Oldsmobile - from the Gay Nineties until today and still going strong, a life span that just about covers the history of the automobile in America, a charter member of the largest car producing corporation in the world, a name that takes memories back to what our grandfathers call "the good old days."
There was every reason in the world for Ransom E. Olds to design a car. The Olds family made stationary gasoline engines and he was brought up in a world of machines, mechanics, and engineers. Oddly enough the first cars that young Olds worked on were steam powered, and in 1893 he made one of his own. But, perhaps sensing the coming trend, he designed his first gasoline car three years later, and by 1897 formed the Olds Motor Company and went into full production.
The car was a typical one-cylinder, chain-driven vehicle and not too distinguished looking. But in 1900 Ransom E. Olds added a feature that made his car unforgettable. It was a curved dashboard. Although the general appearance was still that of a powered buggy, the smoothly rounded dash created an air of elegance that was complemented by the sweeping line of the steering tiller.
However, the now famed curved-dash Oldsmobile is important for more than style. The car was the first low-priced, mass-produced automobile in the world. The production techniques were quite primitive compared to the systems that Henry Ford developed, but Olds did conceive his car as an assembly-line project.
Once he had made his designs they were contracted to other manufacturers who made the components. The final assembly was performed in his small plant in Detroit. Olds had excellent suppliers. The Dodge brothers built his engines, and Henry M. Leland made the transmissions. It was from Leland that Olds learned the basic idea of parts standardization and this resulted in the rapid and accurate assembly of cars that could be sold reasonably. This was the system that Henry Ford developed so brilliantly into his efficient assembly lines.
The little curved-dash Oldsmobiles sold in the thousands each year and became the most popular small car in America, to be supplanted only years later by Ford's Model T. By 1904 Olds sold his business and organized a new automobile company. He gave it his own initials, Reo, and it became a firm that flourished. Today Reo trucks OLDSMOBILE carry a great percentage of America's goods.
Although Olds was now out of the company that bore his name, it continued to grow. In 1908 General Motors Corporation was formed and began its active life by acquiring the Buick Manufacturing Com pany and the Olds Motor Company. William C. Durant was the freewheeling promoter who started the giant corporation. During the first decade of the twentieth century he was out to buy almost every company that made a good car. At one time Henry Ford almost sold out to Durant, the only hitch being a difference of opinion over the value of the Ford assets. The point to be made is that Durant actually foresaw the coming boom in automobiles while Ford and other inventors were more interested in an immediate return.
General Motors continued to grow by annexing Cadillac and Oakland, the forerunner of the Pontiac. Many subsidiary companies gradually became part of the combine, Delco, Hyatt, Fisher Body, and others. They supplied the parts and subassemblies which had to be contracted for in the early days of the Oldsmobile, but the basic system was still the same. Standardized components arrived at the assembly points and were incorporated into the cars at the proper moments.
The Oldsmobile, although no longer connected with its inventor, continued to shed glory on his name. The little runabouts dashed merrily over the slowly expanding road system of America, and on the drafting tables plans for larger, more luxurious Oldsmobiles took shape. The 1910 model was a huge affair which sported 42-inch tires. They raised the body so high that a two-step running board was required for the passengers. Guy wires held the windshield in place and the massive machine made an impressive sight with its polished brass fittings. It was also an impressive performer and participated in one of the typical stunts of the period. In those days daredevils were racing everything with their cars. A fairly common contest was a car-versus-plane race. In 1910 one of the big Oldsmobiles raced a train, the Twentieth Century Limited, from Albany to New York. The car won! Since that time the 1910 models have been known as Oldsmobile Limiteds.
Throughout the years the General Motors Corporation seemed to use the Oldsmobile as a test car for new ideas, and new gadgetry. Many innovations first appeared on the Oldsmobile and then were transferred to the other GM cars. In 1927 chrome plating was used for the first time on all the exterior bright work. People were tired of polishing brass and nickel and it was Oldsmobile that relieved"them of that task. By the 1950's, perhaps in recollection of that innovation, the Oldsmobiles became the most gaudily chrome-stripped cars of any on the American scene. Happily that time seems past. In the line of serious developments it was on the Oldsmobile of 1939 that General Motors introduced the 'Hydra-Matic drive, and the postwar years found it equipped with the Autronic Eye, air conditioning, four barrel carburetors, and a host of personal comforts.
The modern Oldsmobile is a far cry from the small and elegant curved-dash classic. It no longer caters to the low-priced market and now seems to be a smaller Cadillac - big, fast, and heavily built. What remains is one great distinction. The Oldsmobile is the oldest car in America that is still being produced today and predates the formation of the Ford Motor Company by six years. It is a tribute to the pioneering spirit of Ransom E. Olds that a car bearing his name still survives.