R. E. Olds was born and raised in Ohio and eventually settled in Lansing, Michigan where he founded the Olds Motor Company on August 21, 1897. The company was bought by a copper and lumber magnate named Samuel L. Smith in 1899 and renamed the Olds Motor Works. The new company was relocated from Lansing to Detroit, where Smith became President while Olds became vice president and general manager.
By 1901 Olds had built 11 prototype vehicles, including at least one of each power mode: steam, electricity and gasoline. He was the only American automotive pioneer to produce and sell at least one of each mode of automobile.
On March 9, 1901, the Olds Motor Works factory burned to the ground. Only one model, the little Curved Dash runabout, was saved from the flames. Ransom Olds claimed it was the fire that made him select the runabout, from among his many other models, to put into production. His biographer questions the veracity of this story due to an Olds advertising blitz that had already led to more than 300 Curved Dash orders even before the fire took place. A new factory was built in Lansing, Michigan and production of the Curved Dash Oldsmobile commenced.
The car was simple, sturdy and dependable. The flat-mounted, water-cooled, single-cylinder engine, situated at the center of the car, produced 4.5 horsepower. The transmission had two forward speeds and one reverse. The car weighed 700 pounds, and had a top speed of 20 mph.
Later that year, Olds had his company’s test driver, Roy Chapin ( who later co-founded the Hudson Motor Car Company), drive a Curved Dash runabout to the second annual New York Automobile Show at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel Chapin opted to drive up onto the Erie Canal tow path to escape the mire of New York state roads. After eight days of driving, he reached the Waldorf but was turned away at the door. His mud-spattered attire was so disreputable that he was sent to the servants’ entrance in back.
During the Automobile Show Olds pushed hard to make sales. When one dealer offered to purchase 500 cars, Olds retorted, “I would like to see you make this order for a thousand cars. Then the public would drop its jaw and take notice.” The deal was signed, and though the dealer ended up selling only 750 to the public, it was the original number that everyone remembered.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile sold for $650, equal to $19,120 today. In the years 1903 and 1904 it was the number one selling car in America, and by the end of production in late 1906, over 19,000 had been built. The Curved Dash Oldsmobile was America’s first mass-produced, low-priced car.
About the Author
Matt Short believes the automobile is “the greatest piece of art ever placed on 4 wheels” and is one of the nation’s foremost automotive historians. His professional experience includes The Henry Ford, The R.E. Olds Museum, The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, and America’s Packard Museum. Matt currently serves on the board of the Society of Automotive Historians and has previously served on the boards of the National Association of Automobile Museums and Packard Motor Car Foundation.
About the Series
This series of essays explores the vehicles that made up our Ten Cars that Changed the World exhibition. The exhibition was a partnership with the Society of Automotive Historians and Sambla AB financial services.
Image courtesy of Visit South Bend.