This Day In History: August 21

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Ransom Eli Olds of Lansing, Michigan, founds Olds Motors Works—which will later become Oldsmobile—on August 21, 1897.

Born in Geneva, Ohio, in 1864, Olds went to work for his family’s machine-repair and engine-building business in 1883. In 1896, Olds completed his first gasoline-powered vehicle, and the following year he founded Olds Motor Works with financial backing from Samuel L. Smith, who had made his fortune in lumber. After the company moved from Lansing to Detroit in 1900, a fire destroyed all of its cars except its small, one-cylinder curved-dash model. Light, reliable and relatively powerful, the curved-dash Oldsmobile (as Olds had renamed his company) became a commercial sensation after appearing at the New York Auto Show in 1901. Olds returned to Lansing in 1902 and began large-scale production of the car.

The curved-dash Oldsmobile was the first American car to be produced using the progressive assembly-line system, and the first to become a commercial success. Olds soon split with Smith and his board of directors over the future direction of the company, however: Olds wanted to continue the focus on smaller cars, while the others favored the production of larger, more expensive automobiles. In 1904, Olds left to found the Reo Motor Car Company (for his initials, R.E.O.). After his departure, Oldsmobile struggled, and in 1908 it was swallowed up by the new General Motors (GM) conglomerate.

By the 1920s, Oldsmobile’s six- and eight-cylinder models sat solidly in the middle of GM’s lineup—less expensive than Buick or Cadillac, but still comfortably ahead of Chevrolet. Oldsmobile survived the Great Depression years and earned a reputation as GM’s “experimental” division, introducing the so-called “safety automatic transmission” in 1938, a precursor to 1940’s “Hydra-Matic,” which was the first successful fully automatic transmission. The 135-horsepower “Rocket” engine, introduced in the new 88 model in 1949, made Oldsmobile one of the world’s top-performing cars. In 1961, with the release of the upscale compact F-85 (powered by a V-8 engine), Oldsmobile launched its Cutlass, which would become one of the industry’s longest-running and most successful names. The Cutlass Supreme would reign as the best-selling American car for much of the 1970s and early 1980s.

In the 1980s, however, Oldsmobile sales declined, and in 1992 a story in The Washington Post–denied by both Oldsmobile and GM–claimed that GM had seriously considered killing the brand. In August 1997, Oldsmobile celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Despite efforts to compete with foreign imports with smaller, more fuel-efficient models like the Aurora, Intrigue, Alero and Bravada, Oldsmobile continued to struggle, and in 2004 GM finally discontinued the brand. At the time of its demise, Oldsmobile was America’s oldest continuously operating automaker.

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