In their initial meeting Murphy’s enthusiasm and business acumen led Brush to allow him a peek at his designs for a small two-cylinder automobile that Cadillac had rejected. Murphy saw the answer to his dreams, immediately purchased the plans and in 1907 organized the Oakland Motor Car Company.
Lackluster sales after introduction in 1908 led to a dramatic change and for 1909, the Oakland exclusively featured four cylinder engines. However, in a whirlwind of change the success or failure of the new design was swept aside.
In April of 1909 through a complicated series of stock swaps, options transfers and cash Oakland was drawn into the fold known as General Motors that had recently been established by another buggy man; William Durant. Five months later, at the age of forty-four, Edward Murphy died suddenly.
As a division of General Motors, the Oakland soared and even became an industry leader in innovation and technological innovation. This as well as an ever-increasing record for durable performance sent sales ever higher.
By 1910, the Oakland had taken first place honors at twenty-five of the most grueling reliability and hill climbing events. In addition, also claimed by Oakland were speed records.
“The Car with a Conscience,” as it was promoted in 1913, featured a brutish 334 c.i.d. 6 cylinder engine on a 130-inch wheelbase. Standard equipment included electric lights and starter. For eye appeal at the prow was a dramatically “vee” radiator.
Even though the cars were not cheap, they sold well. The base model “45” with four-cylinder engine started at $1,400 and the six at $2,600.
By 1915, Oakland was one of the crown jewels for the General Motors empire. In addition to an improved six and four cylinder model an all new V-8 powered Model 50 was introduced.
The shortage of materials during the war, quality control issues (some vehicles had to repaired simply to get them off the factory property), and corporate intrigue with Durant’s return to the helm were to be seeds for the demise of Oakland. Another issue of grave concern was in regards to haphazard production that resulted in ten vehicles being completed one day and only ten the day after.
In the opening years of the 1920’s General Motors was in dire straights. Durant again been removed from control of the company but not before plunging it into a near critical state of financial duress.
Alfred Sloan Jr. took command and began immediate cost cutting evaluation. Among the proposals on the table was elimination or consolidation of several divisions; among those to be cut were Oakland and Chevrolet.
At the last minute, both companies were given a reprieve. For Oakland this translated to an entirely revamped vehicle that included an entirely redesigned engine, four wheel brakes, automatic spark advance and the all new Duco paint system in royal blue. The new Oakland was billed as, “True Blue Oakland.”
As GM began to recover an all out assault on every level and every manufacturer was launched. Oakland was initially set between Chevrolet and Buick but by 1930 with the launching of LaSalle as a low priced companion to Cadillac, Marquette as a companion to Buick, Viking as a companion to Olds and Pontiac for Oakland it was becoming lost in crowd.
In addition, there was the simple matter of the Pontiac being a near perfect blend of performance, styling, and price, which translated into sales. In fact, in the introductory year of 1926 Pontiac sales established a new record for maiden year vehicles.
Oakland lumbered on and for 1927; a revamped series introduced with appropriate patriotic flare was the All American Six. Nevertheless, no amount of advertisement whether promoting patriotism or Oakland’s proud lineage changed the fact it was really a Pontiac in bright trim. This, however, did not justify a price difference of more than one hundred percent.
The Oakland All American was short lived as it became painfully apparent that the entire division was a drain and duplication of precious resources. Nevertheless, there was to be a swan song for the Oakland that would allow the company to pass from the stage in grand style.
The 1931 Oakland Eight was more than just an automobile with subtly stately styling. Mechanically there was a synchromesh transmission, found only in luxury cars until this time, a technologically advanced V8 engine, steering, and some of the best brakes in the GM stable.
With the hard times of the Great Depression, ravaging the industry GM returned to the frugal, hard, cost cutting decisions as they had in the early 1920’s. For Oakland, the stay of execution given during that earlier time was rescinded and the company quietly fell by the wayside with its resources, including the V8 engine, being rolled into the Pontiac Motor Company.
As General Motors once again faces stormy waters and the future of the legendary namesake of the mighty warrior Pontiac hangs in the balance historic perspective is needed. With that thought in mind the Oakland story could serve as the ghost of Christmas past.