Oldsmobile earned the reputation of being GM's "experimental" division in the 1930s with models like this 1934 F-34 Six sport coupe.

There was a time when Oldsmobile, not Chevy or Ford, was America's leading car producer. That time was 1903-05, when Lansing rolled to success with Ransom Eli Olds' little curved-dash runabout, which was then selling in the thousands each year. Ransom had cobbled up his first car in 1891, strictly as an experiment.

Regular production got under way in 1897, the same year the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was formed. (The concern was reorganized as Olds Motor Works two years later.) Ultimately, Oldsmobile became the only American auto­maker founded in the 19th century to survive into the 21st.

A decline set in soon after Ransom left to form Reo in 1904. General Motors bought Olds Motor Works four years later, but that didn't help sales right away. Not until its side-valve V-8 of 1916 did Oldsmobile again do healthy business.

The make's best pre-Depression years were 1919, 1921, and 1929, when it finished ninth on the industry chart. Its worst model year during the Depression was 1932: only 18,846 cars.

But the division recovered rapidly, notching more than 191,000 sales for 1936. A recession cut 1938 output to 85,000, but Olds rallied quickly, then reached a new high with 1941 domestic volume of nearly 266,000. It would do far better in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.

Innovation was an Olds hallmark in the 1930s, the make (among others) pioneering Dubonnet-type "Knee-Action" independent front suspension for '34, a semiautomatic transmission for 1937-39, and completely automatic Hydra-Matic Drive for 1940. Features like these earned Olds its longtime reputation as GM's "experimental" division, a role it would play through the late '60s.

Much of Oldsmobile's technical daring in the '30s was spurred by Charles L. McCuen, who had been chief engineer before becoming division general manager in 1933. To take his place as chief engineer, he recruited another innovator, Harold T. Youngren.

Working under him were experimental engineering manager Jack Wolfram and dynamometer wizard Harold Metzel. The last two became division chiefs in later years. Youngren left in 1946 to help develop Ford's engineering department.

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