It began in 1885, when Ransom Olds became a partner in his father's machine shop firm, which soon became a leading manufacturer of gas-heated steam engines. Ransom developed an interest in self-propelled land vehicles, and he experimented with steam-powered vehicles in the late 1880s. In 1896 he built his first gasoline car and one year later he formed the Olds Motor Vehicle Company to manufacture them.
Eventually he produced a gasoline-powered vehicle that seated four persons and could do 18 miles an hour on level ground. On August 21, 1897, Olds, and a group of investors formed the Olds Motor Works in Lansing. However, the first Olds plant was built not in Lansing, but in Detroit. On East Jefferson, near the Belle Isle Bridge. While the plant was being built, Olds' engineering people designed and built 11 pilot models, including several sizes of cars and a couple of electrics.
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Among these 'pilot' cars and electrics, was a small, light horseless carriage with a single-cylinder, water-cooled four-cycle engine at the rear. Its most distinctive feature was its curved dashboard. The small Curved Dash Olds was a favorite in the plant, but it was not really known to the public and was not much of a factor in the company's sales. It was considered a "mascot" or a "toy."
In March 1901, fire destroyed most of the Olds Motor Works plant and the only car that was saved was the Curved Dash Olds. It was decided to rebuild immediately and to put all of the firm's production resources into the little Curved Dash Olds.
It was a momentous decision because, it committed Olds to production of a small, relatively inexpensive car, its first "high-volume" model. Proving the adage that it's an ill wind that blows no good, the fire had a positive effect -- news of the fire made thousands of people aware of the car. Inquiries and orders began arriving, some accompanied by cash payments.
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One of the ways auto makers drew attention to their vehicles in those early days was to take long trips in them. No one had driven from Detroit to New York, so Olds commissioned a young associate, Roy D. Chapin, to drive a Curved Dash Olds to New York for an appearance at the 1901 New York Auto Show.
Chapin left Detroit on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1901. He went 278 miles through Ontario to Niagara Falls, an amazing performance. On Friday he encountered heavy rains between Syracuse and Albany. The muddy roads were nearly impassable, so Chapin asked about driving on the level and well-finished roads along the Erie canal (used by mules to pull barges). He was told he would be jailed if he used it! Nonetheless, fifteen minutes later, he pulled the little Olds onto the all weather road that stretched along the canal to the horizon.
On Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, only blocks from the Waldorf-Astoria, he swerved to avoid hitting a man who stepped in front of the Olds. The car hit the curb and deformed a wheel. Chapin bent it back as best he could and drove on.
Roy Chapin, (who would later head the Hudson Motor Car Co. and whose son, Roy Jr., would head American Motors Corp.), had completed the longest automobile trip that had been made in this country up until that time. Ransom Olds was waiting in the lobby of the hotel to greet him, but Chapin -- covered with grease and dust -- was ordered by the doorman to use the service entrance at the rear of the hotel. (Waldorf-Astoria Hotel 1900 right)
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The publicity boomed interest and soon Olds had so many orders that he sought an outside source for engines. Henry M. Leland, head of Leland and Faulconer Co., foremost machine shop in the Midwest, agreed to build 2,000 engines for Olds, the first large component order by an auto maker to an outside supplier.
The publicity boomed interest and soon Olds had so many orders that he sought an outside source for engines. Henry M. Leland, head of Leland and Faulconer Co., foremost machine shop in the Midwest, agreed to build 2,000 engines for Olds, the first large component order by an auto maker to an outside supplier. (General Office - Leland and Faulconer Co. 1903 shown left)
Olds planned to mass-produce cars, to put the world on affordable wheels. In a few years, Henry Ford would do just that, working on the foundation laid by Ransom E. Olds.
Early ads boasted that the $600 Curved Dash "ran 40 miles on one gallon of gasoline." Olds sought to convince people still wary of automobiles that the Curved Dash was thriftier, safer, faster, more controllable and more modern than a horse. The U.S. Post Office purchased Oldsmobiles for use as its first mail "trucks."
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In 1908 Oldsmobile was acquired by William Durant and became part of the new General Motors Durant was building. Oldsmobile was integrated into the General Motors empire and gradually emerged as an upscale sporty and experimental car. Production was curtailed during World War I and Olds Motor Works built 2,100 mobile aircraft kitchens for the military.
After the war, Oldsmobile moved upscale with its Model 46 "Thoroughbred" seven-passenger touring car powered by the "heavy" Northway V-8. And Oldsmobile became GM's experimental car line. In 1926, Oldsmobile was the first to introduce chrome-plated trim, an important styling asset first used on the radiator shell. In 1934, Oldsmobile introduced "Knee Action" independent front suspension and hydraulic rather than mechanical brakes.
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Oldsmobile's 1940 models featured Hydra-Matic drive, the first vehicles with fully automatic transmission. Hydra-Matic appeared as an Olds exclusive. It provided true clutchless driving with four forward speeds. Its fluid coupling between engine and transmission eliminated the clutch. Olds made the breakthrough Hydra-Matic an option on all models for $57.
After the industry halted production for the duration of World War II, Oldsmobile became the first maker to offer a car to meet the needs of the physically impaired with the introduction of the Valiant program. The Hydra-Matic transmission was a centerpiece of the Valiant program under which specially equipped cars were made available to disabled veterans returning from World War II.
The ringed globe emblem appeared on Oldsmobile's first Indianapolis 500 pace car , the 1949 Rocket 88, which was powered by the industry's first high compression V-8 engine, named the "Rocket 88."
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Olds unveiled the Starfire "dream car" at the 1953 Motorama. It featured a fiberglass body, 200-hp Rocket engine and a wraparound windshield. Oldsmobile also offered the 'autronic eye' automatic headlight dimmer on its '53 models.
A small car, called the F-85, was introduced with the '61 models, featuring a lightweight aluminum V-8 engine. In 1964, Oldsmobile introduced a domed stations wagon, the Vista Cruiser.
In 1966, Oldsmobile introduced the Toronado, first U.S.-built modern-day front-wheel drive car. The 1966 Toronado won Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" award. In 1974, the Toronado was the first American car to offer a driver's side air bag.
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The first domestic diesel engine was offered in 1978 by Oldsmobile as options on its full-sized cars. A number of European makes were selling diesel cars as fast as they could import them and GM wanted some of that sales action. The 350-cubic-inch diesel V-8s were made by Oldsmobile. A 260-inch diesel V-8 was added the following year.
In 1978, Oldsmobile sales topped one million, more than half of them, the incredibly popular Cutlass. But the good times were nearing an end, partly because of the 350 diesels.
GM was plagued with reports of problems with the diesels. In 1980, a taxi company on Long Island sued GM, charging that the diesel in Oldsmobile Delta 88s was negligently designed. The following year, a $20 million class action lawsuit was filed by owners of Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Buick and Chevrolet diesels in Brooklyn, N.Y., alleging that the engines were defective.
At one point, Oldsmobile and GM were involved in over 100 lawsuits resulting from engine and transmission problems and from the infamous engine-switch cases, in which buyers of Oldsmobiles discovered their cars had Chevrolet engines in them. The engines may have been just as good as the Olds engines, but GM had carefully built an upscale image for Oldsmobile over the years and now it worked against the maker.
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In addition to the lawsuits, imports were continuing to make serious inroads in the American market and Oldsmobile sales plummeted from the record 1978 level. In 1982, GM introduced the J-car to combat the tide of small imports, but it had little effect. Oldsmobile, no longer very distinct from other GM lines, called its version of the J-car, the 'Firenza'.
For decades it had been in the same general market as Buick, but they were clearly different. Buick was a traditional luxury car, sort of a junior Cadillac. Oldsmobile was also upscale, but younger, more adventurous. It was General Motors, 'cutting edge' division.
In the late 1980s, GM responded to criticism that its cars all looked and drove alike and ordered each division to develop a specific market identity.
Chevrolet grabbed its traditional entry-level role, Pontiac decided it would be the sporty division, Buick stuck with its traditional lower-level luxury image and Cadillac opted, naturally, for top-of-the-line luxury. Saturn had already targeted the volume imports.
So what was Oldsmobile, chopped liver? Olds was out in the cold, a marque without a market. Rumors began to circulate that GM might drop Oldsmobile. Oldsmobile General Manager John Rock lamented that "a day at Oldsmobile is tougher than a day at Buick or Pontiac."
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There was some unfortunate marketing near the 'end' for Oldsmobile. An ad theme of "this is not your father's Oldsmobile" backfired among people whose father had owned a Cutlass 442 or a Rocket 88 or a turbocharged F-85 or any of the legendary cars that have borne the Oldsmobile nameplate. It seemed to be degrading a proud heritage.
But in introducing the Aurora sedan, Rock (Olds General Manager) spelled out Oldsmobile's mission: to take on the higher-line imports. Oldsmobile seemed to be building a new image, based on the Aurora. To dramatize the break with the past, the Oldsmobile name did not appear on the car, although it was restored later.
The 1995 Oldsmobile presented Guidestar, first on-board navigation system to be offered on a production car. The system combined computerized road mapping and satellite positioning to route drivers to their destinations.
In 1997 Oldsmobile celebrated its 100th birthday by pacing and winning the Indy 500 race. The Olds Aurora was pace car for 1997 and a race-modified Aurora V-8 powered the winning car.
Oldsmobile was the only American automobile more than 100 years old. But in the long run, that wasn't enough.
*This text based on information available from oldsmobile.com website as well as the National Park Service, but the majority of this story has been written by Richard A. Wright. A link to his full story will be placed on the links page for further reference.