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Olds' Legacy 115 Years Later: Value and Innovation Help Auto Industry Thrive

Posted by: Amy Edel-Vaughn on August 21, 2012

Oldsmobile's 1949 V-8 Rocket Engine 

Today is the 115th anniversary of Ransom Eli Olds’ founding of Olds Motors Works, which later became Oldsmobile. Bought in 1908 by GM and dissolved in 2004, it was the oldest continuously operating automaker in the US. The global auto industry landscape has certainly changed since 1897, but the spirit of innovation of pioneering brands lives on today.

Today eight out of the fifty Best Global Green Brands 2012 in Interbrand’s report were automobile companies from Japan, Germany, the USA and South Korea. All of these brands were in the top 25. The same creative passion that led Olds to complete his first gasoline-powered vehicle in 1896 and begin mass-producing his curved-dash automobile in 1902 using a progressive assembly-line system, is unlocking new approaches to design with sustainability in mind.

Once considered the experimental division of GM, Oldsmobile introduced the “safety automatic transmission” in 1938 and introduced its revolutionary V-8 Rocket Engine, often credited with being the first muscle car, in 1949. Today brands are garnering reputations as great experimenters and problem solvers, designing cars with smaller carbon footprints.

Toyota topped the BGGB 2012 list, recognized for its “unparalleled sustainability leadership” and demonstrating that “sustainability is deeply ingrained in the company’s culture.” Hybrid and Toyota’s Prius have become synonymous for many consumers, helping shape a perception of the brand as cutting-edge.

Honda, VW, BMW, Ford, Mercedes, Hyundai and Nissan also made the top 25 with innovations in waste, emissions, and toxicity reduction in production, process and products. Nissan’s Global Head of Digital Marketing DeLu Jackson spoke with Interbrand about its commitment to eco-friendly innovation.

Olds had a vision of focusing on small cars, but his board of directors and financial backer wanted to build large luxury cars. Olds left to found Reo Motor Car Company.

The term “luxury car” has become ubiquitous today, as has the term “luxury” itself, as discussed in Interbrand Milan’s Managing Director Manfredi Ricca and European Director Rebecca Robins’ book, Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence

Ricca and Robins note, “As we have seen, the term ‘luxury,’ has been overexposed, overstretched, deformed and diluted, and as a result is now worn out beyond recovery.” In defining meta-luxury and clarifying its distinction from luxury, the authors note the importance of key elements. Focus is one of these pillars of meta-luxury.

Rebecca Robins and Manfredi Ricca 

“After all, most of the brands known today as luxury brands originate historically from the founder’s vision and dream to represent the pinnacle with regard to a certain field,” they contend. “…The difference is, in fact, between those brands for whom this commitment to excellence is merely the past, and those for which it is the constant future.”

They note that brands such as Rolls Royce had their origins in dedicated focus, “stemming from the passionate engineering and design talent of Sit Henry Royce,” which continues today. The brand “retains that focus and has refrained from widening its offering to include other products inspired by an undoubtedly profound and universally recognized heritage.”

Despite global economic uncertainty, meta-luxury brands weathered the crisis, from explorer yachts to French fashion houses.  Luxury car brands like Porsche are experiencing booms despite the financial woes in Europe and some brands have discovered new opportunities during the crisis.

On the flip side, the small, economic cars of Olds’ vision have been hot sellers for a number of global car brands and June was a very good month for American car sales

Chrysler, as brandchannel reported, has announced a new Customer Service Initiative as it looks to overhaul how it works with its dealers to encourage sales. With solid sales figures and a healthier dealer base, Chrysler says it’s confident in its new program.

Noted in the brandchannel piece, Fiat’s purchase of a 35% stake in Chrysler was one of the contributing factors to its current health. Fiat itself is seeing significant success in its sales in the US, surpassing predictions.

 Fiat 500

As Jez Frampton noted in his foreword to Meta-luxury, “The recent economic trials and tribulations force us to look hard at our values, and what we value. In times like these, we anchor ourselves to unquestionable truths and authenticity, and we look for objects, experiences and stories that remind us of what we value as individuals. Some brands manage to reflect these truths.”

While Oldsmobile is gone, Olds’ vision for innovation and value left a lasting impact on the auto industry. Those brands consistently creating solid value whether meta-luxury or economy, those innovating in sustainability and those willing to try new ways to service their customers are thriving.

Amy Edel-Vaughn is Interbrand's Community Manager.




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