NEW YORK If anyone might be expected to mourn the impending
demise of General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile division, it would be
Peter Berusch, who not only owns 13 Olds cars, mostly convertibles,
but also restores pre-1973 models at his shop in Lawrenceville,
Georgia. But GM's announcement left him unmoved.
"I'm not getting teary-eyed," said Mr. Berusch, who heads the Dixie Olds Club, a chapter of the Oldsmobile Club of America. "Oldsmobile hasn't really had an identity for the last 15 to 20 years. These days, GM just produces the same car with different names."
Indeed, current models such as the Alero and Intrigue are not likely to inspire a popular song like "In My Merry Oldsmobile." That 1905 song, with music by Gus Edwards and lyrics by Vincent Bryan, included as its chorus:
Come away with me Lucille, In my merry Oldsmobile, Down the road of life we'll fly, Automobubbling you and I. To the church we'll swiftly steal, Then our wedding bells will peal, You can go as far as you like with me, In my merry Oldsmobile. Founded in 1897 by Ransom Olds, one of the industry's pioneers, Oldsmobile had been the oldest surviving American automobile brand, outliving 2,500 other automakers. The Curved Dash Olds of 1901-05 was the first gasoline-powered car to be produced in large numbers, and it was one of the first motor vehicles whose appearance was a result of design instead of happenstance. (Most early cars consisted of mechanical components added to what had been horse-drawn carriages.) The seven-horsepower runabout weighed 650 pounds (293 kilograms) and sold for $650.
The car's attractive curves were such a sensation that an unheard-of 4,000 were produced in 1903.
Mr. Olds was also a believer in the industry maxim, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," and in 1903 an Olds racer set a class land speed record of 54.38 miles an hour. Around the same time, and despite a general lack of paved roads, a test driver took an Olds from Detroit to New York. Partly as a result of such stunts, sales rose to 6,500 in 1905, though Mr. Olds himself had already left the company.
Along with Buick, Oldsmobile was a charter member of William Durant's General Motors in 1908. The division earned an early reputation for performance and technological innovation. In 1939, Oldsmobile introduced the Hydra Matic, the first high-volume automatic transmission. Even more sensational was the Rocket V-8, an engine that not only presaged a generation of high-performance engines but also caught the public's imagination.
The public was fascinated by space exploration in the 1950s and '60s, and rockets became an Olds symbol and styling theme starting with the "Futuramic" Olds of 1949. The innovations at Oldsmobile continued in the 1960s with the radically styled 1966 Toronado, America's first mass-produced front-wheel-drive car since the groundbreaking Cord of the 1930s. Performance reached its peak with the "4-4-2" of 1970, which produced 365 horsepower, according to official figures; Hot Rod magazine said the real horsepower figure was more like 425.
But Oldsmobile's main products were family sedans aimed at upper-middle class customers. In 1969, the company was forced to market its cars as "Youngmobiles," a campaign that prefigured a much later campaign with the theme, "Not your father's Oldsmobile."
Although the 1970s were a low point for engineering and design in Detroit, Olds struck gold with its immensely popular Cutlass Supreme. The division's sales exceeded 1 million in 1978 and from 1983 to 1986, making Olds the third most popular brand in the United States, after Chevrolet and Ford.
Since then, Oldsmobile's traditional base of customers has aged, died or shifted to imports such as Acura, Audi and Lexus, and Olds has been unable to shake a reputation for stodgy cars.
One effort to strike a more youthful pose came with the futuristic Aurora sedan of 1994, but it failed to attract many customers from the European sport sedans, BMWs or Mercedes-Benzes.
"People still perceive Oldsmobiles as dowdy old cars," Mr. Berusch said. The Aurora was redesigned for 2001, but the effort was too little, too late.