Man of Vision: Ransom Eli Olds
Manufacturer Ransom Eli Olds left lasting imprint on early automotive industry
Ransom E. Olds showed early genius as an automotive industrialist.
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.
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