Oldsmobile was rocking in the 1986 model year. The division produced nearly 1.1 million cars, and the public couldn't get enough Delta 88s, Cutlass Supremes, Cutlass Cieras and 98 Regencys. It was the third year in a row that Oldsmobile production topped 1 million units.
But Oldsmobile's success soon would disappear. At the end of the 1990 model year, the division produced just 583,440 vehicles. The drop was so severe that Oldsmobile never recovered.
Authors Helen Jones Earley and James R. Walkinshaw sought answers in their book, Setting the Pace, Oldsmobile's First 100 Years. They asked several former Oldsmobile employees what caused Oldsmobile's dramatic sales drop in the 1980s. Printed below are excerpts from the book.
James Rucker, former assistant controller
'Oldsmobile had been so self-contained' before GM reorganized and created the more centralized BOC - for Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac - unit. 'Oldsmobile built its reputation on being a complete car company: our engine, our body, our Oldsmobile.
'(With) BOC, Olds had to depend on (others) to engineer products, to make products. They weren't used to that. They didn't have to write vehicle specifications; they knew what the heck they had to be and they did 'em. Now all of a sudden they had to learn how (to) set specs and all that. They had to learn how to specify a car, how to ask for things, how to pinpoint the essence of (their brand).'
Jim Dawson, former products and platform liaison manager
After the (BOC) reorganization, 'the various product teams didn't want to do what we asked them to do. They (did) what they wanted to do. See, they controlled the money, they controlled the budget. The corporation gave them the money and we were expected to go in and say, `Now that you have the money, would you do this for us?''
But 'each of these product teams was off doing their own thing. When the money went to the product teams, it became very difficult for Oldsmobile to have something different from the other divisions because it's in the product team's best interest to make everything the same. (That) simplifies things in the assembly plants. They don't have to get into arguments with the various divisions about who gets what. (But) if the cars are all the same, how can you make something unique?'
Ted Louckes, former Oldsmobile chief engineer
'Back in the '70s, we could see that we needed revisions on many of our products. (But) our success was also our enemy. (Funds for) programs that we felt were necessary were given (instead) to the hurting divisions, not to the winning one. It was terribly frustrating to get nothing.
'The corporation viewed us as sort of the conservative family car, (so you) don't need to change anything. That was a misconception. If you go back and look at (our mid-'80s) studies that said we were going to have this problem, they were fulfilled because nobody reacted to those. We had enough people in the division who knew what we needed, what we had to do, (but) we couldn't get it, so we fulfilled our prediction.'