Every so often, there comes along a pivoting point in automotive history, where a storied brand is faced with a decision: change or die. We’ve seen it happen with many brand within the past 20 years, some of which heeded the message and changed for the better and some of which completely ignored it and crumbled under the pressure of changing times. However, there is one brand that tried changing their ways for the better, but their valiant efforts just couldn’t pay off in the end. That brand is Oldsmobile.
In the 1990s, Oldsmobile was, for better or worse, struggling. They were no more than a middle-management brand that sold more to fleet usage than actual owners, and those who did buy Oldsmobiles, in all of their silver-haired splendor, were sooner to receive the talk from their children than to enrich themselves in the “New Generation of Olds” as the commercials called it. The brand was best defined by Fargo’s bumbling Oldsmobile-salesman of a main character, Jerry Lundegaard. It was just down on its luck, no matter what.
But boy was Oldsmobile trying to turn that image around through various schemes. That ad campaign that I mentioned earlier was one of their most valiant attempts, pumping famous stars, such as Leonard Nimoy and Ringo Starr, and their children into the commercials, penning them off as “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” However, rather than flood to the dealership in droves, people mostly laughed and changed the channel.
So, since the advertisements weren’t working out, their next step was by upping the brand’s image overall with a look into performance and luxury for a cheap price. Sort of an amalgamation of Pontiac’s Driving Excitement and Cadillac’s Standard of the World. They pushed out rather spritely and interesting small cars sporting the Quad 4 inline 4, they introduced a stylish luxury coupe in the Toronado Trofeo, but most importantly, covering both bases was their experimental LSS (Luxury Sport Sedan) trim for the Eighty-Eight.
The Eight-Eight LSS was mostly unremarkable on the outside, with a debadged monochrome treatment taken to a fully-loaded Eighty-Eight. However, what’s under the hood is what really made the LSS special. Oldsmobile decided to employ the use of Buick’s famous 3800 Supercharged V6 for the LSS, meaning the rather bland boat could get up and go at a rather spritely speed. Critics were mostly impressed, but sales didn’t match the excitement. Rather than seeing this as a failed prospect, however, like GM usually would do, Oldsmobile pressed on...by introducing a new car entirely based on the idea. Enter the Aurora.
Truthfully, the idea behind Aurora had been around since the 1980s, long before the LSS’s existence. Oldsmobile saw the potential in the rising import market, and knew that they needed a car to completely rejuvenate the line, but rather than half-ass it and call it a day, they actually took the time to make it great, with the first concept being revealed in the late 80s, and various prototypes hitting the streets as early as 1992 for fine tuning. Oldsmobile knew this car had to be taken seriously, and it paid off.
Oldsmobile took special caution to make the Aurora unlike any GM car on sale at the time, and especially unlike any Oldsmobile. They decided to go with a completely out-of-this-world styling theme, with a far more fluid and curvaceous shape setting itself apart from the squares that made up the rest of the line-up at the time of inception. I believe this design is one of the finer ones to come out of the 90s, though I can understand its polarizing nature.
Under that beautiful skin, Oldsmobile didn’t skimp out performance-wise either. Rather than employing the use of Buick’s 3800 V6 that was the common plug and play engine of the time at GM, Oldsmobile turned to Cadillac and their Northstar V8. Oldsmobile took the Northstar and did some minor tooling to it, creating a slightly de-tuned version called the “Aurora L47" V8. The L47 was a 4.0 liter unit (versus the Cadillac 4.6) making 250 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque, modest numbers for the time and class. This power was pushed to the front wheels through GM’s 4T80-E automatic transmission.
The Aurora as a whole used a beefed up all-new platform for GM, called the G-Body platform, which went on to be used in the Buick Riviera of the time, as well as future Cadillacs and Buicks with some minor re-tooling. This platform, and its all-new structure ended up being highly-praised in the end, even going so far as being too strong for GM’s regular car crash test machines, breaking them in the process. GM resorted to using truck testing machines instead, succeeding far beyond safety and rigidity standards for cars two times over the IIHS’s standards.
Oldsmobile took special care to the interior as well, wanting to create a cockpit that followed the striking exterior styling and pushing an essence of luxury at the same time. Standard were soft Cadillac-style leather seats with real burled walnut trim. Technology wise was mostly the standards of the time: CD/cassette player in the stereo, power memory seats, dual-zone climate control, and even an optional car phone and navigation system through Oldsmobile’s GuideStar system. Critics were taken aback by the beauty and craftsmanship of the interior, which reached levels far above even that of Cadillac at the time.
So, all this care was taken to build what was a quite remarkable car for the Americans at that point, how did it fare? Excellently. Everyone loved the Aurora with high praise from critics, but more importantly, it got buyers in the showrooms out of interest. The design was striking for the time and many people were in awe that such a car carried the name Oldsmobile. Some didn’t even believe it was an Olds...but that was probably due to the fact that there was no Oldsmobile badges on the car at all.
Everyone enjoyed the way the Aurora drove, how comfortable it was, and how well-built it was, and saw it as a definite departure from the Cutlass Supremes and 98 Regencys of yore. Oldsmobile had hit a definite home run, and by god, they were going to ride that wave into the new century. Soon, the entire Oldsmobile line-up resembled the Aurora, with models like the Alero and Intrigue following in the late 90s. Oldsmobile even saw the Aurora fit for racing, with an Aurora race car and Indy car created soon after with a tuned version of the L47 V8. This tuned variant was later used in Cadillac’s LeMans efforts in 2000, though it was twin-turbocharged for more power output.
But as with all good things, the Aurora wave soon dwindled and came to the end as the 21st century came around. Oldsmobile knew they couldn’t let the first generation run forever as the class they had decided to enter into with the car was a rapidly changing cutthroat class of Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes. The first plans for the second generation Aurora was brought forth around 1997 with the idea of moving the car further upmarket and retaining its V8 architecture alongside the next generation Buick Riviera. However, when Buick announced plans to discontinue the Riviera, and Oldsmobile soon found that you can’t save an entire brand off the back of one well-made car and entered financial troubles once again.
What eventually did become the 2001 second-generation Aurora was a planned concept called the Antares, which was slated to be an Eighty-Eight replacement. This new Aurora received a slightly toned-down and smaller overall shape with a more stately look compared to its predecessor’s spaceship style aesthetic. The V8 remained, joined by a 3.5 liter V6, dubbed the “Shortstar” for its Northstar architecture. Critics still found the new Aurora to be a decent car, but the overall structure, which was borrowed from the predecessor, had started to age. Most agreed that the 2001 Aurora was a shadow in comparison to the original car.
However, the nail in the coffin for the Aurora was the fact that Oldsmobile just wasn’t profitable enough for GM, and shortly into the lifespan of the second generation, GM announced its plans to pull the plug on Oldsmobile. This put whatever was left of the company in an awkward place to sell all of the cars they had left to sell. I remember stories of brand new Auroras being sold off for fractions of their MSRP at dealerships, who were just trying to cater to individuals who weren’t interested in buying from a dead brand. In 2002, after one year of production, the V6 Aurora was dropped all together, and in 2003, after a run of 500 special edition final models, the Aurora was dead.
The fall of Oldsmobile that ended up killing the brand all together is a story in itself, but the Aurora is a shining testament to just how far a brand is willing to go to keep itself afloat, even if it didn’t work out in the end. The Aurora was a car that was so far out of Oldsmobile’s comfort zone at the time. The drive that went into creating it, and how desperately they wanted it to work, just adds to its charm. That and just how cool it was on paper, because how many GM sedans from the 90s stood toe to toe with the imports and had a racing pedigree to back it up? Not many, that’s how many.
It’s uncertain to say there’s an alternate universe where the Aurora fixed all of Oldsmobile’s issues and kept them around to stay, but the Aurora deserves every single bit of praise it gets. It’s one of the most badass cars that Oldsmobile ever built, and it should stay that way. I want one.