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Last Oldsmobile rolls off the line

By
AL SWANSON, United Press International

It's not anyone's Oldsmobile anymore.

The last Oldsmobile passenger car, a metallic, dark-cherry red 2004 Special Edition Alero, glided off the line at General Motors' assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., Thursday morning, ending the oldest U.S. automobile brand.

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Olds and Lansing have been synonymous since 1897, when Ransom Eli Olds started the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. GM moved Olds headquarters to Detroit in 1998 and decided four years ago that the time had come to phase out the venerable nameplate.

With Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac and Saturn, GM still has plenty of brands to choose from.

Oldsmobile was the classic middle-market car, upscale from Chevy but never quite a Pontiac or Buick. The brand lost its identity in the mid-1980s when GM built many models based on the same platform with the same power trains and similar bland styling.

Olds was known more for power than style. Many dealerships sold Olds along with Chevrolets and Cadillacs.

Like the 1950s Eighty-Eight, 1960s Toronado and 1970s Cutlass -- once the best-selling U.S. car -- the Alero, Intrigue, Silhouette minivan and Bravada sport-utility vehicle are headed to automotive history books.

The Alero was the only Oldsmobile still in production.

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Oldsmobile's muscular V-8 was so beloved by youthful, post-World War II America it was celebrated in Ike Turner's hit "Rocket 88," regarded by some musicologists as the first rock-and-roll song.

"In My Merry Oldsmobile," was a barbershop quartet waltz from 1905.

Chuck Berry's "Maybelline," celebrated a gas-guzzling Cadillac Coup DeVille in a race with a V-8 Ford.

Such was America's love for cars.

"Generations of people in Lansing have been touched by Oldsmobile, either by making them in the plant of driving them down the road," said GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter.

Car number 35,229,218 -- the 500th and final Special Edition Alero -- will be on display in a "Thanks for the Memories" exhibit at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing through Aug. 31. The underside of the car's hood and trunk was signed by many of the plant's 4,500 workers.

The price tag is $26,075 -- $25,000 more than the first Olds cost.

It's not a collector's car yet, but Doug Stott, Oldsmobile's product manager, says the limited edition has been selling well. "They appeal to people who like distinctive cars or to people who are dedicated to Olds and want to own one of the last ones."

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"It's like a funeral," museum director Deborah Horstik, told the Detroit Free Press. "Oldsmobile has been around since 1897, and Lansing is an Oldsmobile town. Primarily, Oldsmobiles are driven in this town. A lot of the Olds family still lives here."

Ransom Olds, a mechanic, claimed to be the first manufacturer to mass-produce gasoline-powered automobiles in 1901, although Henry Ford is credited by historians with introducing the moving assembly line in 1913.

The Olds Motor Works built four "horseless carriages" on River Street in 1897, 10 years after Olds built his first steam-powered engine.

The one-cylinder Curved Dash Roundabout is an automotive legend. It was guided by a tiller instead of a steering wheel and had a top speed of 15 miles per hour. Ransom Olds left the company in 1904 to start the Reo Motor Car Co. He died in 1950.

GM absorbed the Olds Motor Works in 1908, renaming it Oldsmobile. The old Fisher Body Co. made bodies for Oldsmobile for decades.

Olds was the first car with chrome trim. The Jetfire introduced the first turbo-charged, fuel-injected engine in 1992, the 1966 Toronado was the first modern U.S.-built, front-wheel-drive car, and the 1974 Toronado had the first air bag.

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Olds was the second GM division after Chevrolet to sell more than 1 million vehicles. Its best year was 1984 when it sold 1.2 million vehicles. GM made several attempts to revive the brand, adding the Aurora in 1995.

"It's not your father's Oldsmobile," was the advertising slogan. The flagship V-6 Aurora ceased production in 2002, and in 2003 Olds sales slid under 126,000.

Sales of 2004 models were down 49 percent.

GM was more successful reinvigorating Cadillac with bold, slab-sided styling, powerful engines and the advanced engineering of the CTS, SRX and STS.

Despite being an "orphan," Olds continues to sell well on the "pre-driven" car market. GM will continue to warranty and service the cars.

"I understand what's going on as far as a business decision for GM," Ken Nicholas, president of the Lansing chapter of the Oldsmobile Club of America, told the Detroit News. "But it's hard to express the affection for the car. It's like losing your favorite sports team."

The Lansing Car Assembly plant will continue to produce the Chevrolet Classic and the final Pontiac Grand Am, which is being phased out after this year.

A new auto plant under construction in Delta Township, Mich., opens in 2006, but there will be no new Oldsmobiles.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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