Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t Henry Ford who first brought the concept of assembly line production to the automotive world. It was a man named Ransom E. Olds. And While he may sound like the villain in a Dudley Do-Right skit, he was a true automotive pioneer.
Ransom was the youngest of three boys that were born to Sarah Whipple and Plink Fink Olds (can we all agree that names have become significantly more boring in the past 151 years?). Being the son of a blacksmith, Ransom learned a great deal about metal and production techniques. His family eventually moved from Ransom’s birthplace of Geneva, Ohio, to Lansing, Mich., to open a forge and store called P.F. Olds and Son. The son in the name referred to Ransom’s older brother, Wallace, who was part owner of the business, but as Ransom moved through his teenage years, he developed a strong interest in the family business and bought his older brother out.
In 1886, The same year that Karl Benz was being granted a patent in Germany for the Patent Motorwagen, one of the world’s first gasoline-powered cars, Ransom was experimenting with steam engines. He continued this practice for several years, producing a number of steam-powered passenger vehicles that he tested on the streets of Lansing, often at 3 or 4 a.m. to “avoid frightening the horses.” His second steam model featured a seating over the front wheels, which was actually an arrangement of two wheels that were close enough together to act as one. In 1893, a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair inspired Ransom to change his focus from steam to gasoline-powered cars. By 1896, he had working prototypes that could reach 25 mph, and he was granted the first U.S. patent for an “automobile carriage.”
In 1897, Ransom began to focus entirely on automobiles and founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. After several false-starts and a few flirtations with bankruptcy, Olds Motor Vehicle Company merged with P.F. Olds and Son to form the Olds Motor Works. The financial backers insisted that the company move to Detroit, which was already known for its manufacturing success. As the first permanent automobile manufacturing facility in Detroit, Olds kick-started a love-affair between Detroit and the automotive world that continues to this day.
In an effort to produce early profits for the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, company leadership decided that they should focus on a simple “runabout” car. It would be lightweight, mass-produced, and relatively cheap. But before production could begin in earnest to fill the 300 orders that had been received, a fire destroyed the new factory in Detroit in March 1901. Luckily, some materials, including designs and a prototype, survived. Production was able to quickly restart thanks to outsourcing production of components, which was a practice that Olds continued to utilize as demand increased. As a result, over 400 Curved Dash Oldsmobiles, as the runabout had come to be known, were produced during its tumultuous first year, making it the best-selling American car of 1901.
The original Curved Dash Oldsmobile, named after its distinctive curved footboard that directed air in an effort to keep the occupants warm, was a two-passenger vehicle that sold for $650 (roughly comparable to the price for a modern sedan today) and had a 95.4 cubic inch, single-cylinder, 4.5 brake horsepower engine. The engine loped along at a leisurely 500 RPM and was said to have “one chug for each telegraph pole.” Over the next few years, production continued to increase thanks to the standardized production principles that Ransom, as head of operations, established. Demand was kept high thanks in part to Ransom and his larger than life personality. He tirelessly promoted the cars, and was even known to personally race Oldsmobiles in some of the earliest auto races held in Florida, where he was involved in developing real estate. By 1905, the factory was churning out more than 5,000 Curved Dash Oldsmobiles a year, an astonishing figure for the era.
Unfortunately, despite his vital role in promoting and developing the business, Ransom wasn’t around to witness much of this success firsthand. After several confrontations with the leadership of Olds Motor Works, Ransom sold his stock in 1904 and moved back to Lansing to start R. E. Olds Company. When the Detroit-based Olds Motor Works Company threatened to sue, Ransom changed the name to the REO Motor Car Company. The first car produced by this company, the Reo, went on to be a commercial success. But Ransom eventually lost interest, and took a smaller role in the business to focus on real estate development.
The REO Motor Car Company couldn’t match its early commercial success, and ended car production in 1936. The next two decades were spent producing commercial trucks, like the REO Speed Wagon (this 1935 model, above was sold by Mecum Auctions in 2014). The company evolved after World War II, doing everything from producing lawn mowers (Ransom had developed the first gasoline-powered version) to testing nuclear devices. REO was bought by White Motor Company, a commercial truck maker in 1957. The name disappeared for good in the ’70s, and today, it’s legally owned by Volvo, who purchased White in 1980.
After Ransom left his first company, it changed its name to Oldsmobile and was bought by General Motors in 1908. After decades as one of America’s most popular automakers, the company sold over one million vehicles in a single year for the last time in 1985. Sales began to drop off dramatically after that, and in 2004 GM discontinued the brand. Ransom passed away in 1950 at his home in Lansing, and even though his companies are now gone, he left an important legacy of innovation, education, and efficiency that can still be felt in Detroit today.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.