Olds, Ransom Eli
Written by James R. Walkinshaw
The time will come when the horse will be relegated to comparative discard. Men will travel from town to town in a vehicle driven by power machinery at a speed of at least thirty miles per hour. Soon every house will add an automobile room to shield their horseless carriage. Barns with their odors from horses will disappear from the city.
- R.E. Olds Horseless Carriage 1896
Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, June 3, 1864. His father was the owner and operator of a small machine shop. The family moved to Cleveland in 1870 and later to a small farm in 1873. It was on the farm that Ranny would realize his dislike for horses, their unpredictability, the smell and their weaknesses. At this age he also had great interest in the mechanical devices of the times.
The family moved to Lansing, Michigan in 1880 settling on a lot on the west side of River Street. His father built a small machine shop and began repairing machinery much like he had done in Ohio. Lansing was a town of about eight thousand at that time. The new State Capitol Building had just been dedicated the year prior to their arrival. The new shop was called P.F. Olds and Son with the son being Wallace, R.E’s older brother.
R.E. apprenticed in the shop and learned about machinery and the business. He was responsible for firing the boiler which required him to arise at 5:00 am each morning. R.E. never completed high school, leaving in the 10th grade. He continued to hate horses. His dream was to create some kind of transportation that would eliminate the horse with all of its attendant problems.
R.E. became a full time employee in 1883. The Olds shop created a small steam engine that became the mainstay of the business in 1885. R.E. also bought out Wallace that year to become the "Son" in P.F. Olds and Son. In 1887, R.E. developed a three wheeled steam vehicle that was barely functional, but it did work. It also scared all the horses in the area around the Olds shop on its only run on River Street. By 1889, the factory had expanded twice across River St. The business was incorporated in 1890 with R.E. and Pliny each owning about half of the stock.
R.E. married Metta Woodward in Lansing on June 5, 1889. They had two children, both girls, Gladys born in 1892 and Bernice in 1894. Two other children, a boy and a girl died as infants shortly after birth.
R.E. Olds built his second vehicle in 1892. This steam vehicle was publicized in the Scientific American Magazine and was sold to a Bombay, India company. It became the first car exported from Michigan and the U.S.
Steam engines eventually gave way to gasoline engines in mid-1890’s. R. E. had seen this type of engine at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and decided to start manufacturing the so called "hit and miss" engines. The machine shop was expanded again on the east side of River Street.
R.E.’s next car married the Olds small gasoline internal combustion engine with a Lansing Clark carriage in 1896. This vehicle was quite successful and functioned well. It was so successful that Olds was able to form the Olds Motor Vehicle Company August 21, 1897. The Motor Vehicle Company had several Lansingites for directors but also had a Detroit connection in Samuel L. Smith. Four vehicles were made in 1897 using the basic 1896 design. At the same time, the Olds and Son organization was renamed the Olds Gasoline Engine Works to reflect the passing of the steam era.
In 1899, the vehicle and gas engine works were combined into the Olds Motor Works. R.E. lost control of the business to a group headed by the Smiths at that time. A huge new factory was built on five acres near the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit. R.E. struggled with what to make. Both gas and electric cars were produced. Nine vehicles were made in the new plant when in the fall of 1900 the first prototypes of the Curved Dash Oldsmobile appeared. R.E. had pretty well decided that the internal combustion engine would be the motive power. On the eve of production, the Detroit plant burned to the ground on March 9, 1901. R.E. and his family had just returned from a vacation to see the headlines in a local paper. So R.E. converted the undamaged foundry building to a temporary assembly facility. He purchased engines, transmissions and parts from the Dodge Bros., Leland and Briscoe thus helping to start the supplier industry we know today and went on to make 425 cars that year.
However, the fire had not gone unnoticed back in Lansing. The Lansing Businessmen’s Association recognized the need to bring the factory back to Lansing. They offered the old 52 acre Central Michigan Fair Grounds to Olds and Olds accepted, built a new factory and returned to Lansing. The Detroit plant was also rebuilt. By the end of 1901, R.E. was now ready to produce the Curved Dash Oldsmobile.
The Curved Dash was destined to become the most popular car in the country. It was produced in volumes unheard of at that time, 20 cars per day, while others were trying to make 20 cars in a month or even a year. All of this before Henry Ford had made but a few vehicles. The assembly process, called progressive assembly, used castered stands that could be moved from place to place to improve the speed of manufacture. Ransom also recognized that the horse was his competition not other car makers and many of his ads reflect this. He also utilized women in advertising when car driving was considered to be a "mans" sport. In 1903, Olds would take a specially equipped race car called the Pirate to a yet unknown location in Florida to race with friend Alexander Winton’s Bullet. The place was Ormond-Daytona Beach and that is another story.
However, R.E. and the Smiths disagreed on the type of product to make. Olds wanted to make low priced, economical, easy to operate cars for the masses. The Smiths wanted to build big, expensive vehicles for the rich. R.E. would leave the Olds Motor Works in January, 1904 and form another car company called REO, using his initials. A large factory was built just blocks from the Lansing Oldsmobile Plant. REO would go on to out produce Oldsmobile for many years but would never reach Fords Model T volumes.
As Oldsmobile struggled, the Detroit plant was sold in 1905 with all operations being consolidated in Lansing.. Oldsmobile would almost go broke under the Smith tutelage and was bailed out by W.C. Durant and General Motors in 1908. Fred Smith (son of Samuel Smith), who had become General Manager of the Olds Motor Works after R.E. left, would be a member of GM’s Board of Directors for a short time and virtually disappear from the auto scene shortly thereafter.
R.E. had sold his Oldsmobile stock and became quite wealthy. The first REO car was seen in October 1904 with R.E. driving around Lansing. This time Olds held the majority of stock. No one was going to take control of the business from him. However, after an excellent start, REO was beset with a variety of problems, both financial and managerial. Volumes trended down after 1910.
Trucks were offered starting in 1912, the 1915 REO Speedwagon was one of the successes. R.E. would leave the REO Presidency in 1923. He did remain on the Board of Directors. He seemed to have lost interest in the needs of the "modern" auto industry which had changed drastically since the early days. He had become more interested in real estate and other business endeavors.
R.E. would return in the 30’s to try to save the company, but would finally leave the REO Board in 1936. Car production also ceased that year. From then on until the end of production in 1975, only trucks would be made. The market, financial problems, small size and mergers would deal REO their final blow.
R.E. formed a great variety of Lansing companies to supply his needs in the auto industry, Michigan Screw Co. and Atlas Drop Forge to name two. He also created several local landmarks, the Olds Tower in 1929-30, Olds Hotel in 1920, the Women’s Club, Olds Hall at MSU in 1916 and others. He held 34 patents, had several boats, created a city, Oldsmar, in Florida, and had homes in Detroit, Charlevoix, Lansing, and Delta Township in Michigan.
Ransom E. Olds would die on August 26, 1950. He is buried in Lansing’s Mount Hope Cemetery high on a hill overlooking the Grand River valley at the corner of Mount Hope Ave and Aurelius Rd.
Ransom E. Olds was truly the father of the auto industry we know today. He was one of the few who tried all means of propulsion, steam, electric and gasoline. He was the highest volume producer during the very early days, adopted mass production techniques using the progressive assembly method, did much to create the supplier industry we know today, helped to establish Detroit as the auto capital of the world and trained a great variety of other individuals in the manufacture of automobiles.
Perhaps most of all, he was the first auto maker to bring together the manufacturing skills, a saleable product and the marketing approach necessary to be successful. And he was! His prophesy had come true.