When the battery in one of my two collector cars, a 1954 Oldsmobile Holiday 88 two-door coupe, up and died the other day for no apparent reason, I figured it gave up the ghost in sheer sympathy with the marque. Alas, America's oldest make of automobile, founded in 1897, Oldsmobile was given its final pink slip in December.
The brand's failure, the result of slumping sales in a division that not long ago had the best selling car in America for half a dozen years, was widely attributed to poor marketing in recent years. Whatever the reason, when one of the biggest corporate brand names in manufacturing -- one that was known as a technology leader over the years -- bites the dust, it seems to me that a eulogy is in order.
A case could be made that Ransom E. Olds, not Henry Ford, was the real father of the American automobile industry. Oldsmobile built its first car in 1897. Although it wasn't the first American car on the market, it predated Ford and it remains the oldest name in automobiles today. The famous curved-dash Olds was a big hit with early buyers of the horseless carriage.
You can still see some of these grand old vehicles at car shows, especially those put on by the two vintage Oldsmobile clubs, the National Antique Oldsmobile Club Inc., and the Oldsmobile Club of America. Oldsmobile demonstrated its ability to create new technology and then put it on the road on numerous occasions in its century-plus of existence. In the 1940s, Oldsmobile enjoyed a reputation as the corporation's experimental division, coming up with breakthrough technologies that transformed not only car-buyers' minds, but the entire industry as well.
This daring attitude with regard to innovation was well deserved -- two of the division's biggest breakthroughs were unveiled that decade, one before the war and one after. Olds was the first U.S.-built car to offer a production model with a truly automatic transmission, the fabled Hydramatic unit, in 1940. Hydramatics were built up until very recently, and were used not only by GM makes, but also by Hudson and other car brands in the 1950s. Far ahead of its time, the Hydramatic was a four-speed with planetary gears. It replaced the old three-speed syncromesh transmission that some car makes used into the 1950s and beyond.
Remarkably, in 1940 Olds asked a mere $57 for the automatic transmission option, far less than its development and manufacturing costs would demand for the automaker to recover its investment. Nonetheless, to its credit, GM saw the Hydramatic's successful introduction as a necessary step to achieve greater sales down the road. With more people able to drive, the market would be expanded. No more would the inability to operate a standard-shift prohibit someone from buying a car.
In the first two years on the market, Oldsmobile sold 130,000 Hydramatic-equipped automobiles.
Oldsmobile also was the first to introduce the motoring public to a modern, powerful overhead-valve V-8 engine, with the debut in 1949 of its famed Rocket motor. Sister division Cadillac had a production V-8 power plant since 1914, but it was a side-valve, flathead unit with less power and less efficiency. Ford and other makes had similar engines, and while they were adequate for motoring tastes in the prewar days of the Depression, in the postwar era of the late 1940s, car buyers hungered for something new, something more. Oldsmobile came up with that something.
Under the guidance of Charles F. Kettering of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories (forerunner of the GM Research Laboratories), the division began developing an overhead-valve V-8. With the new Rocket motor, Oldsmobile proceeded to burn up the track, posting numerous wins on the stock-car circuit in the early 1950s, rivaled only by the twin-carbureted, six-cylinder-engine behemoths built by Hudson Motor Car Co.
Oldsmobile later was displaced at the track by Chrysler, with its now-famous hemispherical-head engine, but by contrast, the Chrysler power plant was heavier and more costly to produce than the Rocket motor. Oldsmobile spent more than $10 million on a new production plant to build Rocket engines. It was fitted with the latest in automation, including electronic control panels and quality inspection equipment.
Olds achieved another technology breakthrough in the mid-1960s with the introduction of front-wheel drive in its flashy Toronado line. The car proved to be a harbinger of today's cars, many of which are front-wheel driven. Olds had experimented with a front-mounted drive unit as early as 1959 as a means to improve the traction of front-engined cars. The Toronado had its debut in 1966. It could do zero to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds, and had a top speed of 130 mph -- not bad for 1966!
Styling-wise, Oldsmobile's biggest trouble of the 1990s was, ironically, the same one the division had faced during the Depression: sameness with other GM makes. Up until 1936, GM's Art and Color Section had responsibility for the bodies of all car divisions vested in the same staff. Similarly, in the last decade, Oldsmobile and other GM divisions churned out cars year after year that looked increasingly alike, much to the dismay of car buyers. No wonder cars such as the Plymouth Prowler (also an orphan make!), the new Chrysler PT Cruiser, and the soon-to-be released 2002 Ford Thunderbird have engendered such applause and excitement with the public!
In 1936 GM's legendary automotive design chief Harley Earl separated the design unit, assigning staff to each marque. It was the threat of sameness that loomed over all GM makes that Earl perceived as running counter to the interests of the corporation.
In its final years, Oldsmobile desperately needed some of that innovative, "can do" attitude that it lost as the result of continual reorganizations and upheavals as GM struggled to compete in a rapidly changing market. Lacking the vision of an R. E. Olds, a Harley Earl, or a Charles F. Kettering, Oldsmobile was allowed to run out of gas.
In addition to the cars the division will produce over the next few years of its phaseout, the legacy of Oldsmobile will continue in the thousands of vintage Oldsmobiles that owners like myself maintain and preserve.
Doug Bartholomew is an IW senior editor based in San Francisco.