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Oldsmobile   Part 2: 1916-1925

By John Bentley

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

Pioneer in mass-production, Olds also was the first to standardize equipment.

With the financial recovery of General Motors during the second decade of the century, the Oldsmobile’s already well-founded reputation coupled with sound, prac­tical design were enough to give sales a powerful upward boost. As compared with 1915--the year that Oldsmobile standardized the folding top and windshield--production of 10,507 cars for 1916 showed nearly a 30 per cent improvement over the previous 12 months.

It was in 1916, too, that Olds produced its first V-8, and L-head job rated at 26.4 hp, which developed some 58 hp at moderate engine speed. This power unit anticipated by some 33 years the valve-in-head V-8 “Rocket” en­gine. That same year, the company also went into quantity production of closed cars for the first time.

Following the entry of the U. S. into World War I, Olds swung during 1917 into the whole-scale manufacture of kitchen trailers for Army use and prepared, also, to contribute its share in turning out the famous Liberty airplane engines.

At the same time, a completely new six-cylinder car was announced, known as the Model 37. This had a rating of only 18.98 hp, yet developed over 40 hp and offered excellent performance in a 112-inch wheel-base chassis of moderate weight. The complete five-passenger touring car, for example, scaled but 2,390 pounds and was one of four body types offered with this model. The starting price of this series was $1,095 and the soundness of the firm’s policy was reflected in a year’s output of well over 22,000 cars representing two types--the other being the Model 45 V-8.

A new engine plant was completed at Lansing during 1918 and a large part of its facilities were devoted until the Armistice to the Liberty project. With the cessation of hostilities, Oldsmobile production of kitchen trailers topped the 2,000 mark and the new factory became the company’s main passenger car engine production center.

During 1919, the demand for Oldsmobiles assumed such proportions that there were customers for 39,042 cars, representing a production jump of over 100 per cent over the previous year. This new peak was not, in fact, again surpassed until 1924 and was the highest until then in Oldsmobile’s en­tire history. Greatest tribute to the car’s design was perhaps the fact that these sales were achieved on virtually the same two models as the year before, although these underwent certain detail-improvements. The six-cylinder car, for instance, now known as Model 37-A, had its output boosted from 40 to 44 hp, while the Model 45-B with the V-8 engine featured a new Pacemaker Model, moderately priced at $1,895.

This rush for Oldsmobiles inspired an immediate expansion program, completed in 1920 when several new buildings went into commission to house greatly increased facilities for assembly, axle shaft manu­facture, sheet metalwork, and enameling. With some 4,000 employees on the payroll (twice as many as in 1915), Olds was now in a new era of prosperity and fame in terms both of production and profits. How­ever, there was the 1921 Recession to be reckoned with and also a postwar delayed shortage of certain raw materials that forced production cuts on all automobile manufacturers. But it would have taken more than this to shake Oldsmobile’s con­fidence, and a new Model 47 V-8 appeared in 1921 that held an irresistible appeal for all who still had a good supply of spending-dollars.

The new Model 47 V-8 produced 63.5 hp compared with 58 hp on the earlier engine, and sported a 115-inch wheelbase suitable for spacious and elegant body­work. Five body styles were available, beginning at $1,825 for the four-passenger Super Sport job, with a high of $2,295 for the sedan. Though the company suffered momentarily, with all others, from the financial doldrums, the opinion of automo­tive writer John K. Barnes, published in the Motor World of April that year, showed pretty clearly where Oldsmobile stood. “It was Olds’ success in Detroit (Lansing) that fixed the center of the automobile industry in that city.” Dollar-wise, Olds Motor Works paid in less than three years over 100 per cent in cash dividends while its capital stock swelled to some $2,000,000.

To demonstrate the stamina and true worth of the new Olds V-8, one of these cars was driven for 15 hours at an average of 67 mph during 1922, setting up a new passenger automobile record.

The following year, with production back to nearly 35,000 cars, a new six-cylinder Olds made its appearance under the desig­nation of Model 30. The L-head engine of this car developed 42 hp, yet it was a low-priced job selling for only $750--a new mark in this type of vehicle. Another record fell to Oldsmobile in 1923, when Cannonball Baker completed a transcon­tinental trip from New York to Los Angeles with an Olds Model 30 locked in high gear!

Meanwhile, Olds was also doing well in the four-cylinder field with an overhead valve model rated at 21.75 hp that gave forth 45 hp. This car, known as Model 43-A, had a 115-inch wheelbase and came in seven body styles with a price range of $955 to $1,595.

The new production peak of 44,854 cars for 1924--which surprised even Oldsmobile executives--coincided with greatly expanded Fisher Body activities when this General Motors subsidiary began coach-crafting for Olds on a big scale. A De Luxe Sedan was introduced on the six-cylinder Model 30, and Oldsmobile’s stand in the matter of so-called “accessories” hastened the eruption of a nationwide dealer con­troversy which came to a head during the following year. The burning question was this: Did the public prefer to pay a little more for a completely equipped automo­bile, or were customers happier with a rock-bottom price tag which included no “accessories”?

Dealers were split into two camps over this issue and their feelings were expressed by the contemporary automotive press as follows: “Higher prices, factory equipped, briefly describes a situation which the trade is watching closely with mingled feelings of alarm and satisfaction. Gone are the days when the cash register in our accessory departments sang a cheerful tune every time a new car was sold.”

However, a census disclosed that 78 percent of dealers, including a great many of the Oldsmobile fraternity, believed there was no resistance to the higher inclusive prices of cars sold with complete equip­ment. On the contrary, sales resistance occurred when another $100 was tacked on the price for extra equipment. Specifi­cally, the “accessories” that sparked the dispute were such items as windshield wipers and side-wings, mirrors, motor-meters (to indicate engine temperature), disc wheels, scuff plates, bumpers, spare wheels and tires, trunks, trunk racks and spotlights.

Undeterred by the wails of a minority “opposition,” Oldsmobile went ahead and included most of these items in the price of its De Luxe Models. Although these ran a little higher in consequence, the buyer didn’t have to dip in his pocket for items which were more necessities than “extras,” and that was all right with him. A good example of this was the De Luxe Sport Touring Six, probably the most successful model in the Oldsmobile line for 1924 and 1925. In “standard” trim, this car sold for $795, whereas with complete equipment including a dozen so-called “extras,” list price was $915.

The itemized list of “extras” came to $108.55 if purchased separately, and the balance of the $120 price differential be­tween the two models ($11.45) covered labor costs for installation. The customer was perfectly happy; so happy in fact that the soundness of Olds leadership in this trend was demonstrated within a year, when most other manufacturers fell into line with the new policy.

Olds expressed the situation pretty well in a contemporary ad which stated: “You expect it to cost more ... anywhere from $500 to $800 higher than it really is. This car, with its extraordinarily complete equipment, its fine performance qualities and its beautiful bronze green color would be impossible at anywhere near the price, were it not for the pronounced manufac­turing advantages resulting from the close cooperation of Oldsmobile and General Motors.” The pioneer firm in mass pro­duction, which preceded both Rambler and Ford in quality assembly methods, knew just how to make volume cut the corners of the almighty dollar.

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