Oldsmobile Limited Prototype

Oldsmobile began testing of a true giant in 1908. Soon to be known as the Limited, it was a massive automobile, with 42-inch wheels and a chassis so tall that not one but two running boards were required to mount the beast. Standing beside it, one is unprepared for the realization that the wheels are chest high and that the radiator cap stands taller than many grown men. The engine was a massive T-head engine with a displacement of 453 C.I.D.

Prices ranged from $4,600 to a whopping $5,800. Horsepower was rated at 60, although contemporary reports suggest an actual output closer to 90. Prices, too, were increased across the board, and a new Limited could cost more than $7,000, plus accessories.

Although Ransom E. Olds was the father of Oldsmobile and creator of the famed curved-dash model, the early success of the marque was more a credit to Samuel Latta Smith. Smith, a baron of copper mining, railroads and canals in upper Michigan, was an initial investor in the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. In 1899, Smith advanced another $200,000 toward the formation of Olds Motor Works and the construction of a new factory at Detroit.

As majority stockholder, Smith was named president, and his sons, Frederic and Angus, similarly acquired shares. Frederic became secretary-treasurer and soon aggressively plunged into management, including the construction of a large new plant in Lansing following a disastrous 1901 fire at the Detroit factory and establishment of an experimental engineering shop.

Ransom Olds came increasingly into conflict with Fred Smith; he viewed the engineering shop as an encroachment on his turf, and it proved to be the last straw. Olds departed from his namesake company in 1904 to form Reo. Although the curved-dash model continued to sell well, leading the market until eclipsed by Ford in 1906, the Smiths favored larger, more expensive cars. The two-cylinder Heavy Touring of 1905 sold for nearly twice the curved-dash car’s $750. A four-cylinder Model S in 1906 pushed Olds prices over $2,000, and a six-cylinder Model Z for 1908 more than doubled the levy.

The Smith era, however, had not been good for business. Once riding high above 6,000, Olds sales had dropped precipitously in 1906. Two years later they hovered around 1,000, dropping the company from the list of top-ten manufacturers. One suspects that Ransom Olds, enjoying Reo sales of four times that volume, probably had the last laugh. So when William C. Durant came calling in September 1908, the Smiths were eager to talk. A stock swap transferred control to Durant’s new General Motors Company on November 12th, and the Smiths resigned the following year.

Departure of the Smiths, however, did not markedly change the direction of Olds Motor Works. In fact, the most prestigious Oldsmobile was yet to appear: the Limited.

In order to place this magnificent car in proper perspective, it is important to realize that it was under development for more than two full years, with initial experimentation with large six-cylinder engines and imposing chassis beginning in 1908. In fact, documentation from Oldsmobile tells us that a handful of such prototypes were built in 1908; some suggest as few as two. Regardless, there is no disagreement that this is the oldest survivor of the big six-cylinder Oldsmobiles.

As is well known today, after the prototypes were approved, the finished Limited was launched in 1910, and the 1910 catalog broke the news that “such a car cannot be produced rapidly, therefore only a limited quantity can be built.” Based on the Model Z, the Limited rode the same 130-inch wheelbase but with a more impressive stature due to immense 42-inch wheels. Its engine, initially the Z’s 453-cubic inch, 60-hp six, and later the 505-cubic inch motor, was a bored-out version of the original.

The following year, 1911, the engine grew to 707 cubic inches while curiously retaining its original 60-bhp rating. The wheelbase was stretched to 138 inches. A roadster and touring car were offered, as well as a top-of-the-line limousine, at prices from $5,000 to $7,000, territory previously the province of the prestigious “Three Ps” – Packard, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow. Artist William Harnden Foster immortalized the Limited in his painting “Setting the Pace,” in which the Olds leads the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited steam locomotive, speeding on a trackside country road.

For 1912, the last year for the mighty Limited, changes were minor but included a small increase in wheelbase to 140 inches. Prices, however, had not been limited, now ranging from $5,000 for open models to $6,600 for the limousine. A new four-passenger “Tourabout” joined the open cars. The Limited returned for just one final season in 1912, probably because Olds management had realized that success lay in less expensive cars. A new, smaller four-cylinder car, the Defender, had replaced the previous Special entry-level model, while the Autocrat, a flagship four-cylinder car introduced in 1911, continued to lead Oldsmobile production. In 1912, sales of the Limited fell to 117, despite a lower price on the limousine.

When originally debuted, the factory catalog boasted, “In the Limited we offer a car which leaves nothing to be desired in design, construction, finish, power or equipment. It stands in the front rank of high grade cars; the greatest of a line universally recognized and ranked among leaders.” There was plenty of truth to their advertising, as the Limited truly did and still does define the magnificence of what Oldsmobile set out to accomplish.

Limited Production

Oldsmobile factory records indicate the production of 325 cars in 1910, 196 cars in 1911 and only 117 in 1912. Only 13 examples survive today: two 1910s, ten 1911s, one 1912 and the example offered here, the sole surviving 1908 Limited prototype. Several of these are in permanent homes, including the GM museum, Harrah’s and the Nethercutt Collection, while another four are project cars, leaving just six restored examples in existence today.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in March of 2011 at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Florida.

60 bhp, 453 cu. in. T-Head six-cylinder inline engine with three-speed manual gearbox, front suspension via live axle and longitudinal leaf springs, and rear suspension via live rear axle and longitudinal leaf springs, and internal expanding rear-wheel hand brake and external contracting on rear wheels. Wheelbase: 130"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Hugh Hamilton

Gallery: Oldsmobile Limited Prototype