This week the last Oldsmobiles rolled off their Lansing, Michigan assembly lines. “Oldsmobile production has remained unprofitable and, therefore, GM’s current planning is to end production with the 2004 models,” read a September 2001 General Motors announcement. The last 500 Aleros, painted metallic cherry red, were given special “Final 500” markings. While the modern Alero bears little resemblance to the old metal dinosaurs I remember from my Cleveland childhood, news of the end of Olds felt to me like that singular loss of innocence American novelists like to remind us of — over and over again.
Growing up in the industrial Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s, I noticed that plenty of people — and particularly immigrants like my parents — took a great deal of pride in all things American. The sophisticated eye might see this sensibility as patriotic kitsch, but there was not a dash of irony in it. My father, a factory worker loyal to the same company all his life, took other men’s labor just as seriously as he did his own. And so each time the need arose for a new family car, he insisted that General Motors was the only way to go.
I can still remember our first car — a bright orange 1975 Pontiac Grand Prix with black leather interior. Looking back I now realize that the purchase of this car, in the year before his first child’s birth, was likely the last gasp of bachelorhood for my father as a newly minted family man. Gentlemen, I present to you Exhibit A in the case for marriage.
But I digress. Later we had another Grand Prix, this one a more sensible, toned-down chartreuse number. I can remember once upon a time being small enough to stand behind the driver’s seat (seatbelts, you may recall, were still treated by many with a healthy skepticism back then) and lean my cheek against my father’s head rest to watch him drive. My brothers would alternate doing the same on my mom’s side of the car, but only I got to stand behind dad while he drove.
Later we went through a Buick era. The first car I ever drove was an ’86 LeSabre, a solid sedan, a car my dad thought safe enough even for a high school girl. It was the car I drove to music lessons and tennis lessons and late-night coffee outings with my girlfriends. And it was the car I drove to pick up my first date.
Since leaving for college I never again thought of the family car as my own. And once the nest emptied completely my father upgraded to the Oldsmobile Cutlass (a “management” car, as some of my friends still like to tease). He lets me drive it whenever I’m in town, though, just for old time’s sake. And these days it doesn’t seem to frighten him to be in the passenger’s seat when I do.
My brothers now drive Japanese cars — although one of them, as a police officer, still relies on his regulation Chevrolet Caprice cruiser when he’s on duty and not riding his motorcycle. And as a city girl my transportation of choice is usually the subway.
There was a slogan when one of the later-model Oldsmobiles came out in the 1990s: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Well, for me it always will be.