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Everything Olds Is New Again: The 1960-61 Oldsmobiles and the Age of Planned Obsolescence

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Everything Olds Is New Again: The 1960-61 Oldsmobiles and the Age of Planned Obsolescence

Written by Aaron Severson

Tuesday, 29 July 2008 14:01

At a car show in Van Nuys recently, we happened upon a pair of nicely restored, early-sixties Oldsmobile hardtops. Oldsmobiles of this vintage aren't particularly rare or unusual, but what intrigued us was the fact that one was a 1960 and the other a 1961, giving us a rare opportunity to compare two consecutive model years side by side -- and to consider that long-standing automotive custom, the annual model change.


Every summer for the past 80-odd years, automakers have released a swarm of press releases and announcements about their exciting new fall models. Each year's crop of cars is supposedly new and improved, and every so often, they're even alleged to be all new. All this hype, of course, is supposed to spur you to buy a new model by making your old car suddenly seem obsolete.

It was commonplace even in the early days of the auto industry for automakers to roll out new wares every fall. Many did so reluctantly; most automakers were founded by engineers, who chafed at having to redesign their products for anything as trivial as fashion. Even so, they were aware that cars were luxury goods, bought by moneyed classes that were accustomed to having the latest of everything. Furthermore, technology was evolving so rapidly that it was not at all impossible for a model to become genuinely obsolete in only a year.

Henry Ford wanted none of this. Henry had been a farmer before he started making cars, and he saw the automobile as a tool, like a shovel or a tractor. The epitome of his philosophy, the Model T, was intended as a simple, utilitarian design that could be gradually perfected, allowing it to be produced for ever-lower prices. That isn't to say the Model T didn't undergo visual and mechanical changes over its long history, but they were not readily apparent. They were certainly not enough to make you want to rush out and buy another Ford, unless you had just wrapped the previous one around a tree. After all, you don't buy another shovel just because the new ones have different-colored handles.

Since Ford dominated the auto market in the 1910s and early 1920s, other automakers followed his lead for a number of years. It wasn't until 1923, shortly after our old pal Alfred P. Sloan became president of General Motors, that the annual model change once again reared its gaudily colored head. GM's 1923 annual report was actually apologetic about it, although the practice would prove highly lucrative in the years to come.


Alfred Sloan felt that treating cars as durable goods -- appliances to be replaced only when the old one wears out -- was a waste of profit potential. If your product never really changes, repeat customers are few and far between. To encourage buyers to return more frequently, Sloan proposed that each year's new model should be more exciting and more attractive than the last, to make customers dissatisfied with their current cars. It was a strategy that later became known as planned obsolescence.

Sloan's ideas really took flight in 1927, when he hired Harley J. Earl to head the new Art & Colour section. Earl's team of stylists and designers would create a new look for each year's cars. The annual facelifts were expensive, but they kept buyers interested, and made the competition scramble to keep up. Restyling was also a lot cheaper than genuine technological innovation, about which Sloan was dubious. Sloan felt it was important to maintain parity with the competition, but he considered true novelty to be a risky gamble.

By the 1950s, GM had refined this process to a high art, forcing its competitors to follow suit. Each summer's rollout of the new models had the same fervor and manufactured excitement that today accompanies the release of blockbuster summer movies. Even people who weren't in the market for a new car would often stop by the local dealership for the dramatic unveiling of the new models. GM, never one to do things small, added to the enthusiasm by staging its own traveling auto show, the Motorama, which whetted the public's appetite with gleaming prototypes and wild-looking concept designs.

The cars themselves were a curious mixture of the new and the familiar. Each year's styling was different, of course, sometimes radically, and every so often, there would be a major technological advance, some of which lasted (automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering), some of which didn't (air suspension). For the most part, though, actual mechanical changes were minor, although the breathless prose coming out of the press office might have made you think otherwise. (One of Sloan's original arguments for the annual model changeover was that it would let GM get some publicity value out of small, incremental modifications that otherwise would have passed unnoticed.)



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>>"The '61's windshield, meanwhile, no longer wraps around, eliminating the obnoxious "dogleg" A-pillars and making it much easier to climb in or out without bashing your knees."<<

Anyone who commonly lifts their knees, in a full-size car, to just about the literal height of the base of the windshield to enter a car, has other issues.

From all the people I've know who've owned '59-60 GMs over the years, the only person EVER to hit his knee on a '59 dogleg was 6-foot 8-inches tall.

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