- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

Almost everybody, who was around then, remembers where he or she was when they first heard the report of President Kennedy's assassination. As for me, being the car enthusiast I am, I'll always remember where and when I heard of Oldsmobile's demise.

The location; Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico, and the occasion for this trip was, ironically, to preview the long-awaited midsize sport utility vehicles from General Motors. The trio of 2002 vehicles consists of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, the GMC Envoy and the all-new Oldsmobile Bravada. These three vehicles feature some important "firsts" for General Motors trucks and one "last." This threesome of vehicles is designed to compete in the popular and lucrative midsize SUV segment that has been dominated heretofore by the Ford Explorer.

I was a member of the third and final wave of journalists to see the new vehicles. Our morning started as a fairly routine Tuesday, as press previews go. When more than one vehicle is to be presented, usually the media is divided into groups to hear the individual product presentations put on by the designers, platform and powertrain people and the engineers responsible for the new vehicles. On this morning there was a whisper from some of the journalists who had been watching CNN in their rooms before the press conference.

Someone said GM had an important announcement this morning. A quick look at our hosts did not reflect any concern or hint that it would be anything other than business as usual. As the presentations started in the open patio area of the hotel, a quick announcement was made alerting us that we would be breaking at 9 a.m. for an announcement from Detroit via direct audio feed in an adjoining meeting room.

The presentations progressed as scheduled. My first vehicle was the Olds Bravada. We learned of a "first" by GM to power these SUVs with an all-new, inline, variable-valve timing, six-cylinder engine rated at 270 horsepower and backed up with 275 foot-pounds of torque. The inline six configuration is, by design, inherently smooth and powerful.

The Bravada, as we expected, was the best equipped of the lot, with new standard rear air suspension and for the first time the availability of two-wheel drive along with Bravada's long-standing all-wheel-drive SmartTrak system. My second station was with the GMC Envoy and finally the new model for Chevrolet, the TrailBlazer. This version fits between the Blazer and the Tahoe. The presentation for this vehicle was cut considerably shorter than planned as we were quickly shepherded to a meeting room, to hear the news that just couldn't wait. As I was walking in, I thought of the group that didn't get to hear about the new Bravada as time ran out.

The large ballroom had enough round tables set up to accommodate the approximately 75 journalists and probably a like number of internal people from General Motors. No frills, food or snacks, this was strictly business.

Along the wall, opposite the doors we entered, were several speakers positioned on tall telescoping stands that aimed them in every direction of this large room. Minutes later with almost no introduction or comments from our hosts, the live feed of the press conference from Detroit began.

Rick Wagoner, president and CEO of General Motors started by announcing the phaseout of Oldsmobile over the next few years. Mr. Wagoner said this has been a very difficult and painful decision because of the history of the Oldsmobile division. "It is the oldest automotive brand in America with a history that is rich with innovation and success stories, including dozens of legendary cars, and over the years it was one of the jewels in the General Motors' crown," he said. Mr. Wagoner also spoke of plant closings in Europe that would affect Opel and Vauxhall vehicles and employee consolidations in many areas of General Motors.

I didn't focus on much more of the message. Our oldest car marque in this country was going away. It was only three years ago that I attended the 100th anniversary of Oldsmobile in Lansing, Mich. This car name not only has a great heritage but also was the innovative car division of General Motors. Oldsmobile introduced the automatic transmission in 1939. The high-compression Rocket 88 engines of the 1950s and 1960s, the first volume front-wheel-drive cars in the Toronado. The first to try air bags in 1975 and heads-up display in the pace cars of the late eighties.

Oldsmobile had also introduced a complete new line of vehicles to start their second 100 years, the newest of which we were here to see and drive.

Our group of usually crusty, very opinionated auto journalists was visibly surprised. Not because the subject hadn't been discussed in recent years or that Oldsmobile's existence had not been questioned, but that it now was final and we all heard it together.

If we had been at home or at work without our colleagues and factory people present in one big room, maybe it would have been accepted in an easier way. I looked around the room, where you could hear a pin drop, at what were serious and often sad looks on most faces. I was sure that most of the "internals" from GM had not heard the news in advance.

We endured over an hour of the formal announcement and the questions and answers that followed from journalists assembled in Detroit for the occasion.

Finally, it was suggested that we move on to our already late departure for the planned ride and drive of the vehicles that we were there to learn about. Since the ranking Oldsmobile public relations manager had been called back to Detroit after the first wave of this preview, we could not question him on what we had just heard. The remaining GM hosts didn't know any more than what we had all just experienced, and I believed them.

As we began our tour of the Mexican countryside in our new GM vehicles, I knew history was being made. The new Bravada was scheduled for production sometime late in the first quarter of 2001. Although just a few months away, I wondered if the Oldsmobile retailers would still be there to sell them.

An important statement during the press conference came from Ron Zarrella, General Motors executive vice president and president of North America. Included in his statement was that the Oldsmobile division would continue until its current product, the 2002 Bravada, had concluded its life cycle or "as long as they remain economically viable." This life-cycle time frame, in the past, has been five or more years. GM has now committed to much shorter model life cycles, somewhere in the three-or four-year range on popular model lines. I wondered with sales levels already unacceptable, at what level will support from GM finally cease.

Oldsmobiles may have been for our dads' after all. Mine owned three new ones in his lifetime. The innovations of this onetime very successful division included the 455-cubic-inch (the biggest block alive) to the dual-exhaust, four-speed 442s, and the Hurst specials. Jim Vuirpallet, the brand manager for Bravada made the closing remarks at our final night's dinner and appropriately asked us all to join him in a toast to an old friend, Oldsmobile.

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