Oldsmobiles were first manufactured by the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in Lansing, Michigan, a company founded by Ransom E. Oldsin 1897. In 1902 (the same year that Horace and John Dodge won a contract to produce transmissions for the Oldsmobile company), the company produced 635 cars, making it the first high-volume gasoline-powered automobile manufacturer. (Electric car manufacturers such as Columbia Electric and steam powered car manufacturers such as Locomobile had higher volumes a few years earlier.) Oldsmobile became the top selling car company in the United States for a few years around 1903-4. Ransom Olds left the company in 1904 because of a dispute and formed the REO Motor Car Company.
The 1902 to 1904 Oldsmobile Curved Dash was the first mass-produced car, made from the first automotive assembly line, an invention that is often miscredited to Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. (Ford was the first to manufacture cars on a moving assembly line.) After Olds merged Olds Motor Vehicle Co. with the Olds Gas Engine Works in 1899, it was renamed Olds Motor Works and moved to a new plant in Detroit, located at the corner of East Jefferson Avenue and MacArthur Bridge. By March 1901, the company had a whole line of models ready for mass production. However, a mistake by a worker caused the factory to catch fire, and it burned to the ground, with all of the prototypes destroyed. The only car that survived the fire was a Curved Dash prototype, which was wheeled out of the factory by two workers while escaping the fire. A new factory was built in Lansing, and production of the Curved Dash commenced.
Officially, the cars were called "Olds automobiles," but were colloquially referred to as "Oldsmobiles." It was this moniker, as applied especially to the Curved Dash Olds, that was popularized in the lyrics and title of the 1905 hit song "In My Merry Oldsmobile". The last Oldsmobile Curved Dash was made in 1907. General Motors purchased the company in 1908.
The 1910 Limited Touring was a high point for the company. Riding atop 42-inch wheels, and equipped with factory "white" tires, the Limited was the prestige model in Oldsmobile's two model lineup. The Limited retailed for US$4,600, an amount greater than the purchase of a new, no-frills three bedroom house. Buyers received goatskin upholstery, a 60 hp (45 kW) 707 CID (11.6 L) straight-six engine, Bosch Magneto starter, running boards and room for five. Options included a speedometer, clock, and a full glass windshield. A limousine version was priced at $5,800. While Oldsmobile only sold 725 Limiteds in its three years of production, the car is best remembered for winning a race against the famed 20th Century Limited train, an event immortalized in the painting Setting the Pace by William Hardner Foster. In 1926, the Oldsmobile Six came in five body styles, and ushered in a new GM bodystyle platform called the "GM B platform", shared with Buick products.In the 1950s the nomenclature changed again, and trim levels also received names that were then mated with the model numbers. This resulted in the Oldsmobile 88 emerging as base Dynamic 88 and the highline Super 88. Other full-size model names included the "Holiday" used on hardtops, and "Fiesta" used on its station wagons. When the 88 was retired in 1999 (with a Fiftieth Anniversary Edition), its length of service was the longest model name used on American cars after the Chrysler New Yorker. Mid-1955 also saw the introduction of the four-door Holiday pillarless hardtop, the industry's first (along with Buick).Up front, all 1958 Oldsmobiles received one of General Motors' heavily styled front fascias and quad-headlights. Streaking back from the edge of the headlights was a broad belt consisting of two strips of chrome on regular 88s, three strips on Super 88s, and three strips (top and bottom thin, inside thick) on 98s that ended in a point at mid-body. The bottom of the rear fender featured a thick stamping of a half tube that pointed forward, atop which was a chrome assembly of four horizontal chrome speed-lines that terminated into a vertical bar. The tail of the car featured massive vertical chrome taillight housings. Two chrome stars were fitted to the trunklid.In 1959, Oldsmobile models were completely redesigned with a rocket motif from front to rear, as the top of the front fenders had a chrome rocket, while the body-length fins were shaped as rocket exhausts which culminated in a fin-top taillight (concave on the 98 models while convex on the 88 models). The 1959 models also offered several roof treatments, such as the pillared sedan with a fastback rear window and the Holiday SportSedan, which was a flat-roofed pillarless hardtop with wraparound front and rear glass. The 1959 models were marketed as "the linear look".Notable achievements for Oldsmobile in the 1960s included the introduction of the first turbocharged engine in 1962 (the Turbo Jetfire), the first modern front-wheel drive car produced in the United States (the 1966 Toronado), the Vista Cruiser station wagon (noted for its roof glass), and the upscale 442 muscle car. Olds briefly used the names "Jetstar 88" (1964–1966) and Delmont 88(1967–1968) on its least expensive full size models in the 1960s.