With heavy hearts, car lovers noted the recent passing of Oldsmobile, America’s longestrunning automotive nameplate. Oldsmobiles first went on sale back in 1899, and at the dawn of autodom, when motorcars were still new and brash, the company’s Curved Dash Olds (CDO) taught Americans how to drive. Oldsmobile built more than 19,000 CDOs between 1901 and 1906, outselling any other make. Many owners became so enamored of these simple, rugged machines that they kept them in their barns and garages long after they had graduated to more modern cars. An estimated 1,000 CDOs survive even today.
For its first few decades, Oldsmobile remained in isolation in Michigan’s capital, Lansing, far from the center of carmaking in Detroit. Its vehicles grew from the 650-pound single-cylinder $650 CDO to the massive 1910-12 Oldsmobile Limited, a car that weighed 5,160 pounds and cost $5,000. After that, Olds built a variety of Fours, Sixes, and flathead V-8s.
Then, in the 1920s, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., the president of General Motors, in keeping with his corporate strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose,” acquired Oldsmobile and made it his centrist line. It stood in the middle price range of GM’s nameplates, between Chevrolet and Pontiac below it and Buick and Cadillac above. Jean Shepherd’s reminiscences of his father, a steel-mill worker, proudly driving an Oldsmobile in The Phantom of the Open Hearth was the perfect casting of an automobile in American family life. The elder Shepherd had upward-mobilized himself beyond GM’s entry-level cars and could now aspire to a Buick or even, someday, a Cadillac.
Oldsmobile and Cadillac were, in the days just before and after World War II, GM’s two most innovative divisions. Olds introduced its semiautomatic safety transmission in 1938 and co-introduced the fully automatic Hydra-Matic in 1940. It also pioneered the modern, lightweight overhead-valve V-8 for 1949 (again along with Cadillac, but in a different engine) and produced the front-wheeldrive Toronado coupe for 1966.
The Olds 88 dominated latemodel stock-car racing from 1949 through 1951 and was the car to beat at stoplight drags. Only a Cadillac could stay with it. In bang-for-a-buck terms, the early Olds 88 had no peers. Throughout the next three decades, Oldsmobile continued to excel in style, performance, and value. As late as the mid1980s, it consistently sold more than a million cars a year.
After that, as Olds’s innovation began to lag, and its image even more so, the sales chart started going downhill (though, as late as 1995, Olds could still introduce the stylesetting Aurora sedan). The beginning of the end may have come in 1990, with the introduction of the slogan “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Besides seeming to shun one of the most distinguished histories in the automotive industry, the campaign (which featured Ringo Starr being chased by a gaggle of blue-haired matrons) may have alienated many not-so-old car buyers without attracting enough younger ones. By last year, Oldsmobile’s total sales were down to 300,000, and with Sloan’s brand-loyal approach looking increasingly out of place in the fragmented twenty-firstcentury marketplace, General Motors had little reason to maintain the division. Lovers of cars and language alike are left to wonder what might have been if only Oldsmobile had survived and the nowubiquitous phrase “not your father’s” hadn’t.
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