An American manufacturer of automobiles.
A brief history: In the late 1890s, Ransom Eli Olds began manufacturing small gasoline engines in Michigan. Around 1895, he began working with a carriage builder named Frank Clark, with the aim of producing a "horseless carriage." They incorporated in 1897 as the Olds Motor Company, and set about building vehicles.
The company called its first product the Oldsmobile, but it soon became known as the Curved Dash for its ornate carved-wood front end. It sold for $650, and was said to go 40 miles on one gallon of gasoline. A few were built in Detroit before the original factory burned, but production soon resumed in Lansing, Michigan. While the Curved Dash was an economy car by the standards of its day, in a few years the company began building the larger luxury models that would become its hallmark. One 1910 model was powered by an engine with a monstrous 707 cubic inch displacement.
Oldsmobile (which became the name of the company itself) was soon absorbed into the General Motors conglomerate. The booming economy of the 1920s created a large market for luxury automobiles, and while the Olds offerings rarely approached the lavish standards of Cadillac or Lincoln, they nonetheless enjoyed popularity with the upper middle class, who would remain their target market for years to come. During the Great Depression, Oldsmobile suffered but survived, introducing such innovations as independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes and an early form of the automatic transmission. This last was finally perfected in 1940 with the debut of the Hydra-Matic, the first fully automatic transmission, which used the same fluid coupling system still in use today.
After spending the World War II years as a munitions manufacturer, Oldsmobile brought out the now-famous Rocket V8 engine in 1948. Like the Olds automatic transmission, this became an archetype for many V8 engines to follow, with its overhead valves and hydraulic lifters. A similar engine powered Lee Petty's stock car to victory in the first Daytona 500 in 1959.
American cars continued to increase in size and weight through the 1960s, and Oldsmobile was no exception - even going so far as to join the muscle car crowd in 1964 with the famous 4-4-2. The Toronado model of 1966 included the major advancement of front wheel drive, bringing with it a vast improvement in handling.
This period also brought the beginning of GM's ongoing consolidation of models across its many marques - for instance, the brand-new drivetrain from the Toronado was also used in Cadillac's Eldorado luxury coupe. Following the late-1970s energy crisis, as overseas competition threatened American market share, cost-cutting made this process ever more necessary, so that by the 1980s an Oldsmobile was virtually indistinguishable from a Buick, a Chevrolet or a Pontiac, and sales gradually began to slump.
In the 1990s General Motors made some efforts to revitalize the line by marketing to younger audiences (just ask Guster), introducing more stylistically daring models (including, in 1995, the first car with onboard GPS navigation) and renewing the Oldsmobile road racing franchise. By 2000, however, the redundancy of the make was clear, and GM announced its intentions that year to phase out the nameplate by 2004.
Even as of this writing in 2001, the parent company continues to run advertisements promising great savings on current Olds models and emphasizing its commitment to continued parts availability, in an effort to direct the long-term loyalty of Oldsmobile customers to GM's remaining brands.
Oldsmobile's ultimate failure to attract new buyers, and to maintain a distinct brand identity within the GM line, seems to have spelled its demise. While this may or may not be a great cultural loss, for better or worse, an automaker with over a century of history is now gone for good. In that sense, the Oldsmobile story may be viewed as a study in the impact of corporate consolidation on individual market choices.
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