Numerous other companies were already in production, but were doing nothing startling. The cry of “Get a Horse!” still greeted their products. The business was scattered from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Kokomo, Indiana. Detroit appeared no more dynamic, no more sensible of the possibilities of motor transportation, than Springfield, Buffalo, Cleveland or Indianapolis. It was still content to look to its lumber business, stove factories and iron foundries as the source of its wealth and the support of its aristocracy.
But that situation had started to change with the turn of the century. The decade of the ‘90s had been nothing more than experimental, as far as automobile development was concerned. Ransom E. Olds had followed the lead of the Duryeas of Springfield by organizing the Olds Motor Vehicle Company of America in Lansing, Michigan, in 1897. Olds’ father was manufacturing stationary gas engines in a little shop on the bank of the Grand River in Lansing. Frank Clark’s father was manufacturing carriages. Combining whatever materials and facilities they could obtain, Olds and Clark designed a gas-powered vehicle. With that design as their chief tangible asset they organized a company with a board of directors which authorized R. E. Olds to “build one carriage in as nearly a perfect-manner as possible.” The resulting automobile was the first of a line of Oldsmobiles which has been increasing through forty years, but it was not sufficiently perfect to impress the sires of its builders. R. E. Olds went out to raise more moral support and capital. He found both in the person and pocketbook of S. L. Smith.
Mr. Smith financed the Olds Motor Works, incorporated in Detroit in 1899, with a factory on the bank of the river beside the Detroit Stove Works. The chief business, and all the first profits of that factory were in the manufacture of gas engines rather than automobiles. But when the factory burned, on March 9, 1901, one little gasoline runabout was saved.
It was an efficient little car for its day. The active men in the Olds Motor Works soon convinced the directorate of that fact, and obtained authorization to turn out that single model in large numbers, planning to sell it at six hundred dollars, with large profit. Those men, including Frederic L. Smith, Charles B. Wilson, shop superintendent, Roy D. Chapin, an enthusiastic lad from the University of Michigan, and others, were dynamic long before Detroit was dynamic. Their energy, promptly and efficiently applied, in thirty days converted the fire-ruined motor plant into the first “quantity production” automobile factory in America.
The Oldsmobile runabout made an international hit. The first motor cars owned by the Queen of Italy and Sir Thomas Lipton were Oldsmobile curved dash runabouts. Even so, at the turn of the century the automobile generally was either an object of derision or a toy of the wealthy. A large proportion of the automobiles then owned and operated in the United States were imported-- the products of Daimler, Benz, Panhard, Levassor, Peugeot, De Dion, Bouton and Serpollet. The Rolls-Royce, the Citroen, and other foreign-built cars which later became famous were unheard of.