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April 29, 2015

April 29, 2004: wood grain on the way out

Society truly suffered for automotive fashion in the 1970s and 1980s, and it had indelible effects on my childhood. The next generation won’t get the same experience, however, for on this day in 2004, the last Oldsmobile rolled off an assembly line in Lansing, Michigan.

TDIH April 29, 2015

Here is another early-90’s photo from the Williams family archives. At center, wearing the sweet Two-Face shorts, is my brother, Cory; my dad is in the teal. We’re taking a ferry ride across Lake Champlain to Fort Ticonderoga. (Not sure why I’m not in the shot; I was probably off looking at steam whistles or something.)

Of particular interest is the Cutlass Cruiser at right, the second my family owned. It was a classic Oldsmobile station wagon, complete with gaudy fake wood-grain paneling.

Actually, that was a throwback to the corporation’s early days: in 1901, the wooden Curved Dash became the world’s first mass-produced car, built on an assembly line, which was invented by Ransom Eli Olds. Using wood made sense: steel was expensive, and early carmakers were basically just tweaking designs for horse-drawn carriages.

In 2000, General Motors announced it was phasing Oldsmobile out of its portfolio. When the last Alero was finished 11 years ago today, everyone present signed it, and the oldest existing American automaker brand was no more.

Fun fact: R. E. Olds also designed the REO Speedwagon.

For more on the legacy of this defunct make, visit The Oldsmobile Club of America.

One Comment
  1. Pat Russell permalink

    There is a lot of fun history to unpack here. Early cars used a lot of wood for the reasons indicated. In the ’30s a number of luxury station wagons featured wood sides with a grid of “structural members” that were actually entirely decorative. In the ’50s this was picked up by a number of car makers to gussy up their station wagon offerings. A neighbor had a ’53 Rambler, for instance. The panel itself was metal but the “structural” accent was wood. By the late ’50s the “wood” was entirely fake. But old station wagons with real wood were by then available inexpensively on the used car market. They entered California surfer culture as “woodies” and The Beach Boys, among others, celebrated them in song. By the ’90s Olds was the only car maker carrying on the “woodie” tradition. The “REO Speedwagon” was a light truck manufactured by the truck division of the REO Company. Many credit one model as the first pickup truck. REO eventually down sized to only making trucks. It was eventually acquired by White Truck, which in turn became a subsidiary of Freightliner, which in turn became a subsidiary of Mercedes Benz. But “R.E.O. Speedwagon” is best known as a band that formed in the late ’60s, had a great deal of success in the ’70s and ’80s, declined thereafter, but is still around.

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