The History of Oldsmobile

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 1897 - 2004

Pliny Fisk Olds

It is a good thing that Ransom Eil Olds did not like the smell of horses on the farm, and decided to invent an automobile. That was in the early 1880s, when Ransom was in his early 20s. Born in 1864, he was the son of Pliny Fisk Olds, a village mechanic in Geneva, north Ohio, not far from Cleveland. Cleveland was already a major engineering centre, with iron and steel manufacture, farm implement production, oil-refining and ship-building industries firmly established; and it was here that Ransom went to school.

His father encouraged him to tinker with machinery, almost as soon as the boy was big enough to grasp a spanner, and Ransom soon became a proficient mechanic. Pliny Olds eventually moved to Lansing, state capital of Michigan, where he established an engineering shop on River Street. Young Ransom's role in the household economy was to get up at five o'clock, light the two household fires, and then walk down to the workshop and fire up the boiler in the adjoining lean-to which provided the power for the steam engine. Then he went home for breakfast, attended school, and at four o'clock was back working in the machine shop.

He spent all day Saturday, and all his holidays, in the shop, for two years unpaid, and thereafter for fifty cents a day. The result of this hard training was that by the time Ransom had finished high school, he had become an expert machinist, and was proficient in pattern-making and moulding. When he started to build engines in the little lean-to beside the Olds barn, the neighbours began to prophesy that no good would come of it. 'That kid of yours will blow his head off one day, Pliny,' they forecast; but Ransom survived unscathed. Indeed he was abetted in his experiments by his father, and together they began to develop a crude internal combustion engine based on the Otto stationary unit.

Buying Into the Family Business

By the time Ransom was 21 he had bought himself a half-share in the family business, paying his father his $300 savings and a promissory note for $800 at 8 per cent interest. 'At the time I went in with him,' Ransom Olds recalled 40 years later, 'Father's work consisted mainly of repairing, but I wanted to manufacture, and it seemed to me that we could create a demand for small steam engines. We gradually worked out plans for a small engine or boiler of one or two horsepower, which could be operated by an ordinary stove burner. But there was so much deposit in the river water that the small boilers filled up with mud and were not very satisfactory. Next I invented a gasoline motor which was the first manufactured in the United States to use gasoline directly in the cylinder. We made this up as high as twelve to eighteen horsepower.'

An Interview with B. C. Forbes

Like most American pioneers, Olds was apt to pre-date his early experiments, so his claim to have built an internal-combustion car in 1886 must be regarded with just a little bit of suspicion. According to B. C. Forbes, who interviewed Olds in 1925, the vehicle 'was crude, built as it was from the various parts he had been able to pay for out of his careful savings. The body was made of whitewood, the frame was substantially built of oak, and this somewhat ungainly structure rested on three, steel-tyred buggy wheels of conventional size.' 'What troubled him most,' said Forbes, 'was the transmission, for its construction was crude indeed. The rear axle had a ratchet on each side, and it was steered by an iron lever.

The main drive wheel was an iron wheel with half-inch pointed pins screwed into the face to make a sprocket. The driving chain, made of strap iron, with rollers on pins to hold the links together, was operated through a set of lathe gears (otherwise known as the transmission). Unfortunately there was no transmission case, and when the car was run the wood supports for the gears magnified the noise like a sounding board. 'When young Olds ran his motor vehicle out on the street in the early morning, the terrific noise of the gears shattered the peaceful silence and aroused the entire neighbourhood. Within five minutes, his progress had caused so much excitement that he decided a few hundred feet was sufficient for the first exhilerating tryout.

1897 Olds Motor Wagon
1897 Olds 'Motor Wagon' .

1899 Curved Dash Olds
1899 Curved Dash Olds, powered by a single-cylinder 1563cc engine. It sold for $650.

1901 Olds Curved Dash
1901 Olds Curved Dash.

1902 Olds Curved Dash runabout
1902 Olds Curved Dash runabout.

1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash
1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash.

1913 Oldsmobile Model 53 Six Cylinder
1913 Oldsmobile Model 53 Six Cylinder.

1936 Oldsmobile Eight Sport Coupe
1936 Oldsmobile Eight Sport Coupe. The Fisher body design would later be dubbed the 'Turret Top'.

1951 Oldsmobile
1951 Oldsmobile.

1954 Oldsmobile two-door convertible
1954 Oldsmobile two-door convertible.

1954 Oldsmobile 88 two-door
1954 Oldsmobile 88 two-door.

1963 Oldsmobile F-85
1963 Oldsmobile F-85.

1972 Oldsmobile Toronado Custom
1972 Oldsmobile Toronado Custom.

1973 Oldsmobile Omega Sedan
1973 Oldsmobile Omega Sedan.

1973 Oldsmobile Omega Hatchback Coupe
1973 Oldsmobile Omega Hatchback Coupe.

1978 Oldsmobile Omega Brougham Sedan
1978 Oldsmobile Omega Brougham Sedan.
The family machine shop was in trouble in 1886. They had put up a small factory in the hope of increased sales of their gas engines, but in doing so had exhausted their finances - and attracted some customers who were incapable of paying for the goods they had ordered. The Olds had to borrow as much as they were able, in an effort to rebuild the business. 'But in all that time I never lost faith in my idea of gasoline locomotion,' claimed Ransom Olds. 'All through those months I spent every spare minute tinkering with engines and experimenting with different forms of combustion. That little gasoline engine I had invented sold so well that it finally pulled us out of the hole and it convinced me more than ever that mechanical power as applied to all our regular functions was the coming solution of big business.'

The Olds Gasoline Engine Works

Possibly much of that bold statement was romanticised hindsight, as it took three years to get the company back on its feet; and by then it was obvious that Pliny Olds was on the way out. Perhaps young Ransom's expansionist ideas frightened him; whatever the reason, when the Olds Gasoline Engine Works Incorporated was launched in 1890 with a capital of $30,000, Ransom Olds was made president and general manager. Within two years, he had entirely bought out his father's share in the business. Already engines were being shipped from coast to coast, and quite an export trade was built up with Great Britain.

The First American Car Export

By then Ransom Olds had built and run his first authentic motor vehicle. This was a three-wheeled steam car with a flash boiler, which attracted sufficient attention for the august Scientific American to despatch a correspondent to Lansing to write a feature on the vehicle. Olds told the reporter: 'It never kicks or bites, never tires on long runs, and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable and only eats while on the road.' This article eventually found its way to India, whence Olds received an offer for his vehicle, and it was duly shipped overseas, the first-ever export by the American motor industry.

E. W. Sparrow, S. L. Smith and Henry Russel

Around 1895 Olds began work on a gasoline buggy, with high wheels running on It in rubber tyres; the engine was mounted on the reach bars which linked the front and rear axles into one unsprung unit. In typical American buggy fashion, the dog-cart body wavered around above the axles on its own full-elliptic springs. It probably made its first test runs in December 1895, as Olds recalled that the car was not ready at the time of the Chicago Times-Herald race on November 28 that year. By 1896 the car was a regular feature on the streets of Lansing, where it attracted the attention of a local capitalist named E. W. Sparrow, who persuaded two friends living in Detroit, S. L. Smith and Henry Russel, to join him in backing Olds to produce horseless carriages.

Re-locating To America's 14th Largest City

Between them, they subscribed $50,000, and the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was founded; it was decided to locate the factory in Detroit, as Lancing was then a town of under 2000 inhabitants, with unpaved streets, while Detroit was an expanding industrial centre, with a rate of growth second only to Chicago, and a population of 205,876, which made it America's 14th largest city. Notwithstanding its title, the company made very few motor vehicles in its new home on East Jefferson Avenue; its specialities were stationary gas and petrol engines, with marine power units a profitable sideline.

Car manufacture was not seriously considered until 1899, when S. L. Smith, who had made his fortune in copper and lumber, decided to take over the company so that his two sons could have a lucrative hobby. So he put up $199,600 and took 95 per cent of the stock: Ransom Olds chipped in $400 for the remaining 5 per cent, and was appointed president and general manager, though the former title was obviously only a courtesy one. The Olds Motor Works was launched with grandiose schemes to build a $1250 luxury car with such advanced features as pneumatic clutch, cushion tyres, and electric push-button starter, but at that stage of the game the car-buying public regarded innovations of this kind as the prime ingredients of mechanical failure, and the car failed to sell to such an extent that 1900 saw the Olds company running at a loss of $80,000.

The Curved-dash Oldsmobile

At this point Ransom Olds had the proverbial blinding flash of inspiration: 'After a long, sleepless night, I decided to discard all my former plans and build a little one-cylinder runabout, for I was convinced that if success came it must be through a more simple machine. The plans which had formulated in my mind were very clear. It was my idea to build a machine which would weigh around 500 pounds and would sell for around $500. The result was the curved-dash 'Oldsmobile', weighing 700 pounds and selling at $650. My whole idea in building it was to have the operation so simple that anyone could run it and the construction such that it could be repaired at any local shop.'

Disaster At The Factory

In 1901, the prototype was ready, and the blueprints had all been drawn up ready for production: Olds had been working day and night to develop the new model, a little buggy whose toboggan-like body was perched on two long springs which served the dual function of locating the front and rear axles and acting as auxiliary chassis sidemembers. The single-cylinder engine displaced 1563cc and drove the back axle through a chain via a two-speed epicyclic transmission unit. Then came instant disaster! A workman pulled his forge fire too close to a rubber gasbag which was being used to fuel one of the factory's engines, and the inevitable terrific explosion resulted. The factory, which was almost certainly principally built of clapboard, burst into flames, and the upstairs staff barely had time to save themselves, let alone bother about looking for blueprints.

Within an hour, there was nothing left but scorched ruins-and the prototype runabout, which had been saved by a young timekeeper at the factory named James J. Brady who, hearing the explosion, had rushed to the section of the factory where the model was stored, and persuaded the staff to help him push the car out into the open. With supreme resilience, they started again from scratch. The car was taken apart, new blueprints were drawn from the parts, and work began on duplicates. At that time Olds was ill in hospital; within a month, the first 'duplicate' Oldsmobile was driven up to his ward window to assure him that all was well.

America's First Successful Mass-production Petrol Car

At that time the Olds company was a considerable reservoir of talent: among its staff were Charles Brady King, who had built Detroit's first car in 1896, Jonathan D. Maxwell, formerly with the Apperson brothers, Robert C. Hupp (who would later found Hupmobile) and two young University of Michigan graduates, Roy D. Chapin and Howard E. Coffin, who would go on to launch the Hudson car in 1909. These varied skills were interwoven to make the Oldsmobile America's first successful mass-production petrol car - though like many other US mass-producers, Oldsmobile didn't manufacture all the components themselves. Indeed, it was essential for them to sub-contract in order to get into production as quickly as possible, and the Detroit automobile component industry was born.

They ordered engines and transmissions from the Dodge brothers, John and Horace, and further engines were supplied by Leland & Faulconer (though these were built to more precise standards than the Dodge units and showed up the engineering deficiencies of the Oldsmobile chassis). The little Oldsmobile was an instant success. Pre-production models were used to test market reaction, and proved so popular that the decision was made to stake everything on this car: and the gamble proved an outstanding success. Some 600 Oldsmobiles were sold in 1901, and Olds then staggered the industry by announcing that he planned to build 4000 cars the following year. In fact, output for 1902 was 2500, but that was more than enough to silence those who had thought that there would not be sufficient demand for cars to support such outputs.

820 Miles in Seven Days

One reason for the popularity of the little car was a well-publicised 820-miles-in-seven-days endurance run from Detroit to the New York Automobile Show by Roy Chapin (though by all accounts the breakdown-fraught journey proved the driver's endurance rather than the car's); Olds talked one major New York firm, A. G. Spalding & Company, into ordering 100 cars and taking an agency, but they soon cancelled the order after a directors' meeting had agreed that there was no chance of selling as many as 100 cars in New York City. Then, however, the Cleveland agent for Oldsmobile, M. Owen, wandered on to the stand with his backer, Roy Rainey, and announced that sales had been so good that Rainey was interested in starting another agency for Owen, in New York. They proposed ordering 500 cars, but Ransom Olds commented: 'Why not make it a thousand cars, boys, and get some notice?' Rainey and Owen agreed, and a contract was signed the same night.

Come with me Lucille in my Merry Oldsmobile

Their publicity campaign seems to have been crude, cheap and effective: They started out by doing stunts with the cars on Fifth Avenue to attract attention. They got themselves arrested for speeding, upset a bicycle policeman, and made the car so talked about that people began to look into the matter seriously. That year 750 cars were sold in New York City, and the factory had to announce a waiting list. Soon, too, the little tiller-steered Oldsmobile became the first car to be immortalised in a popular song: 'Come with me Lucille in my Merry Oldsmobile' crooned the harmony songsters of the day. The tune, written by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan, was re-recorded in the 1920s as a giveaway gimmick for a new Oldsmobile model by the Jean Goldkette Band with Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, and this waxing is now one of the rarest jazz collectors' items in existence, less than half-a-dozen copies having survived.

The best thing, though, about the Oldsmobile was that it was designed for the non-mechanically minded customer, for whom the instruction booklet was suitably reassuring: 'Don't confess that you are less intelligent than thousands of people who are driving Oldsmobiles. We make the only motor that 'motes' . . . . Don't drive your Oldsmobile more than 100 miles on the first day. You wouldn't drive a green horse ten miles till you were acquainted with him. Do you know more about a gasoline motor than you do about a horse?' By applying cycle industry methods of standardisation and production, Olds was able to step up output of his gas buggy on an impressive scale.

The Detroit Automobile and Sportsmen's Show

At the Detroit Automobile and Sportsmen's Show in early 1903, he announced that the car had ceased to be a luxury, and had now become a utility. Within ten years, he pre-dieted, the average car would weigh 700-800 Ib and be small, compact and simply constructed. As if to prove him right, sales of Oldsmobiles rose to 4000 for the year, and the Oldsmobile works was claimed to be the world's biggest automobile factory, Engines were still supplied by the Dodges and Leland and Faulconer, bodies by the C. R. Wilson Body Company on Cass Avenue - both the latter companies were soon also supplying the newly founded Ford Motor Company.

The Oldsmobile assembly process, which used jigs and machine tools to build up the complete vehicles in progressive steps was the first tentative step of the motor industry towards the moving production line. Automobile wrote in December 1903: 'The motors are passed, step by step, down the assembling bench towards the testing department which is in the next room, a new piece being added at every move with clock-like regularity.' A few months later, the Detroit Free Press visited the Olds Motor Works: 'Rows upon rows of special machinery are humming and buzzing away, bewildering the onlooker with their number.

A great expanse of floor space str etches away before the visitor, along which are arranged these ingenious devices, each with its own peculiar work to do. Some bore out the cylinders, each machine making two cylinders at a time; some finish the connecting rods and shafts; in fact every step in the process of turning out the finished machinery of a modern car is carried out by a group of these beautiful machines. The finishing and enamelling of the bodies, the upholstery of seats and cushions, and so on, are carried on in a large separate part of the plant. One little imagines, as he looks at the swiftly running car on the street, the immense amount of detail and careful manipulation that have been necessary on the. hundreds of parts before they have all been brought together and adjusted to form this engine of commerce and pleasure.'

The Birth of Reo

Sales in 1904 reached 5000, but Ransom Olds was soon given cause to remember that he owned only 5 per cent of the company, for Samuel Smith decided that it was time the company (of which son Fred was now secretary and treasurer) ought to be getting into the lucrative field of high-powered luxury cars. Which was not at all what Ransom Olds wanted, so he decided it was time to retire. 'We had done so well by that time,' he recalled, 'that I thought I had about all that I needed, and rather than hamper the ideas of the rest of the group I sold out my stock and decided to take a long vacation.' That was in August 1904; and while 'Olds was holidaying in Northern Michigan with his family, he received a telegram asking him to return to Lansing.

'As I stepped off the train, I was met by an old friend who handed me an interesting looking paper. Reading it, I found that a group of my friends had organised a half-million dollar company, of which I was to be the head, and within three hours had raised the money to finance it. Of this, I was to have a controlling interest, $260,000.' And thus the Reo was born, and at first built vehicles of a fairly similar type to the Oldsmobile. Soon the rival companies were neighbours, and in the summer of 1905, Samuel Smith, attracted by the offer of a 52-acre site subscribed for by the Lansing Businessmen's Association, decided to move Oldsmobile back to its (and his) home town.

The Touring Runabout Curved-dash Olds

As yet, there was little divergence from the pattern laid down by Ransom Olds. The standard 'curved-dash' model was still available, with its tiller steering that enabled drivers to determine which way the front wheels were pointing; but now there was also a 'Touring Runabout' version with wheel steering and a dummy bonnet, priced at $750, plus a 20 hp flat-twin model with five-seated touring coachwork, which cost $1400. There was also a 'Coach', a forward-control II-seated shooting brake-type vehicle, with a 16hp vertical-twin engine; this vehicle cost $2200.

The Curved-dash Olds was still listed the following year, but it now looked a poor old-fashioned thing, and was available at no extra cost with 'straight-dash' bodywork, a futile attempt at updating. There were two new car models, the Model L 'Double-Action Olds', and the 26/28 hp Model S. The Double-Action had a vertical-twin two-stroke engine of 20/24 hp rating, and like the Model S, broke new ground for this marque by adopting a three-speed sliding-gear transmission and a shaft-driven rear axle; it cost $1250 complete with four-seated coachwork.

The Oldsmobile Model S

The Model S, priced at $2250, had a four-cylinder engine, the company's first, while for lovers of the grandiose there was an 18-seated wagonette with a horrifying rear overhang, for which Oldsmobile considered the old 16 hp vertical-twin and two-speed epicyclic transmission were still adequate. This ambitious marketing programme was pushed through despite the advice of Roy Chapin, who had taken over as sales manager in 1904, and raised the output of Runabouts to 6500 in 1905; and the high-priced models began to build up losses. Equally, though, the Runabout was clearly on the wane.

Fred Smith was a great one for inventing slogans for the Oldsmobile Runabout, and had coined the phrase, 'Nothing to watch but the road'. 'The idea is good,' commented an owner, who was obviously fed up with the glacier-like performance of his Oldsmobile, 'but I get darned tired of watching the same piece of road.' By early 1906, Oldsmobile was in debt, its cash reserves depleted. Roy Chapin and his friend Howard Coffin (Oldsmobile's newly-appointed chief engineer) were among those who resigned at this time. But the company continued with its expanding production programme in the face of convincing financial proof of the total error of such a course.

1908 saw the introduction of a 7400cc six-cylinder model to head a range whose 'baby' was now a 4500cc four. The inevitable takeover that year left Billy Durant in charge, and Oldsmobile one of the less healthy components of the new General Motors group, a position that was not helped by the new management's insistence on repeating all the mistakes of the Smith regime on an even bigger scale. A truly colossal car appeared in 1910 in the shape of an 11,569cc six, which carried its 11 ft 6 in wheelbase aloft on 42 in wheels, which made the car sit so high in the air that a double-stepped running-board was essential. One of these cars raced the famous 20th Century Limited railway express from New York to Albany - and won - after which the model took the name Limited in honour of the event, though 'unlimited' might have been more appropriate.

The Millionth General Motors Car

After 1912, however, there were reassuring signs that the days of the behemoths were numbered, as the biggest in the range was now a mere baby of 6997cc; refinements such as compressed-air starters and four-speed transmissions were available, while Deleo electric starting and lighting were standardised in 1914. A low-priced four was added to the range in 1915, to be joined in 1916 by a 4-liter V8 which combined low cost with high efficiency; its side-valve engine had aluminum pistons, a definite innovation at that period. The 1916 season saw Oldsmobile produce the millionth General Motors car, one of their new 2900cc sixes; but after the Armistice the V8 was the prime offering, though a stop-gap ohv four using the same 2.8-liter engine as its sister marque, Chevrolet, was launched in 1921, only to be swept away, like the V8, in 1923.

The one model which replaced them was a 2774cc six with a Buick-like radiator, which was intended to appeal to a slightly 'sportier' class of customer than other GM marques attracted. 'The impulse to sit behind its wheel, step on the accelerator and drive out into the open-through valleys, up steep hills and to buck up against most any obstacle of travel seems to come with the first view of the Oldsmobile Sport Touring,' carolled the sales literature. 'Some manufacturers have neglected their open cars and cater principally to closed-car buyers. But not so with Oldsmobile, who, realising that there are many who prefer open-car freedom, has kept abreast of the times with fine appointments of comfort, beauty and convenience in the Touring Car ....

The Touring Car is beautiful and graceful from all angles. Its body is hung close to the ground and passengers enjoy comfort from sitting down deep in the cushions rather than on them .... Performance - fleetness of acceleration when in traffic, or starting from a stand-still, and power that virtually removes the hills from the highways - is in such abundance in this latest Oldsmobile Six that everyone who has driven it marvels at the reserve that seems ever ready to meet any demand. It fulfils every letter of the creed to which it was built-"Beauty, Performance, Price-Not one but all three".'

Chrome Plating and Four Wheel Braking

During 1927 Oldsmobile pioneered the use of chromium-plated brightwork, and introducing four-wheel braking. Sales rose from 44,000 in 1924 to over 100,000 in 1929, in which year a low-priced V8, the Viking, was launched. It was based on the LaSalle, and had a 4244cc side-valve power unit, but the Depression was the wrong time to launch a V8, and within two years the Viking was dead. But Oldsmobile were still multi-cylinder minded, as the announcement of a new 3933cc straight-eight in 1932 bore witness. The company was gradually evolving into a corporate kite-flyer for new technical advances, though there was nothing specially advanced about the adoption of independent front suspension in 1934.

The following year saw the controversial 'Turret-top'; styling, which hinted at the jelly-mould shapes of the future, while 1938 saw the first production General Motors automatic transmissions installed in Oldsmobiles. This transmission seems to have been beset with its share of troubles, as most auto historians point to 1940 as being of far greater significance, as that is when the automatic became reliable. And the Oldsmobile had always had a name for reliability, though in the post-war era Oldsmobile was chosen by GM to promote some weird styling exercises.

The Oldsmobile Autronic Eye

There were also the technical innovations, such as the 'Autronic eye' automatic headlamp beam control, air conditioning, four-barrel carburetors. But all this extra electronic circuitry needed plenty of power, so there was a return to larger engines to maintain performance levels. The year 1949 brought 'Futuramic' styling and a 4965cc 'Rocket' V8, heralding the descent into the styling wilderness with disasters such as the 1958 Dynamic 88 Starfire Coupe (it was all Starfire and Jetfire in those days, though there was the token attempt at building a compact, the 3523cc V8 F-85 of 1961).

The old sporty image was revived with the 1962 Cutlass version of the F-85, while even more performance - 110 mph was promised the following year by a turbocharged Jetfire version of this car. It is perhaps hardly coincidental that the following year the V8 was shelved in favour of a Buick-based V6, while a range of Jetstar eights made further attempts at offering economy. But the real breakthrough for Olds came in 1966, when they announced their first chain-drive model since the demise of the curved-dash runabout; but there could not have been a greater contrast between the two concepts, as the new Toronado used short silent-tooth chains to drive the front wheels-through Hydramatic transmission.

The Delta 88 Engine Controversy

Not surprisingly, it was a big car, with a 6965cc V8 engine, which was upped to 7456cc in 1968. It was appropriate that America's oldest motor manufacturing company passed its three-quarter century building such a distinctive machine. The Toronado was one of the models that helped the popularity of the Oldsmobile marque, and by 1977 all the GM divisions produced their own unique 350 c.i. V8. In 1977 demand exceeded production capacity for the Oldsmobile V8, and as a result Oldsmobile began equipping most full size Delta 88 models (those with Federal emissions specifications) with the Chevrolet 350 engine instead.

Although it was widely debated whether there was a difference in quality or performance between the two engines, there was no question that the engines were different from one another. Many customers were loyal Oldsmobile buyers who specifically wanted the Rocket V8, and did not discover that their vehicle had the Chevrolet engine until they performed maintenance and discovered that purchased parts did not fit. This became a public relations nightmare for GM. Following this debacle, disclaimers stating that "Oldsmobiles are equipped with engines produced by various GM divisions" were tacked on to advertisements and sales literature; all other GM divisions followed suit. In addition, GM quickly stopped associating engines with particular divisions, and to this day all GM engines are produced by "GM Powertrain" (GMPT) and are called GM "Corporate" engines instead of GM "Division" engines.

Although it was the popularity of the Oldsmobile division vehicles that prompted this change, declining sales of V8 engines would have made this change inevitable as all but the Chevrolet version of the 350 cubic inch engine were eventually dropped. Oldsmobile also introduced a 5.7 liter (350 c.i. V-8) diesel engine option on its' Delta 88 & 98 models in 1978 and a smaller 4.3 liter (260 c.i.) displacement diesel on the 1979 Cutlass Supreme. These were largely based on their gasoline engines but with heavier duty cast blocks, re-designed heads, fast glow plugs, and on the 5.7 liter, oversized cranks, main bearings, and wrist pins. There were several problems with these engines including water and corrosion in the injectors (no water separator in the fuel line), parafin clogging of fuel lines and filters in cold weather, reduced lubrication in the heads due to undersized oil galleys, head bolt failures, and the use of aluminum rockers and stanchions in the 4.3 literengines. While the 5.7 liter was also offered on the 1980 Caddilac, Buick, Pontiac, and Chevy Impala, they were soon discontinued by all divisions by the mid 1980s.

Japanese Competition and the Toronado Trofeo

Engine woe's aside, Oldsmobile's success of the 1970's continue through the 1980s, but by 1990 things were starting to change. Motoring journalists claimed the brand had lost its place in the market, having been squeezed between other GM divisions - while there was now some pretty stiff competition from well built imports such as Acura and Lexus. Oldsmobile's signature cars gave way to rebadged models of other GM cars, and GM shifted the performance mantle to Chevrolet and Pontiac. GM continued to use Oldsmobile sporadically to showcase futuristic designs, along with prototype designs, such as the Toronado Trofeo, which included a visual instrument system with a calendar, datebook, and climate controls.

For 1995, Oldsmobile introduced the Aurora, which would be the inspiration for the design of its cars from the mid-1990s onward. The introduction of the Aurora marked as General Motors' catalyst to reposition Oldsmobile as an upscale import fighter. Accordingly, Oldsmobile received a new logo based on the familiar "rocket" theme. Nearly all the existing model names were gradually phased out: the Cutlass Calais in 1991, the Toronado and Custom Cruiser in 1992, the Ninety-Eight and Ciera (formerly Cutlass Ciera) in 1996, Cutlass Supreme in 1997, and finally the Eighty-Eight and Cutlass (which had only been around since 1997) in 1999. They were replaced with newer, more modern models with designs inspired by the Aurora.

The writing was on the wall, and it seemed inevitable that the Oldsmobile badge would fade from the showrooms around the country. The final production day for Oldsmobile was April 29, 2004. The division's last car built was an Alero GLS 4-door sedan, which was signed by all of the Olds assembly line workers. It is on display at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum located in Lansing, Michigan.
1910 Oldsmobile Limited Edition
1910 Oldsmobile Limited Edition, which was powered by a 11,569cc engine. One of these raced the 20th Century Limited railway express from New York to Albany and won.
1927 Oldsmobile Six Coach Sedan
1927 Oldsmobile Six Coach Sedan. This image is from an original Oldsmobile advertisement.
1932 Oldsmobile Convertible Coupe
1932 Oldsmobile Convertible Coupe.
1938 Oldsmobile 70
1938 Oldsmobile 70.
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