Hammer Time : An Intriguing Dilemna

By on November 30, 2016

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Look at it. For just a quick second.

Without cheating by looking at the details, tell me the very first automotive brand that popped in your head.


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On second thought, I should probably have asked you for the trim line, too. A curbside classic like this cherished chariot has a remarkable way of making old cars new in our minds. Yep, it’s that brand. The defunct ‘Old’ one that every casual used car shopper forgets about.

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So how about trying this with someone else. Go ahead and let that special someone who is oblivious to all things automotive make this guess for you.

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Did they guess a Buick? A Toyota? A post-Iacocca Chrysler? Okay then. Let me make a personal confession of biblical proportions. As someone who has looked at over 10,000 vehicles a year as an auto auctioneer and car dealer over these last 17 years, my guess was 3600 pounds of wrong, and about 65% right.  

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From 100 feet away, at an auto auction that was loaded with over 500 unwanted trade-ins, I thought this rolling piece of depreciation was just another 15 year-old Buick. We have tons of those sitting in the parking lots that make up a special place in the world that I call, “wholesale heaven” – A magical place of vehicular limbo at a dealer auction where those sinfully undesirable cars of the past get a time-out in what is a demand-driven purgatory.

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They sit, until they finally get cheap enough to be bought by a gullible used car dealer, like me. Then they get transported to another rarely visited lot with even worse lighting.  

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Yes this Clinton Era car is indeed an Oldsmobile Intrigue GLS, and if your friend happened to guess Saturn, Buick, Chevy, or Pontiac, give them full credit for a right enough answer. Because when it came to GM’s Corn Flakes approach to selling cars during the 1990s, where all you needed to move your parts bin surplus machine was a new model name and a marketing campaign, no dish of banal cookery turned out to be harder for the general public to consume than leftover molderizing Oldsmobiles. 

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Nobody knew what Oldsmobiles were by the late 1990s, and today, nobody quite knows what they are. They’re the most unloved car of our time. Even on Craigslist, the cheapskate capital of new car shopping, nobody buys one and nobody even looks. These cars just sit. Even if you sell them for a price that is about equal to a brand new Chinese scooter, they sit. This 1999 GLS model had only 82,000 miles and every option that could be had back then. Everything works in that clunky Clinton Era way. And there it sits. Unlovable.  Unsellable.

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This loaded GLS version gets leather, sunroof, alloy wheels, and that too important 1990s upgrade – a V6 engine. It has a CD player AND a cassette deck which is a total score if you have the Dead Kennedys, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, or Poison lying around. I got it for a mere $1,300, which at a dealer auction is about equal to the price of a 27 year old Toyota Cressida with twice as many miles. Or a 1999 Plymouth Voyager minivan in purple with the same miles, no sliding driver’s side door, and a middle seat encrusted with jelly beans and graham crackers.

Oldsmobiles are today’s version of the unsellable car. They’re worse than the cloth, 5-speed 2005 SAAB 9-5 I recently found that had only 72,000 miles and a sunroof that still worked. In fact, Oldsmobiles are even worse than that rolling Swedish unicorn because at least some SAABophile (is that what they’re called?) will want it for its inherent SAAB-ness. Heck, you guys reading this may even want it.

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I knew I should have bought that SAAB instead of this version of an accounting oversight. How can I even describe what an Oldsmobile is to one of my customers? Were they import-fighters like that other GM brand Saturn? Or was it Pontiac that was the true white knight of Detroit? Maybe it was every GM brand that fought the imports – even SAAB. Who else would build a 9-5 to compete with a 9-3?

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For reasons only known to the bean counters who ran the show back then, GM decided to let nearly every brand have their turn at fighting the onslaught of Camrys and Accords. It was an orgy of cannibalistic cost containment with GM offering the same dreary dull driving experience with shined up alloy wheels, plastic steering wheel controls that always wore out over time, and 20 pounds of body cladding. Except this Intrigue, was the de facto health nut of the bunch thanks to a diet devoid of nearly all GM plastique. 

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Yes, this Intrigue joined the battle along with three Pontiacs, four Buicks, and 22 other GM sedans that were offered with a 3 point something liter engine. Individually they couldn’t make so much as a dent in the automotive top ten but collectively they were enough to meet the numbers while slowly cannibalizing each other’s marketshare.

The Intrigue turned out to be the best cannibal GM could have ever made because eventually it even managed to kill itself, and in only five years!. Not even a platform powerful enough for a chorus salesmen to sing the praises of GM’s 23rd version of rolling mediocrity could save this car from the midsize swamp of better known brands and models. Nobody would bite this Intriguing version of vanilla, and therefore the Intrigue remained a complete mystery to the marketplace.  

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It sounds insane now, but back then, it seemed like GM had the perfect Wall Street driven strategy which could have been summed up in six words, “Build ‘em cheap. Sell to sheep.”.  GM was stuck in an MBA driven la-la land where everyone could succeed if they just marketed hard enough. They just couldn’t stomach the fact that certain models and brands just had to die so that others might live. 

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So the Oldsmobile brand suffered an identity crisis throughout the 1990s because it was never really first in line. Even though it was still a popular brand throughout the 1980s, the new 1990s GM wanted every brand to become a bear hug embrace of mainstream tastes. So instead of giving Oldsmobile a clear unique identity, GM tried to do things that were downright repulsive to anyone who wanted to be a hardcore fan of the Oldsmobile brand. It gave Olds the leftovers.

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An Oldsmobile could have been the slightly less luxurious version of a Buick – like an  Oldsmobile 98 is to a Buick Roadmaster.  Or it could have been the less frilly version of a Pontiac Grand Prix or Grand Am in the form of an Alero, a Cutlass Supreme, or a just plain Cutlass. Heck, an Oldsmobile in the barest flicker of old media driven memories may today be somewhere between the Cadillac of minivans or the Trekiest of transport. Or maybe it’s an Aurora. With an almost exotic V8, a great sounding name, an interesting design, and dirt poor long-term reliability.  

But there’s one thing that I have no doubt about after GM euthanized what was their fifth import fighting, fourth luxury driven, and third least profitable division. Oldsmobile’s branding back then made less sense than Lady Gaga going into country music. It was a complete failure based on having no direction and following the trends. 

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Which brings me to my current dilemma: How can I sell this car? Do you think I can get more than $2,000 for that Intrigue if I reconditioned the leather, fixed the ABS sensor, replaced that missing radio knob, and marketed it to a tightwad retiree who doesn’t mind owning a car that’s less popular than an Isuzu?.

Would you ever own an Oldsmobile?  

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