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Home > Featured Auto Makes > Oldsmobile  (Part  1 2)

Oldsmobile   Part 1: 1891-1915

By John Bentley

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

First to use mass-production methods...
First to build a car that could do 60 miles per hour... R. E. Olds’ genius pioneered the modern auto.

Ransom E. Olds, designer of the Oldsmobile, who also gave his initials to the Reo car and truck and was associated with the creation of other famous makes, can claim, in a sense, to be the source of inspiration of the modern automobile.

As a young man, he worked for his father, Pliny F. Olds, a Lansing, Michigan, manufacturer of gas engines. But as far back as 1887 his ambition was to build complete motor vehicles. Early private experiments with crude steam-powered machines soon led him to something more practical.

Already the owner of a half-stake in his father’s enterprise--purchased with hard-earned and hard-saved dollars--Olds bought out the balance of the business in 1892 and incorporated the Olds Gasoline Engine Works. The following year he quit experimenting with steamers. Yet with almost the last steam car he built--sold to a firm in Bombay--he achieved a certain amount of fame in India. This, incidentally, was the first export sale of an American-built self-propelled vehicle.

Now he devoted himself entirely to gasoline-driven automobiles. But design­ing a competent car was one thing, and producing it, another--as Olds soon found out. However, at a company directors’ meeting held August 21, 1897, he was authorized to build “one carriage in as nearly perfect a manner as possible and complete it at the earliest possible moment.”

Assisted by Frank G. Clark of the Lan­sing Carriage Factory, who contributed the body and helped with the suspension, Ransom Olds had his first internal com­bustion automobile running that year. Powered by a single-cylinder engine lo­cated under the seats, this horseless car­riage had a speed of 10 mph; it carried a load of four passengers and ran on one-and-a-half-inch solid-rubber tires. It proved so dependable that even the hard-headed bankers were impressed and the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was formed in September, 1897, with a capital of $50,000.

After considering various locations for his factory (Lansing was then unsuitable because of labor and housing problems), Olds finally settled on Detroit and in May, 1899, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company merged with the original Olds Gasoline Engine Works to become the Olds Motor Works with a capital of $500,000.

During 1899 and 1900, Olds built and sold five electric cars, as well as a few units of a gasoline-powered car that retailed for $1,250. It was not a success. The public apparently found some of Olds’ mechanical refinements too complicated and the company lost $80,000 that first year.

But in 1900, the tide began to turn. Olds produced a single-cylinder runabout that was extremely simple to operate. It was built-with a foolproof ruggedness. Known as the Curved Dash model, it weighed 700 pounds, cost $650 and proved an immediate success.

During the next four years, this Oldsmobile grew in popularity. It sold 425 units in 1901; 2,100 in 1902; 3,750 in 1903 and 5,000 in 1904. The latter year represented a sales increase of more than 11 times the first year’s output. Dealers in 1902 could easily have absorbed 4,000 Oldsmobiles, had the factory been able to produce them. As it was, more than twice as many Curved Dash runabouts were sold as there were cars in the entire State of New York.

The year before, however, in March, 1901, a disastrous fire consumed the Olds plant. It destroyed stock, blueprints, equipment and most of the dies and patterns for the runabout. The only thing rescued was a single car from which new patterns were made; but within one month a completely new runabout chugged out under its own power. From these patterns, 400 more cars were constructed and sold by the end of that year.

The factory then moved to new premises (in Lansing, where economic conditions had improved) and, for the first time in the automobile industry, R. E. Olds made use of an organized, progressive assembly system. Chassis, rolling on their own wheels, were pushed along a line, during which succeeding groups of workmen added something to the car until it was completed. In using this method, Olds was one year ahead of the Rambler car and two years ahead of Ford.

Meanwhile, Roy D. Chapin’s drive in a Curved Dash Olds from Detroit to New York in seven-and-one-half days (in time for the 1901 Auto Show at Madison Square Garden) was a terrific publicity stunt, perfectly timed and executed. It re­sulted in Ray M. Owen, a New York auto dealer, signing a contract to sell 1,000 cars. This cut the Oldsmobile right into a fertile and ready market where light vehicle com­petition was as yet virtually non-existent.

Chapin, a twenty-one-year-old young­ster employed at the Olds Works as an ap­prentice and photographer, later became sales manager of the company and then went on to bigger things.

Several highlights marked Oldsmobile progress in 1903. Not only was the production figure at a record high, but an Olds driven by H. T. Thomas was the first American car to cover a mile in under a minute. That year, also, an Oldsmobile won the famous Tour de France; and one of the earliest transcontinental trips (from San Francisco to New York) was completed in 73 days by L. L. Whitman and Eugene Hammond in a Curved Dash runabout.

In 1904, with sales steadily climbing, Ransom E. Olds sold out his interest in the Olds Motor Works and helped organize the Reo Company which paid him hand­somely for the use of his initials. Still in his prime, Olds was now a rich man with few worries.

In 1905, a new production peak of 36 cars a day was reached and the company already had plans to invade the two- and four-cylinder markets. Despite the new­comers, however, total sales slumped to 1,600 units for the year, possibly because of the fickleness of public taste and the fact that competition by other famous makes was now far more active.

By 1908, when the company was about a million dollars in the red, General Motors came forward with an offer and the Olds Motor Works became one more GM Di­vision. But still the slump continued.

In fact there was nothing wrong with Oldsmobile design, much less with its workmanship, and the car’s reputation suffered little despite the drop in business. What was needed to put the company back on its feet was a new and more enter­prising sales approach. William C. Durant soon fixed that, launching among other things the first Oldsmobiles with produc­tion closed bodywork. A vast improve­ment in purchases created a new high in Oldsmobile sales history: 6,575 cars in 1909.

For 1910, the Olds moved entirely out of the low-price field and the cheapest four-cylinder car--the 22-25--cost $3,000. Once again sales dipped, this time to a year’s total of 1,850 units. But now the shaky financial condition of the over­grown General Motors structure was probably one of the main causes of the decline.

In 1911, the four-cylinder Autocrat Oldsmobile, priced at $3,500, made use of a compressed air self-starter for the first time. It was not until 1915, however, that sales really began to recover and the 1909 level was reached and surpassed. Sold were 7,696 cars.

The list of famous men who at one time or another served or were connected with the Oldsmobile company is one of the most impressive on record. Included are Roy D. Chapin who helped found the Chalmers-Detroit company, was Secre­tary of Commerce in the Hoover Cabinet and later became president of Hudson; Charles B. King, first man to drive a car in the streets of Detroit; John D. Maxwell, pioneer of the Maxwell car; Howard E. Coffin of the Hudson Motor Car Company and spark plug of the War Industries Board; Carl Fisher who built the Indian­apolis Speedway and developed the Prest-O-Lite Company; Benjamin Briscoe, founder of the United States Motor Com­pany; George and Earl Holley, responsible for the Holley carburetor; Charles B. Wilson who later organized the Wilson foundry of Pontiac, one-time largest pro­ducer of automobile castings; John F. and Horace Dodge of the Dodge Brothers Com­pany; Charles D. Hastings of the Hupp Motor Company; Charles B. Rose, presi­dent of American La France, and many, many others.
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