In the 1980s and 1990s, young professionals sold their cheap cars and brought home BMWs, Acuras, and Lexus vehicles. A new era of luxury had begun — one where cars shook off chrome and put on tight suspensions, ample power, and understated designs. Oldsmobile didn’t want to get left out and decided to create its own luxury sport sedan to go up against the imports. The result was the Oldsmobile LSS, a car that tried to beat the imports and really turned out to be a GM H-body gem.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a look at the Acura 3.2CL Type S with a manual transmission. The CL Series was an important car for Acura. While the brand had set its stakes in American soil, it didn’t sell vehicles designed by Americans. That changed with the CL Series as it was Acura’s first car to be designed by and entirely for Americans. The CL Series featured a luxurious interior and stout performance, but Acura never offered the Type S version with a manual transmission until 2003, and only for 2003.
Today, we’re staying in the same era that produced Acura itself, but focusing on how one division of General Motors sought to compete with luxury imports.
In the 1990s, Oldsmobile took its Eighty Eight sedan and spruced it up a bit with parts that you’d expect in a sport sedan, then called it the LSS. This Buick 3800 V6-powered H-body was supposed to lure young buyers away from Lexus, BMW, and Acura.
In the early 1980s, America’s economy reversed course from its 1970s slump. Buyers who were once concerned about a low purchase price and high fuel economy started selling off their cheap rides for something luxurious. During this era, luxury itself was undergoing a revolution. In the 1970s, luxury cars were ostentatious affairs with miles of chrome and lengths long enough to plant a Boeing 747 on.
In the 1980s, this sort of style began falling out of favor. Buyers scooped up luxury import cars that did away with the chrome and large bodies for slimmer, more subdued designs. Specifically, those buyers were picking up European imports from the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
This demand for luxury sport sedans in the 1980s, as well as Japan’s voluntary export restrictions, helped spur the creation of Honda’s Acura, Toyota’s Lexus, Nissan’s Infiniti, and Mazda’s stillborn Amati. Japanese brands also figured they could make the best of the export restrictions by selling higher-margin luxury cars. The brands showed that they could build attractive and sporty luxury cars. Highlights from the era include the Acura Legend, the Lexus LS400, and the Infiniti Q45.
These vehicles apparently sold well enough to attract the attention of General Motors, which made a push to compete with these fresh import faces.
Enter The Eighty Eight: A NASCAR Champion
In 1992, the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight, née 88, entered into its tenth generation. The nameplate had been a staple of Oldsmobile for 43 years by that point. Launched in 1949, the 88 quickly became Oldsmobile’s best selling and most profitable model, where it stuck until 1974.
Those first 88s rode on GM’s A-body platform, which the 88 shared with the 76. However, while the 76 had a straight-six, the 88 had a 303 cubic-inch Rocket V8. The small body and big engine configuration made the 135 horsepower 88 what NASCAR argues to be America’s first muscle car.
As NASCAR explains, the 76 was the same size but had less power while the 98 was larger and heavier. If you wanted a go-fast Oldsmobile, the 88 was your ticket. That’s exactly what drivers did in NASCAR. In 1949, Oldsmobile 88s took five of eight races that year. A year later, 88 Coupes took 10 of 19 wins, earning Oldsmobile NASCAR’s first Manufacturers’ Championship. Oldsmobile won it a second time in 1951 when 88 Coupes won 20 of 41 races.
The 88 wasn’t just a favorite of racing drivers, but of the illegal liquor industry as well. Those early 88s had that perfect combination of storage and speed, allowing drivers to outrun the cops with a car full of moonshine. Eventually, the Hudson Hornet would beat the 88 in competition, but the 88 had already reached stardom. The 88 was so popular that even music praised the vehicle. Rocket 88 by “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats,” really Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, reached number one on a Billboard chart.
The 88 would continue to evolve over several generations, gaining size, chrome, fins, and even bigger V8 engines. At some point, you could even order your 88 with a 455 cubic inch V8 with 390 gross horsepower. By 1977, the 88 would enter its eigth generation. Like many models during that era, the 88 was downsized considerably, given a blocky design and saw its engines shrink to match. Then, in 1986, the 88 downsized even further and moved to General Motors’ H-body platform, becoming a front-wheel-drive vehicle. In 1989, the 88 would be renamed the Eighty Eight.
Today’s car comes from the tenth and final generation of the Eighty Eight. In 1992, Oldsmobile unveiled the new Eighty Eight. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991, the new car featured the technology of the time such as a side air bag, anti-lock brakes, a computer-controlled automatic transmission, and modern crush zones. The publication noted that the new Eighty Eight was essentially a rolling hotel room for six people. However, the Los Angeles Times wrote “It has neither gumption nor mechanical innovation” while stating that the vehicle had really nothing to get excited over.
As the Los Angeles Times continued, Oldsmobile itself was fighting an image problem. The brand had a lineup of cars with overstuffed interiors and little excitement. Younger buyers appeared to not be interested. Oldsmobile certainly felt the pain with its sales. In 1990, the automaker moved 537,856 units and by the end of the decade in 1999, Oldsmobile moved 352,163 units after dipping as low as 304,759 in 1997.
One of the vehicles that was supposed to jump-start Oldsmobile was the Aurora. Released in 1994 for the 1995 model year, the Aurora leapfrogged Oldsmobile design from the early 1990s to something that could pass for an early 2000s vehicle. The Aurora was beautiful, advanced, and a fitting flagship. Of course, with the power of hindsight, we know that the Aurora did not save Oldsmobile. But before the fire flamed out, the Aurora trickled some of its ideas down the line.
In the middle of the 1992 model year, the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight Royale got a sort of performance package called the LSS, or “Luxury Sports Sedan.” This took a high trim level Eighty Eight Royale and added an FE3 sport suspension, a floor-mounted shifter (standard Eighty Eights had column shifters), alloy wheels, and bucket seats. Those parts, plus an optional supercharged GM 3800 V6, were supposed to convince American buyers to go with an Oldsmobile instead of that Acura.
This is not our grail — that would come a few years later. My wife, Sheryl, made a plea in last week’s Holy Grails for the Oldsmobile LSS, the standalone version of Oldsmobile’s attempt to sway import buyers. A lot of you upvoted her comment:
Please upvote this so my lovely, gorgeous, and brilliant wife can make the supercharged Oldsmobile LSS, a standalone model for only two years of which there are maybe a couple thousand remaining total, the next Holy Grail. (Thanks to my dad and grandma, I will forever love Oldsmobile and Pontiac, two brands that no longer exist lol).
I mean – it was a shortlived cross between the 88 and Aurora that GM actually pitched as a competitor for BMW and Lexus. That’s just amazing in its audacity. Also, I miss mine.
Your wish is my command! Introduced in the 1995 model year, the Oldsmobile LSS was a Frankenstein monster of sorts. Oldsmobile sold it as a standalone model, but it had a largely unchanged body and powertrain of the Eighty Eight but with a bit of flair dragged down from the Aurora’s orbit.
Oldsmobile brought a lot of small changes to the Eighty Eight to better equip it in a fight against luxury imports. The Eighty Eight and LSS got a new face evoking Oldsmobile’s “Hammer” design study of 1993. This gave the refreshed cars a far more modern front end that’s far more pleasing to the eye than the previous design. Among those changes include thinner headlights, a twin-port grille, and some minimal sculpting that makes the car look a bit more racy.
Trickling down from Aurora is a new badging scheme where the car minimizes any text saying Oldsmobile. There’s a stylized Oldsmobile logo up front and just “LSS” everywhere else. Oldsmobile gets a tiny mention on the trunk lid. The five-spoke wheels are also another Aurora design trait to make it over.
Inside, Oldsmobile continued the Aurora inspirations by giving occupants leather thrones to sit in. The main difference between the LSS seats and the Aurora seats are that the LSS seats didn’t get the flagship’s lumbar adjustments. Weirdly, if you didn’t like leather, you could downgrade the interior to cloth if you wanted to.
Capping off the features list is faux wood trim, dual-zone climate control, heated mirrors, automatic headlights and even an optional primitive Oldsmobile Guidestar GPS-based navigation system that stuck off of the dashboard. Under the hood, the LSS is motivated by GM’s venerable 3800 V6 Series II, which pushed 205 HP to the front wheels in naturally aspirated form or 240 HP with a supercharger.
In Oldsmobile’s marketing, the automaker named direct targets. The automaker said that the LSS is a worthy competitor to the Infiniti J30, Lexus ES300, and Acura Legend. Oldsmobile also made it clear that it really just wanted any and all import buyers to give America’s sports sedan a go.
Now, before you laugh, the LSS tested well with reviewers in its day, even “romp[ing]” its V8-powered Aurora sibling. Here’s what MotorTrend had to say:
All the energy so discreetly bottled up under the hood pours forth on cue from the throttle. Accelerating from rest to 60 mph is a torquey 6.9-second process, while the quarter-mile trip takes only 15 seconds and delivers a terminal velocity of 94.2 mph. In case you’ve fallen behind in your Road Test Review studies, the Oldsmobile LSS easily eclipses every Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus sedan currently sold in the U.S., as well as an impressive list of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo models. (It also romps the V-8 Aurora, which carries 400 pounds more weight and produces 20 pound-feet less torque.) The only real down side to the LSS’s prodigious power is evident when booted in the lower gears; during the first couple of seconds under full throttle, the front tires feel like they’re guided more by torque steer than the steering wheel.
Blend somewhat-more-restrained acceleration with a bit of cornering, and the LSS takes a firm set, with fairly firm shock damping to quell the body roll. Fat Goodyear Eagle GA 225/60SR16 tires bite into the skidpad at 0.80 g, a level of adhesion fully competitive with the import sedans Oldsmobile has targeted. Although a long-wheelbase, 3600-pound front-driver is a handful to hustle through any slalom course, the LSS doesn’t embarrass itself with crippling understeer or a wagging tail. We clocked a slalom speed of 60.8 mph-not exactly BMW-chasing, but only 0.1 mph slower than the Infiniti J30.
The positive reviews even predated the LSS as a standalone car. In 1994, Oldsmobile’s marketing quoted other publications, where Car and Driver apparently said: “Demand to be handed the keys to the Eighty Eight LSS.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times said: “You could spend more than $10,000 over the LSS Special Edition’s price and not get as good a car.” Though, perhaps my favorite review was a November 1992 issue of Popular Mechanics where the highlight of the magazine’s Eighty Eight Royale LSS tester was the fact that it didn’t break.
Speaking of marketing, Oldsmobile had some wild commercials for the LSS, including a drag race between two imports and a chef plus a race with a cheetah:
Sheryl, my wife, owned a 1997 Oldsmobile LSS for about a month. I got to take the vehicle on a couple of road trips and honestly, I’m not entirely sure what Oldsmobile was thinking. When this car was on sale, you could buy a classy Lexus ES300 or a stately BMW E39. My acceleration times were on par with period reviews. Indeed, the LSS was fast in a straight line, but it didn’t quite hit the mark with handling. But, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I found the LSS to be more comfortable than Sheryl’s current E39 wagon. The LSS floated down the road and made me feel as if I was commanding a pair of sofas with wheels attached to them. Sadly, the vehicle was killed by poor workmanship at a repair shop, but that’s for another day.
As for production numbers? It’s hard to say. I’ve seen some enthusiasts estimate that somewhere around a couple thousand of them were made, but that isn’t backed up by sources. Further, it appears that when Oldsmobile tallied up its sales, it lumped the LSS in together with the Eighty Eight. What I can say is that the LSS disappeared after 1999 and there are far more regular Eighty Eights out there than the LSS sibling.
GM’s H-body was shared between the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight and LSS, the Buick LeSabre, and the Pontiac Bonneville. While performance was similar between the three, the LSS stands out for at least trying to emulate the import experience but in an American car.
Sheryl generally keeps tabs on LSS for sale around America and currently, there are just a few out there. While there may not be many Oldsmobile LSS out there, collectors don’t appear to be snapping them up. The highest-priced one I’ve seen in the past year was $7,000, and it had under 50,000 miles. So, if you’re looking for a classic GM front-driver that apparently had the grunt to keep up with the imports, an Oldsmobile LSS is a cheap highway bomber to play with.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
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