LET'S TALK RUSTY IRON

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Sam Moore

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Famous automaker started with steam

'Come away with me, Lucille, in my Merry Oldsmobile.' These words, from a popular song written in 1905 by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan, reflect the sudden popularity of the little curved-dash Oldsmobile, the first car in America to be produced in large (for the times) numbers.

Yet, the long-running Oldsmobile line came to an end when the last Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line in April 2004, at the same Lansing, Mich., plant where they were built for nearly 100 years. While that event caused a stir in the press, most reports failed to mention that Ransom E. Olds, the company's founder, left his mark on the farm as well as the American road, with products ranging from stationary gasoline engines to his famous automobiles.

Humble beginnings

Ransom Eli Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, in June 1864, the youngest son of blacksmith and farmer, Pliny Olds. 'Ranny' took care of his father's horses - but hated the smell and the chores - and loved to work in the blacksmith shop.

In 1880, Pliny Olds moved his family to Lansing where he and his eldest son, Wallace, started a company called P.F. Olds & Son to build steam engines and repair machinery. Young Ransom worked at the factory as a machinist and also kept the books, while he dreamed of building a self-propelled vehicle.

By 1887, Ransom bought out his brother's share and assembled a three-wheeled vehicle powered by a 1-hp Olds-made steam engine. Although it ran, the car was badly underpowered and Ransom tinkered with it for a couple of years. His father told someone at the time, 'Ranse thinks he can put an engine in a buggy and make the contraption carry him over the roads. If he doesn't get killed in his fool under taking, I'll be satisfied.'

About 1891, Ransom patented his first gasoline engine, the first of a long line of Olds engines: a single-cylinder vertical engine, with hot-tube ignition. About 1903, S.S. Morton of York, Pa., patented a heavy traction engine running gear, upon which nearly any gas engine could be mounted for power. Some suggest that Olds adapted his 'Olds Safety Gas & Vapor Engines' to the Morton Traction Truck and may even have sold a few as an Olds 'tractor.'

Birth of the Oldsmobile

Olds founded the prosperous Olds Engine Works, building a second and better steam car in 1892 and introducing a 5-hp, one-cylinder gasoline-powered car in 1896. He drove the new gas-powered vehicle around Lansing and attracted lots of attention. It was truly the start of many innovations that Ransom spawned.

In 1897, Ransom finally pulled together enough capital from Lansing businessmen to start a firm called the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. Only a few cars were built during the first two years, but after an 1899 merger of the Olds Gasoline Engine Works and the Motor Vehicle Co. into the Olds Motor Works - with $500,000 in capital - the cars started to roll off the line.

One story says that Ransom had only $400 of his own money in the Olds Motor Works. The major investor was Samuel Latta Smith, who was named company president, while Ransom was vice president and general manager. Smith insisted that a new factory be built in Detroit. The new plant, the first in the world designed for automobile manufacturing, was completed in early 1900, and production began shortly thereafter.

The first cars sold for $2,823 or $1,250, depending upon which source you believe. Yet, business didn't immediately boom. In fact, Ransom described his disappointment with the lagging venture, 'We thought we had quite a car, but we soon found out that it was too complicated for the public. That first year we lost $80,000.'

Ransom redesigned his car and came up with a small, one-cylinder runabout that weighed 700 pounds and only cost $650. 'My whole idea ... was to have the operation so simple that anyone could run it,' Olds said. The 'Merry Oldsmobile' caught on immediately and sold like hotcakes. However, on March 9, 1901, disaster struck when the Olds factory burned to the ground. James J. Brady, a timekeeper, was able to push one car out of the burning building - the only thing that was saved. As the only pattern available, Olds concentrated all production on the little curved-dash run about and soon moved part of the plant back to Lansing.

Production soon skyrocketed, despite the tragedy. The company built 425 runabouts in 1901, 2,500 in 1902, 4,000 in 1903 and 5,508 in 1904, far surpassing the numbers of any single car model built up to that time (even Ford's).

Olds wanted to keep making a small, inexpensive car, but Sam Smith's two sons wanted the prestige of a high-priced luxury model to sell to their rich friends. Since Smith was the majority stockholder, the big car faction prevailed. As a result, Ransom retired with a pocketful of money in 1904.

Out with the Olds

Ransom wasn't out of business for long, and was testing a new car by October 1904. Unable to use his name, Ransom used his initials to name the REO Motor Car Co. The firm built cars until 1936, after which the firm concentrated on trucks until White Motor Co. bought it in 1957.

Meanwhile, the Smiths continued to build expensive luxury cars, and Oldsmobile sold fewer and fewer of the pricey autos. Only 1,600 were sold in 1906, 1,200 in 1907 and 1,055 in 1908. At that time, William Durant was busily buying up car and accessory plants for his new General Motors Corp., and he snapped up the financially ailing Olds Motor Works on Sept. 12, 1908, for about $17,000 in cash and $3 million worth of company stock.

Oldsmobile quickly became a cornerstone of GM, positioning itself in the center of the automaker's line-up, with Chevrolet and Pontiac making up the low-priced end and Buick and Cadillac at the high end.

For more than 100 years, the Oldsmobile car has stood for reliability and value. During its more than 90 years with GM, Oldsmobile was known as a builder of high-quality cars, with buyers getting a lot of luxury for relatively little cost. The Oldsmobile was an industry trendsetter as well, and introduced the first chrome-plated trim in 1926, the HydraMatic transmission in 1940, the high-compression engine 'Rocket 88' of 1949 and the front-wheel-drive 1966 Toronado.

A couple of years ago, GM decided that it 'just couldn't find a way' to make the Oldsmobile profitable, and phased out the line. The last Oldsmobile, an Alero, rolled off the assembly line on Thursday, April 29, 2004. It's funny, the Oldsmobile 76s, 88s and 98s looked different than most other cars, and GM sold a bunch. Yet, the firm fails when its cars are called Aleros, Intrigues, Bravadas or Silhouettes, and only a dedicated student of the automobile can tell an Oldsmobile from the other identical cars on the market. And GM wonders why they didn't sell better?

Regardless of that sad end to a venerable company, the lasting impression that R.E. Olds left on America will never fade. FC

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.  Contact Sam by e-mail: letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com