December 12

This Day in History

Automotive

Dec 12, 2000:

GM announces phase-out of Oldsmobile

On this day in 2000, General Motors declares that it will begin to phase out the 103-year-old Oldsmobile, the oldest automotive brand in the United States. Oldsmobile had once been one of the most venerable and innovative American brands--Olds cars were the first to have decorative chrome trim, for example, and the first to have fully automatic transmissions--but a GM reorganization in the mid-1980s had drained the brand of most of its unique identity.

Lansing native Ransom Eli Olds created the Olds Motor Works in 1897. Ten years before (reportedly because he did not like the smell of horses), he had built a steam-powered car. After a factory fire destroyed 10 of his 11 prototypes, Olds focused on trying to perfect--and sell--the only car he had left: the small Curved Dash runabout. He was successful: the runabout soon became the nation's most popular automobile.

In 1904, the Curved Dash became the first mass-produced car in the United States. That same year, Olds investors ousted the company's founder. (Ransom Olds wanted to keep on mass-producing inexpensive cars that ordinary people could buy, while the investors wanted to build pricey luxury automobiles.) Four years later, Olds Motor Works merged with Buick to become General Motors. Within GM, Olds was known as the "technology division": it pioneered V-8 engines in 1915, chrome plating in 1926, the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission in 1937, and the Rocket V-8 in 1949.

Olds (it became Oldsmobile in 1942) was the most middlebrow of the GM "ladder of brands," squeezed between mass-market Chevrolet and Pontiac and luxury Cadillac and Buick. Despite a new slogan--"This is not your father's Oldsmobile"--that debuted in the 1980s after the GM reorganization, buyers eventually began to lose interest in the brand's offerings. The brand was also notoriously slow to react to trends: for instance, it was one of the last American carmakers to add sport utility vehicles--the most popular and profitable cars of the 1990s--to its lineup.

In 2004, four years after GM made its announcement, the phase-out of Oldsmobile was complete. That April, the last Oldsmobile--a cherry-red Alero--rolled off the Lansing assembly line and went straight to the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum nearby, where you can see it today.

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