Historic Car Brands
Oldsmobiles were first manufactured by the Olds Motor Vehicle Co, co-founded by Ransom E Olds, with financial backing from Samuel L Smith, in 1897. In 1901 the company produced 635 cars, using Dodge Brothers transmissions, making Oldsmobile the first high-volume, gasoline-powered automobile manufacturer.
1904 Oldsmobile – Doug Wilkinson
In 1896, Olds had completed his first gasoline-powered vehicle and the following year he founded Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan.
After the company moved into a new factory in Detroit, in 1900, at Smith’s insistence, Olds came up with an expensive luxury car, with pneumatic clutch and electric starter, but it failed to sell. The experiment cost the company a cool US$80 grand of 1900-year money.
To save the company, Olds came up with the legendary Curved-Dash, tiller-steered model. Then, a factory fire destroyed all of its cars except a small, one-cylinder, Curved-Dash model that was saved by the quick actions of some workers.
1905 hit song: ‘In My Merry Oldsmobile’
Light, reliable and relatively powerful, the Curved-Dash Oldsmobile caused a sensation at the New York Auto Show in 1901.
The curved-dash Oldsmobile was the first American car to be produced using an assembly-line system, pre-dating Henry Ford, but with a static line down which the workers moved. In contrast, Henry had static worker stations on a moving line.
Oldsmobile became the top-selling car in the USA in 1903–1904, but there were differences of opinion on the future direction of the company, with Olds wanting to keep producing small vehicles, while Smith and the other directors wanted large, luxury ones, despite the 1900 experience.
So with a winning product and the plant in full swing, Samuel Smith’s son, Frederick, organised a simple way of manoeuvring Ransom Olds out of his own company: he set up a secret experimental engineering shop, without Ransom’s knowledge.
Ransom Olds was reportedly furious and left the company in 1904, in much the same way Henry Ford was forced out of the Henry Ford Company and then started the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Olds founded the REO Company, using his initials for the new company name.
The Smiths and their director friends had fun ‘In Their Merry Oldsmobile’ – as the 1905 hit song went – until the money was gone. The last Oldsmobile Curved Dash was made in 1907 and General Motors purchased the company in 1908.
1910 Oldsmobile Limited Tourer – Sicnag
The 1910 Limited Touring Series 23 Limited was the prestige model in Oldsmobile’s two-model lineup, with the smaller Oldsmobile Autocrat Series 32. Powered by an 8.3-litre, T-head, cross-flow, side-valve engine, developing 60hp, the Limited was priced at the same level as a typical three-bedroom house!
The Limited was so high off the ground that it need double-step running boards. As if the engine wasn’t already large enough, it increased to 11.5 litres in 1911.
While Oldsmobile only sold 725 Limiteds in its three years of production, the car is best remembered for winning a race against the famed 20th Century Limited train, from Albany to New York City and a painting was created depicting the race.
Common sense eventually prevailed at Oldsmobile and the considerably more affordable and smaller Oldsmobile Series 40 was offered in 1912, followed by the Oldsmobile Light Eight in 1916.
Oldsmobile offered a Cadillac-sourced, four-litre, flathead V8 engine until 1923.
1916 Oldsmobile Model 44 Light Eight Four-Door Touring – Mr Choppers
In 1921, Oldsmobile offered an overhead-valve, 2.8-litre four that was shared with Chevrolet.
In 1926, the four was replaced by the Oldsmobile Six came in five body styles, built on the new ‘GM B platform’, shared with Buick products. That model picked up four-wheel brakes in 1927.
1928 Oldsmobile Model F-28 Four-Door Sedan – Lars-Goran Lindgren
In 1929, Oldsmobile introduced the higher-standard Viking brand, marketed through the Oldsmobile dealer network, but that idea was shelved after less than two years.
In 1932, Oldsmobile produced the Series F, with straight-six cylinder engine and the longer Series L with a four-litre, straight-eight. In 1935, controversial ‘turret top’ styling was introduced. This Fisher body, one-piece roof pressing in steel was billed as: ‘a fortress of protection over your head’.
1933 Oldsmobile F-33 Sport Coupe – Mr Choppers
In 1937, Oldsmobile introduced Buick’s four-speed semi-automatic transmission, called the ‘Automatic Safety Transmission’. It was followed by the first fully-automatic transmissions a year later, but these weren’t reliable until, in 1940, Oldsmobile promoted its ‘Hydramatic’ auto that featured four forward speeds, with the gear selector on the steering column.
1934 Oldsmobile Eight L34
The last pre-War Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line on February 5, 1942. During World War II, Oldsmobile produced materiel for the War effort, including large-calibre guns and shells.
GM in NZ
One of HV’s NZ contributors, Colin Miller, sent us this image of General Motors New Zealand Ltd’s assembly plant at Petone. He thinks the photo was taken about 1935, because there is a 1935 Oldsmobile sitting just outside the back door.
The crates lying to left of the plant show how the CKD (Completely Knocked Down) components were delivered from Canada to New Zealand.
GMNZ was established by General Motors Canada in 1926. Chevrolet cars and trucks; Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick cars; and Opel, Vauxhall and Holden cars were assembled at Petone. The plant grew in size and complexity until the War intervened in the 1940s, when production was changed to a war-footing, before resuming car production post-War.
Canadian-sourced vehicles were phased out in 1969, when US-Canadian industry jointly decided to stop producing RHD assembly kits.
However, GMNZ built a much larger assembly plant at Trentham, in time for the arrival of the Holden Camira (J-Body) in 1982. Holden production continued at Trentham until closure in 1992, leaving a vacant complex and over 400 jobs lost.
Recovery was not possible, because of the global swing to cheaper Japanese cars and trucks.
The assembly era in New Zealand finished for GMNZ, Ford NZ and Campbell Motors (Peugeot, Rambler, Renaults and early Datsuns, Toyota Corollas and Isuzu Belletts) when Toyota, Mitsubishi and Mazda switched to fully built-up imports. The rest is history.
In the USA, Oldsmobile car production resumed on October 15, 1945, with a warmed-over 1942 model serving as the offering for 1946. Incidentally, by 1948 Hydramatic take up was around 75-percent of all Oldsmobile production.
1940 Oldsmobile Dynamic Series 70 Sedan – Sicnag
The 1948 Oldsmobile 98 models sported new ‘Futuramic’ styling and that shape was applied across the body range in 1949. The styling featured split, curved windscreens and wrap-around rear windows.
Oldsmobile pioneered GM’s overhead-valve, V8 initiative with the five-litre,1949 Rocket engine that overtook ‘flathead’ designs. Overhead valves were nothing new, but this was a first for a US-market production V8.
1949 Rocket V8 – Zandome
With 135hp on tap this engine produced far more power than other engines that were popular during that era, and found favour with hot-rodders and stock car racers. The basic design, with a few minor changes, endured until Oldsmobile redesigned its V8 engines in the mid-1960s, at which point the Rocket derivate was good for 240hp.
By 1955, nearly every American automaker offered an OHV V8 engine. Those that couldn’t keep up, including Hudson, Nash and Packard, didn’t last long.
1953 Oldsmobile 98 Convertible – Lars-Goran Lindgren
Oldsmobile was among the first of General Motors’ divisions to receive a true, ‘pillarless’ hardtop, in 1950, called the ‘Holiday Coupe’.
In the early- to mid-1950s, Oldsmobile’s Rocket V8 engine was the leader in performance; its cars were generally considered the fastest on the market and styling was among the first to offer wrap-around windscreens and a wide, ‘open mouth’ grille, suggestive of fighter jet propulsion.
1957 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight – Chiemseeman
However, General Motors’ styling lost its ‘leader’ status in 1957 when it was outdated by Chrysler. Some Oldsmobiles also had a ‘StratoRoof’ that many consumers disliked and forced a rapid redesign.
The 1958 Oldsmobiles were viewed by many as over-decorated ‘chrome-mobiles’, with heavily styled front facias, quad-headlights and massive vertical chrome taillight housings.
1958 Oldsmobile Eighty Eight – Sigmund
In 1959, Oldsmobile models were completely redesigned with a rocket motif from front to rear, as the top of the front fenders had a chrome rocket, while the body-length fins were shaped as rocket exhausts which culminated in a fin-top taillight.
1959 Oldsmobiles were offered with an ‘Autronic Eye’, dashboard-mounted automatic headlight dimmer, as well as factory-installed air conditioning and power-operated front bench seat as options. The 1959 body style was continued through the 1960 model year, but the fins were reduced for 1960 and the taillights were moved to the bottom of the fenders.
1961 Oldsmobile Starfire Convertible – Mr Choppers
Notable achievements for Oldsmobile in the 1960s included the introduction of the first turbocharged engine and a factory water injection system in 1962 – the Turbo Jetfire – the 1966 Toronado front-wheel drive car; the glass-roof Vista Cruiser station wagon and the 442 muscle car.
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado – Neils de Wit
Oldsmobile briefly used the names ‘Jetstar 88’ (1964–1966) and ‘Delmont 88’ (1967–1968) on its least expensive, full-sized models in the 1960s. In 1968 the split grille appearance was introduced and remained a traditional feature until production ended in 2004.
1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass Hardtop – That Hartford Guy
Based on popular designs, positive reviews from critics and perceived quality and reliability, the 1970s and 1980s were good years for Oldsmobile. The Cutlass series became North America’s top-selling car by 1976 and other models’ sales soared, reaching an all-time high of 1,066,122 in 1985.
1970 Oldsmobile 442 – Clever Curmudgeon
However, this popularity created a problem for the division, because in the 1977 model year demand exceeded production capacity for the Oldsmobile V8 and as a result, Oldsmobile began equipping most full-size Delta 88 models with the Chevrolet 350 engine.
Many customers were loyal Oldsmobile buyers who specifically wanted the Rocket V8 and buyer revolt created a public relations nightmare for GM.
In the cleanup, GM stopped associating engines with particular divisions and stated that all GM engines were produced by ‘GM Powertrain’.
1977 Oldsmobile Omega Sedan – Order-242
Market success deteriorated quickly for Oldsmobile and annual sales had fallen to just 402,936 in 1993, thanks to competition from other GM brands and Japanese imports.
1987-88 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale – 87-Delta
However, in 1995, Oldsmobile introduced the Aurora, as an ‘import fighter’. Nearly all familiar model names were gradually phased out: the Cutlass Calais in 1991; the Toronado and Custom Cruiser in 1992; the Ninety-Eight and Ciera in 1996; Cutlass Supreme in 1997 and the Eighty-Eight in 1999. They were replaced with newer, more modern models with designs inspired by the Aurora.
1996 Oldsmobile Aurora – Fly Brian
Oldsmobile debuted the Bravada SUV in December 2000, but a reported shortfall in sales and profitability prompted General Motors to announce – two days later – its plan to shut down the Oldsmobile brand.