Oldsmobile is a marque steeped in automotive history.
At 107 years old t, it was one of the oldest automotive brands in the world at the time of its discontinuation. A product of the mind of Ransom Eli Olds, the Olds Motor Works was founded by its namesake in 1897.
Born in June of 1864, in Geneva, Ohio, Ransom Olds’ dad was a blacksmith, a machinist, and a pattern maker, who also built and repaired steam engines. Ransom learned his craft at his father’s feet tinkering with engines and the like. Although a high school dropout, Olds did attend Lansing Business College for a time. By 1896 he was selling his first car, the renowned “curved dash” Olds. Investors took an interest in his work and by 1899 he’d found enough capital to form the Olds Motor Works.
He used the cash to buy out his father’s business and built upon it. By 1904, Olds had sold more than 5,000 cars, easily making Olds Motor Works automobiles the best-selling cars in America at the time. While Henry Ford is credited with developing the assembly line, the truth is Ransom Olds did so. He even patented it. However Ford’s version of the assembly line was more efficient than the one Olds created because Ford’s line moved. Another little-known fact, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile was actually the first volume produced, affordable mainstream automobile—not the Ford Model T.
In 1904, in the midst of this success, Olds found himself embroiled in a rather serious disagreement with the leader of his financiers. Like so many automotive entrepreneurs who would come behind him, Ransom Olds found himself having to leave his company. Olds sold the bulk of his stock in the company and left to found a new one—the REO Motor Car Company.
Interestingly, the name Oldsmobile happened by accident. Ransom Olds called his products Olds Automobiles; the moniker was shortened to Oldsmobile in the popular vernacular. In other words, the public eventually named the marque.
The company went on without Olds at its helm and was eventually sold to William C. Durant as the second General Motors brand. With that, Olds Automobiles became formally known as the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors. GM positioned Olds as a luxury marque, above Chevrolet and below Cadillac in the GM hierarchy of brands.
One of the first GM Oldsmobile cars to attain notoriety was the 1910 Oldsmobile Limited Touring. The Limited Touring featured goatskin upholstery, a 60 horsepower, 11.6-liter inline six-cylinder engine, a Bosch Magneto starter, running boards, and seating for five. A speedometer, a clock, and a full glass windshield were offered as optional equipment. The Limited Touring’s renown arose from the fact it raced one of the fastest trains of its day, the 20th Century Limited—and won.
The first Oldsmobile to use a V8 engine was launched in 1916, the Oldsmobile 44 Light Eight. This was the forerunner to another of Oldsmobile’s pre-war iconic models; the 1921 Oldsmobile Model 46. Capable of seating seven, the Oldsmobile 46 is probably best known (even though you probably didn’t know it was an Oldsmobile) as “Jed Clampett’s” nephew “Jethro Bodine’s” truck from the Beverly Hillbillies television show. Jethro’s Oldsmobile started life as a car and was converted into a flatbed truck. Not exactly glamorous, but hey— it was surrounded by swimming pools and movie stars.
In the 1930’s Oldsmobile models continued to reign supreme, although the financial meltdown leading to the Great Depression did put a damper on sales somewhat. However, it was during this period Oldsmobile cars became the first models to be offered with a semi- automatic transmission. Buick developed it, but Oldsmobile was the first to put it into production.
Equipped with a clutch pedal, the driver used the clutch to choose either the transmission’s low range or its high range. In high range, the transmission would shift itself from first to second to third to fourth gear—with no further action from the driver. In low range, it would shift itself between first and second gears only. The first fully automatic transmission also appeared in an Oldsmobile, in the 1940 models.
Production was suspended during the Second World War so the military could get the full usage of manufacturing facilities. After the war, Oldsmobile came back with an overhead valve V8, as opposed to the flathead V8s everyone else was using. Called the Rocket V8, it was so advanced it was used well into the middle 1950s. Thanks to the prodigious power produced by that engine, the 1950s Oldsmobile cars were the fastest cars on the market.
In the 1960’s Oldsmobile introduced the first turbocharged engine (the 1962 Oldsmobile Turbo Jetfire), the first modern front-wheel drive automobile (the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado) and the iconic Oldsmobile 442—based on the F-85/Cutlass.The 1964 442’s nomenclature was derived from the fact it was equipped with a four barrel carburetor, a four-speed manual transmission, and a dual exhaust system. Its engine produced 310 horsepower. For 1965, the definition of 442 was changed to reflect the 400 cubic-inch displacement of the new 345 horsepower engine.
Speaking of the Oldsmobile Cutlass, that model went through the 1970s and 80s as Oldsmobile’s best-selling model. In fact, during a few of those years it was the best-selling American car—period. Further, the 1976 Oldsmobile is noted for being the best selling car in all of North America that year. Sadly, all was not golden during this period; hungrily eyeing the sales of European competitors such as Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz— GM decided to get into the diesel business with a 5.7-liter gasoline V8 design—adapted to run on diesel.
Yeah, it didn’t work.
Going into the 1990’s, the automotive market had changed tremendously and the people minding the store at Oldsmobile were caught with a bunch of cars nobody really wanted. After enjoying so much success in the previous two decades, suddenly Oldsmobiles were old-folks cars.
(And no, the name didn’t help—OK?)
The euthanasia of the brand was announced during the press program for the last all-new Oldsmobile model, the 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada SUV. During the press program, the GM staffers were al called into a meeting. They returned with the news Oldsmobile was being discontinued—the day after the press had driven the all-new model for the first time
The last Oldsmobile was produced April 29, 2004.