As you might be able to tell from my pen name, I have a major soft spot for streamliners of the ‘30s and ‘40s. There’s no denying that, like everything else in life in general and in car design in particular, those can be hit and miss, aesthetically speaking. It was a time of flux, in more ways than one. As far as American cars are concerned, I contend that the 1942-49 GM designs are just about perfect for large front-engined cars of the period. And this Oldsmobile is probably the finest example of that.
That’s not to say that other American cars of the period leave me cold, far from it. I worship the daring 1947-49 Studebakers, admire the sleek early Kaisers and Frazers, adore the pre-bathtub Nashes and have not met a Hudson I didn’t like. Chrysler and Ford products, though they weren’t necessarily at their best (again, only talking styling here) circa 1946, can also hit the spot of course. But the ‘40s was GM’s best decade, in my view.
The only design I might put higher (or at least level-pegging) on my list would be the Packard Clipper. And it’s no surprise, as the two designs share a number of similarities. Where the Clipper is even better than all GM marques (except some Buicks) is in the blending of the fender line into the front doors. But GM designers got the horizontal grille memo well before Packard did, and that was a definite advantage in helping the front end look less tall than it actually was – another crucial step in automobile design.
It didn’t happen overnight, but the change from the separate fender / headlamp / tall grille / running boards language of the ‘30s to the smoother proto-bathtub (for want of a better term) look of the ‘40s that would eventually result in the full pontoon styling of the ‘50s was remarkably swift. The 1939 Olds (top left) was still completely of its decade. The ’40 (top right) and ’41 (bottom right) cars gradually integrate the headlights and widened the grille, but kept the fenders in check while the doors started creeping over the running boards. By 1942 (bottom left), said running boards were now being absorbed by the front fenders, which were inching towards joining up with the rear ones, as they already did on some Buicks.
And that was the state of play when Lansing resumed car production in October 1945. The most striking difference between the new 1946 cars and the short-lived ‘42s was the grille. Which, looking at the absolute mess that was the Oldsmobile one for that truncated model year, was quite a blessing.
Cadillac’s egg-crate and Buick’s toothy grin were also very recognizable, but the Oldsmobile’s four-handlebar chrome moustache, which was pretty much unchanged from 1946 to 1948, was a quadruple stroke of genius. In a world when, let’s be frank, GM cars already looked a lot like each other (how could they not, being made by the same corporation?), being able to identify individual brands from far away was a great feat of creativity. GM lost that eventually in the ‘70s, but for a while there, Harley Earl et al. did a terrific job.
Another irresistible feature of Detroit’s fine products of this period is the interior. Plenty of things to look at and oodles of details, but the overall impression is one of simplicity and tasteful restraint. How different it was but a decade later, when dashes became cluttered with odd shapes, slathered in unnecessary brightwork and the cabin was dressed in loud colours. Fifties cars are wonderful period pieces, don’t get me wrong. But I would think this is infinitely more suitable on a daily basis.
Of course, this 1946 car’s technical underpinnings are pure prewar, so things like cornering or ease of use (no power steering) would make it a bit of a challenge. At least, it has an automatic transmission – another big plus for the Olds. Not sure if that “8” is supposed to be there, but it would seem to indicate we’re dealing with a 78 series club sedan, i.e. the mid-range B-Body model in two-door fastback form with the 110hp 257ci (4.2 litre) side-valve straight-8, a motor that was used in Oldsmobiles between 1937 and 1948.
The 1946 Olds range included the smaller A-Body (100hp 238ci) 6-cyl.-powered Special 66 series, the mid-level 6- or 8-cyl. Dynamic 76/78 series and the larger and fully-optioned C-Body 8-cyl. Custom 98. These cars were very well built. Given a modicum of care and copious amounts of leaded gasoline, Oldsmobiles of this generation could run pretty much forever, from what I’ve read here and there.
There just aren’t that many about: with about six months of the ’46 model year lost to a protracted UAW strike, less than 120,000 Oldsmobiles were built. Whoever managed to find this one and ship it over the Atlantic to France had an inspired idea, as it allowed my eyes to feast upon this Rubenesque fastback to my heart’s content. And snap a few photos along the way, as there may be some of you who enjoy the older Oldses too. Yes, the V8-powered ‘49s were arguably far superior cars and very good-looking too, but to me, the immediate postwar ones are nothing short of glorious.