The first speedometer; the first publicly promoted motorcar; the first mass-produced American car; the first windshield as standard; the first turbocharged production car; the first…
We could go on. I mean, there’s a whole of list of firsts from an automaker that, at its height, was producing more than 1 million vehicles a year. And this was less than four decades ago. Yet today, this legendary carmaker, one of the oldest in the world, no longer exists. There’s not much here at CLT we like more than a forgotten, industry-defining marque with a curious past.
This is the story of Oldsmobile…
And where better to begin than with a first; more specifically, a world-first mass-produced car. The Oldsmobile “Curved Dash” Model R.
Formerly Olds Motor Vehicle Company, Oldsmobile had existed since 1897 as the vision of one man; Ransom Eli Olds. Olds, who had long experimented with automobiles and engines, had by 1901 created 11 prototype vehicles, some powered by steam, others by electricity and others still by gasoline.
Despite a factory fire destroying all but one of his prototypes on the 9th March 1901, he’d already received 300 orders for one of his models; the Curved Dash.
At a time when automakers were capable of producing tens of vehicles, Olds was capabale of churning out hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles a year.
The Curved Dash, during it’s six year lifetime (which alone, pre-1910, is astonishing) sold more than 19,000 models.
And it was all thanks to his pioneering development of a manufacturing process that empowered each worker with a limited number of, or single, task(s), the workers moving between vehicles to perform each task whilst the cars remained in position.
It’s in contrast to the later-developed Henry Ford system which saw the vehicles progress along a track, but it still remains the world’s first mass-produced vehicle.
In fact, Olds was so confident in his process that, during the second annual New York motor show, a famous story recalls Olds countering a dealer’s offer to purchase 500 vehicles; “I would like to see you make this order for a thousand cars,” he replied. “Then the public would drop its jaw and take notice.” The dealer eventually sold 750 vehicles, but the public had, indeed, taken notice.
Its Name is REO…
But not everything was perfect. To help turn Olds’ ambitions into something real, he’d sold Olds Motor Works, in 1899, to Steel magnate Samuel L. Smith, and used the money to expand production capability in order to realise his ambitions.
To cope with increasing demand, Smith had placed his son, Frederick Smith, in charger of Sales, but after a falling out over the quality of the vehicles leaving the plant, Olds left the company he’d founded in 1904 and established R.E. Olds Motor Car Company before quickly changing it to the REO Motor Car Company to avoid any legal ramifications.
And in 1908, just a year after the final Curved Dash rolled off the manufacturing line, General Motors purchased Oldsmobile, as it became known, as part of its ever-increasing automotive stable, alongside the likes of Buick and Cadillac.
Though the Curved Dash was no more, there were plenty of vehicles for Oldsmobile to focus on, most notably the Model X which rolled off the production line after the GM takeover, and the model Z, which filled the void between Olds’ departure and GM’s arrival.
Both vehicles, though in particular the Model Z, were an attempt by the brand to showcase their versatility. Though the Curved Dash, as a mass-produced model, wasn’t exactly a “car for the masses” quite like the Model T would come to be, it was certainly deemed a more affordable offering than competitors. Both the X and Z were considered premium.
And it was nothing in comparison to what lay ahead.
Luxury & the Limited
Back in the day, model lines didn’t last longer than a year or two, quite possibly because the car industry was still defining itself, meaning there were thousands upon thousands of upstart companies all grappling for a slice of the ever increasing pie. This lead to rapid innovation and constant change. By 1910, Oldsmobile had already moved on from the X and Z to the “Autocrat” Series 28 and something rather special.
We’re talking: 42 inch wheels; a 505 cu in (8,275 cc) 6-cylinder engine; 60bhp; a 4-speed gearbox; goatskin upholstery, a full glass windhsield and a speedometer; and a price tag, in modern money, between $125,000 and $160,000. It was called the Limited, or rather the Series 23 Limited, and it was aimed squarely at the likes of Panhard & Levassor, Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce.
It was a sign of GM’s belief in Oldsmobile. And as if to return the gratitude, one specific example raced the 20th Century Limited train from Albany to New York City; and won.
Several models were penned by the Oldsmobile team over the next fifteen years, including the Six, the Series 40 and the “Light Eight”, the latter using a V8 engine and all three vehicles offering a range of bodystyles that the cheaper, more popular Model T, couldn’t.
The 1930s saw GM change how they named Olsmobiles, introducing the F-Series for straight-6 engine variants and the L-Series for the straight-8s, while GM also continued to push the boundaries of how it marketed vehicles, introducing the Oldsmobile Show on CBS radio in 1933. It was 30 minutes of entertainment, broadcast once a week, and included music, sports-talk and comedy, all with the hope of providing additional positive coverage for Oldsmobile.
1937 saw Oldsmobile, in collaboration with GM stablemate Buick, introduce a four-speed semi-automatic transmission called the “Automatic Safety Transmission” which allowed users to choose “low” or “high” after engaging the clutch pedal, the transmission then working between either first and second, or first, third and fourth, accordingly. It was an early sign of greater intentions.
Firstly, we have to be careful not to credit Oldsmobile with the invention of the world’s first automatic gearbox; they were nothing more than a test-bed. But it went so well, it changed the way many people around the world drive a car to this day.
Because the first fully automatic, automotive transmission, was actually created by Cadillac, more specifically by a man named Earl A. Thompson.
It was Thompson who, in pursuit of a safer driving experience for all, one where there was no human input required to change gears, invented the Syncromesh gearbox and drove to Detroit in 1925 to show what he’d done. Cadillac liked it, GM loved it and it went into production in 1928. By 1934, he’d built a project team within GM’s operations aimed squarely at developing a fully-automatic transmission.
His dream came true when, in 1940, the “Hydra-Matic” gearbox was introduced as an option for Oldsmobile vehicles. And the rest, as they say, is history.
GM had taken a gamble, but a calculated one at least. For reasons we may never know, Cadillac and Buick were deemed sacred within their ever-growing collection of automotive marques; Oldsmobile were not.
There was a lot of risk around the introduction of an automatic transmission, despite a swell of support for easing the driving experience. In fact, it was the introduction of Thompson’s Syncromesh a decade before that had increased the momentum in favour of automatic transmissions.
So GM decided to trial the automatic transmission on Oldsmobile vehicles from 1940, as a $57 option, just in case it went wrong and ruined the brand; it was a resounding success.
A year later, in 1941, Oldsmobile changed the way they named their lineup, again. This time, however, it would stick, the Michigan-based marque using a two number system that we all known to this day; the first represented the size of the body (6 through to 9), the second for the engine under the hood – either a 6 or an 8. And it’s the 8 that’s a little bit special.
With WWII raging, and the US having been drawn into it, priorities changed and factories became manufacturing hubs for weapons, machinery and anything related to the war effort. It was no different for Oldsmobile, shells and long-range weaponry rolling off their production line until they switched back to cars in October, 1945.
The end of the ’40s was a stale time for car production, with many companies producing only pre-war variants whilst, in the background, they scrambled to develop new products from scratch. Or scrap, in the case of European and Japanese manufacturers.
In 1949, however, Oldsmobile were pioneers once again. Though Buick had introduced an OverHead Valve (OHV) engine long before Oldsmobile, technology sharing within GM and Oldsmobile’s nouse helped them to develop the world’s first mass-produced OHV V8 engine; and it would establish itself quickly as an icon.
Not only did the soon-to-be family of V8s have far better power-to-weight ratios than any competitors, they had better fuel economy and, arguably more important for many ordinary people, better durability and reliability.
What Oldsmobile did next, however, is possible even more important; they created the world’s first “muscle car”.
The V8, or Rocket as it came to be known, was used only in the 98, Oldsmobile’s largest body, and the 88. In reality, the 88 was a replacement for the 78, though the “8” it replaced was an inline, rather than V-shaped, 8 cylinder engine.
This combination of a small(ish) body and the 135hp Rocket V8 engine was the first example of placing such a large and powerful engine into a small body. Oldsmobile had, in essence, created a muscle car; a world first.
In 1949, it was the car to beat on the racetrack, winning 6 of the 9 NASCAR races entered, and its success burgeoned throughout 1950 & ’51, both on the track and in showrooms. Oldsmobile was no longer just a maker of high-volume conservative cars.
And the ’50s would see the marque go from strength to strength. Oldsmobile, and it’s Rocket engine, were ready for blast-off!
It’s one thing to take a walk through history, but it’s quite another to look back and appreciate a brand that no longer exists. Subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss out on part two, or anything else from CLT. x