Ransom E. Olds is considered by many to be the founder of the American automobile industry. His belief in a small affordable automobile led him to invent, develop, and manufacture the highly popular Oldsmobile Curved Dash and later the REO automobile and trucks. He produced an affordable car that he believed would change commerce and society alike. He insisted upon high quality components and for a number of years, limited car production versus selling a car that could not hold up to his standards. Olds wanted to bring the city and farm folks into each other’s world.
He was born Ransom Eli Olds on June 3, 1864, in Geneva, Ohio, the youngest of three sons of Pliny Fisk Olds and Sarah Whipple Olds. His father was a blacksmith and later became a store owner. When Olds was in his teens the family moved to Lansing, Michigan, where his father opened a forge and store ‘P.F. Olds and Son’. His older brother Wallace was half owner of the family business until Ransom bought him out. In 1886, Ransom began experimenting with a steam-powered engine. In 1886, he received his first patent for a gasoline-powered car, and founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company to manufacture it in 1897.
Olds sold his company in 1899 and relocated from Lansing to Detroit renaming his company the Olds Motor Works. In 1901 Ransom designed the legendary Curved Dash Oldsmobile which was the first commercially successful car mass-produced on an assembly line in the U.S. It sold for $650.00. This was the first factory to employ an assembly line process in a manufacturing environment.
Although the factory was destroyed by fire in 1901, they still sold over 600 models of the Curved Dash. In 1904 sales were up to 5000 units. Because of issues within management, Olds left the company he founded which was then later sold to be part of the formation of GM, by William Durant in 1908 and eventually became the Oldsmobile Motor Division of GM. The Oldsmobile brand, after a successful production run of 107 years, was discontinued by GM in 2004.
After leaving Olds Motor works, Olds went on to form the REO Motor Company back in Lansing, MI. The name REO came from his initials (R.E.O.) used as an acronym. By 1907 he had built REO into one of the automotive industry’s leaders with a 25% market share. In 1938 it was reorganized as REO Motors, Inc. a bus and truck company. In 1954, REO merged with Diamond T. and became Diamond Reo Trucks, Inc. known for high-quality trucks. It went out of business in 1975. Olds remains as the only person in auto industry history to have 2 car companies named after him.
After 1915 Olds turned most of his attention from the automobile business to other activities, including the marketing of the world’s first gasoline-powered lawn mower, which he had invented, and land development in Florida. Olds purchased 37,541 acres of land by the northern part of Tampa Bay in Florida and developed the area into what is now the city of Oldsmar, Florida, just West of Tampa, a thriving and growing community.
He was known in his day as “The Great Teacher” for his willingness to share his thoughts and technology with others in the early days of the industry. In the early decades of his automotive career, he worked with or influenced practically every future leader of the North American automobile industry. His early development included prototypes of steam and electric cars, especially for women in the city. He later developed the first true pick-up truck (the REO Speedwagon). While Olds did not remain fully involved in the automotive industry throughout his career, his inventions and influence directly impacted the direction of the industry and made an enormous impact. He died on August 26, 1950, in Lansing, Michigan, at the age of 86.