Let's talk about the legendary Oldsmobile. "Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile," sang Billy Murray in the 1905 hit song. In movies, TV, and even at Disneyland, it lives on in a tune everyone loves to hum, though the Oldsmobile brand recently came to an end. Throughout the century, Oldsmobile cars were inspiring: starting in the 1950s, songs like Ike Turner's 1951 "Rocket 88" and Kathy Mattea's "455 Rocket" sang about, of all things, the power of Oldsmobile engines. So what was this century of love for the Oldsmobile all about? What are the best of this noble line of cars, tracing back to nearly the beginning of automobile time?
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Shortly after GM bought Oldsmobile, they moved from the little Curved Dash to their largest car ever, the Limited Touring, so named because they were limited in their production capacity. Only 825 were built over the years 1910-1912. It was a luxury cruiser, a roadster carrying seven passengers with a wheelbase of up to 138 inches, a good bit more than a modern Cadillac Eldorado, but with an engine delivering only about 60 hp. Increasing its giant size, it had 42-inch wheels and double running boards for climbing up to the seating.
Two-door, three-window, three-speed, and with an eight-cylinder in the high-end Oldsmobile 8 model, this elegant car was available in the L-34 model as a convertible with rumble seat, side-mounted dual spare tires, dual horns, double windshield wipers, art-deco style radiator ornament and lots of chrome and lights. Compared to models from the 1920s, this generation of Olds had a much more swept-back look and energetic prewar streamline style. Oldsmobile's 1934 lineup marked a turnaround after the stock market crash - doubling sales of their cars with new features like four-wheel hydraulic brakes.
The 1949 Olds 88 was an innovative muscle car from the 1940s. Many believe it ushered in the car culture of the 1950s. It included the Rocket V-8 engine and won race after race at NASCAR, also serving in convertible form as the pace car for the 1949 Indy 500. Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston turned a new type of car into a new kind of music -- rock and roll - in their hit song "Rocket 88."
Designer and auto executive Harley J. Earl led the creation of the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car for GM. The sole surviving example of four that were built sold in the early 21st century for over three million dollars. Shown as a dream car at one of GM's Motorama shows, it survived in parts for years along with extensive collections of legends, documents, and apocryphal stories before being resurrected for sale. It was a groundbreaking example of Earl's GM Styling Section's work in the 1950s, a role which led him to become a vice president, perhaps the first design-based executive rising to that level.
This top-of-the-line 1950s gem has a four-speed Hydra-Matic Super Drive four-speed automatic transmission, a Rocket V-8 engine, and a muscle car reputation. A dazzling two-tone paint job and interior available, wide whitewalls, and lots of chrome made a loud 1950s cruising visual impression. It looks as enticing under the hood as it does rolling down the road, and the top speed is just over 100 mph. Five passengers ride comfortably in this two-door convertible, and the dash is a work of art itself with plenty of chrome and ornamentation.
Another concept car built for the 1956 GM Motorama, this finned, triple-missile vehicle looks more like a trimaran boat than a 1950s car. It was a hit at the 1957 Paris Motor Show, where its space-age styling and aircraft-style controls brought to mind the futuristic design dreams of the decade. Elements of the Golden Rocket, such as the split-window fastback styling carried forward to the 60s, where the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray picked them up.
Part of the fifty-year line of Oldsmobile 88s, which lasted from 1949 to 1999, the 1957 Super 88 included "tri-power," an arrangement of three two-barrel carburetors on its 371 c.i. engine, similar to an option offered by GM's Pontiac division but called "J2" by Oldsmobile. The upscale Super 88 took the lineage of the so-called original muscle car, the 88, to new heights of style and comfort. With 277 horsepower, parents of teenage drivers needed to guard their handsome Oldsmobile Super 88 carefully!
Chrome must have been cheap in 1958 because the Ninety-Eight, which Oldsmobile produced that year, was loaded with it. A full-sized top of the line luxury model, it was another enduring Harley Earl design, nearly 217 inches long with the winning Rocket V8 and four-speed Hydramatic combination. It had power steering, power brakes, armrests, electric windows, additional interior lighting, and other luxury appointments. Nearly five thousand pounds depending on the configuration, it looked more like a dazzling parade float than a family car.
In 1962, Oldsmobile's recurring Starfire name appeared on a convertible designed for the new and growing personal luxury car market, established several years before by the Ford Thunderbird. It was a successful redressing of existing design elements with its own uniquely styled trim and a luxurious interior with new features like a floor-mounted automatic transmission shifter and bucket seats. It had power, transmission, and size comparable to mid-level "88" models and a price that exceeded even the high-end "98."
The introduction of the Oldsmobile Toronado in 1966 brought front-wheel-drive to the passenger car market for the first time since 1937. The Unitized Power Package design put both engine and transmission in space, usually allotted for the engine alone in rear-wheel-drive cars, and led to major changes in GM car designs. Decades later, this personal luxury car's early styling is still iconic enough to be recognized on the road, though later models weren't quite as unique. It won Motor Trend's 1966 Car of the Year. A larger Rocket V8 engine, Turbo Hydramatic transmission, and four-barrel Quadrajet carburetor were featured on the new 1966 Toronado.
For anyone who didn't get enough thrills from the 442 or Cutlass Supreme, Oldsmobile connected with well-known Hurst Performance for a special treat based on those models, the Hurst/Olds. The 1969 edition was a confident repeat of 1968's H/O introduction, with a motorsports-oriented paint job, Hurst/Olds decals, pinstriping and styling, chrome rims, and special Goodyear tires, racing mirrors, and a hood scoop. After over 900 were sold in 1969, GM juggled its large-engine lines and didn't resume producing the Hurst/Olds until 1972.
The name "98" in Oldsmobile language says "big" and luxury as well, the flagship cars in this GM brand. The 1969 98 Convertible was yet another in the line which used the GMC platform shared with cars like the Cadillac Eldorado and the Buick Electra. For luxury buyers who weren't into full-size cruising, GM's fairly new personal luxury offered Toronado as an option, along with the Starfire. Standard features included an impact-absorbing steering column, dual master cylinder for safer braking, and shoulder belts along with a steering column anti-theft lock, signs of changes in what car buyers wanted.
Early muscle car names often came from an option package that became a model in its own right, and that was true of the Oldsmobile 442. After a couple of years as an F-85 or Cutlass add-on, 442 became a unique model for a few years and then was tagged onto various models at times during the 1970s and 1980s. Four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission, and dual exhaust made it the 4-4-2, later shortened to 442. It was a muscle car through-and-through and inspired the Hurst/Olds collaboration line for hardcore performance addicts. The standard model was clocked under fourteen seconds at 102 mph for the quarter-mile -- imagine that in a convertible!
With beautiful lines and plenty of power, the 1972 Cutlass Supreme was a thing of beauty as a mid-size Oldsmobile. It was available in the full spectrum of configurations from two-door to convertible and wagon or Vista Cruiser. The 1972 Hurst/Olds performance model was a 455-powered cousin. 1972 was the last year for the convertible version, but it was top-selling in that year -- everyone wanted the wind in their hair in a Cutlass Supreme.
By 1980 the Oldsmobile Toronado wasn't quite as unique-looking as when it was introduced a decade and a half ago; in fact, it might be mistaken for a Buick in some ways. It lost 1,000 pounds and 20 inches, preparing for the great downsizing of the Oldsmobile brand. Though the power years were coming to a close, it could still do 110 mph and 9.4 seconds zero to sixty, standing out in its field. Economical engines were also available in the 1980s, along with the infamous diesel. A Cadillac independent rear suspension added handing points.
In 1986, the honorable Oldsmobile 88 line switched from a standard GM rear-wheel-drive platform to a smaller wheelbase and front-wheel-drive design. Oldsmobile also added a voice diagnostic system which provided chimes and voice alerts in addition to the usual instrument cluster warning lights. These helped drivers to remember their keys if left in the ignition and asked them to add coolant if needed in an attempt to create a luxury high-tech feel. An updated electronic climate control system also added tech features to this version of Oldsmobile's signature model, once known as the first muscle car.
In the early 21st century, Oldsmobile's nearly century-long run came to an end as GM shut down the division. There are many reasons for the ending, including timid management style in a division which had been known for innovative engineering and design, changes in the car market regulation which limited their ability to perform in their strongest areas, and a flood of imports which shifted car buyers' options and made it harder for this once-dominant brand to find its new niche.