Oldsmobile History - 1908 to 1952

Oldsmobile The Car of Today -- and of Tomorrow.

Oldsmobile Under General Motors

After R.E. Olds' departure, Oldsmobile struggled, and in 1908 it was swallowed up by the new General Motors (GM) conglomerate.

General Motors (GM) was formed in 1908 as a holding company for Buick. William Crapo "Billy" Durant was the company owner at the time. Durant, a high-school dropout, had made his fortune building horse-drawn carriages, and in fact he hated cars–he thought they were noisy, smelly, and dangerous. Nevertheless, the giant company he built would dominate the American auto industry for decades.

Under Billy Durant's leadership, General Motors Company was founded on September 16, 1908. That year the Buick Motor Company, then Oldsmobile, were bought out by the growing GM. During GM's early years, Durant went on a shopping spree for automobile manufacturers. That buy-out of 30 other companies came to an end in 1910. Durant had spent so much money that he was unable to hold his position, because banks were now unsure of the company's financial stability.

Oldsmobile anecdotes tell us that Durant designed his first Oldsmobile model in 1909; by simply “driving a Buick to the Olds plant, ordering it cut apart length wise and crosswise, having the pieces laid on the ground a few inches from each other and proudly announcing the Model 20”. As easy as that sounds, of the 6,575 Oldsmobiles sold that year 5,325 were model 20s. Along with high production came high employment as the Olds plant doubled in size with more than 1000 workers.

In 1909, General Motors had purchased a half interest in Oakland Motor Car Co. (Later to be known as Pontiac) When Oakland's founder passed away the following summer, General Motors took little time to gain full control of the company.

That same year, Cadillac, AC Spark Plug, and Rapid Motor Vehicle Company (predecessor of GMC Truck) of Pontiac, Michigan, were integrated into the GM family as well. Fortunately for the Ford Motor Company, William Durant was denied a "buy-out loan" of $9.5 million by his bankers.

Over the next two decades, GM developed the General Motors Truck Company (later known as GMC), Chevrolet Motor Company of Michigan, General Motors Export Company, and General Motors of Canada.

William Durant


Oldsmobile & early V-8 engines

For its 1916 models, Oldsmobile and its Lansing plant would have another breakthrough in the automotive industry. Creating its first V-8 engine (Cadillac brought out its V-8 for 1915 models), and by the 1920s, Oldsmobile’s six- and eight-cylinder models sat solidly in the middle of GM’s lineup – less expensive than Buick or Cadillac, but still well ahead of Chevrolet.

Oldsmobile's V-8, was introduced to the public August of 1915 in the 1916 Olds Model 44. V-8 engines continued to be available on Oldsmobile cars through 1923. A second V-8 engine with a slightly smaller displacement became available in 1921 and was offered in the Model 47. That second V-8 had an aluminum block, and was known as the light-eight. In 1923, the decision was made to end V-8 production and it would be six years before Oldsmobile's third V-8 would be offered in the Viking.


1916 Oldsmobile V-8

1916 Oldsmobile V-8

1916 Oldsmobile V-8

1916 Oldsmobile Model 44 Roadster

Oldsmobile Canadian Operations

General Motors Canada, began as a partnership with Sam McLauglin in Oshawa, Ontario. The carriage maker began producing cars in 1908 in conjunction with Buick, and the cars were known as McLaughlin-Buick’s. While GM grew in the U.S. and William Durant assembled his empire, Canadian versions of the cars started to appear in domestic manufacturing facilities. Chevrolet (started in Canada in 1915) was tied in with McLauglin when it became part of GM in 1918.

In 1920, the building of Oldsmobiles in Canada got underway (picture below shows Olds plant construction in 1919), and Pontiacs were first built in Oshawa in 1926. GM Canada built Cadillacs from 1923 to 1936 and LaSalles from 1927 to 1935.

1918 Mclaughlin Buick

1910 McLaughlin Carriage Works Oshawa

1919 GM Oshawa Oldsmobile Plant construction

Changes in the 1920's

In many ways, the automotive industry changed in the '20s into something quite different from what it had been. Leadership began shifting from the original 'mechanical gurus' like Henry Ford, R.E. Olds, David Dunbar Buick, William Knudsen, Henry Leland, Charles Kettering and the Dodge brothers, who invented and figured out how to build the automobile... to men like Alfred P. Sloan and Harley Earl of General Motors and Walter P. Chrysler, who were concerned with defining the automobile's role in the life of the consumer.

Auto advertising began to stress intangibles - image, romance, fun - instead of the automobile's mechanical attributes and its utilitarian value compared with the horse.

The great depression, which gripped the United States following the stock market crash of 1929, saw automotive production suffer severe cutbacks. Thousands of Detroit autoworkers lost their jobs and many of the numerous manufacturers that had popped up since the turn of the century went bankrupt, because of the sudden collapse in sales. The Great Depression also gave the nation a thorough understanding of just how important the automobile had become.

Like the other divisions of General Motors, Oldsmobile came out with a companion car in the latter part of the 1920s. The Viking was created to help fill the gaps between the different makes in GM’s price structure. Four Door Sedans, Close Coupled Sedans (or Broughams) and Convertible Coupes were available. They had a Fisher Body, which were unique to Viking and not interchangeable with other Oldsmobile models.

Unlike the other divisions, the new Viking companion marque was higher priced than the Oldsmobile, instead of being a lower priced companion. Oakland already had the Pontiac, Buick was ready to introduce the Marquette in a couple of months and Cadillac had the LaSalle. The 1929 Viking was marketed to fill the gap in-between the Oldsmobile and the Buick.

The Viking had a new 81 h.p. monoblock V-8 engine with horizontal valves. The Viking V-8 produced a triangle shaped combustion chamber that was a good design but only 5,260 units were sold in 1929 and then the Great Depression took its toll. It didn’t help that before the year was over the price rose to $1,695.00 (it was originally $1,595.00). Only 2,743 were sold in 1930 with some 353 units marketed and registered as 1931 models, produced with leftover 1930 model parts.


1928 Body by Fisher Ad

1926 Oldsmobile Christmas Ad

1926 Oldsmobile Six Ad

1929 Viking Ad

The new Motor Age of the 30's

The 1930s saw not only the introduction of mass motoring, but the building of roads for the new motor age. Production fluctuated and was on the up-rise when once again auto manufacturing was curtailed - this time by World War II. Automakers devoted almost all their manufacturing facilities and knowledge to the production of war goods. They made everything from airplanes to ammunition cases and supplied the nation with about one-sixth of its wartime materials. When the war ended, automakers returned to the task of meeting the growing demands of the car-buying public.

Oldsmobile came out with the 1930 Oldsmobile F-30 as the country was feeling economic pain. Like other manufacturers, Olds Motor Works had begun by producing 'convertible' cars, starting with the curved-dash runabout. Soft-topped bodies continued to dominate the market in the Teens. By the Twenties, closed bodies were taking over. "Open" models - roadsters, phaetons, and convertibles - turned into the fashionable leaders of each product line.

At a glance, Oldsmobiles differed little from a dozen other makes. Nearly all automobiles still featured straight, upright lines. Only by looking closely could the unique elements of an Oldsmobile be discerned, compared to its GM cousins. A new instrument panel went into 1930 models, and the windshield adopted a mild rearward slant.

Conservative styling actually helped Oldsmobile weather the Depression better than most companies, as did some daring technical moves later in that decade. After ranking 9th in the industry in 1929, sales slowed in 1930; but so did sales of nearly every manufacturer.


1931 Oldsmobile Ad

1930 Oldsmobile Business Coupe


1937 Oldsmobile Ad

Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic Transmission - An Industry First

In 1940 the company was still called Olds Motor Works. (The name was officially changed to the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors on January 1, 1942.)

It was Oldsmobile that stood alone in the industry with the first fully automatic transmission available for 1940. In recent years others had come close but all prior systems required manual clutching at some point in the shifting process (competing transmissions only automated the forward gears).

Besides that, Oldsmobile’s Hydramatic transmission, complete with four forward gears, was available on all of their models for a mere $57. It was a great success for the brand. The option eventually filtered to other brands, including Cadillac. 

After the industry halted production for the duration of World War II, Oldsmobile became the first maker to offer a car to meet the needs of the physically impaired with the introduction of the Valiant program. The Hydra-Matic transmission was a centerpiece of the Valiant program under which specially equipped cars were made available to disabled veterans returning from World War II.

For 1941 Oldsmobile’s product line branched from three to six models by adding the cylinder count, either 6 or 8, to each series (e.g., the 60 Series body styles were subdivided as a 66 or 68). This led to a well-known top-of-the-line model name, the 98. By 1949, the 66, 68, 78 and 96 were gone but Oldsmobile’s fusion of the 98’s new and powerful Rocket V8 with the smaller, lighter 76 created a new, nimble+speedy third model, the 88. 

1941 Oldsmobile Magic Carpet Ad

1942 Oldsmobile Ad

1946 Oldsmobile No Clutch Ad

A "Futuramic" Oldsmobile

In 1949, Oldsmobile introduced the Rocket Engine which used an overhead valve V8 rather than the traditional flathead straight-eight. This gave the car more power, a feature which appealed to stock car racers and hot-rodders. During the 1950s, Oldsmobile marketed its “rocket” theme.

The 1949 Oldsmobile 88 combined a new overhead valve Rocket V8 engine with a lighter, more streamlined design to offer a truly exhilarating ride. Compared to the big 98 series cars of the time, the 88’s proportions were noticeably more modest. America’s first muscle car was just 202-in long and 75.2-in wide.

The Rocket V-8 was first conceived by Gilbert Burrell, chief draftsman of the Oldsmobile Engineering Department's Motor Group. Burrell, in his spare time, sketched several new engine, drivetrain and body concepts, but focused a lot of attention on the 90-degree V-8 because its compact shape allowed it to fit easily into a wide variety of chassis and bodies.

When Oldsmobile Chief Engineer Jack Wolfram saw Burrell's sketches in early 1946, he was impressed and showed them to Oldsmobile General Manager Sherrod Skinner. Skinner soon set up an advance design group to build a new 90-degree V-8 engine and put Burrell in charge.

The group's design was heavily influenced by experiments Charles F. Kettering was performing at the GM Research Center with high-compression, short-stroke, stiff-crank engines. Kettering's work showed that a boost in compression from 6.25:1 to 12:1 could improve fuel mileage upwards of 40 percent and horsepower by 25 percent.

Oldsmobile's first step toward the Rocket was a 288-cu.in. V-8 prototype known as SV 49. Four of these engines were successfully built and tested before higher-ups within General Motors pulled funding for the project over objections from the Cadillac division which was working on a new V-8 of its own. Oldsmobile changed course and developed a V-6 as well as 60- and 70-degree V-8s, but GM soon relented and, by March 1947, greenlighted the Olds 90-degree V-8 project out of which the Rocket was born.

The ringed globe emblem appeared on Oldsmobile's first Indianapolis 500 pace car , the 1949 Rocket 88, which was powered by the industry's first high compression V-8 engine, named the "Rocket 88." The Rocket 88 could be purchased with a deluxe trim package that added chrome and a clock to the interior. However, a buyer had to come up with even more cash to get a radio… a lot more. Adjusted for inflation, the $100 radio would cost $980 today.

Some at GM wanted to see Kettering honored by having the car named after him. However, top execs would not allow it, as the company had a strict policy against naming anything after an individual that was still alive, and Kettering was very much so at the time. The “Rocket” name was rumored to be hated by many GM executives at the time. Little did they know how successful the name and the car would become, with the 88 produced by Oldsmobile until 1999!

Continuing along with innovations, in 1952, Oldsmobile­ made history along with Cadillac­ when they offered GM's Autronic Eye, the first automatic headlight-dimming system. When the phototube mounted on the dashboard detected approaching headlights, it would automatically switch the car's beams to low until the other lane was clear. Despite reportedly being overly sensitive and unreliable, the Autronic Eye evolved, and versions spread to other GM brands and continued in Cadillacs until the 1988 model year. The Eye also made its way into GM's fleet of stylized Futurliners.

1949 Oldsmobile Futuramic Ad

1951 Oldsmobile Brochure

1952 Oldsmobile Super 88 Ad