Oldsmobile History 20s to 50s

The 20s - Changing Automotive Leadership

In many ways, the automotive industry changed in the '20s into something quite different from what it had been.

The Automobile - Utilitarian to Fashion & Lifestyle Minded

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.

Oldsmobile Viking Marque

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
1929 Viking Ad
1926 Oldsmobile Christmas Ad
1926 Oldsmobile Six Ad

The New Motor Age of the 30s

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

1940s into the Futuramic 50s

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.

"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.

Olds Rocket V-8 Design

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.

V-8 objections from Cadillac

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 $1280 today.

Kettering power VS Rocket power

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 88 Ad
1951 Oldsmobile Brochure
1952 Oldsmobile Super 88 Ad