For the Oldsmobile Faithful, the Legacy of Lansing Lives on at the R.E. Olds Museum of Transportation
I have to confess to some lingering attitude about the loss of Oldsmobile. I still shake my head over one of the oldest, most respected and successful automotive brands in the world joining the ranks of LaSalle, DeSoto, Edsel, and Studebaker. And for that matter, Pontiac, Plymouth, and Mercury, too. Like the title of the old scare flick they used to show in driver’s ed, It Didn’t Have to Happen. True, the brand seemed to lose its focus toward the end, but I think that if the corporation wasn’t already in deep trouble, Ransom E’s namesake would still be with us.
But there is no going back. If you are among those who speak Olds and understand the division’s unique, upscale vibe, there is a place you should know about. Appropriately, it is in Lansing, Michigan, Oldsmobile’s hometown for more than 100 years.
Just off Michigan Avenue, a stone’s throw from the banks of the Grand River, in an easy-to-miss building officially on the books as 240 Museum Drive, is the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum. It’s a repository of a wonderful world of all things Oldsmobile: cars of all types and eras, parts, displays, oodles of memorabilia, engines, history, one-of-a-kind stuff from the factory and offices, signs, advertising. If Olds is your thing you’re gonna feel like you just walked into the family reunion at Grandma’s.
You start your journey through a century of Olds with, appropriately, engines—small, single-cylinder stationary engines that the young inventor built early in his career to help power the industrial revolution. They would be the heart of his next phase of industrial creativity, the horseless carriage. Working through the engine area, you come upon a section of modern engines hanging from an overhead conveyor, build sheets and all, a scene straight out of the Olds engine plant. When GM and the U.S. auto industry were still riding high, the divisions engineered and produced their own exclusive engines. An Olds 350 was a different animal than a Buick or Chevrolet 350, or 400, or 455. That changed in the 1980s.
There are lots of examples of Oldsmobile’s early models, including the speedy truck able to get a farmer’s produce to market faster—perhaps better known today as a rock band, the REO Speedwagon.
As the division that became known for innovative engineering, Oldsmobile was the first to share the revolutionary overhead-valve engine in 1949, the 303ci Rocket V-8. The Rocket name would become a hallmark for Oldsmobile and represent the brand’s forward thinking and power for generations.
There’s plenty of good stuff for muscle car buffs, like a what-if 4-4-2 wagon, an Anti-Spin axle cutaway, and a faithful replica of the wild 1966 Hurst Hairy Olds, which used two blown Toronado engines and front-wheel-drive drivelines, one fore, one aft, to do massive four-wheel burnout exhibitions at 1960s drag racing events. The original car was literally buried after one close call too many for driver Gentleman Joe Schubeck. A 1970 4-4-2 W-30, perhaps the high point of Olds’ muscle car design and V-8 power, is a big attraction. Olds’ early 1960s style is present in high-end rides like the hardtop Starfire.
One of my favorite sections is a collection of REO lawn mowers. When America was transitioning from the old manual reel mowers to those powered by a small gasoline engine, REO manufactured a line of mowers and, for a time, led the industry. The museum has a wonderful assortment.
Nearby is a fullsize coach, scratch-built by UAW union members and patterned after the carriage on the Fisher body logo that’s stamped on millions of GM door sills.
Around the corner is a very old Sun Motor Tester, an early diagnostic machine for serious shops.
Throughout the museum are memorabilia, and unique promotional items that would have probably been lost to the ages were it not for the museum: Olds plates, shop tools, advertising, even a whole wall from the home office, elaborately constructed from colored glass in the shape of the Olds Rocket logo.
In 1998, Olds was forced to abandon its spiritual hometown for Detroit’s downtown Renaissance Center. Today, major parts of the Lansing complex still stand, but much has been demolished. The memories will fade, like they always do, with the generations.
My feeling is that as the corporation contracted, Oldsmobile lost its ability to be unique. Shared drivelines and platforms just didn’t leave Olds the creative freedom it needed. It’s like forcing Eddie Van Halen to become a company man and play more like Willie Nelson.
Behind protective glass is an Olds made in 1897, the oldest Olds on the planet. Decade after decade, Olds proved that solid engineering, new ideas, appealing design, and value for a dollar never go out of style. Corporate restriction eventually choked out Olds’ ability to actually operate under those virtues, but the golden era of Oldsmobile lives on in the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing.
Originally published in Oct. 2013
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Source: Hot Rod
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