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The Evolution & History of Oldsmobile

Posted on 2021-08-27

You may see fewer Oldsmobiles on the road these days, but when you do spot one, you're looking at a piece of American history in action. General Motors ceased production of this storied car brand in 2004, but the name lives on when people remember having one of their own or as enthusiasts discover how influential these cars were in their time. 

Take a walk down memory lane and discover more about Oldsmobile, from its inspirational founding to the driving forces behind what killed Oldsmobile at the end of its lifespan. You'll also learn more about specific Oldsmobile models that you may want to get your hands on someday. Whether you're familiar with this car company or are hearing about it for the first time, you're sure to delight in the history of Oldsmobile and how their cars changed over the years. 

History of Oldsmobile

Oldsmobile began as Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, Michigan, in 1897. Ransom Eli Olds founded the company after joining his father's machine shop around 1880. Together, they would make steam engines for yachts. As the business grew, Olds began experimenting with the idea of self-propelled vehicles. By 1897, he had created a three-wheeled, steam-powered vehicle. A four-wheeled version followed, which some people claim was shipped to a buyer in Mumbai, India, making it the first vehicle built in Michigan to ship internationally. 

The work of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz across the Atlantic inspired Olds to begin experimenting with internal combustion engines. He succeeded in patenting the design for a gas-powered vehicle in 1896. The investors began lining up, and Olds changed the family business into Olds Motor Vehicle Company. While the company had yet to take on its eventual name, historians agree that August 21, 1897, was the birth of the Oldsmobile brand. 

The company rebranded two years later as Olds Motor Works, and by 1900, people began referring to the cars as "Oldsmobiles." The name stuck. But soon, Oldsmobile would face both major successes as well as its share of hardships. A huge fire erupted in the Oldsmobile complex in 1901, consuming almost every area except the foundry. Ransom Olds lost all his car blueprints except for the curved-dash model, which would become Oldsmobile's top product in the coming years. 

The Birth of the Assembly Line

The city of Lansing decided to deed 50 acres of land to Oldsmobile to keep its operation within the city while recovering from the fire. Olds agreed, and he was able to quickly resume production of his vehicles. The curved-dash car saw major success in the marketplace, but Olds knew he needed to make more money to rebuild his factory. For that to happen, he would need to produce more cars while spending less money in the process. 

The old way of producing cars is the Craft Method. Workers would haul heavy materials, parts and paint to a single location where they would work together to build the car from the ground up. The process was slow and disorganized and often led to wasted time and effort. 

Olds decided to switch the equation around. Instead of making workers bring the parts to a location, the parts would come to them. He stationed his workers at fixed locations and rolled the car on a wheeled platform to them. Workers would perform each task in order, with each set of workers specializing in one part of the process. Olds had created the assembly line and received fame at the time for doing so. His cars became more affordable for consumers while still yielding higher profits per car. 

Nowadays, Henry Ford usually gets the credit for starting the American automobile industry. That honor actually belongs to Ransom Eli Olds. Olds did more than anyone to help the car become a viable and profitable business prospect, thanks to his creation of the assembly line. Ford may have streamlined the assembly line process, but Olds was the man who came up with the idea and used it before anyone else. The curved-dash Oldsmobile had become the first mass-produced automobile in America. 

The Departure of Ransom Eli Olds From Oldsmobile

Sales were going strong for Oldsmobile during the first years of the 1900s, but dissent began to brew within the company. Samuel Latta Smith, a man involved in the local copper industry, had become the majority shareholder of Oldsmobile when it reorganized solely into a car manufacturer. He installed his two sons as top executives of the company, and they clashed with Ransom Olds on a regular basis. By 1904, Olds left the company to found REO. 

Oldsmobile began to expand its offerings under the control of Frederic Smith, Samuel Latta Smith's son. In 1905, the company produced its first two-cylinder car followed by larger, four-cylinder models to expand Oldsmobile's product lineup. By 1910, Oldsmobile released the Limited, a luxury model that housed a 707-cubic-inch straight-six engine. 

William Durant acquired Oldsmobile in 1908 during his creation of General Motors and made it his top engine supplier. Oldsmobile continued to produce four-cylinder cars throughout World War I, including the Model 44, which was a huge success, helping car sales for the company reach annual numbers of 10,000. Oldmobile's reputation for quality also won it a contract to manufacture Liberty aircraft engines in the later years of the war. 

The Great Depression Into World War II

The American economy hit a bit of a recession in the years after World War I. This caused Oldsmobile sales to falter a bit. One way Oldsmobile was able to maintain momentum in the 1920s despite the decline in sales was with the Model 30. This Oldsmobile featured a straight-six engine and garnered enough sales to keep the company afloat during these years of recession. 

Then the Great Depression of the 1930s struck. Interestingly, while many corners of the market hit record low sales during these years, Oldsmobile was able to find its stride. Oldsmobile entered the upscale automobile market, appealing to consumers who actually had money to spend on nicer vehicles. Still, sales were on the low end, and GM briefly considered combining Oldsmobile, Buick and Pontiac into one division. Yet sales were enough to keep this from happening, and Oldsmobile pressed onward into the '30s, offering dramatic, streamlined body styles. 

In 1934, Oldsmobile was able to make a full rebound from the recession and saw an increase in sales of more than 100%. This boost was thanks to vehicles that boasted hydraulic brakes on each wheel and draftless vent windows. Oldsmobile continued its impressive sales streak throughout the next year, surpassing 137,000 units sold. This was a new annual record for the company. One of those units was the millionth vehicle Oldsmobile had produced. 

Production of vehicles ceased when America entered World War II in the early '40s. Oldsmobile switched its attention from vehicles to wartime arms production, including shells and big caliber guns. Oldsmobile provided this service to support the war, keep its employees at work and maintain their profits until car production could resume. And resume it did, leading to the production of what many would consider the best Oldsmobiles in history. 

What Are the Best Oldsmobile Cars?

After World War II, Oldsmobile started producing some of the most recognizable vehicles of the second half of the century. Whether you're a fan of the boxy body styles of the '80s or the powerful engines of the '60s, you'll find something to love about every Oldsmobile model on this list. Here are some of the most loved and sought after Oldsmobile models of all time. 

1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88

Oldsmobile manufactured plenty of attractive and monumental cars before World War II, but it was the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 that began Oldsmobile's impressive run of mid-century models. You can sometimes understand a car's success or lack of success by how long it stayed in production. The Rocket 88's 50-year production run attests to its popularity and desirability. 

The Rocket 88 housed Oldsmobile's famous Rocket V-8 engine, which was innovative compared to the straight-eight engines that were popular at the time. The first Rocket V-8s were 5.0-liter engines with 135 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. Oldsmobile combined these impressive specs with a light body, giving it a great deal of power and speed. Today, many car historians view the 1949 Rocket 88 as the first muscle car and one of the most valuable Oldsmobiles around. 

1957 Oldsmobile 98

The 98 was Oldsmobile's flagship model from 1941 to 1999, making it the longest-produced Oldsmobile model in existence. Oldsmobile released its fifth-generation model in 1957, and many people consider it to be the best version of the 98 ever produced. Beneath the hood, the 6.1-liter Rocket V-8 engine could push 305 horsepower along with 410 pound-feet of torque, making this model both powerful and attractive. 

The 1957 Oldsmobile 98 offered some of the era's best premium features. Exposed roof bows, ambient lighting, power steering, power brakes and electric windows are only a few of the comforts that came with this popular model. By the next year, the 98 included an electric clock, a padded dashboard and several colors of leather to choose from. It measured a lengthy 216.7 inches to compete with the imposing appearances of the era's Lincolns and Cadillacs. 

1961 Oldsmobile Starfire

The 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire shared its body and wheelbase with its sibling models, the Super 88 and the Dynamic 88. But it was its unique features that set this model apart and earned it its own nameplate. The Starfire's features included leather bucket seats and a center console with a rev counter. It also had power brakes and steering along with power windows and a power driver's seat. Add the brushed aluminum side panels, and the Starfire was the most expensive Oldsmobile to date. 

But the 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire had one other feature that justified its price and cemented its place in American car history. It was the first full-sized production car in America to have an automatic transmission with a floor shifter. This innovation still left room for power, as its Skyrocket V-8 engine boasted 6.5 liters and 330 horsepower. 

1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire

The 1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire was a version of the first generation Cutlass, a line of compact cars Oldsmobile offered in the early '60s. But the Jetfire set itself apart in both its looks and its specs. The 1962 Jetfire included a turbocharged version of the more compact, 3.5-liter Rockette V-8 engine called the Turbo-Rocket. It was the first turbocharged production car in history along with Chevrolet's Corvair Monza Spyder. 

For its size, the Turbo-Rocket was impressive. It pushed 215 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. It was also ahead of its time and needed a 50-50 mixture of distilled water and methanol to keep up with the compression levels within the combustion chamber. But the Oldsmobile Jetfire only lived for a few years due to its high price compared to the standard Cutlass and its engine reliability issues. 

1964 Oldsmobile 442

The Rocket 88 may have been the predecessor to the American muscle car, but the 442 was Oldsmobile's first official foray into the performance vehicle market. Pontiac had found success with their GTO, so Oldsmobile decided to get a piece of the action by manufacturing the 442. It was essentially a high-performance Cutlass, but people sought it for what was under the hood rather than how it looked on the outside. 

At the top of its class, the 1964 Oldsmobile 442 had a 6.6-liter V-8 engine with a horsepower of 360. By 1972, the 442 would reach engine sizes that could touch 400 horsepower, making it one of the fastest Oldsmobiles. The 442 would remain a staple of Oldsmobile until 1980, but it would return again over the next decade as a trim level of the Cutlass Supreme and Cutlass Calais. 

1966 Oldsmobile Toronado

Oldsmobile made headlines when they announced the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. This new car would be the first car produced in America to feature front-wheel drive in nearly 30 years. Besides that, the Toronado would include inspiring innovations like its Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed automatic transmission and a draft-free vent system for reduced noise from the wind. 

Upon release, the Toronado had a 7.0-liter V-8 engine with 385 horsepower. These stats were impressive for the era, especially since the car would move using its front wheels instead of its rear wheels. The Toronado was a success for Oldsmobile until its discontinuation in 1992. 

1970 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser 442

Americans loved their station wagons in the '60s and '70s, and Oldsmobile met that demand with the launch of its Vista Cruiser in 1964. Oldsmobile's station wagon had some cool features that set it apart, including three rows of seating, a raised roof and glass skylights over the second-row seating area. 

The first Vista Cruisers had 5.4-liter V-8 engines that pushed 320 horsepower. But by 1970, the Vista Cruiser had become one of the most hardcore station wagons available. The 1970 model had a 7.5-liter V-8 with 400 horsepower, stats you could only find in Oldsmobile's muscle cars at the time. With a 0 to 60 time of around six seconds, the 1970 Vista Cruiser was impressive. But Oldsmobile only made a small number of them, so they are rare to see today. 

1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Hurst

Oldsmobile's Hurst package first appeared on the scene on the 442, but it received some comebacks throughout the years. 1983 saw Oldsmobile bringing it back for a limited-edition Cutlass Supreme. By the '80s, most of Oldsmobile's models had switched to front-wheel drive. But Oldsmobile chose to equip the 1983 Cutlass Supreme Hurst with rear-wheel drive to attract lovers of old-school muscle cars. 

The 5.0-liter V-8 engine was one of Oldsmobile's biggest at the time and offered 180 horsepower. While this may seem underpowered compared to some of the other muscle cars on this list, the 1983 Cutlass Supreme Hurst was still a fast little sports car. It could hit 0 to 60 miles per hour in about eight seconds. The 1983-84 Cutlass Supreme Hurst only had 6,500 units on the market, making it a highly sought collector car in today's market. 

1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442 W41

The 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442 W41 is an extremely rare Oldsmobile model with only 204 produced in total. The regular Cutlass Calais had a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower, making it quite economical. With the 442 and W41 badges, Oldsmobile knew this model needed noteworthy performance specs. 

Oldsmobile gave the 1991 Cutlass Calais 442 W41 an upgraded version of its engine that could reach 180 horsepower. This may seem like a low stat compared to the original 442s, but it was actually pretty impressive for the early '90s when performance coupes plateaued around 200 horsepower. What made this model faster and more enjoyable to handle were its low weight and race-tuned gearbox and suspension. 

1995 Oldsmobile Aurora

The 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora was one of the last new nameplates that Oldsmobile created while it was still in existence. Although the company made the Aurora its flagship model, it contained a powerful 4.0-liter V-8 engine with 250 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Oldsmobile gave the Aurora these stats to impress fans of performance vehicles and help revitalize the Oldsmobile name. 

General Motors based the Aurora's body style on the 1989 Tube Car concept and gave the car the best technology it could offer. General Motors also used the Aurora as the basis for the new Oldsmobile models that followed, including the Alero, Bravada and Silhouette. Oldsmobile discontinued the Aurora in 2003, one year before General Motors shut down the Oldsmobile brand forever. 

Oldsmobile FAQs

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about Oldsmobile for quick reference:

1. When Was Oldsmobile Founded?

Ransom Eli Olds founded Oldsmobile on August 21, 1897. Before finding its eventual, longstanding name, the company went by the title of Olds Motor Vehicle Company. 

2. Is Oldsmobile a Luxury Brand?

At various times in its existence, Oldsmobile was able to pass as a luxury vehicle manufacturer. But most of the time, GM used Oldsmobile to fulfill a middle ground in terms of its luxury level. On the luxury scale, Oldsmobile was above Chevy and Pontiac but below Buick and Cadillac.

3. What Killed Oldsmobile?

Oldsmobile met its demise from its affiliation with General Motors. After losing profit in the early 2000s, GM announced its intention to shut down Oldsmobile and made it official in 2004. 

4. When Was the Last Oldsmobile Made?

The last vehicle ever produced by the company was the 2004 Alero GLS Final 500 Collector's Edition. It rolled off the assembly line on April 29, 2004. This moment marked the end of 107 years in business for the historic American car manufacturer. 


Find Your Dream Oldsmobile at Volo Auto Museum

Visit Volo Museum Auto Sales to see our selection of Oldsmobiles for sale. When you stop by or check us out online, you'll discover a classic car buying experience unlike any other. Shop with us, and you'll get to see our current inventory in person and can bring a trusted companion for a second opinion. We'll even let you test drive your dream car before you buy. We offer a classic car-buying experience you'll actually enjoy and feel good about. 

Contact us today for more information about our services and to learn more about our Oldsmobiles in stock. We look forward to meeting you and helping you get behind the wheel of a classic Oldsmobile.