Ransom Eli Olds was born 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.
Photo of Ransom Olds in 1900
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 to the REO Motor Company back in Lansing, MI. The name REO came from his initials (R.E.O.) and was 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.
Ransom Olds sitting in his iconic Curved Dash Oldmobile on his 80th birthday (June 2, 1944). Olds is on the left; his fellow auto executive Charles W. Nash in on the right.
Bill Loomis, “Detroit’s Early Auto Giants: Daredevils and Mad Mechanics“, Detroit News, February 9, 2014.
R.E. Olds and the First Auto City. A short film highlighting Ransom Eli Old’s legacy and it’s lasting impact on the industrial city of Lansing, Michigan. Adopted for the screen from a book R.E. Olds and Industrial Lansing by Michael Rodriguez.
Another Ransom Olds Story: Carriage Houses to Garages
When R. E. Olds was growing up, the carriage house was a familiar backyard building. Families who could afford to buy a motor car turned the carriage house into a garage. R. E. Olds built a house in Lansing in 1903-04. Then he added a garage. Patricia Heyden tells about it in her book Metta and R. E. Olds: Loves Lives Labors.
As soon as the house was completed R. E. added a 1,000 square foot “automobile room,” one of the first of its kind. A turntable installed in the middle of the structure allowed him to drive onto the
turntable, rotate it, and never have to back his car down the long drive. . . .
One morning, the Olds’ young grandson and a buddy were in the garage spinning the turntable around with their feet and caused a trailer in the room to crash into a nearby Pierce-Arrow (R. E. and Pierce were friends). Pale and frightened, the two youths ran to Mr. Olds’ office to tell him what happened. Indulging them, Mr. Olds said, “If that’s the worst trouble you two lads get into you won’t have much to worry about.”
This house, built at 720 S. Washington Street, was home to Mr. and Mrs. Olds until they died in 1950. In 1966 the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture and connection to history. However, the house was in the right-of-way for the I-496 highway. Plans to move the house failed, and it was demolished for the new road
Excerpt from Car Capital : Michigan Time Traveler Kids History, January 8, 2003.
R. E. Olds : The Man Behind the Wheel (YouTube, 7:31 minutes)
MSU Museum lends historic car to R.E. Olds Transportation Museum. (YouTube video, 2:11 minutes, 2012)
R.E.Olds Transportation Museum Tour: 2013. (YouTube, 3:13 minutes)
R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing MI (YouTube, 1:58 minutes)
Ransom E. Olds Mausaleum video from YouTube.
Oldsmobile Curved Dash 1901 Advertisement via YouTube.