In this overview, we examine Oldsmobile's history as a maker of vehicles like the Cutlass and Toronado.
At the dawn of the automobile, Oldsmobile was there. Owned by General Motors, Oldsmobile was the most senior domestic marque and one of the oldest automobile brands in the world, with a run that spanned some 107 years.
Ransom E. Olds was born in Ohio, but moved to Lansing, Michigan, to work in his father's machine shop. His experiences there helped whet his appetite for all things automotive, and he soon garnered enough expertise to develop a gasoline-powered vehicle. Joining forces with other partners, Olds cofounded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897. By the early 1900s, the company had introduced the nation to upscale models like the Curved Dash and had risen to become the best-selling car company in the United States.
Ransom Olds eventually left the company and it was sold to General Motors in 1908, where it became known as the Oldsmobile Division. More than ever, Oldsmobile became the brand of choice for car buyers seeking vehicles steeped in luxury and sophistication. Early models like the 1915 Model 42 Touring Roadster offered sleek lines and style aplenty. The 1918 Model 37 was its first model to offer a closed top, ensuring that the brand's well-heeled buyers had protection from the elements.
Oldsmobile had another hit in the 1920s with the Model 46, a V8-powered touring car that seated seven. The manufacturer did its part to make sure that the decade's elegance wasn't lost on its automobiles. It introduced fancy chrome-plated trim that served to raise the glamour quotient of its already eye-catching vehicles.
The '30s was a decade of innovation for the brand. The company wooed customers with its "Knee-Action" independent front suspension, an affordably priced option that served to improve ride quality. The company also offered one of the earliest automatic transmissions, freeing drivers from the rigors of the clutch with its four-speed "Hydra-matic" system.
Postwar, Oldsmobile gave consumers the Rocket 88. The car offered new levels of performance, giving the North American market its first taste of the short-stroke, overhead-valve V8. The car was adored by enthusiasts, and was chosen to serve as the pace car for the 1949 Indy 500.
The 1950s saw Olds continuing to distinguish itself as a purveyor of fine performance machines. With a name inspired by the Lockheed Starfire fighter plane, its 1953 Starfire show car offered a fiberglass body, a stylishly low beltline and most importantly, a 200-horsepower engine. The car was one of the first to display a wraparound windshield, and in the years following, many other manufacturers adopted this styling cue.
Oldsmobile's innovations continued into the 1960s. The manufacturer was the first since the 1930s Cord to taste success with a front-wheel-drive vehicle, in the form of its sporty Toronado. The '70s saw Olds breaking new ground in the area of safety. In 1974, it introduced a Toronado equipped with a driver-side airbag; Olds was the first domestic automaker to offer this feature. Around this time, the company's Cutlass had also become one of America's favorite cars.
Less successful was the company's effort to get on board with diesel technology. In 1978, Oldsmobile introduced a 5.7-liter V8 diesel engine as a response to that decade's fuel crisis; the engine was meant to appeal to buyers desperate to save money at the pump. Rising diesel prices and the unreliability of the engines caused the program to suffer, and Oldsmobile was eventually forced to terminate its efforts on this front.
In the '80s, Oldsmobile left its competitors in the dust when its Aerotech — piloted by noted racecar driver A.J. Foyt — set a closed-course world speed record of 257 mph. The company continued to have a huge hit with its Cutlass; the model spent much of the decade atop the sales charts.
The '90s saw Oldsmobile's introduction of Guidestar, the first onboard navigation system combining mapping and satellite positioning. The company made history yet again when its race-modified Aurora V8 won the Indy 500, making Olds the first manufacturer to pace and win the race in the same year.
By the dawn of the new millennium, Oldsmobile's sales were in a rut. The brand's identity had suffered over the years due to parts-sharing and rebadging within the GM camp. GM ultimately decided to pull the plug, and the last Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line in model-year 2004.