the view through the windshield
1955 Oldsmobile - An Engineer's Delight

As of this writing, Oldsmobile has been dead for over 10 years. The last Oldsmobile, an Alero sedan, rolled off the Lansing, Michigan assembly line on April 29, 2004. Lansing is the same city where the brand was born. Ransom E. Olds offered his first automobile to the public in 1897 and, at the time of its demise, Oldsmobile was the oldest surviving car brand in the U.S.

How does one explain the Oldsmobile brand and its meaning to someone never knew Olds in its glory days?

One might begin by pointing out that the marque was celebrated in music. In 1905, a popular ditty was 'My Merry Oldsmobile' - "Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile ..." Some credit Jackie Brentson's 'Rocket 88' recording from 1951 as the first rock and roll song. It certainly had the correct elements; it was about a car - a 1950 Oldsmobile 88 with a high-compression, overhead-valve Rocket V-8 engine. The song is also notable because it featured Ike Turner on keyboards.

I would also point out that, in the General Motors' line-up, Oldsmobile was long known as the 'innovation brand' and was a favorite of engineers and tech-savvy people. In the 1920s, Oldsmobile was the first car to use chrome-plated trim instead of nickel. In 1938, the first fully-automatic transmission was introduced ... on an Olds. The first high-compression, overhead valve V-8 engine was to be found in a 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, available for the first time with a pillarless hardtop body as well. In 1966, Olds introduced the radical, front-wheel-drive Toronado. In 1974, Olds was the first U.S. manufacturer to offer air bags as an option. That's why engineers loved Oldsmobile - it was on the cutting edge of technical innovation. Oldsmobiles always had the latest techie bells and whistles.

Postwar Oldsmobiles were sharp-looking, powerful and technically-advanced cars. The 1955 Super 88 convertible shown in the sketch typified the allure of Olds. It had a powerful 202 horsepower V8 engine, weighed just under two tons and cost a mere $2,894, a sweet price for a powerful, roadable comfortable and stylish droptop. Over 9,000 examples were sold in 1955. A total of 583,179 Oldsmobiles were sold that year - a record which would stand for 10 years. In July 1955, Olds produced its 5 millionth car since Ransom E. opened up shop in 1896. More than 11% of that 59-year total were 1955 models.

In 1955, semi-teardrop wheel wells, previously exclusive to the pricer Olds Ninety-Eight models, were now also used on the 88 and Super 88. The most popular model in the line-up was the practical, but still good-looking Super 88 four-door sedan.

Oldsmobile sales peaked in 1985 at 1.2 million cars per year. At one time, the Olds Cutlass was the most popular model of all U.S. cars. So, what happened? In the seventies, as GM lost its way, Oldsmobile evolved into a sort-of upscale Chevy. It even was given a Chevy engine; no more technical innovation was to be found under an Oldsmobile's hood.

By the 1980s, GM's various brands even started to look alike - it was hard to tell an Olds from a Buick or Pontiac - no more 'Rocket 88' swoopy styling - just another badge-engineered GM product. In the 1990s, even Oldsmobile's distinctive rocket emblem was discarded.

Stripped of its individual looks, innovation and personality, Olds found its sales dropping. New management decided to reposition itself as a 'Honda alternative'. Jerry Flint, a noted auto analyst who wrote for Forbes magazine, cited indistinguishable styling, uninspired engineering and inexperienced leadership as reasons for Olds marketplace failure. Said Flint, "Oldsmobile has had 6 managers in 13 years - is that any kind of continuity? And the last one had no experience in the car business - her last job was heading up brand management for Alpo dog food." Oldsmobile became a doomed brand. And died.

Visit companies which are engineer-heavy and you'll now see Audis, Acuras and Priuses in the parking lots - the new choices of the tech savvy. As for Oldsmobile, you may nor find it in parking lots of leading-edge tech giants but you can still enjoy its stellar presence at museums and car shows.

More about Oldsmobile's history and demise is posted here. (posted 4/30/15)

This 1:43 scale model of a 1955 Oldsmobile Starfire convertible was manufactured in China by Road Champs in 1997. I bought this little model new in the late 1990s for less than $5.00.

Remember When: 1955
auto blogIn 1955, the first McDonalds drive-in opened. Ann Landers' advice column made its debut as did Alfred E. Newman in Mad magazine. The Church Of Scientology was founded.

Nikoli Bulganin became Soviet Premier. Winston Churchill resigned as British Prime Minister. Ousted Argentine dictator, Juan Peron, fled to Paraguay.

Hurricane Diane battered the Eastern Seaboard. Banks increased the prime rate to 3.5% - a 25 year high.

Merchandisers sold over $100 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise. Disneyland opened; so dis O’Hare Airport. Tony the Tiger became the pitchman for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes breakfast cereal.

Automakers produced 7,920,186 cars in 1955 - a new record. Kaiser-Willys ceased U.S. auto production after losing $100 million.

In other 1955 auto news, General Motors produced its 50 millionth car - a gold Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop coupe. Chevrolet got its first small-block V-8. It eventually replaced the old flathead Ford V-8 as the hot rodder's engine of choice.

Chevrolet and Pontiac sported all-new bodies. Including trendsetting and legendary stylized hardtop station wagons - the Chevrolet Nomad and the Pontiac Safari. GM introduced four-door pillarless hardtops in 1955. By the following year, most U.S. automakers followed suit.

Chrysler Corporation set a new styling trend with its 'Forward Look', something vastly different from the upright, uninspiring looks of its '54 models. The first production Chrysler 300 was introduced - so named because it had a 300 horsepower Hemi engine under it's hood. The 300 was, arguably, the first muscle car.

Wraparound windshields became almost universal in American cars. Straight-eight engines disappeared - replaced by new V-8 engines, even at stodgy Packard.

New, non-auto products included Play-Doh and Special K cereal. New words included demolition derby, fish sticks, junk mail, cleavage and rock-and-roll.

Several new TV shows debuted, including 'The Millionaire' and 'The $64,000 Question'. Captain Kangaroo made his TV debut.

Disneyland opened in July; the 'Mickey Mouse Club appeared on TV in October; Disney sold 26,000 pairs of mouse ears weekly.

Top songs included 'Rock Around The Clock' by Bill Haley and this Comets, Bill Hayes' 'The Ballad Of Davy Crockett', 'Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White' by Perez Prado, Mitch Miller's 'The Yellow Rose of Texas', 'Autumn Leaves' by Roger Williams, 'Only You' by The Platters and 'Sincerely' by the McGuire Sisters.

Deaths included Oscar Meyer, Albert Einstein, Dale Carnegie, James Dean and Bill Vukovich who died in a four-car pile up at the Indianapolis 500. The winner of the 1953 and 1954 Indy races was the first driver killed in a '55 championship auto race.

The Dodgers won the World Series, beating the Yankees, 4-3.


More AutoSketch car drawings can be found here.
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Disclaimer

The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

Spelling, punctuation and syntax errors are cheerfully repaired when I find them; grudgingly fixed when you do.

If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive.

If I have slandered any people or corporations in this blog, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.

Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.


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