In their merry Oldsmobiles: Lansing’s car brand lives on in hometown 15 years after demise

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Badgley’s Garage sits humbly on Clippert Street in Lansing Township, a building of unassuming white concrete blocks. And though many repair shops carry garage in their namesakes, Badgley’s Garage is just that — one big bay that can fit two cars.

There is no office and nowhere to sit to wait for a repair. Customers are served through a small window with what looks like the square footage of a closet.

Manning the shop is Trevor Badgley, a third-generation Oldsmobile mechanic and owner of the garage, dressed in simple mechanic overalls. As the striking United Auto Workers show, General Motors is still a big presence in Lansing, but in 2004 the company shuttered its Oldsmobile division, the brand tied to Michigan’s capital for 107 years.

Fifteen years after the last Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line, Badgley’s still specializes in the hometown brand. It’s one of the last Oldsmobile-specific shops in the United States and the very last in Michigan.

Inside the garage is a museum-quality display of Oldsmobile signs and memorabilia throughout the years, salvaged from former dealerships, garages and shops.

“We specialize in Oldsmobiles and are known for that around the country. We’ll have cars shipped in from Tennessee, Illinois and New York,” Badgley said. “Some of these Oldsmobiles have been passed down from generation to generation. Some are recent purchases that come back to Lansing because people are looking to buy the car their dad worked on at the factory.”

Despite a shortage of parts, manuals and mechanics, Oldsmobiles and their stubborn owners prove that the brand is very much alive in its hometown after being defunct for over a decade.

A step inside the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum sees a score of monthly magazines and newsletters from different Oldsmobile clubs across the country on how to maintain and find parts for the aging vehicles. Bumper stickers are also for sale, proclaiming “I don’t care what GM says, Oldsmobile will never die!”

The history of R.E. Olds can be traced to Lansing in 1897, when Ransom Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. Among Oldsmobile’s pioneered inventions over a century in business were the passenger airbag, automatic transmission, chrome plating and onboard GPS navigation.   

The concept of the brand’s death would’ve been laughable in the 1980s. The Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling model of any car in 1986, selling over a million per year. At this highpoint, Oldsmobile employed 21,000 in Lansing and operated its world headquarters out of Building 70 on Townsend Street near Lansing Assembly. The building now sits overgrown and fenced off. GM appears to use it solely to hang an enormous advertisement for Cadillac, a brand still produced in Lansing at Grand River Assembly.

The biggest challenge to keeping the brand alive today is parts, Badgley said. “If it is a high-performance Oldsmobile, parts are readily available through aftermarket sources. But if it is just your plain Jane Oldsmobile 98, some of that stuff is not so easy to locate.”

On Evan Hope’s 1982 Oldsmobile Toronado convertible, a plastic piece between the front bumper and the body is rotting away from age. Hope covers the rot with a white piece of tape, the only noticeable cosmetic defect to an otherwise spotless machine. 

“I can’t find the original part for this,” Hope said. “I can find something similar, but there will be an ugly gap at each bend.” 

Hope, who is the Delhi Township clerk, purchased his Toronado a year ago. It has been a lifelong dream of his to own an ’80s Oldsmobile after rolling around in his neighbor’s late ’70s Oldsmobile 98 when he grew up in Holt.

“You could not feel the road, and it felt like we were floating,” Hope said.  “Other 10-year-olds might have been interested in exotic sports cars in the '80s like a Lamborghini Countach. For me, it was luxury cars like Olds.” 

Hope hunted for a cheap daily driver, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to own an Oldsmobile convertible.

“It had plush seats, a cloud ride, spokes and white walls. That’s what made it a nice car to me. I like those quirky big cars that are unloved right now.” 

His car is a testament to the bulky square design of the '80s. The dashboard is an amalgam of fake wood and an absurd amount of squares and rectangles. At 82,000 miles, he hopes it will last for years to come.

“I drive this every chance I get,” he added. “GM probably didn’t need three luxury brands, but I know a lot of people around here liked Oldsmobile because it rode just like a Cadillac without being one.” 

Pronounced dead

With cherry red paint and chrome rims, the last Oldsmobile ran off the Lansing Assembly line in 2004 amid a flurry of national media parachuting in to write the obituary of America’s oldest car manufacturer at 107 years old.

R.E. Olds Museum historian Dave Pfaff was at the museum when the final 2004 Alero rolled in. It was the 35,229,218th vehicle assembled in Oldsmobile history.   

“It was a very sad day,” Pfaff said. “I just thought ‘Why Oldsmobile?’”

Oldsmobile became the canary in the coal mine for the death of GM’s numerous divisions. Saturn would follow suit in 2009 and Hummer and Pontiac in 2010, all victims of the GM bankruptcy. 

Pfaff, who worked at Olds as an engineer from 1962 to 1999, said the decline of the brand came down to mismanagement and “badge assembly” where GM produced the same car across its divisions with only cosmetic differences.

“We started making cars that shouldn’t have been made,” Pfaff said. “Cars like the Oldsmobile Omega and Firenza didn’t make sense.”

Badgley saw the change from the mechanic’s point of view. “At a certain point you weren’t really driving an Oldsmobile anymore. They switched from making Oldsmobiles exclusively to ‘BOP’ or Buick, Olds and Pontiac cars.  That’s when they lost their identity, because they all went down the same line,” he said. 

Another nail in the coffin was its advertising. The infamous “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” ad campaign was supposed to reclaim the brand for a new generation. It was a dud.

Oldsmobile’s boxy cars of the late '80s did little to motivate young American buyers while the ad alienated its loyal fan base.

“That ad was the dumbest thing they could’ve done,” Pfaff said. “My father had a 442.”

Pfaff’s father’s Oldsmobile 442 was not a geriatric cruiser by any means. The car was powered by a 350-horsepower V8 and was Oldsmobile’s answer to the high performance horsepower cars of the muscle car era.

“It was insulting to our customer base,” he added. “We always had terrible marketing.” 

Two years before the 1986 ad, Oldsmobile sold 1,050,832 vehicles. By 1990, sales were down to 489,492.

But as Oldsmobile took flak from car culture for its failed advertising campaign, its Lansing engineers forged ahead by working on a monster to set a new closed course land-speed record for some much needed positive PR. 

That creation, the Oldsmobile Aerotech I, debuted in 1987, featuring a turbocharged 1,000-horsepower Quad 4 engine and the silvery looks of a rocket ship. Flat out, the car ran 267 miles per hour, setting the bar for a closed course land-speed record and high-speed endurance record.

By the time the car was fully tested on the track in 1992, the Oldsmobile Aerotech I had broken 47 speed-endurance records against the prestigious former world champion, Mercedes Benz. According to a Jalopnik.com profile on the Aerotech, some of those endurance records still stand today.

However, the daily driving populace wasn’t driven to the brand by Olds’ blistering fast prototype and the Aerotech I faded into relative oblivion. Sales and production at the brand declined throughout the 1990s. 

“I was lucky to get out when I did,” Pfaff said.

The Last Oldsmobiles

During Oldsmobile’s final days of production, owner Dick Poulin of Dick Poulin Chevrolet received an Alero as a stock inventory car from GM. However, upon closer inspection, he noticed something peculiar about it.

“It was numbered 499 of 500 and I thought ‘Wow, that’s worth keeping,’” Poulin said.

In the luck of the draw, GM delivered Poulin the last Oldsmobile to be offered for sale by dealer. 

It is currently for sale at Poulin's dealership for $32,000. Poulin kept it in his showroom for the past 15 years. With only 42 miles on the car, the Alero only went in and out of the showroom for periodic inspections and to refresh the gas.

“It has all of its original stickers and everything. It’s like it is still in the wrapper,” Poulin said. “You have to find a special person who wants this car, but there are still a lot of people who love the Olds brand.”

After dealing GM brand cars for 33 years, GM cancelled his dealership during its bankruptcy and Poulin made the switch to Chrysler. He listed the car in June to thin out his oddball vehicle collection.

“I loved Oldsmobile, but I’ve had no love for GM since they canceled me,” Poulin said.

Oldsmobile Alero owner Jerry Garfield proudly sports a license plate saying “LSTOLDS” framed with a “Forever Proud” cover. 

If Oldsmobile had a cheerleader, it would be Garfield. He volunteers each week at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum and wrote an article in the Oldsmobile Club of America’s “Journey with Olds” monthly magazine about his 2004 Alero.

With regular maintenance and measures taken for rust prevention, Garfield aims to keep his Alero running as long as he can. For aid, he relies on its shop service manual. He worked as a service manual supervisor for Oldsmobile from 1980 to 1993 in a 40-year career with GM.

“It was fun, hard work, full of pressure and anxiety, but full of accomplishment,” Garfield said.   

When the announcement to end production came, Garfield was in shock. “It was like somebody closed the door on my home and I couldn’t get back in,” he said.

The announcement spurred him to buy the last model Alero. He keeps it keeps it running to this day.  “It wasn’t too big or too small and it was assembled in Lansing. I have an affection for my hometown because of Oldsmobile,” Garfield said.

As for the very last Oldsmobile ever made? Pfaff, the museum historian, thought it would eventually come back to the museum after GM’s bankruptcy. However, in 2017, The GM Heritage Center sold off the final 500 Alero to a private collector for $42,000. Its purchaser declined to be identified at the closed door dealer-only auction.

Christo Datini, manager of archives and special collections at the GM Heritage Center, wrote the following statement in an email correspondence when asked about the decision to sell the last Oldsmobile: 

“We are not able to locate the individuals involved in the sale of this particular automobile. However, we can confirm there are nearly 50 historically significant Oldsmobiles in our collection, including a 1903 Curved Dash, a 1911 Limited, the first production 1966 Toronado and Final 500 editions of the Aurora, Bravada and Silhouette.”

Garfield said he doesn’t know if Oldsmobile will be remembered 100 years from now.

“Since Lansing is its hometown, it will be remembered here more than any other place,” Garfield said. 

“Coming here to the museum I call my therapy day. I enjoy working on the old cars with my former colleagues. People from younger generations only knowledge of Oldsmobile might come from our work at this museum. It is truly therapeutic not only to preserve the past, but because it is fun too.”

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