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Oldsmobile fans saddened by demise of car icon 

REUTERS  
Detroit, Dec 13: BoB Handren is a 60-year-old, self-confessed Oldsmobile groupie. He has owned a 1967 Olds 442 sedan for 34 years. "It's been with me most of my life," the president of the Olds Club of Florida said. "I raised my kids with it. I moved cross country with it." So he is more than a little sad at the General Motors Corp.'s announcement on Tuesday it was phasing out the oldest American brand in the auto industry.

Handren echoed analysts, dealers and other fans' sentiments when he said the world's No. 1 automaker simply blew it, mismanaging the long-struggling brand to its doom. "Those of us who are into the older (Oldsmobile) cars think GM has been blowing it for some time," the owner of three Oldsmobile cars said. "I realise these companies have to be viable, but it's not fair to blame Oldsmobile." GM executives were sensitive to those feelings, saying the decision was hard but necessary. "The phase-out of Oldsmobile will be an emotional adjustment for everyone in the General Motors family ... but in the end, we felt we had to make this call now to focus resources on the future success of the entire enterprise," GM president and chief executive officer Rick Wagoner told reporters at GM's world headquarters in downtown Detroit.

GM's announcement of the death of Oldsmobile, along with plans to lay off 16,000 of its salaried North American and European workers, are the latest blow for the US economy from the auto industry. Both DaimlerChrysler AG and Ford Motor Co. previously warned of lower profits and have slashed production schedules. In phasing out the 103-year-old brand over the next three years, GM is relegating to the history books one of the industry's most venerable marques.

Oldsmobile was founded in 1897 by Ransom E. Olds in Lansing, Mich., and quickly became a favourite at the turn of the century with the Curved Dash, one of the first mass-produced cars with a $650 sticker price. GM purchased the automaker in 1908 and US sales steadily grew, peaking at over one million in 1984-1986 with the success of the Cutlass and the 88.

Oldsmobile's history of engineering and innovation will be missed by fans like Handren, who owns the 442 W30 two-door sedan, along with a 1970 Cutlass SX convertible and Vista Cruiser station wagon. Oldsmobile created the first assembly line in 1909 to make the Curved Dash, was the first to use chrome-plated trim in 1926 and the first line-up to offer fully automatic transmissions in 1939.

It also was the first to offer vehicles for the physically impaired when it specially built cars starting in 1946 for returning World War II veterans. The brand also garnered fans when it launched in 1949 the first modern, lightweight V-8 engine, called the Rocket. The Cutlass was top-selling U.S. passenger car in five different years, the latest in 1983, when 331,000 were sold. Despite the innovations, GM and Oldsmobile lost touch with its buyers, some of the 1,800 Oldsmobile dealers said.

"GM, through its Oldsmobile division, didn't build products that the public wanted," said Mike Barnard, a dealer in Rochester, NY, who started as an Oldsmobile salesman. Some dealers and analysts pointed to the late 1980s as the beginning of the end, when the ad campaign touting "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" told consumers what the brand wasn't rather than what it was.

Other dealers complained the division was unfairly repositioned in the last decade to compete against Japanese imports. "The truth is it got too successful for its own good," AutoPacific analyst James Hall said. "They thought (1 million sales a year) was never going to end." GM had invested up to $5 billion to revamp the money-losing Oldsmobile line-up over the past five years to make it more appealing to younger buyers, including the introduction of the Alero small car and the Aurora sedan. It also offers the Intrigue sports sedan, Silhouette minivan and Bravada SUV.

But the brand still suffers a holdover image of making gas-guzzling cars for older people. US sales this year are expected fall to their lowest level since 1952, despite hefty consumer incentives. Oldsmobile is the second historic US car brand to be killed in the past year.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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