1941 Oldsmobile Series 98 sedan
Meet the 1941 Oldsmobile Series 98 Custom Cruiser, the most forward-thinking product of GM’s most technologically advanced brand. Words Massimo Delbo. Photography Max Serra.
Out with the Olds
OLDSMOBILE 98 GM’s forward-looking 1941 Custom Cruiser
A 1941 Oldsmobile Series 98 Custom Cruiser Sedan, a piece of almost-wartime (in the US) Americana but now cruising the roads of Italy. Nor is it alone; its owner has another one as well. How has this happened? It’s a long story, in which some touching details of American domesticity have been uncovered. But first, we should learn what Oldsmobile was, where it came from, and what it meant to an American public always hungry for the latest in automotive temptations.
We’ll begin during the years immediately after the advent of the car, when hundreds of automotive enterprises came and went. Very few became proper car manufacturers, embarking on real production and not just showing a couple of handmade cars, and even fewer are remembered today. Oldsmobile is one of them. A look at the entries for the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, open to cars built up to 1 January 1905, shows that Oldsmobiles cars were among the most technically advanced of all.
Established by Ransom Eli Olds in Lansing, Michigan, in 1897, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was shortlived. Two years later it relocated to Detroit and was renamed the Olds Motor Works, with the 35-year-old Olds acting as vice-president and general manager. Olds himself (1864-1950) was a pioneer who built his first steam car in 1887, and followed that with his first internal combustion-engined car in 1896.
‘Oldsmobile’s cars were among the most technically advanced of all’
In 1901 the flourishing Olds Motor Works launched the Oldsmobile Model R ‘Curved Dash’. It was the first car to be series- produced on an organised, albeit stationary, assembly line, using standardised parts interchangeable between different cars. It was a big success: in 1903 Olds built 3924 Curved Dash models, making it the largest automobile producer in the USA. But Olds, the man, was ousted from his company in 1904, only to bounce back with his REO Motor Company, named after his initials.
REO launched the Speedwagon, considered to be the world’s first light pick-up truck, in 1915. By then the Olds Motor Works had fallen into the hands of General Motors, which took over the company the year after Curved Dash production ended in 1907.
Under GM, platform sharing began — showing that the concept is rather older than is popularly assumed. Most of the sharing was with Buick so, to identify the Oldsmobile product, GM used the prefix ‘Series’ followed by a number. From 1941, when the car you see here was built, it was a two-digit number, That format lasted until 2004 and the closure of the Oldsmobile division after a production tally of more than 35 million cars.
Series 98 of the 1940s is key to Oldsmobile history. In 1939, for the 1940 model year, it received the motor industry’s first automatic transmission, dubbed Hydra-matic. By then the position of the brand within the GM galaxy was well-defined, Oldsmobile having settled below Cadillac and Buick but above Pontiac and Chevrolet, with the role of being the most ground-breaking in terms of design and technology; a sort of experimental division in which innovations such as overhead-valve V8 engines, front-wheel drive and automatic transmission could be tested for market acceptance, reliability and performance, before being used on GM’s other brands. Even so, Oldsmobile’s image among the buying public was of sensible cars, focused on comfort and reliability.
Although Europe was at war, in 1941 the US economy was strong, with domestic car sales to match. Oldsmobile offered three series, distinguished by their wheelbase, with a choice of six- or eight-cylinder engines. Top of the line was the Series 98 Custom Cruiser, on a 125in wheelbase and available solely with sidevalve straight- eight power and 238ci (100bhp) or 257ci (110bhp) displacement. Mated to these reliable engines was a three- speed manual transmission or, at an extra cost of $100, the four-speed Hydra-matic auto.
The Custom Cruiser’s torpedo-style body, with its characteristic front end, was shaped by style guru Harley Earl, the most important American car designer of his era (some would say of all time!), then head of design at GM. For 1941, it was available as a two-door coupe or convertible, a four-door sedan and the ultra-rare four- door Phaeton Convertible.
‘We have two examples of the Series 98,’ says Nicola Bulgari, the Italian collector and current custodian of the 1941 Series 98 Custom Cruiser 4-door Sedan in these pages, the other being a 1942 model-year car. Chassis number 98-16798 is one of the 22,081 manufactured for 1941, and was sold new to a gentleman named Harry Mueller from Ravenna, in Ohio. It was painted in two-tone Teal Blue over Oslo Blue with Beige cloth interior and was equipped with Hydra-matic automatic transmission and the De Luxe package for a total price of $1135. It remained with Mueller until his death in the early 1960s, and was passed on to Bill Shorts, one of his neighbours.
Shorts was passionate about old Oldsmobiles and already had in his garage a 1920 four-door tourer, which he’d show at local classic car gatherings. ‘I remember the car very well,’ wrote his son Bill Shorts Jr to the car’s then-owner in 2012. ‘My father owned Ravenna’s funeral home, and the 1941 Series 98 was given to him as payment for the funeral of its first owner. I drove the car during my high school years, as did both my sisters. My youngest sister owned the Oldsmobile last, and then, in the early 1990s, sold it to someone in Ohio. We had many pictures of the car and the plaques it won while we owned and showed it, but it had fallen into disrepair, and we are thrilled that it is being restored to its past glory.’
In a further email he went on to say: ‘I recognise almost everything in the photos you sent me. The shop manuals, jack, tools, plugs and plug-box were all in the car when we got it from the original owner’s family. He labelled everything, The Streetsboro stadium cushions were sold by our local high school, and we bought them to sit on the metal bleachers at the football games, The Libra key chain, which you found in the car, I think belonged to my younger sister, The car was rear-ended after we acquired it, and dad had the trunk lid and rear bumper repaired. He also had both the bumpers rechromed.’
Bill Shorts Sr also wrote from his house in Florida and added that, while in his ownership, the car had attended the ‘Olds 50th anniversary’ in Geneva, Ohio, in 1991, where the car placed second in its class, The youngest of his children, Susan Shorts Putt, was the last member of the family to own the 1941 Oldsmobile and also remembered it well.
‘I owned it from 2000 to 2005,’ she wrote. ‘My husband and I were not interested in showing it and are not mechanically inclined, so, with the approval of the rest of the family members, we put it up for sale. An individual from a nearby town bought it and told us that he was interested in showing it. Imagine my surprise when, about a year later, driving by Brim’s auto dealership in Kenton, I saw it. It is hard to miss, as it always sits above the other cars. It made my heart sink to see it sitting out in the weather, rusting away with no-one really caring, This is why I’m so thrilled to hear from you and that you are lovingly working on the car. I thought I had cleaned out all of the personal belongings when I sold it. I guess I missed a few, and I’m now glad I did, since they provided you the means to find and contact my family.’
The family referred to the car as ‘Jez’. Susan Shorts Putt’s sister Judy used to work on it with her father, and often drove. ‘I’m pleased that I found a picture of my father and Judy standing beside the car, shortly after it was repainted. Although I’m not sure of the exact date, it must have been taken in the late 1960s, when my sister was a teenager.’
The recipient of these messages was Jesper Tichelaar, from the Netherlands, who bought the Oldsmobile in 2008 with his father from used car dealer Brim’s Imports in Kenton, Ohio, for a declared sum of $2575. He then set about restoring it, and was able to track down the Shorts thanks to an old piece of newspaper, the one reporting the success with the 1920 four-door tourer, found folded in the service book. Internet magic did the rest. Tichelaar posted videos on YouTube of the car as he’d seen it in the USA and during the restoration, which he carried out to a very high standard, Then, in 2015, the car was offered for sale at the Techno-Classica Essen show, in Germany.
‘We were looking around Europe,’ says Nicola Bulgari, ‘to see if we could find something interesting. As soon as we’d inspected the car, we noticed the level of the restoration and I fell in love, The 1941 Oldsmobile Series 98 has a place in my heart as they were the first cars manufactured in series with an automatic transmission, The patented Hydra-matic was so advanced for the period that several other manufacturers, including Rolls-Royce, asked for the rights to use it. I find the car very elegant, so full of perfect details and chrome, stylish without falling into vulgarity, The 1941 Series 98, back then the top of the line of the brand, is a very rare car indeed today. I would love to add a four-door Phaeton Convertible to my collection. Only 119 were manufactured in 1941.’
In Italy, Series 98s are almost non-existent — and always have been, possibly thanks to the fact that Italy was at war with the USA at that time. However, one automatic 98 entered the history books, gifted by the Italian Oldsmobile distributor to one Benito Mussolini, ‘That car was soon passed on to a nun’s convent and it went missing a long time ago,’ says Bulgari. ‘I do have all the information about the car, direct from the late Romano Mussolini, one of the sons of Benito and a wonderful jazz pianist. He remembered the Oldsmobile, painted in a two-tone blue, while it was in his family.’
The last Oldsmobile of that generation rolled off the assembly line on 5 February 1942, making space to manufacture weapons and other equipment needed for the war effort. Production resumed towards the end of 1945, with a slightly revised 1942 model serving for the 1946 model year, but it was soon replaced by a completely new version. Ransom Eli Olds himself, long estranged from the company he founded, died in 1950.
Luckily, appreciation of the 98s style and significance has lasted longer, whether in Ohio or in Tuscany, where the car usually resides today. It is a big machine but, even when driving it on the twisty roads of central Italy, you don’t perceive its size or weight as a problem. I am surprised by the shift quality of the Hydra-matic transmission, which copes well even on roads that are quite different from those of its native America.
Meanwhile, that 4.2-litre engine is far more about torque than power, so it feels effortless rather than fast, while the drum brakes, although capable of stopping almost two tonnes of car, soon start to smell on the long downhill stretches of Tuscan countryside, The space and finish of the interior are impressive, as is the height of the driving position and the comfort of the seats, They put you on a level with a large, modern SUV, but that’s where the similarity ends. No such modern machine has the style of this Series 98.
Oldsmobile might be no more, but this milestone car is a superb illustration of exactly how it fitted into the GM hierarchy as its technology-rich, forward-thinking brand. Even 80 years on.
Above and left Olds would be unique in Italy — except that its current custodian has two; former owner Bill Shorts and his daughter Judith, pictured with ‘Jez’.
TECHNICAL DATA 1941 Oldsmobile Series 98 sedan
- Engine 257ci (4211 cc) sidevalve straight-eight, Carter downdraught carburettor
- Max Power 110bhp @ 3600rpm
- Max Torque 210lb ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
- Steering Worm and roller
- Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, double-action hydraulic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: swing axles, coil springs, double-action hydraulic dampers.
- Brakes Drums
- Weight 1797kg
- Top speed 75mph
- 0-62mph 19.9sec
Right, above and below Despite its size, the Custom Cruiser is easy to drive on Italian roads, and notable for the quality of its automatic shift; interior is comfortable and stylish.
‘The Custom Cruiser was shaped by Harley Earl, the most important designer of his era’
Left and above Details around the nose are redolent of the Art Deco style, just like a skyscraper from the preceeding decade — likewise much of the interior detailing. Engine is a 4.2-litre straight-eight; Hydra-matic badging signifies the world’s first commercially available car with automatic transmission.
Right The Olds is large and looks 1940s-America slick, yet was more remarkable for its forward-thinking engineering.