Why GM's Front-Drive Luxury Cars Were Great, And Why They Failed Anyway

The C-body luxury cars from Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac represent everything great, and everything terrible, about 1980s General Motors.

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Nick Ferrari

I don't know what you did today, but I spent my time driving two genuinely great cars from General Motors. One of them was a 2019 Camaro; you'll be able to read my impressions in an upcoming issue of the magazine. The other was a 1988 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan. Most of you will know quite a bit about the former but almost nothing about the latter. I'm here to change that, and to explain the car in a way that I hope will help all of us understand how GM went from being a virtual monopoly in the United States to an underdog of sorts, one that is .

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My younger readers won't believe this, but there was a time when people were actively petitioning our government to break GM up because they were just too big. It was an era where a candidate for Secretary of Defense could refuse to sell his GM stock before taking the job, "I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." As late as 1982 or thereabouts, it was possible for multiple GM models to sell more than 500,000 units in a single year. In those days, Ford was the nation's number-two automaker, but that's like saying that the part of an iceberg visible above the water is the number-two part of the iceberg; it doesn't convey the proportions involved.

General Motors didn't just magically become that powerful. The company didn't really start feeling its oats until the '30s, and it didn't become the obvious market leader until after the Second World War. How'd they do it? Through the simple but intensely difficult method of simultaneously mastering engineering and marketing. The 1963 Chevrolet was a good example. It was mechanically better than the competition, and it had a better selection of engines. It was also supported by a blitzkrieg of perfectly targeted advertising.

As long as GM was a master of both engineering and marketing at the same time, there was no stopping the company. In the '70s and '80s, however, the previously airtight connection between the two disciplines started to crack. Sometimes the engineers would come up with a great product that the marketing department couldn't sell, and sometimes the marketers would convince the whole world to buy something that wasn't quite ready for prime time. The Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan was a little of both.

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When the energy crisis hit during the Ford and Carter Administrations, GM had the money and the engineering might to do what Ford and Chrysler couldn't: Engineer a completely new lineup of full-sized sedans with efficient transverse engines and front-wheel drive. In 1984, the company debuted the front-drive B-body (Olds Eighty-Eight, Pontiac Bonneville, Buick LeSabre) and C-body (Olds Ninety-Eight, Buick Electra, Cadillac DeVille) luxury cars. By virtually any standard you could care to name, they were astoundingly good. They had more room than their rear-drive predecessors despite being as much as two feet shorter, they got great fuel mileage, they were pleasant to drive, and they looked both tidy and modern.

There was only one problem: They debuted in a world that had managed to temporarily solve the energy crisis and drive the price of gasoline back into the basement. The hottest luxury sedan of 1984 wasn't the all-new Cadillac DeVille—it was the six-year-old, Baroque-styled, 219-inch-long Lincoln Town Car. GM had bet big on a never-ending fuel crisis and lost.

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Faced with this swing-and-miss, GM marketing should have emphasized the other outstanding attributes of the new cars: Comfort, longevity, low service cost, better winter-driving manners. Instead, they focused on the efficiency and smaller dimensions. The customers responded by staying away from dealerships.

At this point, the engineers should have faced reality and pointed the next generation of full-sized GM cars back to rear-wheel-drive and more generous dimensions, the way Cadillac recently did with the CT6. What they chose to do instead was to double down on front-wheel drive and "international sizing." By doing so, GM effectively surrendered the luxury-sedan market to Lincoln and the import contenders. That doesn't seem like a big deal nowadays, but back then Lincoln and Cadillac would often combine for half a million extremely profitable units per year, without a single truck or crossover in the lineup.

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Nick Ferrari

The 1988 Touring Sedan brought to me by FWD fullsizer enthusiast Nick Ferrari showcases the best, and worst, of GM from that era. Start with the good parts: It's extremely tasteful-looking to the point of anonymity. It makes a modern BMW or Mercedes sedan look like a bulbous clown car. Interior room is stellar in all directions; this car is smaller than a current Toyota Avalon but it has S-Class spaciousness. The seats are supportive but comfortable and most of the controls are very easy to operate.

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On the move, the Touring Sedan exhibits a torquey authority from the low-tech 3800 Series V6, combined with silent, seamless automatic shifts. It's more than fast enough to keep up with modern traffic, and it can return economy-car mileage numbers when driven carefully. There has been a lot of effort expended in the past ten years to make the current crop of turbo-four-bangers work as well in daily driving as this 31-year-old powertrain does, and most of that effort has been unfulfilling.

Outward vision is outstanding, and the sound insulation is extremely effective. Even the ride is solid, despite the advanced age of every bushing and seal in the suspension. Overall, this is a much better and more pleasant car to drive than, say, a modern entry-luxury crossover.

Yet this undeniable excellence is more than balanced out by the errors in execution. There wasn't enough visual difference between the Ninety-Eight and its C-body siblings. Much of the interior trim is far from special and the assembly quality is indifferent at best. Most critically, there's something laughable about positioning a cam-in-head FWD full-sizer as a "Touring Sedan." If you'd asked a GM engineer of the period, they would have told you that the Touring Sedan could hold its own on a backroad against, say, a 1983 BMW 733i—and they would have been right. But the customer didn't believe it, so the actual capability of the car didn't really matter. It was a failure of marketing, mixed with some engineering shortcomings.

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Nick Ferrari
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Sometimes, when I talk to GM engineers today, I get a sense of how their counterparts 30- years ago must have approached the job. These men and women are very good at benchmarking the competition and matching the numbers. It's a rare GM product nowadays that doesn't meet or exceed the direct competition in most measurable aspects. When I asked a GM engineer earlier this year about Buick's interior quality compared to Lexus, he rattled off some highly specific information about plastic hardness and tactile factors and whatnot. I am certain that he was absolutely correct about what he was telling me—but the customer doesn't know that stuff. All they know is that they often like the Lexus interior better.

The Oldsmobile Touring Sedan no doubt benchmarked very well against the competition. But if anybody at GM had stood away from the situation and used some external perspective, they would have seen that it was missing the prestige and the flash that the customer of the time wanted from a luxury sedan. It made me sad to drive Nick's 209,000-mile example and see just how good it still is. It just wasn't very good at doing the right things when it was new.

I'd like to think that GM is getting better at putting the abilities of its engineers and the desires of its customers into happy harmony. The new 6.2-liter Suburban and Tahoe, along with the newest generation of mid-size crossovers, seems to indicate that they are doing just that. It would be nice to see the company to return to the 1963 formula. Make the best product and sell it with the most astute marketing. Easy to say, hard to do. I have my fingers crossed. In the meantime, if you're looking for an affordable and reliable daily driver, you would do well to take a look at one of the Touring Sedan's modern descendants. Some of them are genuinely great cars.

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