They're All Your Father's Oldsmobiles Now

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This week General Motors announced that it would phase out its Oldsmobile brand. The news wasn't entirely surprising. After all, Olds sales were pathetic. A few years ago the company even tried to spruce up its image with the slogan "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" — a tacit admission that the car was seen as stodgy, the choice of older buyers, not BMW-envying hipsters. As it happens, my father had an Oldsmobile during most of the years I was growing up.

When I was nine, in November 1972, he bought a 1973 model green Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser — an enormous station wagon whose purchase suggests my father knew nothing of the impending energy crisis. This was the first Olds in the family and probably the closest that my father ever came to a fancy car. (Later we would own such gems as a Toyota Starlet and a Ford Taurus.) He had owned Volkswagens, Chevys and even a Mini Cooper, a tiny European vehicle that's scarcely bigger than a golf cart. My father and I once went to test-drive a Jaguar, but there was never any doubt in his mind (or mine) that it was just for fun. Cars, for him, were about utility, not aesthetics.

The Vista Cruiser — The Tank, as we later dubbed it — lasted a good 12 years before my father tossed it. It had over 120,000 miles and the steering was completely shot. The thing leaked when it rained. I feared for my life the last few times I drove it.

So why did I feel sad this week hearing that there'd be no more Oldsmobiles? A few reasons, I think. One is the passage of time. Suddenly, I'm dated, a 20th-century relic. I'll have to explain to my two-year-old son one day that we had an Olds growing up and he'll look at me with the same blank stare that I must have given my father when he told me that his family had had a DeSoto.

But Olds represents a couple of other things that the country might miss too. Because they were so unhip, so square, Oldsmobiles hearken back to a time before everything had been rendered trendy and self-consciously hip. My father still recoils from Starbucks and its tall double caps and short mocha decafs. To him, coffee is still Chock Full O'Nuts. Hip organic grocery stores? Please. When I told him that there was a new trendy grocery near  his home in N.J. he looked at me like I had told him that I'd planned to spend my son's college money in Atlantic City. There are good things, I suppose, about today's Target age where everything is meant to be stylish. But often I feel whimsy for an age when there was less demand to be hip. As a kid, at the time my old man bought the Olds, I wore Sears Toughskins, a brand of jean so stiff that it bore a resemblance to a radial tire. Today, my son wears Baby Gap.

Oldsmobile was also about being comfortable with your age. When I see middle-aged men, balding like myself, crammed into BMW convertibles, I look at them with the same sense of pity I would seeing a middle-aged man with nipple rings. It seems so age-inappropriate, so sad. My father was 47 when he bought his Olds, comfortable with middle age or at least not fighting it. Today, we have millions of SUVs because buying a car like my father's Olds station wagon became emotionally untenable for aging boomers.

Finally, I think Olds represented a certain amount of confidence in America. After all, the GM brand was built on the idea of graduating cars — from Chevy to Olds to Buick to Cadillac, with maybe a youthful detour into sporty Pontiac. The idea was to move up the food chain of cars. Olds in 1972 meant that my family was not only in the middle class but ready to step up a notch. Now, a rung's been taken off the ladder. But the car clearly made my dad a bit nervous. When we went to pick it up I asked him about the electric side-window adjusters. On a model we had seen earlier, they'd been present. Now they weren't there. "Those cost $35, young man," I remember him saying as if it were yesterday. "As much as that watch you're wearing." The car had cost some $3,800 and my father was damned if he was going to spend any more on this Olds. Now, no one will. That makes me sad. Can Buicks be far behind?