Today my father, Max, would have been 88 years old. Max loved Oldsmobiles. I never really thought about this fact until I was on Block Island last week and happened to see three Oldsmobiles thriving in captivity. These three cars, a late model Eighty-Eight, a first-generation Bravada SUV, and an Alero were either parked in town or wandering slowly down Corn Neck Road. When was the last time you saw an Oldsmobile driving on a public road or parked on the street? The brand has been defunct since 2004. The sight of these automotive archaeological artifacts jarred my memory and got me thinking about the Oldsmobiles that my father owned. It also spurred me to do some research on this now forgotten but once iconic and storied brand. We all think about Tesla as an innovative automobile company today, but it turns out, Oldsmobile was an equally (if not more) innovative manufacturer back in its heyday. Over 35 million Oldsmobiles were sold between 1897 and 2004.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Max always drove Oldsmobiles. In 1988, the marketing geniuses at GM came up with a campaign to rejuvenate Oldsmobile’s fading brand. They chose, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” I remember being 18 years old, driving dad’s car and telling my friends, “this is my father’s Oldsmobile.”
Max’s first Oldsmobile was a 1983 Ninety-Eight Regency. This car was a sumptuous whale that had a puffy cloud-like ride. The next one was a 1985 Ninety-Eight. This car was a leap forward from the prior car, given it had front-wheel drive. The all-new Ninety-Eight was much smaller and substantially lighter than the 1983 Ninety-Eight. As a 15-year-old in 1985, I recall it being an unremarkable car other than the all-new powerful Delco/Bose audio system.
Then came the 1987 Touring Sedan. This car was built atop the same sub-par C-Body platform as the 1985 Ninety-Eight but appeared to have had a major intervention and makeover by the Germans. It had stiff suspension (called FE3), firm seats with bolsters, real wood trim, lots of gauges, and a center-shifter with a console. It was indeed a great car. Well made, it drove tight like a BMW of that era. Oldsmobile subcontracted part of the production of this car to Michigan-based coach builder ASC. The Touring Sedan was not a cheap car back in 1987 with a list price that came in at about $52,000 in today’s dollars. A pedestrian run-of-the-mill Ninety-Eight was priced at 30% less than a Touring Sedan. Max opted for another Touring Sedan in 1989. It was virtually the same car as the 1987, but with some marginal improvements and aesthetic changes.
Then, in 1995, the Aurora arrived. This all-new model was a daring “love it or hate it” design conceived of by GM’s talented designer Maurice “Bud” Chandler. In hindsight, the Aurora was Oldsmobile’s final shot at squarely targeting European imports. The nimble Aurora drove tight and was similar to the Touring Sedan but much more modern. Under the hood it had a version of Cadillac’s smooth, reliable, and powerful Northstar V8. Despite being a capable car that was well made, the Aurora never won over the hearts of fleeing Oldsmobile buyers. Max’s last three Oldsmobiles were almost competitive with their foreign competition. But these cars were on the highest end of the Oldsmobile lineup—the average Oldsmobile customer driving a much cheaper Cutlass was not sharing the same driving experience as Max.
The Aurora was a really good car, but it was too little too late. Oldsmobile sales were strong until the mid-1980s (1985 was an all-time record year of sales for Oldsmobile—they reached 1,066,122 units). But in the late 1980’s, European brands turned up the heat and the Japanese entered the luxury auto segment. Oldsmobile sales ultimately declined during the 1990s. What went wrong? The Oldsmobile Diesel may have been the first nail in the coffin, followed by their ill-fated “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” advertising campaign. In the auto industry, it’s hard to recover from missteps when the competition is escalating. Low-quality cars with indistinguishable designs from other GM brands contributed to Oldsmobile becoming an irrelevant brand. However, this sad state of affairs was not always the case. Back in the early age of the automobile and well into the 1960s, Oldsmobile was a very innovative brand that led the industry with many firsts.
Ransom E. Olds founded the Olds Motor Works in 1897. The company’s first production car was the $650 Curved Dash. Olds left the company in 1904 after a falling out with the largest shareholder’s son. The Olds Motor Works was bought by GM in 1908 and renamed Oldsmobile. Ransom Olds also started REO Motor Car Company (the manufacturer of the fabled REO Speed Wagon) and successfully dabbled in real estate and other businesses. Notably, Ransom Olds was the first person in the automobile industry to use a stationary assembly line—although Henry Ford is widely credited with the first moving assembly line.
Under GM, Oldsmobile became an industry leader in technology and innovation. Long before electric drive and overnight software updates, there was Oldsmobile. During the 107 years of Oldsmobile’s existence, the brand was responsible for many new technologies and industry firsts. Oldsmobile’s biggest innovations include fully automatic transmissions, overhead valve motors, turbocharging, front-wheel-drive, airbags, and satellite navigation. The following timeline is a list of Oldsmobile’s major industry accomplishments:
- 1901 – The first speedometer to be offered on a production car was on an Oldsmobile Curved Dash
- 1901 – Oldsmobile became the first car company to procure parts from third-party suppliers.
- 1901- Olds was the 1st Automobile manufacturer to publicly promote their vehicles.
- 1902 – The Oldsmobile Curved Dash becomes the first mass-produced vehicle in America.
- 1902 – Olds Motor Works is the first American car company to export an automobile.
- 1903- Olds builds the 1st purpose built Mail Truck.
- 1908- Olds rebadges the Buick Model B into the Oldsmobile Model 20, creating arguably the first badge-engineered automobile.
- 1915 – First standard windshield
- 1926 – Oldsmobile was the first car company to use chrome plating on its trim.
- 1932 – Oldsmobile introduces the first automatic choke.
- 1938 – Oldsmobile introduces the Hydra-Matic the first production fully automatic transmission.
- 1948 – Oldsmobile, along with Buick and Cadillac offered one piece compound curved windshields. Prior to this, windshields were split in the middle.
- 1949 – Oldsmobile introduces the first high-compression, overhead valve V8 engine the Rocket.
- 1952 – Oldsmobile along with Cadillac introduces the “Autronic Eye” – the first automatic headlight dimming system.
- 1953- Oldsmobile becomes one of the earliest automakers to switch their complete line up to the newly standardized 12v charging system. Buick Roadmasters and Cadillacs were other early adopters.
- 1962 – Oldsmobile creates first production turbocharged car the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire.
- 1962 – Oldsmobile creates first production car with water injection the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire.
- 1966 – The Toronado is the first mass-produced front-wheel-drive American car.
- 1969 – First production electric grid window defogger on an American car – 1969 Oldsmobile Toronado.
- 1974 – The Toronado is the first American car to offer a driver-side airbag. Shared with Buick and Cadillac.
- 1977 – The Toronado is the first production American car with a microprocessor to run engine controls.
- 1982 – First use of high-impact moulded plastic body components – 1982 Oldsmobile Omega 
- 1986 – Oldsmobile along with Buick introduces the Delco VIC touchscreen interface on the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Buick Riviera first of its kind on a production Automobile.
- 1988 – The first production heads-up display system – 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Indy Pace car.
- 1988 – Oldsmobile broke a world closed-course speed record with the Oldsmobile Aerotech at 267 mph, driven by legendary race car driver A.J. Foyt. (See photograph below of the Aerotech at the 1988 New York Auto Show)
- 1990 – Oldsmobile introduces an updated color Touchscreen interface with built in celluar phone (a predecessor to modern infotainment systems) on the 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo.
- 1995 – Oldsmobile presented Guidestar, the first on-board navigation system to be offered on a US production car.
- 1997 – Oldsmobile is the first American car company to turn 100.
The next time you see an Oldsmobile going down the road you might look at it little differently now—even though the chances of seeing one on the road are slim—and getting slimmer every day. The next time you are listening to 80s satellite radio, and an REO Speedwagon hit song like Take It On the Run, Keep on Loving You, or Can’t Fight This Feeling envelop your ears; you will know where that band got its odd name.