Man of Vision: Ransom Eli Olds

Manufacturer Ransom Eli Olds left lasting imprint on early automotive industry

Ransom E. Olds

Ransom E. Olds showed early genius as an automotive industrialist. 

Content Tools

Few people in life have the great fortune to have a city named after themselves — much less two companies, two major automobiles, a truck, a gasoline engine, two tractors and a chair. But then, Ransom Eli Olds was not your average person.

Born in 1864, Olds was the son of a machinist. Pliny Fisk Olds ran a blacksmith shop in Geneva, Ohio, where he repaired and built steam engines. As a youth, Ransom objected to the smell of horse manure on the farm and city streets, so he decided to try his hand at inventing an automobile.

As a teen, Ransom moved with his family to Lansing, Mich. There he refined his skills while working for his father for two years without pay. Thereafter he was paid 50 cents a day while he played with steam and tinkered with gasoline engines with the goal of inventing a horseless carriage.

The neighbors were not impressed. “When he started to build engines in the little lean-to beside the Olds barn,” according to The History of Oldsmobile, “the neighbors began to prophesy that no good would come of it. ‘That kid of yours will blow his head off one day, Pliny,’ they forecast.”

Industry’s first export

Ransom bought a half-share in his father’s business, forming P.F. Olds & Son. Pliny was so pleased with his son’s steam carriage invention that he quadrupled his pay to $2 a day.

“This was a three-wheeled steam car with a flash boiler, which attracted sufficient attention for the august Scientific American to dispatch a correspondent to Lansing to write a feature on the vehicle,” notes an account in The History of Oldsmobile. “Olds told the reporter: ‘It never kicks or bites, never tires on long runs, and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable and only eats while on the road.’”

A British man read the article, contacted Olds and later bought the steam vehicle. Shipped to Bombay, India, in 1893, the vehicle was the first to be exported by the American motor industry.

New name, new direction

Ransom Olds established Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897. At the same time, the Olds family business was renamed Olds Gasoline Engine Works. By then, realizing the future was in internal combustion machines, Olds had applied for and received the first patent for an “automobile carriage” awarded in the U.S.

In 1899, needing an infusion of capital to move ahead with his work, Olds made the mistake of allowing copper and lumber baron Samuel L. Smith and sons to join him in forming Olds Motor Works (a merger of the two Olds businesses), capitalized for $200,000. The Smiths owned the controlling interest; Olds’ share was only $400.

By 1900, Olds had invented his signature gasoline vehicle, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, a 1-cylinder 4-stroke runabout that would go a roaring 7 hp. Just as he was about to put the car into production, a fire destroyed his factory, along with the specifications for the car. Luckily, young timekeeper James J. Brady heard the explosion, “rushed to the section of the factory where the model was stored,” The History of Oldsmobile says, “and persuaded the staff to help him push the car out into the open.” Blueprints and working patterns were made from the parts.

Curved Dash takes off

In 1901, demand for the quality $650 ($17,600 today) Curved Dash auto soared. To keep up with demand, Olds invented a rudimentary assembly line complete with wheeled work stands easily moved from station to station. The company sold 5,000 Curved Dash autos over the next five years, by far the highest output of any U.S. car company at that time, making the Curved Dash the first mass-produced automobile in American history.

At about the same time, Olds began manufacturing the Olds tractor, according to C.H. Wendel in Farm Tractors 1890-1980, 2nd Edition. “In 1905, Olds was listed as a tractor manufacturer and a catalog from 1908 illustrated the tractor’s design,” Wendel writes. “It was available in several sizes but few specific details have been found.”

Clashing agendas

But all was not well. Olds and Frederic Smith (son of Samuel L. Smith) held opposing visions for the Olds company and clashes resulted. When the Smiths decided to target the high-end market, cutting production of the Curved Dash Olds, Olds balked. In 1904 he angrily broke away, forming R.E. Olds Co. The name was short-lived. The Smiths sued, claiming they owned the rights to the Olds name.

But they did not own the rights to his initials. Olds was on holiday with his family in northern Michigan when he received a telegram urging him to return to Lansing. “As I stepped off the train,” The History of Oldsmobile says, quoting Olds, “I was met by an old friend who handed me an interesting looking paper. Reading it, I found that a group of my friends had organized a half-million dollar company, of which I was to be the head, and within three hours had raised the money to finance it. Of this, I was to have a controlling interest, $260,000.” Thus was born R.E.O. (or REO) Motor Car Co.

New company, similar direction

Olds’ REO cars sold well (2,456 in 1906) while, to his satisfaction, cross-town competitor Olds sold only 1,600. By 1908, REO was the third-best selling auto in America, behind Ford and Buick.

In about 1910, REO Motor Truck Co. was formed in Lansing. Olds held a 51 percent interest. The first REO trucks were the 3/4-ton Model H and the 1/4-ton Model J light delivery truck, each priced at $600. Other models included the Power Wagon, Parcel Delivery model and REO Speed Wagon (a name later shared with an American rock band).

In 1911, Ransom Olds built what he considered REO’s best car, REO the Fifth. “To that,” Olds said, “I have added all I have learned in 25 years of continuous striving. So this car, I believe, comes pretty close to finality.”

It was, in fact, Olds’ last car. In 1915, when a quarter of Lansing’s population was employed by his REO Motor Car Co., Olds tired of automobiles. At age 52, the inventor of the Oldsmobile and REO vehicles embarked on new adventures, first forming the Ideal Power Lawn Mower Co. to manufacture his newest invention, a lawn mower, and then the grand undertaking of turning the untamed land north of Tampa Bay into a bustling community. He bought 37,541 acres and established REO Farms Co., later REOLDS Farm Co.

According to Ann Liebermann in Ransom Eli Olds and the American Dream, Olds “used engineers and surveyors from Boston to design a well platted community, modeled after Washington, D.C., with tree-lined boulevards leading from the bay to downtown.” Originally named R.E. Olds-On-The-Bay, the development was later renamed Oldsmar, then Tampa Shores and finally Oldsmar again.

Unusually wide streets (many named by Olds) were paved with oyster shells and 20 miles of sidewalk were installed. To lure settlers, Olds placed advertisements in Detroit newspapers crowing, “Oldsmar for Health, Wealth and Happiness.” He also ran special excursion trains from Detroit to Florida and even drilled an unsuccessful oil well. “It has been said,“ Liebermann notes, “that oil was poured into the well each morning to make it look like they had struck black gold.” Olds was not, she adds, “a particularly well-liked man.”

Original plans for the development included a golf course and luxury hotel, but neither ever materialized. A sawmill produced the Olds chair (also called the Oldsmar chair), a sturdy piece similar to the well-known Adirondack chair, and factory output was sold throughout the U.S.

Back to basics

By 1917, Olds was eager to get back into engine work. Committing $1 million to the undertaking, he organized Oldsmar Tractor Co. to manufacture garden tractors.

About three years later, Olds financed the move to Oldsmar of Kardell Tractor & Truck Co., St. Louis. Kardell produced the Four-in-One tractor, designed to work farms of 100 to 500 acres with an 18 hp engine (or 20, depending on the reference). “On such farms it is supreme,” Kardell ads crowed. “The ‘positive grip’ wheels made the difference, digging in like horse’s hooves. In performance and wearing qualities, this tractor stands out from among all others as a machine of service, service that costs less.”

The tractor was also a motor plow, with three bottoms suspended under its frame and a safety spring that released the clutch whenever a rock or stump was encountered. Using an extension frame, the tractor could be converted from the “Iron Horse of the farm” to the “Iron Horse of the road,” a 3-ton truck. “The Kardell is your truck when you have produce to haul; your tractor when you have work to do on the farm,” ads proclaimed. The Kardell Four-in-One, using its belt pulley to drive stationary machines, was a 30 hp farm power or “all around” engine, useful for tasks “from churning to filling silos. No power is wasted.”

The company was not very successful. According to Manufactured and Estimated 1916-1919 by P.S. Rose, one unit was produced in 1916 and none in 1917. In the first half of 1918, six were built — prompting a wildly optimistic forecast of 100 in the next six months and 6,000 in 1919.

Olds was interested in a fifth use of the Kardell, according to Liebermann. “Olds was hoping they could devise a machine to cut through the palmetto roots,” she explains. “Building roads and clearing land was frustrating and expensive in Florida. Palmetto roots were impervious to bulldozers and other northern machines.”

Little is known about whether the project was a success. The Kardell Utility tractor was developed in 1920, but the company disappeared in about 1921.

Know when to fold ‘em

By 1923, Olds had invested $4.5 million in the Oldsmar community, but it was not growing as he had anticipated. He traded the nearly completed racetrack for the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Fla., and the rest of the land was swapped for the Bellerive Hotel in Kansas City, Mo.

Ransom E. Olds and all his previous success could not save his latest and greatest project. He lost nearly $3,000,000, envisioning a city of 100,000; only 200 lived in Oldsmar when he left. Today the city has a population of about 13,000 people. Olds died at age 86 in 1950. FC 

For more information:  

The History of Oldsmobile 

Ransom Eli Olds and the American Dream, by Ann Liebermann, excerpted from Recollections of Oldsmar: 1913-2009, Jerry Beverland, 1996. 

A Most Unique Machine: The Michigan Origins of the American Automobile Industry, George S. May, 1974. 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com. 

Read more about unique Ransom E. Olds inventions in Oldsmar: A Tractor for Florida and learn the story of a one-of-a-kind Oldsmar in The Mystery of the Oldsmar Gas Engine. Also, read Ransom Olds' personal account of his first ride in a horseless carriage in the article Ransom Olds' First Car Steam-Powered.