TCS Daily


The Passing of a Landmark

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - May 5, 2004 12:00 AM

It was a sad thing and barely noticed, last Thursday, when the last Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line in Lansing, Mich. Oldsmobile, one of the oldest and most venerated names in motordom -- one of the brands instrumental in the formation of General Motors -- no longer fits in GM's plans. Thus passes an important part of America's automobile heritage.

The Olds Motor Vehicle Company, formed by Ransom E. Olds on August 21, 1897, was the first automobile company in the state of Michigan. He planned to build both gas and electric vehicles at prices of "$600 and upward." The emphasis was on "upward." Autos were still the playthings of the rich because, in addition to their reputation for being noisy, "newfangled" and unreliable, they were unable to compete economically with the horse.

A family could own a buggy and a horse for about $500 at that time and yearly boarding for the horse cost less than $200. But Olds was one of those early pioneers who believed that autos held promises for mobility far outdistancing the horse. Early ads for his cars noted modestly and hopefully, "Can be Operated by the Inexperienced."

Over the next few years the company produced 11 different vehicles, large and small, gasoline and electric, in its plant at 1299 Jefferson Ave., in Detroit. Olds and his aides were trying to decide what model would be most appealing to the public. A disaster and a quick-thinking employee provided the answer.

When a fire swept through the Olds Motor Works in 1901, the company's timekeeper, James Brady managed to push one vehicle out of the building just before the roof came crashing down. It was a lightweight experimental gas-powered two-seater buggy. It turned out to be the prototype of a legend.

This experimental car became the famous "curved dash runabout," the world's first mass-produced automobile. A one-cylinder car, its price was, as GM historians would later note, at "horse-trading level -- only $650." The appealing little car, with a graceful trademark upward curve at the front of its carriage body, ignited huge mass-market appeal and quickly became the "Merry Oldsmobile" of song and story.

By 1904 an astonishing 12,500 curved dash Oldsmobiles had been sold, even though there were few miles of paved roads and no gas stations. Gas was bought, often by the quart, in drug stores, hardware stores and groceries. Olds drivers boasted of getting 50 miles on five quarts. Oldsmobile was the leading American carmaker (upstart Cadillac was second). The car's popularity had forced the company to adopt what were essentially assembly-line methods that would later be perfected by Henry Ford.

The Oldsmobile looked pretty much like a buggy without a horse. It was steered by a brass "tiller." There was no windshield; just the tufted leather seat, that curved dash, and, as early advertisements boasted, "nothing to watch but the road." The 95.4 cubic-inch engine was remarkably quiet thanks to a gigantic muffler, and it turned over at a soporific 500 rpm, engendering the then famous Olds tagline "one chug per telegraph pole."

By 1905, Ransom Olds had left the company to build a new car, the Reo (its name derived from his initials), and the tumultuous market rivalry in the auto business was already sorting out competitors. By 1906 Ford was the leading automaker and the brilliant William Crapo Durant was already maneuvering toward the formation of something called General Motors.

GM was incorporated in September 1908 (in Hudson County, N.J.). Within two months Oldsmobile and another promising car, Buick, were in its fold. By the end of 1909 Cadillac and Oakland (the precursor to Pontiac) were part of the GM line-up.

By 1910, Oldsmobile was building huge, powerful and impressive "touring cars," like the Limited, which sat on 42-inch wheels and had a six-cylinder engine that displaced 707 (!) cubic inches (in contrast to, say, the 345 cubic inches of the "big" V-8 in a 2004 Dodge Durango).

As General Motors rapidly grew into a world automotive giant, Oldsmobile became the mainstay car in the center of the American model line up. By 1916, GM had built a million cars. The millionth was an Oldsmobile. Olds was often the technical leading edge for GM. In 1938, for instance, Oldsmobile was the first to offer the option of a "safety automatic transmission" (a clutch pedal was still necessary to engage it from stop). In 1939, Oldsmobile introduced the world-changing "Hydra-Matic Drive," the first reliable fully automatic transmission. It was a $57 option that year.

When auto production began again at the end of World War II, Oldsmobile advertised the Hydramatic transmission heavily. GM chief Alfred Sloan believed automatic drive was key in putting more and more women behind the wheel. Olds ads boasted of "The drive that shifts for itself! And takes the clutch pedal right out of the car." A series of 1947 ads featured stylish women in the latest fashions gazing back proudly at their "smart" Oldsmobiles with Hydramatic transmissions.

In February 1948, halfway through the model year, Oldsmobile unveiled GM's first truly new post-War design, the "Futuramic" 98 line. The lower, wider, sleeker cars were an immediate success, and in the fall, as the 1949 models were introduced, they received an engine worthy of them.

This was the Oldsmobile Rocket V-8, which, like its big-sister Cadillac's motor, introduced the same year, was an overhead-valve, high-compression engine, capable of running faster, cooler and with less friction than previous V-8s. These were the engines that started the horsepower race of the 1950s and '60s.

The Cadillac engine was in, well, a Cadillac -- a car out of the price range of most people. But the Olds Rocket was available as an option in the lower-priced 88 series cars. These cars, smaller and lighter than the top line 98s, gave the 135-horsepower Rocket engine a dream platform for the speed minded. A rocket-powered 88 convertible was the pace car at the 1949 Indianapolis 500 race.

Although I was not yet old enough to drive, I had a friend who had a gray 1949 Olds 88 convertible with stick shift and overdrive. We would challenge anyone to beat it over the five miles from the Rustic Inn, in Rector, Pa., to the "Diamond," the town square in Ligonier. It was crazy. With the top down the trees along Route 381 were a green blur. The tires howled on he curves. We never lost.

By the early 1950s the Oldsmobile Rocket was a totem of speed and coolness. Guys dreamed of cruising the boulevards in an 88 hardtop with the engine burbling through glasspak mufflers. Olds coolness engendered what some purists still argue was the first true rock n' roll song -- "Rocket '88'" -- recorded on the Chess label in April 1951 by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats.

None other than Ike Turner can be heard at the keyboard on this in-your-face paean to drinking and driving, featuring such lyrics as "Goin' round the corner and get a fifth/ Everybody in my car's gonna take a little nip/ Move on out, oozin' and cruisin' along." Needless to say, Oldsmobile did not use this song in their advertising.

In the 1960s, Oldsmobile produced some notable muscle cars, particularly the Hurst series, and in 1966 it led GM into the front-wheel drive era with a memorable tour de force -- the massive, blade-lined Olds Toronado. It was the first front-wheel drive production car in the United States since the legendary Cords of the 1930s. Although it was expensive (base price $4617) the Toronado proved a sensation, selling 40,963 the first year. These cars, with their minimal chrome and remarkably clean, muscular styling, are now collectors' items, ranking among the most sought-after of all Oldsmobiles.

In the 1970s Oldsmobile often ranked a solid third or fourth in American car sales, sometimes selling more than a million cars a year. But unexceptional design and poor build quality (which plagued American cars in general) began to take its toll. Olds began to slip in the '80s and '90s. It still built some solid, reliable cars, but there was little to catch fire with the public. If GM was struggling to find itself and regain its former reputation, Oldsmobile was in the middle of the struggle.

Lame attempts to assure the public that its new offerings were "not your father's Oldsmobile," were sadly typical of the fading of a great nameplate over the past decade. Indifferent little cars with embarrassingly coined names like Achieva only added to the entropic atmosphere.

Now one of the great standards of the American road has become a collector's item. After building 35.2 million cars, Oldsmobile, a name second only to Daimler in longevity, will now grow old...old, older, as a part of automotive history.

Ralph Kinney Bennett recently wrote for TCS about The Sixth Pillar.


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