Many of us lost a dear friend yesterday (April 29, 2004) as the final Oldsmobile rolled off the Lansing assembly line. The oldest automotive brand name in US history died at age 106.
My grandfather owned our family’s first Olds, a 1941 two-door, two-tone with Hydra-Matic transmission. Grandpa had lost the use of his left leg after a stroke. This new clutchless and “shiftless” auto was just what the doctor ordered.
Hydra-Matic, introduced in 1940, still attracted the curious. I recall total strangers poking their heads through the open car window, staring at the void where the clutch petal should have been, then shaking their heads in disbelief.
Automatic shifting was one of many Oldsmobile innovations starting with Oldsmobile as the first low-cost, mass-produced auto in the world.
When General Motors bought Ransom Olds out in 1908, the Oldsmobile line became GM’s vanguard, its coolest brand. Steel wheels, hydraulic brakes, independent front-wheel suspension, the first 4-door hardtop, Autronic Eye, air conditioning, four-barrel carburetors, front-wheel drive – even the first airbag was introduced by Oldsmobile.
Changing to an automatic transmission was perhaps the most difficult adjustment for drivers to make. To drive his father’s Hydra-Matic, my dad placed a block of wood where the clutch should have been to prevent him from banging his foot into the floorboard.
Soon Dad got hooked. Following war’s end, he traded his ’41 Chevy, the window papered with gasoline “C” stickers, for a brand new ’46 Olds. My father, impaired as a result of childhood rheumatoid arthritis, wore huge, clumsy shoes. Once he got used to it, “clutchless” driving was a blessing.
Riding a tide of postwar prosperity, and with an Oldsmobile dealer client for his accounting business, my dad bought a new Olds every year until his death in 1974. (Oh, there was his brief fling with a ’59 Caddie convertible [see My Father’s Brief Affair], but my mother nipped that in the bud. I learned to drive in my father.s blue ’49 “Rocket 88” V-8 Olds.
And it was quick: Zero to 60 in less than eight seconds. And fast!
One evening shortly after I got my driver’s license, I was pushing the speedometer way passed 100 mph when I ran an unforeseen stop sign barely missing another driver on an otherwise empty country road. I was 15. I never drove that fast or that irresponsibly again.
Kills First Oldsmobile of His Own
My first Oldsmobile? After I left home for college, my parents traded my tricked out ’41 Ford convertible for a dour but practical 1947 Olds with the automatic shift they’d grown to love. Although the Ford was mine by purchase and sweat, as I was a minor; by law, they owned the car.
Home for Thanksgiving, I took that Oldsmobile out for the last spin of its dreary life. Along a deserted Busse Highway, I pedaled down until, at about 90, the Olds threw a rod. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
What a glorious sound that was.
I recalled that joyous noise just the other day when my wife and I visited nearby Oldsmar for its 90th birthday party. Situated between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Oldsmar was developed by Ransom Olds after he sold out to GM. At the party were dozens of restored Oldsmobiles, from a ’34 roadster with rear rumble seat to slick, hot, and gorgeous wake-up-the-dogs 442s.
Too bad that about the time ads proclaimed the car wasn’t “your father’s Oldsmobile anymore” – it was just that. Bland. Predictable. Impotent.
And still deeply loved. Rest in peace, Oldsmobile. You were one fine automobile.
“Come away with me Lucile in my merry Oldsmobile
Down the road of life we’ll fly automo-bubbling you and I.
To the church we’ll swiftly steal, then our wedding bells will peal,
You can go as far you like with me, In my merry Oldsmobile.”
In My Merry Oldsmobile – Words by Vincent Bryan, Music by Gus Edwards
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