On this date in 2000, General Motors announced that it would phase out the Oldsmobile brand.
Founded in 1897 as the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, Oldsmobile became part of General Motors in 1908. By that time, founder Ransom Eli Olds was no longer with the company, having formed REO Motor Car Company. Not only did Oldsmobile pioneer the automotive assembly line, but it also pioneered the automotive hit, as “In My Merry Oldsmobile” was everyone’s favorite ditty in 1905. Early on, Oldsmobile developed a reputation for innovation.
In the 1920s, Oldsmobile received a companion make, much like what Buick, Oakland and Cadillac would have. This car, called the Viking, would only be built for 1929-31. It was an upmarket Oldsmobile, plugging a price hole that previously existed between Olds and Buick (with the latter having the Marquette, just above Viking).
In the 1930s, Oldsmobile offered six- and eight-cylinder vehicles, common among medium-priced brands in the era. But Oldsmobile’s biggest achievement was the development of the automatic transmission, with the 1937 Automatic Safety Transmission semi-automatic giving way to the 1940 Hydra-Matic Drive four-speed automatic. The innovative streak continued with the 1949 Rocket V8, the industry’s first (along with Cadillac’s) high-compression engine. The Rocket theme would continue into the next decade, especially with the advent of the Space Race. Oldsmobile also was first (with Cadillac and Buick) to offer a production “hardtop convertible” the same year.
As the 1950s wore on, it seems Oldsmobile lost some of its luster, failing to capitalize on the “Horsepower Race” in the way it ushered the high-compression universe. However, Oldsmobile returned to form for 1962 with the advent of the first production turbocharged car, the F85-based Jetfire coupe. Then, for 1966, Oldsmobile introduced the Toronado, which not only offered concept car good looks but also was the first production front wheel-drive since the 1936-37 Cord. Of course, the 4-4-2 was a mainstay of the performance set well into the 1970s, though it wasn’t innovative in the same vein.
In the 1970s, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme held the distinction of being America’s most popular car starting in 1976. The achievement was somewhat softened by GM’s introduction of the 1978 diesel V8, which suffered from numerous reliability issues.
Perhaps that was the death knell for the brand, but there may have been other reasons too. For one thing, thanks to the success of the Cutlass Supreme, Oldsmobile began applying Cutlass prefixes to several models like the Cutlass Ciera and Cutlass Calas, which created confusion and diluted the strength of the Cutlass brand. The 1980s front wheel-drive world wasn’t too kind to Oldsmobile either, with Omega, Firenza and Calais models not being satisfactory to Oldsmobile traditionalists, though the Ciera was popular and reliable. And though sales were strong through the mid-1980s, they fell by 60% by the early 1990s. GM struggled to figure out Oldsmobile’s place in the market.
As it ended, Oldsmobile suffered from two main problems: being part of General Motors, which was a positive strength for decades until its business models no longer worked in the modern world; and the search for relevance in the market thanks to being part of GM.
As someone who was able to attend Oldsmobile’s 100th anniversary in Lansing, no one there could have guessed the brand would announce it was being discontinued five years later. The world is full of discontinued brands, though few were part of the biggest auto company in the world. There is no shame in accepting Oldsmobile among the many brands that no longer exist, though few of those can still be found on a daily basis like Olds.