2 Oldsmobiles. 66 Dynamic 88red convert and 69 Delta. Both great cars in traditional Olds upscale image. NEVER warmed to aero look on ANY vehicle, even Chrysler Corp Fuselage. At one point Olds used advertising motto NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE, thinking it would attract younger buyers. Personally think 🤔 that youth oriented society of the time did not want to drive a car with OLD in the name. These downsized (again) FWD also did not appeal. to most loyal Older Olds buyers. But what do I know 🤔? If I had my way we would still have chrome loaded 20 ft. LAND YACHTS instead of current ugly small cars and SUVS! 🤮
I’ve seen the hypothesis that having “old” in the name somehow repelled young buyers floated on the internets several times, but the evidence doesn’t support it. Young folks flocked to, or at least aspired to own curved-dash horseless carriages, early Hydramatic-drive sedans, Rocket 88s, 442s, and Cutlass Supremes. But there weren’t many youthful vehicles in the Olds lineup by the time this Delta arrived.
Well, they did faff around with that “Youngmobile” ad campaign around ’69-’70ish. But yeah, GM thinking it was the name rather than the car was like Ford thinking people would buy it if only they changed the name from Taurus to Five Hundred (no, wait, from Five Hundred to Taurus!).
It certainly hasn’t hurt Old Navy, although that brand didn’t originate until I think a decade or so later.
Also Old Spice
People drive Toyotas that say TRD on the side, I don’t think the name has anything to do with it. The products that Olds had that had appealed to youthful buyers for a long time simply became uncompetitive or stopped being compelling. The only ‘good’ car Oldsmobile was really know for in the 80s and 90s was the Ciera, but other than it’s cockroach of the road notoriety it doesn’t exactly tug on any heartstrings as a product.
A 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 with a 403 ci V8 was only 2 tenths of a second quicker through the quarter mile, but it returned 3.5 more miles for each gallon of gasoline in Car and Driver’s hands than this 3800-powered Delta 88. 14 MPG??
1977 was the last time you could get a 442 with the 403. The downsized 1978 Aeroback cars were limited to the V6, 260 Olds, or 305 Chevy. This is a 1978 442.
What’s more, the 1978 442 was only available with the 2-bbl version of the 305 since GM was only able to produce a certain number of 4-bbl 305s.
Sorry, that is not correct. The 1978 Cutlass line used both the VIN U, RPO LG3 2bbl version of the 305 and the VIN H, RPO LG4 4bbl version of the 305.
How do you imagine GM were only able to ‘produce’ (i.e., bolt on this instead of that intake manifold; carburetor, and air cleaner) a limited number of 4-barrel 305s?
My bad. It was a test of a 1977 model, but published late enough in the year that I assumed it was a 1978.
Yeah, eh? I mean, sure, they were sticking their foot in it, but fourteen miles a gallon‽
14 mpg observed? What?!?…
Might manage “16-17mpg” with a bit a care/attention.
Taurus/Sable changed the game and these cars were outdated from Day One due to that. GM really struggled while Ford soared. These were good cars, but the buying public was enthused over the new aero designs out of Dearborn. Why buy a box car when the future was a Blue Oval?
I always thought these Oldsmobiles were attractive – but old hat.
Look at Mercury! My 1987 self wanted that!
That was our thinking exactly in 1990 – we bought a Sable over the Delta 88 and Dynasty (more details in a post above).
The Sable even looks like something Olds would have designed if Bill Mitchell were still heading the studios. Ford completely turned the tables in this period, even Chrysler was starting to make the K cars more modern and attractive by this point
One big plus with the H-body coupes was that GM finally added some slope to the rear window and C-pillars. That starkly upright back glass in other contemporary GM products was getting tiresome.
Not if you got a 98 coupe. The proportions of the B body predecessor 88s with the upright rear window were at least good, the H body was just stubby
Around the time that the PLC came to full fruition – let’s say late 60s/early 70s – I stopped seeing the point of B- and C-body cars with 2-doors. And by 1987, they were really pointless, as evidenced by the relatively low sales figure of 2-doors vs. 4-doors.
A minor nitpick of mine that might’ve resonated with at least some potential carbuyers back then – the name is too long. Delta 88 Royale. You read it and you hear it and it sounds stuffy, trying to conjure up images of monarchy and all that. Normally I’m not one to be in favor of typical Detroit name-disposing, but in this case, I really think they should’ve either eliminated the 88/98 nameplates and left them at Delta and Regency with their respective trim levels/bodystyle variants, or gone full-on with the 8s and have a full lineup of _8 series cars; as it was though it was a mess for the late 80s.
I didn’t read Car & Driver, but personality crisis was exactly what I saw when these cars came out. The related C bodies that came out a year earlier seemed a bit more cohesive in terms of styling and personality, the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight probably the worst of the lot.
The Delta 88 suffered way to much weird gingerbread that tried to make a nod to a contemporary look. What they got was a slightly larger GM A body wearing an 80 year old women’s make-up.
The Pontiac Bonneville was the only H body that worked for me, and that was still on the margins. The front clip looked great, but like it was attached to the wrong car from the A pillar back.
These were good looking cars on the outside, especially the 2 door. Too bad a Bonneville 2 door was never sold, as that would have fit the 2 door image the best. I read about a guy who started making one from a Lesabre, the front was a direct bolt up but the rear was more work than he could do without having a welder.
Pontiac apparently was going for the pinched-nose look of the Trans Am. A more conventional front clip reminiscent of the ’77 B body would have made for a less jarring effect.
This has been mentioned before, but it’s kind of mind boggling that GM didn’t see the writing on the wall regarding coupes. None of the front drivers sold well, so why they launched the GM10s coupe first is beyond on me.
The coupe looked very nice but it was really a car without a market – buyers in that segment didn’t need the extra space an FWD unibody offered so a G-body Cutlass Supreme was fine by them.
The problem was GM cannibalized themselves in this downsizing/FWD frenzy period, RWD G bodies were supposed to be dead by the time the N bodies came out, but since the energy shortage predictions GM banked on were grossly wrong they got a stay of execution, as did the RWD B/C bodies so the new product never had a chance to fully catch on when buyers who wanted a traditional olds had a genuine old olds still available to them to buy
The slanted coupe roof was a gigantic improvement over that horrible squared off roof. The Oldsmobile and the Buick were the only divisions to get that roof. If only they could have incorporated it into the Coupe de Ville. Tonight I’m looking at an ’89 or newer CdV parked across the way. A really clean, well kept white example, but that roof (!) makes it look so stubby. I know that these didn’t carry the longer wheelbase of the sedans. The ’59 through ’62 coupes had such an airy greenhouse. Even my ’77 had some angle on it, and I thought that it looked great as part of the total design. The ’89 and up Cadillac sedan is a much more pleasing car.
Big plush coupes had been a tradition at GM for a long time. I guess that they couldn’t let go of the idea. If they could have built a more honest interior with simply upholstered supportive seats, like the old Strato Bench, less baroque trim, and a more functional instrument panel, the more than adequate engine and chassis could have stood on their own.
Yes, these were maddening. As someone said above, had these come out in 1982-83 they would have hit the styling right on the money, but by 1986-87 they were a bit old fashioned. And those interiors – I can imagine that if they were intended for a 1983 launch, GM was still the king of the world during the cars development, so what could be wrong with the plasticky interiors with the greasy plastic steering wheels of they were selling so many of them? And the article reminds me about those flat seats I used to sit in when riding in GM cars of that era.
I always kind of wanted one of these 2 doors (in either 88 or LeSabre guise) but am a little afraid that I would not like driving them. The driving experience certainly ruined any enthusiasm I could find for the W body.
I bought a new 86 Delta 88 sedan as a family car. Paid $15,386 for it. Loved the car until it was parked in front of my house and the neighbors sister had a little too much wine. She backed it out of his driveway and turned to face the road. She forgot to straighten it and T-boned my Olds. The end.
A lot of interesting stuff here and some of it still applies today. GM’s duplication and launch dates at this time were insane and probably began the road to bankruptcy. For starters, The H/C bodies of this generation make no sense somehow the C Buicks and Olds looked smaller and less prestigious than the H. Rather than waiting until 1991 to update the Bs they could have had one FWD full sizer and one larger RWD one. The latter would have satisfied older buyers and been pure profit as simply an update of the 1977 cars. That would have allowed the Hs to go more modern. The W program could have been eliminated in this scenario, you could have had a more updated A carry water until about 1991 or so and then launch a whole new line. Also there was too much cross between the Js and Ns not to mention Saturn/Geo. The Saturn S should have replaced the whole gamut of early/mid 80s GM compacts rather than another new division. It got even worse in 1992 when Buick technically had 3 full size sedans w the Roadmaster’s return.
This remains relevant today, Buick is a mess now. They have 3 imported SUVs all near each other in size with no brand equity. The GMC Terrain sold in every same showroom is the size of the Envision why keep the latter? And it the Acadia moves back up in size in ’24 whats the point of the Enclave especially if Cadillac has the XT6? But it’s not just GM. Chrysler keeps the 13-year old Durango around and has the far superior Grand Cherokee L in same showroom. Until recently the Compass was sandwiched between the Cherokee and Renegade. Even the Japanese do it. Why do you need a Sentra and a Versa in this market? Companies reduce product equity with all this duplication on non-exciting cars.