Ten years ago Tuesday, a dark cherry Alero sedan drove off the line at what was then General Motors Corp.'s Lansing Car Assembly plant. It was the last Oldsmobile, the sendoff to a nameplate founded here more than a century ago by the son of a machinist.
It was a bitter farewell, but one tempered with the promise of new auto jobs here for years to come in the form of new plants making other GM brands. Oldsmobile, a pioneer in the business of making cars, had watched its sales slump and its models become ordinary. They simply weren't distinct enough to stand out from GM's other car lines or draw younger buyers.
Many criticized the Detroit automaker's decision to kill the Oldsmobile division and thought dropping other brands made more sense. But GM had been forging ahead with its decision long before the shutdown.
Lansing had been synonymous with Oldsmobile since 1897, when Ransom Eli Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. after experimenting with horseless carriages in his father's River Street shop. Olds' original company would become GM's second brand, after Buick, in 1908.
2004: Last Oldsmobile rolls off the line
2000: GM to phase out Oldsmobile
Oldsmobile lives these days in Boomers' garages, dated photographs, curated museums and the stories of old-timers who still say, years after they retired and long after the plants came down, that they worked for Oldsmobile — not GM.
"The name is fading. You don't see Oldsmobiles anymore. And in the town that created them, you're getting generations now who have no frame of reference for it," said Diana Tarpoff, an East Lansing, Mich., resident and Olds' great-granddaughter. "You're going to have a whole new generation very soon who has no memory of it."
Diana Tarpoff of East Lansing, Mich., is one of R.E. Olds' great-granddaughters and president of the R.E. Olds Foundation, which is celebrating its 100th year.(Photo: Greg DeRuiter, Lansing (Mich.) State Journal)
On a recent weekday afternoon, Steve Delaney flipped through historical Oldsmobile photos in several three-ring binders at a table in a mostly empty Harry's Place, a neighborhood bar and restaurant across the street from GM's old Fisher Body plant.
Out the window, the grassy remnants of the demolished plant stand empty.
"Growing up here, I never intended to work for Oldsmobile. I didn't want to work at the factory," said Delaney, now an electrician at GM's Lansing Delta Township assembly plant and a United Auto Workers Local 602 leader.
His classmates' parents were dentists or lawyers. His father was a pipefitter but not for an automaker. Delaney assumed he would go to college, study business administration and join the professional ranks. But in 1971 after a year at Central Michigan University, he had used up the money he'd saved for school.
He applied to auto manufacturers and suppliers, figuring he would work for a year to earn enough to return to classes. But Oldsmobile called with a job, and he stayed.
"You could graduate from high school, hire into Oldsmobile and walk into the middle class overnight," said Delaney, who would land an apprenticeship as a skilled tradesman. "I'm probably better off now than if I had gone back to school for three more years and come out as a teacher."
Today, an auto job still is a decent way to earn a living, even at GM's lower entry-level wage, he said. But it doesn't promise the same financial advantages Oldsmobile once did.
It took a lot for people here to get the mindset to get over the loss of Oldsmobile. It was the end of an era.-
Oldsmobile's demise was solidified during this past decade as GM razed Fisher ! Body and ! several other outdated local plants a few years before the 2009 bankruptcy.
Old-timers thought the end of Oldsmobile spelled death for Lansing as an auto town.
"There are young kids who come into where we're working now and their dad(s) worked for Oldsmobile," said Alex Hernandez, a third-generation GM worker who, along with his father and grandfather, worked at Fisher Body. "It's like working in a coal town or a steel mill town.
"There would be no Lansing without Oldsmobile," Hernandez said. "He had a dream and he did it in this town."
He, of course, is Olds himself, who quit his stake in the company he founded before it joined what was then was a fledgling General Motors. GM adopted the Oldsmobile name and folded the company and its Buick line into what would become a collection of carmaking names with pioneering roots — Cadillac, Chevrolet and Pontiac among them.
Oldsmobile rode high through the 1980s, selling more than 1 million vehicles per year. Some of its cars remain among the most recognizable in the U.S. auto industry — the Curved Dash Olds, Cutlass, Cutlass Supreme and 442, to name a few.
But Olds saw its sales tumble through the 1990s to just a few hundred thousand.
Paul Armbrustmacher polishes the insignia of a finished 1999 Oldsmobile Alero for display at the 1998 Detroit Auto Show.(Photo: Rod Sanford, Lansing (Mich.) State Journal)
By its centennial mark in 1997, some analysts were predicting the brand's image problems could be insurmountable. A late-1980s ad campaign meant to lure younger buyers by pitching the cars as "not your father's Oldsmobile" would backfire. The stodgy image only deepened.
Delaney and Hernandez said the line suffered from design problems: I! ts cars w! ere indistinct compared with GM's other nameplates. Oldsmobile was too "cookie-cutter," Delaney said — essentially a clone of other GM cars but with a different name.
The New York Times, in a review of the Alero nearly two months after Oldsmobile had ended, was more blunt.
"Not a terribly bad car nor an especially good one, the Alero's white-bread mediocrity is typical of the small to midsize cars that Detroit has churned out for years," it wrote. "The Alero is, in fact, a virtual twin of the Pontiac Grand Am. Both are transportation devices, cars for people who don't like cars very much."
By 2000, GM said it was ready to close the door on Oldsmobile. Other divisions — Pontiac and Saturn — would follow. Still others, such as Saab and Hummer, would be sold off.
GM now has four nameplates, all of which have at least one vehicle built here: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC.
"Part of it was just simple math," said Mark Phelan, a Detroit Free Press auto critic. "GM had about 50% more brands than it needed.
Oldsmobile owners line up in 1998 at Oldsmobile headquarters in Lansing, Mich., for a car show.(Photo: Rod Sanford, Lansing (Mich.) State Journal)
"They couldn't come up with distinctive visions for them. It became hard to say what was the difference between Oldsmobile and Buick," Phelan said. "Oldsmobile became associated with old stodgy vehicles because GM didn't have the money to invest in really good new product lines, contemporary product lines, for all of the brands it had."
On April 29, 2004, that dark cherry Alero left the line with Lansing Car Assembly's two most senior employees behind the wheel. Workers were allowed to bring their own cameras into the plant and thousands of pe! ople sign! ed their names underneath the hood.
That Alero was on display at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum here for several years. It now has a permanent residence in GM's Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich.
"Their goal was to build the vehicle with the same level of quality that the first one off the line came with — a lot of, 'Let's make this one the best,'" said GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter, who worked in Lansing's plants at the time and now manages East Coast communications in New York.
"In my opinion, they identified with being world-class automakers," Carpenter said. "For them, the brand was vitally important, but they knew other opportunities would come."
"The post-mortems for this venerable car company may someday reveal that GM tried to fit Oldsmobile's round peg into GM's square hole; and the fit, not the product, was the problem. Or, perhaps, the name and the product line simply could not keep pace with the changing tastes of American drivers. We only know this final chapter, while not wholly unsurprising, is poignant. Oldsmobile's imminent demise is like watching an old friend die slowly. And that hurts."
— Lansing State Journal editorial, Dec. 13, 2000
"It took a lot for people here to get the mindset to get over the loss of Oldsmobile," Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said. "It was the end of an era. The end of Oldsmobile wasn't the end of GM."
Employment never will approach the more than 20,000 people who worked at GM plants in the 1970s, he said, but that shouldn't be the sole indicator of the health of the region's manufacturing sector.
The $4 million R.E. Olds Foundation, which Olds started 100 years ago to give back some of the earnings from his inventions, donates close to $200,000 annually in grants to community organizations that serve children and families, animal welfare and conservation, among other things.
The museum in Lansing that bears his name is full of photos and vehicles, including an original Curved Dash Oldsm! obile on ! loan from Michigan State University. But its director says it became harder to raise funds once the cars disappeared from the road.
Debbie Stephens, one of Olds' great-granddaughters, said she continues to find photos and Olds memorabilia in boxes her mother left after she died two years ago. She plans to visit Lansing this summer to present some of them.
Since Oldsmobile production stopped, "it really hasn't been in the limelight the way I feel it should be and my family feels it should be," said Stephens, 61, who lives in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Dublin. "We all have a common purpose: To keep the automotive history alive because it, obviously, it affects every single person everywhere."
Workers are doing their best to preserve it. The mission statement at GM's Lansing Delta Township plant begins with the words: "Building on our heritage."
It was drafted April 28, 2004, the day before the Alero's last day.
"Everyone knows what that heritage is," said Delaney, who works at the plant. "That pride and workmanship that started with Oldsmobile is still here."