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Requiem For Oldsmobile

by Bob Hagin

May 14, 2001

As we somewhat prematurely predicted in 1995 in our story of Ransom E. Olds, founder of the company that bears his name, Oldsmobile will soon join Hudson, Studebaker, DeSoto and so many other defunct brands in that Big Wrecking Yard in the Sky. At the time, it was almost a toss-up between Olds and Buick as to which would go down first, but our money was on Oldsmobile. It was a make without a mission in an obviously crowded corporate nest.

But I'd hate to have that venerable marque go down without giving it a personal send-off and eulogy. It is a brand that I've had a personal, albeit unofficial, association with during the past five decades, so this is fitting.

We needn't go into the details of how R.E. Olds started his career as a machinist in his father's farm machinery shop or how he put his first vehicle, a "steam buggy," onto the streets of Lansing, Michigan at a young 21. These facts we covered in our biography of him five years ago. But what's interesting is how many milestones the Oldsmobile company has established since its inception more than century ago.

The Olds Curved Dash Runabout was the first automobile to be assembled on an assembly line in this country. The tiny vehicle was hardly more than a horse-drawn surry with a small single-cylinder engine under its seat that drove through a two-speed transmission. Its initial run in 1901 amounted to 425 vehicles.

As a result of a publicity stunt pulled by his agents in New York city, a Curved Dash Runabout was the first car to be issued a speeding ticket in that city.

It soon acquired a reputation for reliability and because of this, the Oldsmobile was the first motorized vehicle to be officially utilized as a delivery "truck" by the U.S. Postal Service.

Oldsmobile has a long list of other notable industry "firsts" attached to its name. It was the first American company to export cars when in 1904 it shipped 18 cars overseas. One reportedly went to the Queen of Italy.

Oldsmobile was the first American company to offer an automatic transmission, the Hydra-Matic Drive, on production cars in 1939. Later, at the end of World War II, the company made cars with automatic transmissions available to disabled veterans on a first-priority basis.

Oldsmobile jumped ahead of the industry in 1949 when it introduced the first high-compression, short-stroke, overhead-valve V8 engine in its Rocket 88. It was the precursor to the American Muscle Car movement 15 years later and its ENGINE design parameters were quickly followed by the rest of the industry.

The Oldsmobile Toronado of 1966 was the first American car to link a V8 engine to front-wheel drive since the limited-production Cord of the mid-'30s. That concept is still in effect today.

Performance and racing were always prime factors in the Oldsmobile persona and it began early on. In those days, performance was proof of reliability and Oldsmobile was on the cutting edge.

In 1902, two Oldsmobiles were entered in a race from Detroit to the New York Auto Show. Roy Chapin won the event for the company with an elapsed "time" of 7.5 days.

The Oldsmobile "Pirate," a very stark machine that had very little in the way of driver safety, established a World's Land Speed record of 54.38 MPH on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida. Olds himself is reported to have been the driver.

The National Good Roads Convention sponsored the first transcontinental race in 1905 to draw attention to our need for suitable roads. The event was won by a Curved Dash Runabout, taking 44 days to travel from New York City to Portland, Oregon, a distance of 4000 miles.

Much later, Oldsmobile was a consistent winner on the early NASCAR Grand National circuit and Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 on the now-famous Florida superspeedway in 1959. History repeated itself as another Petty (his son Richard) won the Daytona 500 at the wheel of an Oldsmobile twenty years later.

A.J Foyt established a Closed Circuit World Speed Record of 257 MPH in the streamlined Oldsmobile Aerotech record car using a supercharged, modified Olds Quad 4 four-cylinder engine in 1987.

Currently, the vast majority of the single-seaters in the Indy Racing League (IRL) Indy Car series (including the Indy 500) are powered by special Oldsmobile Aurora V8 engines and the powerplant has won all but one of the IRL events since the formula was adopted.

But there ware a couple of dark spots on the otherwise shining Oldsmobile escutcheon. Few who were in the car business in the '70s will forget the dismal reliability record of its 350 cubic-inch diesel V8 and the fact that Olds dealers almost unanimously declined to take them back in on trade after selling them to hapless buyers.

My personal involvement with the brand was that my wife Carole was driving a 1954 Oldsmobile 98 Holiday Hardtop when I met her more than 40 years ago.

When it was announced that General Motors was pulling the plug on the Oldsmobile brand, Olds dealers around the country showed shock and dismay. Most were caught unaware. Those of us in the automotive journalistic business were more saddened than shocked or surprised. We saw it coming but unfortunately, history and tradition aren't bottom- line factors in the modern world of auto marketing.