Oldsmobile: The First Seventy-Five Years by Beverly Rae Kimes
Published 1972, by Automobile Quarterly Publications
72 pp., hardcover
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 78-189491
Acquired from a private seller on kijiji.ca
My automotive book collection is far from complete, and a glaring omission was that I had nothing specifically Oldsmobile. I rectified that when I found an ad for a number of used books at a decent price. Among them was Oldsmobile: The First Seventy-Five Years, which was published by Automobile Quarterly.
This is a book that I’d call ‘nice to have’ but far from an essential for an automotive library. To be frank, it’s not hard to see that a 72 page book that covers a 75-year history is probably not going to be comprehensive. It is however a decent, if brief, history of what once was a major marque on the automotive landscape.
I felt this little book could easily be divided into 2 halves. The first half, composed of chapters I through IV, covers the years from about 1880 to 1915. In 1880, Ransom Eli Olds was 16 and his family had just moved to Lansing, Michigan. It was there that Ransom finished his schooling and began his career in his family’s machine and repair shop. By 1885 he had bought his brother’s half-interest in the company. By 1887, he was developing his first automobile. Olds experimented with steam, electric and gas powered autos, eventually transforming the company into Olds Motor Works. In 1901, the plant was destroyed by fire, and only one vehicle, a gas-powered Curved Dash model, was saved. At that point, the company continued as a producer of gas-powered vehicles.
The early chapters of this book read like many stories about the early years in auto manufacturing. The Curved Dash Olds is forefront of course, the car that really established Oldsmobile. The Curved Dash was the first mass-produced gasoline vehicle thanks to Olds’ innovating the stationary assembly line for auto manufacture in 1901 (Henry Ford would create the moving assembly line years later). There’s stories of endurance, such as Roy Chapin Sr.’s drive from Detroit to New York, heralding the durability of Olds’ vehicle. There’s stripped down racing cars and cross-country journeys to further promote Oldsmobile. And there’s the arrival of Billy Durant and his addition of Olds Motor Works to General Motors. These chapters do include information about the actual cars, including the short-lived Viking series, but they really tell more a story of a company in its early years.
Why does 1915 seem important? A couple of events and milestones make it seem so. William Durant returned to GM after his banishment. Charles Nash left GM. And Oldsmobile sales went from under 2,000 in 1914 to over 7,600 in 1915, topping 10,000 in 1916. But, I found that the book’s author took a different tack in the second half of the book, focused less on personalities more on the actual cars, the company’s performance in terms of production, and the innovation Oldsmobile became known for. Granted this book does not track every year-to-year model change. Most of the pages are dedicated to Olds’ introduction of the Hydramatic transmission, the overhead valve Rocket engine, the use of turbocharging in the early 1960s, and the development of the front-drive Toronado. True, Oldsmobile was not the only or even necessarily first to use these technologies. But in many ways, Olds was a leader in popularizing them and making them mainstream.
I enjoyed the brief chapter on Oldsmobile’s NASCAR success from 1949 through the early 1950s. The chapter describes some of the Rocket engine development, and Oldsmobile’s idea to take its new, powerful overhead valve V8 which powered the heavy, top-of-the-line 98 model, and install it in the lighter 80-series chassis to create what would be known as the Rocket 88. The car was a great performer in the early days of NASCAR. Much of is mentioned of Buck Baker’s number 87 Oldsmobile, which was a long-lived car in the series. The Rocket 88 would get a song written about it, and some argue it is the first muscle car to be created.
One great chapter in this book is focused on the prototype dream cars from Oldsmobile of the 1950s and 1960s. Among them, the 1953 98 Fiesta convertible which along with the Cadillac Eldorado and Buick Skylark were limited production models and highly valuable today. Also featured is the F-88 Dream Car, a vehicle that was never put into production but according to many, surpassed even the Corvette in performance. In fact, the reason the F-88 wasn’t produced was because it would compete so fiercely with Chevrolet’s sports car. Some say the F-88 would likely have meant the end of the Vette.
The rest of the book shows the development of cars like the F-85/Cutlass line and the Toronado, as well as the other 1960s Oldsmobiles. There is also includes a detailed production tally for Oldsmobile and Viking models from 1897 through to 1971, which is a great bit of trivia information to have.
This volume is authoritative, as any book from Automobile Quarterly can be trusted to contain good accurate information. It is certainly not an exhaustive history, but it’s a quick read and contains a number of very good images that may be hard to find elsewhere. All in all, it’s a nice little book that an Olds enthusiast will love and will nicely round out a general collection.
Pros: a good general history of Oldsmobile; great archival photos; index of production numbers through 1971
Cons: quite brief; skips over a number of individual years
Where to find it: used bookstores, Amazon, private collections