General Motors makes decisions in a time/space netherworld we mortals know nothing about. While we look upon many of its historic brands with reverence, it looks to them as only names bonked onto an ever devolving line of subcompact mushmobiles. What once stood for performance, style, engineering excellence, or desirable transportation in its simplest form, become mere chrome badges to help burnish the compromised products of an era best forgotten.
So we have assembled eight glorious GM brands that really stood for something positive to consumers. Then we’ll show you their last gasp of marginalized transportation. It was a steady theme within the hallowed halls of GM. It became like a drinking game every fall to see what iconic brand GM cast shame upon to help move the weak iron.
In the mid-1970s the Olds Cutlass was the best-selling car in the US. It was a notch above owning a Chevy and it had a certain panaché. Stylish with V8 performance if hindered a bit by GM’s clobbered together construction norms, it was the car to beat for numbers and profit. By 1982 Olds started naming everything that it made a Cutlass. Front-drive, rear-drive, midsize, compact; Olds was on a roll marking everything Cutlass like a male dog marking its territory. It may not have been your father’s Oldsmobile because it wasn’t an Olds at all. It was everything Cutlass. The last Cutlass came in 1999 and by then it was so diluted no one cared what it was, it looked dour and stale. In reality, it was a very thinly disguised Chevy Malibu, which was also a historic brand compromised into irrelevance. By now Olds could only muster a V6 Chevy engine in the Cutlass engine bay. It was mostly sold to rental fleets which was a mistake because those exposed to it would immediately mark anything GM off of its future To-Buy List.
One of the saddest days for GM was the release of the 1986 Eldorado. A little, boring, anti-El Dorado would now carry the proud name right into the junkyard. Eldorado was the penultimate Cadillac. In 1953 it was the most expensive limited edition American car made. By 1954, it featured trim and styling setting it apart from all other Cadillacs. Wavering a bit into the 1960s it struck gold with the front-wheel-drive, 472 ci 1967 El Dorado. Style, technology, and prestige all wrapped up in one glorious package. Eventually, El Dorados became boats and needed some slimming. But the 1986 version was an affront to the name. It forever sullied the once famous brand to instead represent a joke. Small, poorly built, and looking like the sub-compact Chevy it was made from, it absolutely killed the exclusivity GM had built into the brand. What a waste of a brand.
The name GTO still stands for what a muscle car was, over 50 years after it was first introduced in 1964. Pontiac tried to redeem the name in the 2000s with the Holden two-door it imported here as a GTO, but it was not enough. The last GTO came in 1974 as a trim package for the Ventura, which was itself just a Nova that first appeared in 1968. The lowest rung on the Chevy ladder was called a GTO when placed into Pontiac’s hands. There was just no GTO in it. A body style on its last legs, hastily rebadged as a Pontiac. Why did GM do this? Was it worth flipping a few thousand Venturas to forever compromise such an iconic brand? GM thought so. Another brand with meaning stomped into meaninglessness.
Probably the most egregious victim of this treatise was the Olds 442. It stood for 4-barrel carb, 4-speed manual trans, and 2-wheel drive. But it was much more than that. In the 1960s it was one of the quickest of an ever-expanding line of quick sedans manufactured by the Big Three of GM, Ford, and Chrysler Corp. It could be purchased in different stages, with Stage III being so potent the factory wouldn’t install it. You had to order it and have the dealer install it or you do it yourself. That’s how much GM wanted it, but also wanted to distance itself from it. The final 442 was a joke. No, we all really thought it was just a joke. Then we found that Olds was serious about putting a 442 sticker on a compact crapbox. It was a 1990 Calais model with the “W-40” 2.3-liter Quad four-cylinder. A nothing car that took the righteous name and made it nothing as well. It was like GM was purposely trying to taint the name of everything that stood for something. If that was true it did a good job.
Chevy Monte Carlo
With the incredible success of the Eldorado, Chevy wanted in on the “personal luxury car” action. It came up with the beautiful 1970 Monte Carlo. Available with a 454 big-block V8 it was a looker and a cooker. They started flying out of dealer lots. A runaway success, it went through a series of ever-worsening iterations until we got to 2000. That’s when the blobby body showed up on what was formerly the Monte. Supposedly styled to compete better in NASCAR, if that was true Chevy should have worried about its main goal which was to sell tons of cars. Arbitrary styling, lights, and windows bonked into the body with varying degrees of ineptness, it was a hot mess. Chevy did a facelift in 2006 which helped to pull together the loosey-goosey styling, but it was too little, too late. By 2007 sales were so slow it was canceled forever.
The Chevy Impala first appeared in 1958 with its own hardtop styling. It announced the Impala was Chevy’s top-of-the-line and could rival anything other manufacturers had including Cadillac. It continued through the 1960s becoming even more iconic with the “SS” moniker attached to the Impala name. SS Impalas became big block behemoths feared at drag strips across the country. By the 1980s it became sort of everything to anybody Chevy, without much to distinguish it from any of the other sedans GM produced for Olds, Pontiac, Buick, and Cadillac.
The Impala name lives on for this final year of 2020 as a completely forgotten Chevy. It is the last of the Impala sedans Chevy will sell, relying entirely on trucks and SUVs into the future. The Impala is styleless, without anything to market which is why you probably don’t hear anything about it.
The Malibu was a high-end Chevelle in the 1960s. It was a highly optioned Chevy that never hid its reputation as having incredible power, even when powered by the small block engine. The big-block was definitely an option, but the nimble Malibu could hold its own with most any V8 Chevy anointed it with. Though hardly able to distinguish between the current Malibu and Impala, the Malibu is ever-so-slightly smaller. Still, marketing two milquetoast sedans must be a challenge for Chevy, especially when they look so similar. Its plans are to try and continue past 2020 with Malibu production, but who knows in this atmosphere of EVs and SUVs. It doesn’t really matter because Chevy sold almost 132,000 last year.
The Fleetwood was always the most luxurious four-door sedan Cadillac made. It was exclusive featuring unique trim and details to define it as the ultimate in Cadillac luxury. Always the most expensive and optioned, it was a stalking horse in some ways for things that would eventually filter down into the more pedestrian Cadillacs in subsequent years. By 1992 it was a name on a faceless car that happened to be a Cadillac. Generic 1980s GM styling was getting long in the tooth. With short hoods and decks combined with short wheelbases, the cars looked like Mickey Mouse mobiles. It was a forgettable name that had once truly meant something for decades.