From Buick One to Olds One
I was transferred from Buick One to Oldsmobile One Exterior Studio in late 1985. Olds One was a crazy studio even by Design Staff standards. One story comes to mind. Peggy Lee recorded a song called Is That All There Is? in the ’50s that was so depressing that it was pulled from many radio stations at the time because of an increase in the suicide rate. Well, some unscrupulous sculptor recorded the song on both sides of a 90-minute cassette and played it continually for weeks every day in the studio. Needless to say my morale didn’t exactly soar being tortured by that song over and over again. The Gestapo couldn’t have used a more effective brainwashing tool. Looking back on it though it’s pretty funny.
We were working on some platform for a sporty 2+2 car of some sort. I did sketches of proposals for that car and the other projects in the studio and hung them with the other wallpaper I continuously produced. In that studio at the time it was difficult to get anything on the car unless you were, well, running the studio. But Dave Holls, one of the directors, came through and sometimes actually looked at sketches. He seemed to see something in a couple of sketches that I did and asked me to do a full-sized airbrush rendering of the design, which I did.
Early Achieva Concepts
At the same time, Olds Two studio was struggling coming up with a new design as a replacement for the Cutlass Calais (which would eventually be renamed Achieva). Dave looked at my airbrush and asked me to try the design again on the Calais platform, and I came up with a red rendering of a revised proposal. When the rendering was finished, someone must have liked it, because they took it out of Olds One and hung it up in Olds Two. Dave North was the Studio Chief and Ed Welburn his assistant. I remember they started to model the car but were having some trouble capturing the feeling of the rendering. I was asked to help them by drawing a 3300 section to start the body side modeling. The front and rear profiles could be taken from the full sized rendering.
Early Achieva full-size airbrush rendering
Hide the Model
Well, there were several very talented sculptors in Olds One, and the car was starting to come together. So much so that Dave Holls decided to hide the model in the basement and finish it down there before somebody higher up would see it and want to change something before the original design statement could be presented. The model was finished and a fiberglass styling model was made to freeze the design statement. What made the design unique was it was a shouldered design where the upper sat on the lower instead of a monocoque which was trendy at the time.
Achieva Fiberglass Model, The Red Car. It was a 2-door on one side and a 4-door on the other.
Because I suppose the rendering was red and the fiberglass model was red, it became known as the red car. It was designed in 1986, but didn’t come out until 1992. The design affected the Olds 98 and 88 that were designed after the Acheiva but came out sooner.
Studio photos showing the fiberglass model in the background, as development progresses productionizing the design.
Dave North and Ed Welburn standing in front of my rendering.
From left to right: Dave North, Charlie Stewart, Chuck Jordan, and Dave Holls at a Design Staff styling model patio review.
Patio review of the Olds Achieva clay model in process. There would be many such reviews.
Side view of the car shows how closely the model profile resembles the original red rendering, except for the roofline.
The Achieva was built off of the same platform as the Buick Skylark and the Pontiac Grand Am. But the Achieva lost the upper wars, so the coupe has the Grand Am upper, and the sedan had the Buick upper. The sedan looks especially bad with the Buick roof.
Olds produced the Achieva SCX W41 in 1992–93. It had the Olds designed and built 2.3 liter Quad Four engine that made about 190 hp.
My ’92 Achieva SCX I bought in 1998 from my now good friend, Tony Seritella. He bought it new when he worked for Oldsmobile. The straightforward design of the Achieva Coupe aged more gracefully than the Grand Am and Skylark with their busier designs.
Gary Smith was one of the top talents at GM Design Staff in the 1980’s.
I am an Industrial Designer and I bought an Achieva sedan brand new in ’94. I drove it for 11 years and was sad to let it go. I preferred the look of the sedan. The rear wheel well design was much more interesting on the sedan. The only thing I didn’t like about my car was the name. Thank you for all your work.
As an performance Oldsmobile fanatic, and owner of a well preserved ’92 SCX (among other performance Oldsmobiles), I really appreciate this column.
Just bought my second SCX, a 1992 trophy winner with 33k miles… Thank you for helping to design the two best cars I have ever owned 🙂
A white 1992 Achieva SCX was my first car. It was given to me brand new when I was in high school and I had it for 11 years. Even living in L.A. I have never seen a white SCX except mine (I did see a few red SCX’s). It has long since been sold and I regret doing so. Now I’m looking to buy another one (in white, of course).
Great article. My first car was a 1987 Olds Touring Sedan that I bought from my parents in 1994. I always appreciated the design of the Achieva, but I would really like to know more about the inside decision making behind the Touring Sedan. The pre-1991 cars seemed to be more solidly built and had better accessory switchgear and materials.
As you can sense in the two patio photos that included me, (I was an Olds II Designer at the time), there was consternation in many minds at the time regarding going “back” to an upper sitting on a shouldered lower – (as Gary had proposed in his sketches and red rendering). As it turned out, Gary was a “thinking outside the box” designer and with the beautifully executed show car and then the produced “Achieva” – Gary Smith became a “legend in his own time”. Such paradigm shifts are rare in the largely “play it safe” automobile design game. It’s been many years, but belated congratulations from me to a fellow designer. You did good work, Gary!
From an old car-guy,
I owned a used 60k mile 92 Acheiva SCX. I use to drive it in a 8k ft altitude area in Aspen, Colo. Used to love the power come in at 4k rpms. The altitude caused the power to be reduced by a 4th, so I had to start modifying it. Doing an equal lenght header helped the car to run better, and flattened out the torque curve. Taking it to be serviced to the dealership proved to be funny when the techs came up to take the car inside to be serviced. I even got kicked out of a dealership once.
I bought a used 92 Achieva SC right out of trade school. That was a great design. I had one of everything else GM from the 90s too, but looking back that was just an all around great car. It’s certainly one of the best looking designs from that time!
Great article-congratulations. I agree that the other cars on this platform were not as successful (especially the Buick sad to say). I drove a rare 5-speed manual version owned by Dennis Little. It was really fun to drive.