History of Oldsmobile and Its 10 Best Cars
It’s been 16 years since General Motors pulled the plug on the Oldsmobile division as of 2020, but the company founded by Ransom E. Olds back in 1897 still holds an important place in the American automotive history. It produced more than 35 million vehicles and was noted for its testing of groundbreaking technology and designs under General Motors. It also designed some of the most iconic American cars, including the Rocket 88, Starfire, 442, and Toronado. When it was shut down in 2004, Oldsmobile was the oldest surviving American car company and the fifth oldest on the world, surpassed only by Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Skoda, and Tatra.
1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88
The Oldsmobile 88 was introduced in 1949 as a replacement for the 70 series. The 88 model remained in production for a whopping 50 years and over ten generations until 1999, but the first-gen version is by far the most iconic.
And that's mostly because it was the car that introduced Oldsmobile's Rocket V-8 engine.
Alongside a similar engine built by Cadillac, the Rocket was the first post-war overhead valve V-8 produced by General Motors and an innovative design among the flathead straight-eight units that were popular at the time. The original Rocket V-8 displaced 5.0 liters and debuted with a two-barrel carburetor and 135 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. The engine was eventually upgraded to a four-barrel carburetor design that increased output to 165 horses and 275 pound-feet of twist. The 88 was one of the first American cars to combine a light body with a powerful engine, and it’s widely considered to be the first muscle car.
A favorite among stock racers, the 88 hit the NASCAR circuit and dominated the series for a few years, winning more than half of the races it was entered between 1949 and 1952.
The 88's NASCAR success led to increased sales to the public as the car become a favorite among ex-military personnel and hot-rodders.
Oldsmobile offered four body styles: two-door hardtop, two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and four-door station wagon. The first-generation 88 was replaced in 1953, and now it’s regarded as one of the most valuable classics with an Oldsmobile badge. The Rocket V-8 engine remained in production in various forms until 1990.
1957 Oldsmobile 98
The 98 was Oldsmobile’s longest-standing nameplate.
It debuted in 1941 and remained in production until 1996, most of them being the company's flagship model.
The fifth-generation model introduced in 1957 is considered by many the greatest iteration of the nameplate. Although not as luxurious as its Cadillac Series 62 sibling, the fifth-gen 98 came with many premium features for the era. Standard equipment included exposed chrome roof bows, an early form of ambient lighting, electric windows, and power steering and brakes. In 1958, the fifth-gen’s final year, Oldsmobile added a padded dashboard, an electric clock, and a variety of color leathers. An air suspension system and a speed warning device were available as options. Although it shared most exterior features with the 88, the 98 was notably longer at 216.7 inches, which made it as imposing as the Cadillacs and Lincolns of the era. Body styles included two- and four-door coupes and convertibles, all powered by a 6.1-liter Rocket V-8 engine good for up to 305 horsepower and 410 pound-feet of torque.
1961 Oldsmobile Starfire
The Starfire debuted for the 1961 model, and even though it came with its own nameplate, it actually shared its body and wheelbase with the Super 88 and the Dynamic 88.
But this car was loaded with more standard equipment than its siblings, including leather bucket seats, a center console with a rev counter, and a floor shifter for the Hydramatic suspension. The Starfire was America’s first full-sized production car to feature an automatic transmission with a floor shifter. It also came with brushed aluminum side panels, power steering and brakes, power windows, and a power driver’s seat. These features made the Starfire the most expensive Oldsmobile at the time, even more than the larger 98 models. Power came from a 6.5-liter Skyrocket V-8 engine, derived from the more familiar Rocket V-8 mill. Output was rated at 330 horsepower in 1961. In 1965, one year before the Starfire was discontinued, Oldsmobile introduced a larger, 7.0-liter Rocket V-8 engine with 375 horsepower. The Starfire nameplate was replaced in 1967 with the Delta 88 Custom. The badge returned briefly from 1975 to 1980 as a subcompact hatchback. The Starfire remains in history as one of Oldsmobile’s fanciest automobiles from the 1960s.
1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire
The Jetfire was actually a version of the first-generation Cutlass; a compact car Oldsmobile offered from 1961 to 1963.
But while the Cutlass was available in a variety of body styles, the Jetfire was a pillarless hardtop with a more striking appearance. But it’s not styling that added the Jetfire into the history books. This model featured a turbocharged version of Oldsmobile’s 3.5-liter Rockette V-8 engine. It was called Turbo-Rocket and featured a Garrett turbocharger and a sidedraft, one-barrel, blow-through carburetor. This engine made the Jetfire the first-ever turbocharged production car, an honor it shares with the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder. The Turbo-Rocket engine was good for 215 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, twice as much than a naturally aspirated engine that was twice its size. Both the Jetfire and the Turbo-Rocket engine were short-lived, mostly because the turbocharged V-8 suffered from reliability problems. The engine was far ahead of its time in the absence of modern engine management systems and needed to work on a 50-50 mixture of methanol and distilled water in order to handle the high compression in the combustion chamber. The Jetfire was also $300 more expensive than the standard Cutlass, which was a lot back in the day, so sales barely exceeded 3,700 units in 1962 and 1963.
1964 Oldsmobile 442
While the Rocket 88 of 1949 is considered the predecessor to the American muscle car, the 442 was the company's first full-fledged performance vehicle.
The nameplate was introduced in 1964 after Pontiac had unexpected success with the GTO, a high-performance version of the LeMans. In response, Oldsmobile developed a high-performance version of the Cutlass and named it the 442. Also related to the Chevy Chevelle, the first-generation 442 was offered with a couple of V-8 engines, with the range-topping 6.6-liter unit rated at 360 horsepower. The original 442 also spawned the W30, a higher performance package that would return on other nameplates in the future. The second-gen 442, built from 1968 to 1972, joined the big muscle car wars with even larger engines and power ratings that reached 400 horses. The Hurst model that debuted in 1968 following cooperation with Hurst Performance also helped cement the 442’s image in the high-performance market. The 442 remained in production until 1980 and then returned as a trim level on the Cutlass Supreme (1985-1987) and Cutlass Calais (1990-1991).
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
A two-door luxury coupe, the Oldsmobile Toronado made headlines in 1965 when it was unveiled as the first American production car with front-wheel drive in almost 30 years.
The Toronado also featured innovations like the heavy-duty Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed automatic transmission, Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor, spherical exhaust manifold flange gaskets (which prevented leaks) and a draft-free ventilation system that reduced wind noise by eliminating the front-door triangular window vents. It was also GM’s first subframe car, as well as the group’s first passenger car with torsion bars. The first-gen Toronado was originally launched with a 7.0-liter V-8 rated at 385 horsepower, but it was later fitted with a 7.5-liter engine with 375 horses. The Toronado lived on for four generations before being discontinued for good in 1992.
1970 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser 442
Station wagons are pretty popular in the 1960s, and Oldsmobile met demand with the Vista Cruiser.
Launched in 1964 alongside the 442, the Vista Cruiser shared many design cues with the coupe. However, they're most noted for the fixed-glass, roof-mounted skylights over the second-row seating area, the raised roof with lateral glass panels over the cargo area, and three rows of forward-facing passenger seats.
The first-gen Vista Cruiser was offered with a 5.4-liter V-8 that produced up to 320 horsepower. The wagon was redesigned in 1968, and 1970 saw the addition of the big 7.5-liter V-8 that usually powered the company’s muscle car. With up to 400 horsepower at its disposal, the 1970 Vista Cruiser was one of the most hardcore wagons on the market at the time. Despite its size and weight, the grocery getter needed around six seconds to charge from 0 to 60 mph. Unfortunately, Oldsmobile sold just a few Vista Cruisers with the big 7.5-liter V-8, so these wagons are quite rare nowadays. The wagon was redesigned for the second time in 1973 and discontinued in 1977.
1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Hurst
Originally introduced on the 442, the Hurst package made occasional comebacks on various models. In 1983, Oldsmobile revived it after a four-year hiatus for a limited-edition version of the Cutlass Supreme.
With most of the company’s vehicles switching to FWD, Olds picked the RWD midsize in an attempt to attract old-school muscle car enthusiasts. Power came from a 5.0-liter V-8, one of Oldsmobile’s biggest engines at the time, which sent 180 horsepower to the rear wheels. Significantly underpowered compared to the classic Hurst models, the Cutlass was actually quite sporty for the era, needing less than eight seconds to hit 60 mph from a standing start. The V-8 mated to the company’s famous Lightning Rod shifter, an automatic with a main lever and two separate sticks for manual shifting into first and second gear. Just like its predecessors, this Hurst was offered in two-tone finishes, usually combing white or black with Hurst’s traditional golden color. Oldsmobile built 6,500 units in 1983 and 1984, and both model years are now sought-after collector cars.
1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442 W41
In 1991, Oldsmobile rolled out a new special-edition model using the "442" and "W41" badges. This time around, it used the Cutlass Calais, a compact it had introduced in 1984. Launched during the car’s final production year, the 442 W41 featured a revised version of the company’s 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. Rated at 150 horsepower in the regular Cutlass Calais, the engine was uprated to 180 horsepower for the 442 trim. While that’s far from spectacular compared to the classic 442, it was a good rating for the early 1990s, when American performance coupes rarely hit 200 horsepower. But the 442 W41 wasn’t just about power. It also came with weight-saving measures and race-tuned suspension and gearbox, so it was much quicker than the standard model. Only 204 examples were built, the amount Oldsmobile needed to homologate the car for the SCCA racing championships.
1992 Oldsmobile Achieva SCX W41
The Achieva replaced the Cutlass Calais for the 1992 model year.
It featured a more aerodynamic body, a departure from the boxy designs of the 1980s, but it shared some underpinnings with its predecessor. Oldsmobile also created a successor to the 442 W41, called the SCX W41. It featured a unique suspension setup and sportier wheels and tires, as well as an uprated 2.3-liter four-cylinder good for 190 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque. The mill mated to a unique, Getrag-licensed five-speed transmission for quicker acceleration and better gearing. Oldsmobile built 1,645 examples for the 1992 and 1993 model years. The SCX W41 didn’t survive beyond 1993, even though the Achieva remained in production until 1997.
1995 Oldsmobile Aurora
The Aurora is one of the last nameplates that Oldsmobile introduced before it went into the history books.
First launched in 1995, it became the brad’s flagship model, but it was also marketed as a sports sedan because it featured a powerful V-8 engine. It was supposed to rejuvenate the struggling brand, so it was based on the Tube Car concept from 1989 and fitted with the best technology General Motors had at the time. The Aurora was eventually used as a basis for all Oldsmobile models that followed, including the Intrigue, Alero, Silhouette, Bravada, and Eighty-Eight. The sedan was powered by a 4.0-liter V-8 engine based on Cadillac’s Northstar powerplant, previously offered in the Allante, Eldorado, and Seville. Olds’ variant of the engine was rated at 250 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The first-gen Aurora went out of production in 1999, and its successor arrived two years later due to the company’s financial troubles. The second-gen Aurora retained the 4.0-liter V-8, but it was also offered with a 3.5-liter V-6. The nameplate was discontinued again in 2003, one year before the Oldsmobile brand was killed off for good.
When was Oldsmobile founded?
Oldsmobile was founded in 1897, when Random Eli Olds set up a factory in Lansing, Michigan. Oldsmobile is the oldest American car company and one of only nine car brands established before 1900.
Who Made Oldsmobile?
Oldsmobile was originally an independent company, but it spent the majority of its history as a General Motors division. GM purchased the company in 1908, so it was owned by the big Detroit-based group for 96 years.
When did Oldsmobile Go Out of Business?
Oldsmobile was shut down as a car company in 2004, after 107 years on the market.
What Happened to Oldsmobile?
Oldsmobile was discontinued due to a shortfall in sales and overall profitability at General Motors. Although the brand had survived its low-sales crisis from the early 1990s, GM decided to shut down the brand in 2000 and completed the process in 2004. Unlike Saturn and Pontiac, Oldsmobile was discontinued five years before GM’s chapter 11 bankruptcy.
When was the last Oldsmobile made?
The last Oldsmobile, an Alero compact in GLS four-door sedan trim, rolled off the assembly line in April 2004. The car is being kept at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
What does 442 Mean on Oldsmobile?
The 442 badge derives from the original car’s four-barrel carburetor, four-speed manual transmission, and dual exhaust system. However, some claim that the "2" indicated the positive traction rear differential.
Was the Oldsmobile 442 the best muscle car?
The 442 is widely regarded as Oldsmobile’s best muscle car, especially models built from 1964 to 1971. However, the 442 isn’t necessarily the best muscle car in the world. While the 442 spawned high-power W- and Hurst-badged versions, other GM brands, as well as Ford and Chrysler, produced muscle cars with more power and race-spec packages.
Oldsmobile was founded as Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in Lansing, Michigan, in 1897. The company started producing more than 600 cars per year in 1902 and became the top-selling car company in the U.S. for a few years. Ransom Olds left the company in 1904, following a dispute, and formed the REO Motor Car Company. Around the same time, Oldsmobile produced the Curved Dash, the world’s first mass-produced car, an invention often incorrectly credited to Ford. In 1908, Oldsmobile was bought by General Motors and remained part of the group until its shutdown in 2004.
Under GM, Oldsmobile was marketed as a mid-range division, being slotted above Chevrolet and Pontiac but below Buick and Cadillac. The company’s first notable car was the Limited Touring of 1910. Offered with massive 42-inch wheels, leather interior, and a 60-horsepower, 11.6-liter engine, it retailed from $4,600, more than a two-bedroom house. It was followed by a more affordable model, the Six, offered in five body styles. In the 1930s, Oldsmobile introduced the innovative four-speed semi-automatic transmission. In 1940, Olds became the first automaker to offer a fully automatic transmission. The four-speed gearbox featured a gear selector mounted on the steering column. Car production was halted in 1942, and Oldsmobile produced large-caliber guns and shells for America’s WWII effort until 1945.
Oldsmobile returned with a vengeance in the late 1940s, creating one of the most innovative engines at the time, called the Rocket. A V-8 with an overhead valve rather than the flathead design of the straight-eight units that were popular at the time, the Rocket produced far more power and became very popular with hot-rodders and stock car racers. This engine debuted in the Rocket 88 and remained in production with minor changes until the mid-1960s.
The 1950s saw Oldsmobile’s rise to fame with nameplates as the 88 and flagship 98. Olds was also the first GM division to produce a hardtop vehicle and the first to use wraparound windshields. Oldsmobile introduced some industry-first features in 1959, such as a bar-graph speedometer that went green from 0 to 35 mph, orange from 35 to 65 mph, and red above 65 mph. Another feature was "Autronic Eye," a dashboard-mounted automatic headlamp dimmer.
The 1960s were Oldsmobile’s greatest decade, with notable achievement such as the first turbocharged engine, the first factory water injection system, and the first modern FWD car produced in the U.S. This decade saw the introduction of iconic models such as the 442, Cutlass, Vista Cruiser, Starfire, and the Toronado. Oldsmobile was also an active competitor on the muscle car market, starting with the mid-1960s.
The division remained successful into the 1970s. Popular designs, positive reviews, ad perceived reliability, and quality made the Cutlass series America’s top-selling car by 1976. Oldsmobile had also become the country’s third best-selling brand behind Chevrolet and Ford. In the late 1970s, Oldsmobile sales had soared to more than one million units. Sales were so high that demand exceeded production capacity for the Oldsmobile V-8 engine, so the brand began equipping most of its full-size models with Chevrolet units. This move upset loyal Olds buyers that wanted a Rocket engine and prompted GM to add disclaimers that the cars are equipped with engines "produced by various GM divisions." In 1978, Oldsmobile introduced the first diesel engine in the U.S. A V-8 mill available in two displacements, the diesel was supposed to open up American buyers to oil burners, but they had so many problems that GM discontinued it after just a few years.
Like many competitors, Oldsmobile retained their iconic nameplates through the 1970s but introduced new compact models like the Omega and a downsized Starfire.
Oldsmobile vehicles remained popular in the 1980s, and sales once again reached one million units per year, surpassing both Ford and Chevrolet. Production of the Cutlass Supreme, 88, 98, and Toronado continued with period-specific updates, but Oldsmobile also introduced new cars like the Calais, Cutlass Ciera, and the Firenza. The Cutlass Ciera was particularly popular in the 1980s. In 1988, Oldsmobile built the first production car with a heads-up display.
After three successful decades with record sales in the 1970s and 1980s, Oldsmobile started to lose its place in the market. Not only struggling to stand out compared to badge-engineered models from Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Buick, Oldsmobile also faced new and strong competition for newly-established import brands like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus.
After three successful decades with record sales in the 1970s and 1980s, Oldsmobile started to lose its place in the market in the 1990s. Not only struggling to stand out among badge-engineered models from Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Buick, Oldsmobile also faced new and strong competition for newly-established import brands like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus. GM tried to revive the company with the Aurora, a full-size premium and performance sedan, and a new logo based on the iconic "rocket" theme. At the same time, Oldsmobile phased out all of its historic models that were still in production in the early 1990s. Their replacements were designs inspired by the Aurora. New nameplates included the Achieva compact, the Bravada SUV, the Intrigue midsize sedan, and the Silhouette premium minivan. Olds continued to innovate and introduced a color touchscreen interface with built-in cellular phone in 1990 and the first production satellite navigation system, called Guidestar, in 1995.
Although Oldsmobile started to recover in the 1990s, a shortfall in sales and overall profitability for General Motors prompted the group to announce plans to shut down the company. The five remaining nameplates were discontinued one by one starting 2002, and production was halted altogether in April 2004. Oldsmobile was phased out after 107 years on the market.