| August 2004

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.'