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.
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.) 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.
R. E. Olds legacy lives on through this his foundation, which gives out grants to nonprofits in the tri-county area.
Click here for more information.
Also see Bob Garrett, “The Reo Story”, Seeking Michigan, September 30, 2014.
Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections has the records of REO Motor Company ( http://archives.msu.edu/findaid/036.html ), as well as personal papers of Ransom E. Olds ( http://archives.msu.edu/findaid/027.html). CADL also has R.E. Olds collections ( http://www.cadl.org/research-and-learn/local-history/transportation-and-… ).