From the Horse to Horsepower

As the Civil War was ending in the 1860’s, three men were born who were destined to change the world of transportation as it was known then. Billy Durant, Henry Ford and Ransom Olds were those individuals. Durant would go on to form the largest car company in the world, General Motors; Ford would produce Model T’s by the millions and Ransom E. Olds would develop mass production techniques for his Curved Dash Oldsmobile and is considered by many the father of the modern auto industry. This story is about him.

The Olds family came to the little town of Lansing, Michigan in 1880. Ransom hated horses as did many in that era. His desire was to develop a horseless vehicle of some kind. In his father’s machine shop on River Street, he developed two steam vehicles, one in 1887 and a second in 1892. The latter vehicle became the first vehicle to be exported from Michigan. It was sold for $400 and shipped to Bombay, India by boat. It was said that the boat sunk on its way and the “car” never made it. Ransom would later say, “It’s lucky it didn’t make it because no one would have known how to fix it.”

R.E. OldsBy 1892, Olds was making one cylinder gasoline “hit and miss” engines. In 1896 he developed his first gasoline internal combustion engine powered “car.” His Lansing Gas Engine Works had been expanded several times in that era. He formed the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897 and expanded the plant again. Four cars of the same design were produced at that time.

Ransom would lose business control to wealthy Detroiters, the Smiths, when the Olds Motor Works was formed in 1899. His two companies, the Gas Engine Works and the Motor Vehicle Company were combined at that time. A new factory was built in Detroit near the Belle Isle Bridge. Olds would struggle with what to make there. He produced a few electric and gasoline cars totaling about 11 vehicles from 1899 to 1900. So now Ransom Olds had made cars using all three methods of propulsion, steam, gasoline and electric.

By this time there were a good many American companies making vehicles, many of which were electric. The Duryea Brothers had started making gasoline cars of the same design in 1896 and are credited with starting the American auto industry. The Europeans were making gas cars and had been doing so for some time.

In the fall of 1900, however, that was all going to change. The first prototypes of the Curved Dash Oldsmobile were being tested on Belle Isle. Olds wanted to create a vehicle that was low cost, easy to operate, durable and was for the masses and also eliminated the horse. The Curved Dash would sell for $650 and be made in the new Detroit Plant. Ads started to appear in trade journals in early 1901. Production was about to start, when on March 9, 1901 the plant burned to the ground leaving only the separate Foundry Building. What to do now? Olds decided to set up temporary assembly facilities in the foundry. He would purchase components from the Dodge Brothers, Leland, Briscoe and others to allow the little runabouts to be assembled and 425 cars were made that first year.

1900 Detroit Oldsmobile PlantAs luck would have it, the fire had not gone unnoticed in Lansing. The Businessmen’s Association offered Olds a huge 52 acre site on the Cities south side, bounded by Isaac St., Logan St. the Grand River and Chestnut St. This had been the old defunct Central Michigan Fair grounds site. Olds accepted and by the end of 1901 had built another new 100,000 sq. ft. factory on the site. The Detroit plant was also reconstructed again. So at the end of 1901, Olds had two large facilities ready to make Curved Dashes.

By the end of 1904, production of Curved Dashes reached 20 cars/day, an unheard of volume for the time. Other car makers were struggling with how to make 20 in a month and some only 20 in a year. So how did Olds do it? He had developed an assembly stand that was on casters that could be moved from place to place to improve the assembly process. Initially the stands were made of wood and later made of cast iron, the process became known as Progressive Assembly. It was later mechanized by Henry Ford, and he gets all the credit. By the way, Ford would come to the Olds Factory to learn how we did it long before he had made but a few vehicles.

Olds also recognized that he needed to advertise. He also recognized who his competition was and it wasn’t other car makers, it was the horse. Many of his ads depicted how the Oldsmobile was better than a horse. He also used Women in the ads when automobiling was a masculine sport. Olds had the three elements necessary for success, a saleable product, a capable manufacturing facility and a marketing plan. Most other car companies were lacking one of these elements. Olds also developed a worldwide organization to distribute and sell vehicles. The little Curved Dash had become the most poplar car in America and around the world in this era.

However, it was not all peaches and cream at the factory. The industry was changing rapidly in this time frame. The Smiths wanted to build large expensive cars for the rich. Ransom did not. He would leave Oldsmobile in January 1904 over that disagreement and form another car company, REO, using his initials. He would build another factory in Lansing just blocks from Oldsmobile. But that is another story.

Oldsmobile would eventually nearly go broke with “the rich man’s car” approach. Another of the Civil War babies was now making waves too. Billy Durant would form General Motors in 1908 and save Oldsmobile from going under. And that too, is another story.

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