A Rare Brand of Go

On more than one occasion I have had people express disbelief that we are able to find vintage car parts at antique stores (for reasonable prices)! Although respect for car parts seems to be trending up among purveyors of fine antiques, many dealers just have no interest in the subject. Kind of like how I feel when I see salt and pepper shakers or those glass “hen on nest” dishes. I once found a 1940s Lincoln Zephyr V12 horn ring, with the horn button intact, for twelve bucks at an antique store. That was a great find, and so is the Oldsmobile Skyrocket air cleaner lid I found last week:

This item is easy to date because the Skyrocket name was only used for a few years; Oldsmobile introduced it in 1961 and it was used through 1963. The Skyrocket engine was a 394ci, 4-barrel, high-compression engine. The 10-to-1 compression ratio delivered 325 horsepower in 1961. That compression ratio was upped to 10.25-to-1 in 1962 and turned out 330hp. Happily, this one has most of the decal intact.

Here it is pictured in the 1962 brochure.

The Skyrocket was an option for the Dynamic 88 and standard on the Ninety-Eight and Super 88. This ad features a 1961 Ninety-Eight “with Skyrocket performance.”

This 1962 ad features a Super 88 Holiday Coupe with “a rare brand of GO!”

A Ninety-Eight headlines this ad from 1963 and touts the horsepower which, by the way, was needed for such a heavy automobile. According to the brochure, the shipping weight for the Ninety-Eight was a considerable 4,241 pounds.

The 394 was still used in ’64, but the Skyrocket name was not. The Skyrocket certainly went out in style, however, with the tail lights on the ’63 Ninety-Eight being among the most unique and beautiful:

Photo credit: Nadablue, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oldsmobile’s “Winged Spur” Crest

By 1929, Oldsmobile had already been in existence for more than three decades, and the company decided it was time for a new crest that was symbolic of Oldsmobile and the important place it occupied in the automotive industry.

According to the story that went with this 1929 headline, each element of the crest depicted, in the language of heraldry, some characteristic of the company:

“Centered in the shield is a winged spur. This symbol of fleetness represents the harnessing of horsepower and the development of transportation to its present efficiency. The role of the Oldsmobile in this development has been so outstanding that the prominence of the winged spur is well deserved.

Under the spur and superimposed on the gold field are three acorns. These represent the historical position of Oldsmobile, the first company to introduce quantity production methods and from which the automotive industry branched out and grew to its present foremost position.

Oak leaves form a decorative background around the top of the shield. These symbols of strength and sturdiness are symbolic of the industry as well as of the strength of Oldsmobile and its parent corporation, General Motors.

Centered above all is the lamp of knowledge, depicting the brain and research power at the command of this veteran company. The flame of this lamp represents the continuous research work being conducted by Oldsmobile engineers and the additional facilities afforded them by the General Motors’ proving ground, General Motors’ research laboratories and their staffs of experts.

At each side of the lamp of knowledge are a micrometer and a triangle. This modern touch tells the story of exactness and precision methods. They also represent the spirit of craftsmanship which impelled the Oldsmobile workmen to originate and take as their creed, the motto, ‘Anything short of my best is not acceptable.'”

Some examples of Oldsmobiles sporting a variation of the “Winged Spur” crest in 1958, 1948 and 1937, respectively:

Doctors’ Cars

If you were playing a word association game and someone said the phrase “doctor’s car,” what would be your response?  BMW? Range Rover?  In the early twentieth century, that term had a completely different connotation.

In the 1800s, doctors made house calls and needed a fast, safe and reliable  method of travel and so “doctor’s buggies” that met those requirements were common.  At the turn of the century, doctors were still making house calls and Maxwell continued the tradition by offering a “doctor’s car” option.  I wondered how many other companies offered a version designed for docs, and the answer is, “Just about everyone!”  Here are just a few:

This 1907 advertisement offered the “Dr. Mitchell” for $1000.

In 1906, Compound claimed to have the best doctor’s runabout on the market.

According to this 1905 advertisement, Oldsmobile’s doctor’s runabouts were “going like hot cakes”.

In 1906, $650 could get you Wayne’s doctor’s runabout with a 2-cylinder 14-hp engine.

Ransom Eli Olds

The initials on this hubcap, REO, belong to a man who was a true trailblazer for the American automotive industry, Ransom Eli Olds. He had two different automobiles named after him, first the Oldsmobile and then the Reo, and you would be hard-pressed to name someone more deserving of the honor.

Olds started Olds Motor Works Inc. in 1899 with financial backing from Samuel Smith. After disagreeing with Smith and his sons about the direction of the company, Olds left and used his knowledge and reputation to form Reo in 1904. This Reo ad from 1905 illustrates the importance of Olds’ experience, describing him as the “man who knows how”.

That Olds paved the way for those who followed is evidenced by the many “firsts” in the automotive industry that he was personally responsible for. Olds built his first “horseless carriage” in 1886, and this was the first one to ever appear on the roads of Michigan. He built an improved version in 1892 (both were powered by gas-burning steam engines) and a London company paid Olds $400 for it. The purchaser wanted to use it to promote business in India and shipped it to Bombay in 1893, making this the first automobile ever sold for export.

As previously mentioned, Olds started Olds Motor Works in 1899. Prior to that, however, he had formed Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897. That 1897 company was the first company in Michigan organized for the exclusive purpose of manufacturing automobiles.

Olds was also the first quantity producer of automobiles, manufacturing nearly 4,000 of the popular “curved-dash runabouts” in 1903. In 1905, Reo was producing one car every 40 minutes. Henry Ford is often given credit for the assembly line, but the Olds plant was the first to use conveyors for assembly line production. In 1941, Alfred Reeves of the Automobile Manufacturers Association called Olds “the father of mass production in the motor industry” and said he was basing this statement on the fact that Olds had used the progressive assembly system to produce 5,000 of the 22,000 cars made in 1904. Ford and Olds were lifelong friends and Ford was a frequent visitor at the Olds plant where he got the idea for low-cost mass production.

Olds was also responsible for America’s first cross-country trip from Detroit to New York in an automobile. It took 21-year-old Roy Chapin (who later co-founded Hudson) a week to make the trip, performing a multitude of repairs along the way. Oldsmobile also took part in the first transcontinental trips in the summer of 1903 (along with a Packard and a Winton). Two drivers took an Oldsmobile from San Francisco to New York in 1903, taking 74 days to complete the trip.

These trips were good promotions for Oldsmobile, and promotion was another area in which Olds led the way. Olds was the first to advertise nationally in 1902 by taking out an ad in the Saturday Evening Post. Olds also hired a famous songwriter of the day named Gus Edwards to write a song about the Oldsmobile. The result was “My Merry Oldsmobile” and it was a hit. The lyrics were included in ads like this one, and they are surprisingly suggestive for the early 1900s (I guess people started making out in cars as soon as they were invented)!

Many songs have been written about cars since (check out this list as voted on by Hot Rod readers a few years ago) but the Oldsmobile ditty was likely the first about a particular automobile. And then there were promotional events like a parade in which Teddy Roosevelt rode in a Reo, or stunts like this one at Grosse Pointe in 1901:

According to a story in the Detroit Free Press, these cars were giving a novel demonstration of control on a huge teeter-totter: “Running first forward and then back, the chauffer worked the teetering board up and down with the greatest ease and balanced it perfectly.”

In 1944, a celebration took place to observe Olds’ 80th birthday. It was noted then that the pioneers of the automobile industry were quickly disappearing. Dave Buick and Frank Duryea were gone, as was Josiah Dallas Dort, John and Horace Dodge, Henry Leland and William Durant. Roy Chapin was gone, too. Charlie Nash was able to make it to the party, but an ailing Henry Ford was absent. Olds lived another six years, and by the time he passed away in 1950 he had outlived almost everyone. The headlines at that time appropriately proclaimed him the “Last of the Auto Pioneers”.

In this ad from 1927, the Reo company is still making sure everyone knows that “REO” are the initials of Ransom Eli Olds.
1928 REO 1 1/2-ton truck at Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska.
Photo credit: Delaney Tracy
1928 REO 1 1/2-ton truck at Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska.
Photo credit: Delaney Tracy

Sources:

Advertisement. Oldsmobile. The Detroit Free Press, 18 June, 1905, p.9.

Advertisement. Oldsmobile. The McPherson Daily Republican, 8 May 1909, p. 1.

Advertisement. Reo. Honolulu Star Bulletin, 27 May 1929, p. 4.

Advertisement. Reo. The Illustrated Buffalo Express, 12 March 1905, p. 10.

“Cross Country in Automobile.” The San Francisco Call, 18 September 1903, p. 2.

Darling, Birt. “Yen for Tinkering Brought Fame and Millions to R. E. Olds.” The Lansing State Journal, 26 June 1955, p. 17.

“Evolution of the Automobile.” The Detroit Free Press, 10 October 1901, p. 4.

“Gus Edwards of Gaslight Era Agreed to Write Famous Melody.” The Lansing State Journal, 28 April 1955, p. 10-G.

“His Home is Chapin’s Hobby.” The Muncie Evening Press, 22 August 1932, p. 3.

“History of Reo Closely Linked with Growth of Lansing.” The Lansing State Journal, 28 April 1955, p. 14-G.

“Illness is Fatal to Roy D. Chapin.” The Detroit Free Press, 17 February 1936, p. 2.

“Long Life of Ransom Eli Olds, Last of Auto Pioneers, Had Many Highlights.” The Lansing State Journal, 27 August 1950, sec. 3 p. 4.

“Lucky Lansing Gets Big Automobile Manufacturing Company.” The Detroit Free Press 18 August 1904, p. 7.

Palmer, Paul G. “Researcher Gives Fresh Insight on R. E. Olds.” The Lansing State Journal, 9 December 1962, p. F-1.

“Pioneer Motor Maker Sees End of Steam Power.” Oakland Tribune, 17 May 1924, p. AA-5.

Vance, Bill. “Olds Left Behind Legacy of Innovation.” The Star Phoenix, 16 January 1998, p. C-7.

Oldsmobile Hood Emblems

I often hear from people who need help identifying the tail lights, hood ornaments and hub caps left in the barn they have just inherited. Their grandfather/father/uncle knew what everything was, but now he is gone and the lucky beneficiaries don’t know what they have. It is a sad fact that every time we lose a guy like that, a wealth of knowledge goes with him. I try to help when I can, and have started putting together some guides like this one on Ford V8 hubcaps. Another area that generates a lot of confusion is the Oldsmobile “ringed globe” hood emblems. The various versions do look very similar, so here are some part numbers and pictures to help you sort it out.

This 1948 with distinctive down-turned grille sports the Oldsmobile crest with the “winged spur”. This was the year before Olds started using the ringed globe.

In 1949 and 1950, all of the Oldmobiles used the same hood emblem. (Note: The ones that I have seen are marked with part number 556420, but the Olds parts book says that all 1949-50 models used part number 559173. Motor’s Flat Rate & Parts says the 1949 “98” uses part number 556649. The Olds parts book mentions something about a hood conversion, so maybe that explains the confusion.)

1949-50

In 1951, the Super 88 used this emblem (part number 560055).

1951 Super 88

The other 1951 models (“88A” and “98”) used part number 560058.

1951 (other than Super 88)

In 1952, all Olds models used part number 562144.

1952

In 1953, the ringed world emblem was two separate pieces. Only the 98 Fiesta Convertible differed from the other models by using part numbers 563868 and 563872 (not pictured). The rest of the Oldsmobiles used part numbers 562787 for the bar and ring and 562789 for the world insert.

1953

In 1954, all models used the same emblem. It was two pieces, part numbers 565126 for the bar and ring and 563869 for the insert.

1954

For 1955, all of the models again used the same emblem. Part numbers are 566353 for the bar and ring and 566354 for the world insert.

1955

The 1956 version looks very different from the earlier ones. The part number is 567448.

1956

The hood emblem was once again re-styled for 1957, and then gone completely from the hood of the ’58.

1957

1958

Christmas in July – 1958 Oldsmobile

This tinsel-covered ’58 Olds was my hands-down favorite at the local car show a few weeks ago:

Photo credit: Delaney Tracy

The Oldsmobile was completely re-styled for 1958 and sported loads of chrome. It had a recess-type grille with thin aluminum louvers and a contour bumper with parking lights at each end.

Photo credit: Delaney Tracy

Inside was a yuuuge steering wheel. An option was a “Trans-Portable” radio that could be removed from the car and used elsewhere (running on dry-cell batteries that provided 160 hours of playing time).

Photo credit: Delaney Tracy

It looks like it would be slow, doesn’t it? Not really, since it came equipped with a 371 cubic-inch Rocket engine. The entry level Dynamic 88 featured an Econ-O-Way dual carb and 265 hp, but the Super 88 and 98 came with a quadri-jet carb and 305 hp. Better yet, available as an option was the J-2 Rocket with a six-pack and 312 hp. The gas cap, which you would be accessing often, was found behind the left tail light.

Photo credit: Delaney Tracy

The Jetaway HydraMatic Drive was touted as smoother for ’58, and a true air suspension called New-Matic Ride (I love these names) was another option. It cushioned the car on four chambers of compressed air, one at each wheel. Oldsmobile’s name for this whole beautiful package was “Oldsmobility”, and it is a gorgeous remnant from the rocket age.

Photo credit: Delaney Tracy

Bearcat on Wheels – 1962 Starfire

Here is a rare and welcome sight, a 1962 Oldsmobile Starfire:

The Starfire was built on a Super Eighty-Eight frame and was available in either a convertibile or two-door hardtop. It is easily recognized by the distinctive band of brush-textured anodized aluminum trim that runs along the sides from front to back.

Standard equipment included bucket seats, leather upholstery and power everything, seats, windows, brakes and steering, as well as a four-stage Hydra-Matic Transmission.

What made this car really special was the standard equipment under the hood: a 394 cubic-inch 345hp V8 engine that featured a new combustion chamber shape and higher (10.5 to 1) compression ratios for 1962. The Starfire also came with a 4-barrel carb, dual exhaust and a tach as standard equipment. What more could you want?

The legendary Floyd Clymer took one for a thorough test drive, 2,720 miles from Indianapolis to Los Angeles, and then wrote an overwhelmingly positive review. He raved that it was the type of car that “causes automotive experts to thrill with joy when they are behind the wheel.” He also described it as a “bearcat on wheels” and said “The engine is smooth as silk and as near vibrationless as any I have ever sat behind. The operation of the automatic transmission is extremely smooth and below 60 mph when the throttle is depressed, the surge of power is nothing short of fantastic – the car literally leaps forward as if another 100 horses suddenly came into action.” Kind of makes you miss Oldsmobile, doesn’t it?

Sources:

Clymer, Floyd. “Olds Starfire Road Tested.” The Baltimore Sun, 20 August 1961, p. 14.

“1962 Oldsmobile Starfire Makes Bow.” Lancaster New Era, 18 September 1961, p. 7.

“Oldsmobile Has New Style.” Verona-Cedar Grove Times, 12 October 1961, p. A-8.

“Oldsmobile Sports Car Rally at Potts’ 5 Days.” The Kosciusko, Mississippi, Star Herald, 6 May 1962, p. 6.

Oldsmobile Starfire. Advertisement. Arlington Heights Herald, 29 March 1962.

Oldsmobile Rocket

Well, it sure DOES pay to go rooting around in old barns.  Just look at what we found in Kansas recently:

Yes, these are an original pair of wire looms for a 1950 Oldsmobile 303.  The 303 was the first mass-produced overhead valve (OHV) V8 in 1949.  These are 1950 wire looms because they are gold with red letters, not natural metal with red letters like the 1949 version.  A quick search on the internet reveals many arguments over whether the Oldsmobile was the earliest example of American muscle (that’s right) or whether something like the Ford Mustang deserves that title (and that’s just wrong).

Oldsmobile appropriately called their short-stroke, high-compression OHV engine the “Rocket”, and it sure made the automobile industry sit up and take notice.  The other manufacturers were producing their own versions by the mid-1950s, but not before Oldsmobile impacted the record books by winning NASCAR championships in 1949, 1950 and 1951.  Even though the Rocket is a great name, Oldsmobile engineers originally wanted to name the engine after Charles F. Kettering, the retired GM research VP, but GM policy prevented that from happening.  Too bad, because Kettering more than deserved the honor.

Nicknamed “Boss” Kettering, his is one of those uniquely American stories that starts with very humble beginnings on a farm in Ohio in 1876 and ends with an estate worth more than $200 million upon his death in 1958.  In between, he spent his life seeking solutions to the problems of everyday life even when, or especially when, others were claiming it was impossible.   He made valuable contributions in the fields of medicine and aviation, helped develop new types of fuel, and even developed the refrigerant Freon.  He co-founded Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (better known as Delco) and invented the electric starter for Henry Leland of Cadillac, making Cadillac the first automobile without the dangerous and laborious hand crank.  Delco, of course, was later purchased by GM.  Upon his retirement from GM, Kettering held more than 140 patents.  He was a philosopher as well as an inventor and the source of some of my favorite quotes such as, “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.”  In light of current affairs, however, I think I’ll end with this particularly relevant quote:   

“We have a lot of people revolutionizing the world because they’ve never had to present a working model.”