Even if the letter “O” had been chock-a-block full of car makes, Oldsmobile would have been the only possible choice. The sadly defunct American company was, as has been chronicled here before, an outstanding innovator in the automotive industry. It was even the inspiration for a popular song, In My Merry Oldsmobile, which was introduced in 1905.
Ransom Eli Olds was born in Ohio during the Civil War. His father, Pliny F., established a mechanical workshop in 1880 in which Ransom and older brother Wallace worked, the latter having been a partner in the company.
Ransom built his first car, a three-wheeler powered by a steam engine, in 1886, but the car was a one-off. At about the same time, his father’s company began building engines. The company was incorporated in 1890 as the Olds Gasoline Engine Works with Ransom and his father each owning a little less than 50 percent of the company with Wallace owning the remainder. Despite the name of the company, they built steam engines that used boilers heated by a gasoline-fed burner.
By the mid-1890s Olds had switched to building internal combustion engines designed by him and Madison Bates. Production of a four-wheeled “car” using these engines began in 1897, by which time Ransom had become majority owner of the enterprise. In that year the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was incorporated. Ransom had two partners, Edward Sparrow and Samuel Smith. In 1899, Olds Motor Vehicle Company and Olds Gasoline Engine Works were merged to form the Olds Motor Works.
By the end of 1901, Olds had put its soon to be famous Curved Dash Runabout into production. Legend is that a fire destroyed the Olds plant and the Runabout was the only prototype to be saved, but in reality Olds and his company had already decided the Runabout would be produced. The cars were offered at a base price of $650, the equivalent of about $21,000 today.
Oldsmobile led US and world production of automobiles from 1903 to 1905, inclusive, manufacturing a total of 16,000 cars. In the middle of this success, frequent quarrels over the direction of the company between Olds and Frederic Smith (son of Samuel) led to Olds departure in 1904 (he was only a minority owner by this time). By 1906, Olds’ new company–Reo–was outselling Oldsmobile and reached third overall in US sales in 1907.
William Durant’s company, the newly formed General Motors, purchased Olds Motor Works in 1908. The company name remained until 1943 when it was renamed the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors.
Oldsmobile invented (along with Cadillac) the first successful truly automatic transmission (the Hydra-Matic), which was offered beginning in 1939 for 1940 model year cars. It could have been installed in a car like this:
In the US today, 99 percent of new vehicles sold are equipped with an automatic transmission.
Ten years later, Oldsmobile and Cadillac introduced the first modern overhead-valve and oversquare (bore > stroke) V-8. This type of engine dominated the American marketplace for decades and led to the horsepower race of the 1950s and the original muscle car era of the 1960s.
In 1966, Oldsmobile introduced the first US “mass-produced” front-wheel drive car, the Toronado, since the Cord 812 of 1937. In time, front-wheel drive cars came to dominate the market for decades. In fact, it is only in the last year or two that AWD/4WD vehicles have passed FWD as the leading drivetrain sold in the US. Of course, most modern AWD systems are really FWD that send more power to the rear wheels only if conditions warrant. A photo of a 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado:
In 1985, Oldsmobile ranked second in US vehicle sales behind only Chevrolet. The next year, Oldsmobile saw sales exceed one million units. In the mid-1990s, however, the popularity of Oldsmobile began to decline with the make falling out of the top five in sales. In December of 2000, General Motors announced it would phase out Oldsmobile over the next few years. The last Oldsmobile, an Alero, was built on April 29, 2004 and sent to the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum. Oh, for the only car Carroll Shelby ever designed from scratch, the Shelby Series 1, the engine used was a 4-liter/244 cubic-inch V8 used in the Oldsmobile Aurora.
As I have written here on multiple occasions, Olds was the only US company to build cars in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and so it shall remain for all time. In total, Oldsmobile built more than 35 million vehicles and developed some of the automobile industry’s most important innovations. Long live Oldsmobile!
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