February 5, 2007

Oldsmobile

And the man behind the brands is...
Ransom Olds

Ransom Eli Olds was unique among automotive pioneers whose names have flourished for nearly a century. Like David Buick and Louis Chevrolet, history treated Olds shabbily. For a time his name was stripped from Lansing, Michigan's tallest building and leading hotel, both of which Olds built. His historic mansion, despite an occasional preservations murmuring, was leveled as part of a highway project to enable cars bearing his name to speed over top his former living room. But Olds did not struggle financially like Buick and Chevrolet, his worth was estimated at up to $60,000,000 and he died a millionaire.

On the other hand Olds was in the best position of any car builder to establish an empire like Henry Ford or Walter Chrysler. But he lacked the competitive drive to build that sort of mega-business. What Ransom Olds really lacked was an ego.

Olds began building horseless carriages in 1885 in his father's steam-engine business when he was 21. The next year he produced a three-wheeled steam-propelled horseless carriage that roared through the streets of Lansing in a pre-dawn test run. Olds took his invention to the road in the middle of the night to avoid the jeers of spectators but its crude noises caused people to leap from their beds and rush to the window anyway.

He improved his steam carriage over the years. The first of 34 patents Olds would claim over the years was granted in 1891 for an engine governor. In 1893 Olds sold his horseless carriage, now sporting four wheels, to an English company for use in India. It was America's first automobile sale.

By this time Olds was deeply involved in gasoline engines. In 1896 he organized the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Detroit with a group of investors. Over the next few years only four cars were sold as Olds vacillated over what type of horseless carriage to produce. For a while he made an electric "town car" in addition to a gas-powered roadster for the country.

In 1901 Olds settled on a tiny one-cylinder carriage with only a dash that curved upwards like a toboggan in front of the occupants. While on a trip to California that year Olds' Detroit factory burned down. Only one Curved-Dash roadster was salvaged.

With a crippled capacity Olds had to turn to outside suppliers for car parts. This stimulated the growth of the auto-support industry which made Detroit the auto capital of the world. The plant fire is often romantically credited with creating the Motor City but Olds had years earlier realized the need for outside suppliers to manufacture horseless carriages in quantity.

In 1902 the Oldsmobile trade name was registered, the oldest surviving American automotive marquis. Olds promoted his little runabout vigorously. It rapidly became the most widely advertised, best-selling car in America. He wrote dealer's instruction booklets, magazine ads and fancy postcards. Oldsmobile billboards were commonplace in American cities.

Olds formed the Oldsmobile Club of America, announcing that all that was required of a member was "a good character and an Oldsmobile." "The former," the company suggested, "we can not always furnish, the latter is delivered on payment of the initiation fee, $650."

Olds also favored publicity stunts like driving up steps to demonstrate the little carriage's ruggedness and piling up to 17 people on the sturdy runabout. Olds was one of the few automobile makers to use advertisements to attack the industry's primary competition - the often skittish horse.

Since accepting outside capital in 1896 Ransom Olds' power in the business eroded rapidly. He argued that breakdowns and defects were inevitable given the limited technology available and the company could sell post-purchase service. "We have to sell parts, too," he maintained.

Company officials, stung by occasional criticism of the Oldsmobile's reliability, felt the best possible endorsement was a well-made quality car before it left the shop. Ransom Olds resigned his presidency in 1904. Oldsmobile enjoyed soaring sales for two more years but was selling only 1000 cars in 1908 when William Durant bought the company for General Motors, claiming he was spending a million dollars for little more than billboards.

Meanwhile Olds diversified his business interests: real estate, a peat fuel company, a gold mine and banking. Before 1904 was out Olds was back in the car business. He formed the R.E. Olds Company but was threatened with litigation from his former company he founded. He changed the name to REO Motor Car Company, an acronym of his initials.

The first REO, clearly an automobile and not a horseless carriage, was ready in 1905. Its $1250 price tag, while reasonable for a touring car, put the car out of the mass market being claimed by Ford. REO became established as an industry leader but Olds failed to keep up with changing designs and mechanical advancements. The 1911 model was still the 1905 REO.

In a brash new 1912 advertising campaign Olds announced "My Farewell Car." "Embodied here," read the copy, "are the final results of my 25 years of experience. I do not believe that a car materially better will ever be built." The REO climbed back to 7th place in car sales.

The copy was written for him but was frightfully prophetic. Olds had no plans to retire but had not been actively involved in the business since 1907. He traveled extensively, vacationed much of the winter and spent a great deal of time at auto shows. Always a better pioneer than manager, Olds relinquished the title of general manager in 1915. He gave up the presidency of REO in 1923 but kept the honorary position of Chairman as his last tie to the industry.

Olds was not entirely content with the life of leisure. He continued to tinker and obtain patents. He created one of the first gas-powered lawnmowers in 1915 and headed the Ideal Power Lawn Mower Company. He developed a planned community in Florida which, although failing in his lifetime, eventually took hold. In 1929 he built the 26-story Olds Tower in Lansing next to the venerable Hotel Olds.

The Depression killed REO. The last car was made in 1936, although truck manufacturing would continue another four decades. For the first time in 40 years Ransom Olds was not involved in car-making. He cut all ties to the auto industry.

Olds lived until 1950 when he died from complications of old age. Most of his fortune was split among his family. He eschewed national charities, convinced that most of the money went to pay staff salaries. Instead he showered benefactions on local libraries, Michigan State University, and the church.

In an interview a year before his death the 85-year old Olds decried the high price of cars, advocating a stripped-down car that would sell for $1000. "Prices are much too high," declared Olds. "More people should have the benefit of this fine equipment. The public wants transportation, not gadgets."

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