In Britain, Oldsmobile has never been a name with which to conjure. The name, faintly ridiculous, has now been snuffed out by General Motors, of which family it was the oldest member.
The Olds part of the name was Ransom Eli Olds, born in 1864. His first petrol engine went into a car in 1896; four more complete cars were built in 1897, and by 1903, with 4,000 coming off the production lines, Oldsmobile was the world's largest motor manufacturer. In 1904, Olds was edged out of his company by shareholders. Within the year he had started another, making the Reo (his initials) - but that's another story.
In 1908, Oldsmobile was bought by William C Durant as the foundation stone of his General Motors, but for the next quarter-century it remained - as did Buick, Cadillac and the other GM marques - distinct in character. By the late 1930s, however, most GM cars were indistinguishable in style and decorative idiom, and though historians of Oldsmobile claim it was not until the 1960s that it shared engines and body panels with Buick, to anyone who was not a nerd they had been close cousins in an incestuous relationship for 30 years.
It had been the first of the GM family to mass produce V-6 engines and the first, in 1940, to introduce automatic transmission. But once the virus of badge-engineering had infected General Motors, the Oldsmobile that could be described as individual was very rare.
The immediately post-war Oldsmobile 88 was one. The first to reach 100mph with the 135bhp "Futuramic Rocket'' engine - a V-8 of 5-litres - in a body shorter and lighter than other Oldsmobiles, this was car of the day for stock-car racing. It dominated all other aspirants - but it still looked like any and every other GM car.
The last Oldsmobile to be truly exceptional was the Toronado of 1966, an enormous two-door fastback powered by a 7-litre V-8 engine developing 385bhp driving the front wheels - then, by far, the largest car of this configuration. The combination of FWD and Hydramatic transmission meant that the engine had to be mounted to the right of centre so that the transmission could be installed below the left bank of cylinders, facing forward, connected by a flexible chain and sprocket. Of this potentially space-saving arrangement by the engineers, the designers took no advantage: but for the fan, the very long nose of the car is empty, because the engine and transmission are behind and over the front axle. At the far end of the body one might just cram into the shallow boot one soft bag for each of the six passengers, three with bowed heads and bent backs on the inaccessible rear seat. Yet, the car, six and a half feet wide, is just short of 18 feet in length - but then most coupés are about style, not common sense. This was a Ferrari line adjusted to fit American bums and bellies.
With a laden weight of 2.5 tons, the Toronado took nine seconds to reach 60mph, and could reach 130mph. For its day, it was quiet and - for a sports car - remarkably refined. But was it a sports car in anything other than its handsome looks? Serene on a highway with 75mph cruising at 3,000rpm and quite vivid acceleration in reserve, fierce braking in an emergency was possible only once - the old-fashioned drum brakes were of vintage efficiency and quickly faded away.
The nose-heavy under-steering combined with the feeble brakes to make motoring in mountains a miserable experience of white hair and ashen face. As for steering in town, its response to any tug on the wheel was so delayed and so much (eventually) assisted, that in any parking manoeuvre other than the very simplest, the driver could, within seconds, lose all sense of the direction in which the wheels were pointing.
I loved the Toronado for its brazen looks and hated it for not living up to them, and for its silly name. I hated the slushy transmission, the safety sneeze-factor delay built into every touch on the steering-wheel, the slushy brakes and the slushy suspension. I hated it for its titchy petrol tank - the damned machine never went more than 180 miles on 20 gallons when driven with a modicum of verve before it demanded juice.
The only Oldsmobile in the past half century to have any claim to be a classic, it is a handsome beast, thoroughly American in all its faults. It should have been a prophetic dream machine, and GM could have remedied its faults within a year. Instead, it lost faith, swapped its svelte lines for an ordinary upright coupé, cluttered it with all-American embellishments in chrome, and learned nothing from its ingenious experiment with front-wheel drive.
It was almost as though Oldsmobile suffered post-partum depression over it and wished it anywhere but on its production line in Michigan. It should have given it to someone who really understood what it had tried to do; what a wonderful Bristol it could have been.Reuse content