NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The last car from America's oldest car company -- an Oldsmobile Alero -- is due to roll off a Lansing, Mich., assembly line Thursday.
The death of the Oldsmobile -- a brand with sales that have dropped steadily in recent years -- marks the end of an era in American automaking. Olds says it was the first company to mass-produce cars -- not Ford -- and that it pioneered the use of chrome and automatic transmissions in American cars.
The last Alero to come off the line Thursday in Lansing is destined for a home in the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, named for Ransom Eli Olds, who co-founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in August 1897.
"Oldsmobile production has remained unprofitable and, therefore, GM's current planning is to end production with the 2004 models," General Motors, the world's biggest automaker, said in September 2001.
The last 500 Aleros produced will be painted metallic cherry red and carry special Final 500 markings. Special final edition versions of Oldsmobile's Bravada SUV and Silhouette minivan are also being offered by those Oldsmobile dealers that remain.
The final edition Bravada has been a particularly hot seller, said Vince Peckens, sales manager at DeMaagd GMC, Nissan-Oldsmobile in Battle Creek, Mich.
Peckens said his dealership will keep selling Oldsmobiles until there are no more left on the lot. That will probably happen by the end of the summer, he said.
There are about 1,750 Oldsmobile dealerships still in operation, said Rebecca Harris, a GM spokesperson.
While the Alero will be no more, the Lansing plant will continue operating, producing the last 2004 model year Pontiac Grand Ams, a car fundamentally similar to the Alero. A new plant nearby will produce the 2005 Pontiac G6, a replacement for the Grand Am.
Joined GM in '08
Oldsmobile was the second brand to become part of General Motors.
The automaker, by then called Olds Motor Works, joined GM in November 1908, two months after Buick, according to General Motors historical information.
Ransom E. Olds had left the company four years before that, dismayed that the company was turning toward manufacturing high-end cars in contrast to his own vision of building inexpensive cars for the masses, said Bob Casey, transportation curator for the Henry Ford Museum.
He went on to found a new car company called Reo, for his initials, said Casey. That company stopped making cars in 1936 but continued for some time as a truck manufacturer.
Under Alfred P. Sloan's vision of creating a ladder of brands that would allow buyers to step up to increasingly luxurious GM cars as their wealth increased, Oldsmobile became GM's mid-market brand, said Casey. It was positioned somewhere between the high-end brands like Cadillac and Buick and the more mass-market bands Chevrolet and Pontiac.
Once GM (GM: Research, Estimates) began relying more on sharing components, and virtually entire cars, among different brands, Oldsmobile began to suffer from a loss of identity, said Ken Gross, an automotive historian and columnist for Old Cars Weekly.
"It was the ultimate middle child," said Gross.
Olds claims to be the first company to mass produce gasoline-powered automobiles, something that is often credited to Ford Motor Co. Ford (F: Research, Estimates) takes credit for having the first moving assembly line in 1913.
According to historical information from GM, Olds' Curved Dash automobile was mass-produced in 1901. Whether or not that's true "depends on your definition of 'mass produce'," said Casey.
Oldsmobile also claims to be the first to use chrome decoration on its cars. In 1926, the shiny metal plating was used on Olds radiator shells. It also claims the first cars with a fully automatic transmission, the Hydra-Matic, which debuted in 1940 models.
The 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass W-30 4-4-2 convertible muscle car was named one of the most collectible American cars by auto auction company Kruse International in 2003.