Oldsmobile: A Forgotten Giant

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The year was 1897; the French government was overthrown again, Oklahoma found oil and kicked out the natives, there was an earthquake and some miners died, and on August 21st, in Lansing Michigan, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was founded by Ransom Eli Olds. The company that began on that day would become a leading innovator in the automotive world, the first American car manufacturer, and the pride of Detroit. Over its one hundred and seven year history, Oldsmobile was known for groundbreaking technology, performance, and affordable luxury, but it seems that has been forgotten. Everyone adores the GTO and Firebird, but less so the 4-4-2. They mourn the death of Pontiac, Saturn, and Plymouth, but most don't recall Olds with such fondness. So it's time the world is reminded of the automotive giant that was Oldsmobile, because no matter how many times I comment Donut Media REFUSES to make an Up To Speed on Oldsmobile. Or even just an episode of Wheelhouse like the one they did on Pontiac. The heretics. Anyways let's get started.

Olds Motor Vehicles sold their first car, the Curved Dash in 1902, and, contrary to popular belief, it was Olds that used the first assembly line, not Ford, and they continued to do so until the company was purchased by General Motors in 1908 and renamed to Oldsmobile. From there the company was at the cutting edge of innovation - a company of firsts. In the 1920’s, Oldsmobile started a trend that would last for decades: chrome trim. Not only did it look good, but because there was so much of it, washing and polishing it served as a brilliant punishment for misbehaving children. In 1938 Oldsmobile introduced the “Automatic Safety Transmission” which still had a clutch but once you had selected a gear it would work like a modern auto. Then in 1940, Oldsmobile pioneered the world’s first fully automatic transmission, dubbed the “Hydramatic.” In 1949, Oldsmobile once again led the way with the world’s first overhead camshaft V8 engine, the “Rocket V8,” which produced more power and was very successful in racing which we’ll touch on later. They were the first American brand to offer air bags so the steering column doesn't impale you. In 1962, Oldsmobile created the world’s first mass produced turbocharged car; decades before the mass turbocharging of the modern era, vape god Subarus, Saabs, transmission grenading Evos, or Buick Grand National, there was the Jetfire. They also made the first mass produced front wheel drive car to be built by an American manufacturer, the 1966 Toronado, still V8 powered, obviously. In an ironic twist of fate, this drivetrain would be their downfall, but that's still quite far away.

Oldsmobile was, for a very long time, a motorsports powerhouse. There's no other way to put it; it was like having Floyd Mayweather fight a toddler. In the 1950 Viva Mexico Rally, four of the top seven cars were Oldsmobiles, including the overall winner. Many racing cars had engines based on Oldsmobile production power plants: the McLaren (yes that McLaren) M1A, McLaren M3A, and the 1966 championship-winning Brabham BT19 are just a few Olds powered racers.

Over the next 34 years, Olds added achievement after achievement to its already stellar resume. Oldsmobiles won five of eight races in the inaugural 1949 season of NASCAR, followed up by ten of nineteen in 1950, and twenty of forty one in 1951. Richard Petty led an Oldsmobile 1-2-3-4-5 in the 1979 running of the Daytona 500. In 1987, AJ Foyt piloted the Aerotech at a test track in Fort Stockton, Texas, breaking the land speed record with an average speed of 257.133 MPH, and later breaking the flying mile speed record for cars up to 122 cubic inches of displacement at 267.399 MPH, records which can still be found in the FIA archives on pages 10 and 11. In 1992 it set another forty seven records, but that’s a story for another time. Oldsmobile won nine consecutive National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) manufacturers titles, a record that is yet to be broken.

They contested Trans-Am and IMSA in the GTU and GTO categories, a couple noteworthy drivers were racing legend Paul Newman and Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton. Oldsmobile won the 1996 24 Hours of Daytona both overall in the WSC class, and the GTS-1 class, 1996 12 Hours of Sebring overall, along with the drivers and manufacturers' championships for IMSA in 1996 and 1997 in the GTS-1 class, besting the likes of the Ferrari 333SP in the process. The Oldsmobile Achieva won the SCCA World Challenge championships in 92, 93, and 94. The only GM brand to do so until 2017, and only the second American brand to do so.

The last venture in racing for Olds would be the Indy 500. There’s no other way to put it, they dominated. 1997 top twelve Olds powered, 1998 top twenty Olds powered, 1999 top fourteen all Olds powered, 2000 was a bit of an off year with only the top four being Olds powered, and in 2001, the last year of racing for them, the top fourteen were all Olds powered. So, long story short, Oldsmobile were quite good at racing.

To understand why Olds died, we have to go back to 1975. Oldsmobile was on top of the world. You had the Vista Cruiser, Cutlass, 4-4-2, Toronado, and others. That year the Cutlass was selling like hot cakes with 324,610 units sold -- far more than the second place Ford Granada with 291,140 units sold. In 1977 the company produced over one million cars in just that year. Then a bunch of people in a desert decided they didn't want to share anymore. Sales fluctuated for a few years until 1984 with 1,203,843 units sold. The company was in free fall, like a beautiful dove struck by a brick midair. In the midst of the oil crisis Oldsmobile introduced diesel into their lineup with the LF9 V8 and the LT6 V6 engines. Even though as we all know diesel is the fuel of Satan, it worked; it was a cheap, fuel efficient alternative to the big V8’s of the time. Except it wasn't. General Motors rushed Oldsmobile on the development of the new diesel engines and slapped them with a timeline tighter than stance guys wheel clearance. That's why it was based on the Chevrolet 350 small block, which was modified to deal with the higher compression ratios of a diesel engine. Although, they didn't change the head bolts, so it went very wrong. By 1996 sales were down to 362,881 units. Olds needed to reinvent itself, they changed the logo, made an entirely new lineup and debuted the Intrigue on The X Files to try and lower the average age of an Oldsmobile owner from 122. Then they realized the cars they were a shadow of their former selves and their cars delivered sadness and boredom rather than exciting performance. So, in the 2000’s, as the Fast and Furious craze started, they made the OSV (Oldsmobile Special Vehicles) concepts. Intrigue, Alero, and Silhouette OSV cars were made. They made tons of different concepts to try and make the brand more exciting. The Alero California edition, the Intrigue Saturday Night Cruiser, and 4-4-2 concepts. But all their efforts were in vain, as on December 12th, 2000 it was announced that Oldsmobile would be killed off. Each model would have its own “Final 500” special edition to commemorate the company's history. Each of the 500 cars was painted in Dark Cherry Red Metallic and had special badges, floor mats, stitched headrests, keychain, booklet with concept art, and an invitation to a farewell party. The last Oldsmobile ever was a Final 500 Alero which rolled off the assembly line on April 29th, 2004, under the hood was the signatures of everyone who helped build it. From there it went to the Olds museum in Lansing Michigan, where the company was founded 107 years before.

That's not where our story ends. Many people say General Motors simply had too many divisions. I say they just didn't have enough creativity. All their cars were the same underneath with minimal styling changes on top. How are you supposed to stand out when the platform is identical and the cars look so similar across brands? In the last thirteen years of Oldsmobile's history there were six different heads of the division. The last one having no prior automotive experience. How are you supposed to have any kind of continuity, any kind of brand identity, or a leader for employees to follow if you keep changing that leader? You can see that in the fact that in 1998 it was announced that two more Olds assembly plants would be built, and just months before that fateful December day the Oldsmobile Q4 concept was revealed; but back to the Final 500 cars for a moment, the whole point was that it was the last 500 of each car from Oldsmobile, 500. Apparently General Motors didn't think it would be worth it the make the full 500 cars for the Silhouette, so they didn't. Only 360 Final 500 Silhouette’s would be produced, and some owners didn't even get some of the memorabilia that came with. Then, in 2009, GM decided to take the last Olds ever built from the Lansing museum, because it was on loan and technically a GM asset, and put it in their own heritage center. But there was nothing about it on the website, not on the list, no pictures, no nothing. The last Oldsmobile ever built was then sold at a private dealer auction for forty two thousand dollars in December of 2017. Oldsmobile was a leading innovator, a performance and racing powerhouse, and an affordable luxury car for the middle class, let down by the big man upstairs who let it struggle while at the same time pouring fifteen million dollars into Saturn, which never made GM a penny. It's said you're only as good as your last performance. Maybe if that money had gone to Olds, they'd still be around, or at least seen in a better light.

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