Motoring Memories: Oldsmobile, 1897 2004 motoring memories
1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Bill Vance

Photo Gallery:
Oldsmobile, 1897-2004

When General Motors discontinued the Oldsmobile brand in 2004 it was not only America’s oldest continuous automobile maker, but one with a grand tradition of outstanding technical achievements.

Oldsmobile was the creation of Ransom Eli Olds, born in 1864 in Geneva, Ohio, the son of blacksmith Pliny F. Olds. The family moved to Lansing, Michigan in 1880 and started a company repairing machinery and building engines. Young Ransom joined the family firm in 1883, and completed a crude steam car in 1887, followed by an improved version in 1891 that was featured in the Scientific American.

But Olds favoured gasoline engines, and received a patent for a “vapor engine.” He built his first gasoline powered vehicle in 1896, and founded the Olds Motor Works on August 21, 1897.

Olds produced a few cars, then moved from Lansing to Detroit in 1900 where a disastrous plant fire in 1901 destroyed all of the company’s cars except a little one-cylinder Curved Dash gasoline model.

Since that was all it had, Olds returned to building Curved Dashes, and adopted the Oldsmobile name in 1901. The 318 kg (600 lb) toboggan-nosed runabout was light, strong, reliable and successful. Olds was enticed back to Lansing by local interests in 1902 where large-scale Curved Dash production made it America’s first quantity produced car.

Oldsmobile employee Roy Chapin drove a Curved Dash from Cleveland to New York in 1901 where it was exhibited at the New York Auto Show. With this excellent publicity the Olds was a sensation. The Curved Dash even inspired a famous song “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan.

Motoring Memories: Oldsmobile, 1897 2004 motoring memories
1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Click image to enlarge

A modified Curved Dash “Pirate” reached 54.38 mph on Ormond Beach, Florida in 1903, a class speed record. In 1904 two Curved Dashes, “Old Steady” and “Old Scout,” drove 6,440 km (4,000 mi.) coast to coast in the U.S. in 44 days.

Ransom Olds left the company in 1904 over a difference with a board of directors who favoured larger, heavier cars than Ransom’s beloved Curved Dash. He then established a car company called Reo, derived from his initials.

Although Oldsmobile introduced two-, four-, and six-cylinder cars, financial difficulties loomed by 1908. In November, it was bought by Billy Durant for his new General Motors conglomerate.

After a fling at luxury cars, Oldsmobile settled on medium-priced models, where it made steady progress. It produced a V8 engine from 1916 to 1923, but in 1924 went back to sixes. The Viking V8 introduced in 1929 lasted only a year.

Motoring Memories: Oldsmobile, 1897 2004 motoring memories
1940 Oldsmobile with Hydra-Matic transmission. Click image to enlarge

Although losing money in the early 1930s, Oldsmobile survived the Depression with a solid line of six- and eight-cylinder cars. It introduced the “Safety Automatic Transmission” in 1938, the prelude to the 1940 Oldsmobile’s “Hydra-Matic,” the first fully automatic transmission.

Following the production hiatus of the Second World War Oldsmobile developed a sturdy, compact, short-stroke, overhead valve V8. This 135 horsepower “Rocket” engine, introduced in the new 1949 “88″ model, made Oldsmobile one of the world’s best performing cars. It paced the 1949 Indianapolis 500, and became dominant in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The 88 helped Oldsmobile lead mid-price sales, becoming fourth in the industry (it would ultimately reach third in 1972).

In 1961, Oldsmobile introduced its upscale compact, the F-85 with an aluminum 3.5-litre (215 cu in.) V8. The F-85 launched the Cutlass name, one of the industry’s most enduring and successful. It also brought Oldsmobile’s pioneering exhaust-driven, turbo-supercharger in the 1962 Jetfire sports coupe, beating sister Division Chevrolet’s turbocharged Corvair by a month.

Although Olds was the first to turbocharge a production car, it was cheaper to obtain more power by building bigger engines, and the turbocharged 215-horsepower V8 was discontinued after a couple of years. Rover of England bought it for use in its cars and SUVs.

Motoring Memories: Oldsmobile, 1897 2004 motoring memories
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. Click image to enlarge

Oldsmobile stunned the industry in 1966 with its front-wheel drive Toronado. Although front drive was popular in Europe, and had been used by America’s Cord in the 1930s, Oldsmobile revived it in North America. It laid the groundwork for GM’s mass changeover to FWD in the 1980s.

As safety concerns rose, Oldsmobile’s 1974 Toronado was the first production car to be fitted with an inflatable airbag. But airbags would soon disappear and not be revived for more than a decade. Driven by the 1973-’74 energy crisis. Oldsmobile marketed the first American diesel car for 1978. It was based on a converted 5.7-litre (350 cu in.) gasoline V8, but was a mixed blessing; it was discontinued in 1985 after fuel economy concerns subsided.

The drive for better fuel economy in the 1970s and 1980s led GM to more four- and six-cylinder engines. When GM decided to revive twin overhead camshaft, four-valves-per-cylinder engines, following the star crossed 1975-’76 Chevrolet Cosworth Vega, Oldsmobile developed the “Quad-4.” This 2.3-litre 150 horsepower inline four appeared in the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais.

Following the General Motors trend, Oldsmobile gradually phased out rear-wheel drive; its last was the 1990 Cutlass. Its Bravada SUV came in 1991, although not to Canada.

Motoring Memories: Oldsmobile, 1897 2004 motoring memories
1995 Oldsmobile Aurora; photo courtesy General Motors. Click image to enlarge

In 1995, Olds reached back to its V8 days, now with front-wheel drive, and introduced its luxury class Aurora with a smaller 4.0-litre version of Cadillac’s Northstar double overhead cam, 32- valve V8.

During its last few years, there were rumours of Oldsmobile’s demise. When it finally came in 2004 it marked the end of the oldest name in American cars, and one with a long legacy of engineering innovation.