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  • Writer's pictureTim Jackson

Ransom Eli Olds – Earliest Automotive Industry Pioneer

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Ransom Eli Olds was an American entrepreneur and inventor who left a significant impact on the automotive industry with his innovative ideas and inventions. Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, the youngest son of a blacksmith and patternmaker. Olds’ parents moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio, when Olds was still a boy. The Olds family eventually settled in Lansing, Michigan, where he attended high school before dropping out so he could work full-time at the family company, P.F. Olds & Son.

Ransom Eli Olds’ contributions to the automobile industry are numerous, including founding Oldsmobile in 1897, which was later sold to General Motors in 1908. However, Olds’ entrepreneurial spirit was not confined to the new passenger car industry as he went on to start the REO Motor Company, an early yet prominent manufacturer of trucks and buses.

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 intense 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 later questioned the veracity of the reason the Runabout was selected. He pointed to an Olds advertising blitz that had already led to more than 300 Curved Dash Oldsmobile orders even before the fire took place. The biographer said "Olds did not need the one rescued car from which to reconstruct the plans and patterns for the Runabout.”

Later that year, Olds had his company's test driver Ray Chapin drive a Curved Dash Oldsmobile Runabout to the second annual New York Auto Show. Along the way, Chapin opted to drive up along the Erie Canal tow path to escape the mire of New York state roads. After eight days of driving, Chapin finally reached the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but was turned away at the door. His mud-spattered attire was so objectionable he was sent to the servants' entrance in the back of the hotel.

During the auto show Olds pushed hard to make sales. When one franchised Oldsmobile dealer offered to purchase 500, 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 relatively affordable $650, equal to $21,172 today. About 600 were sold in 1901, about 3,000 in 1902 and at least 4,000 in 1904. It was this car, rather than Henry Ford’s Model T, that was the first mass-produced, low-priced American motor vehicle.

The REO Motor Company was founded in 1904 by Ransom Eli Olds after he left Olds Motor Company due to disagreements with the board of directors. The new company was named after Olds himself, with the initials, REO standing for his name. The company initially produced cars, but it was not long before he switched his focus to trucks which proved to be a more profitable business.

REO trucks quickly found early popularity across the United States, given their strong reputation for reliability and durability. The company’s first truck, the REO Speed Wagon, was introduced in 1915 and became a staple of the American economy. During World War I, the US army used REO trucks extensively, which helped establish the brand’s reputation for toughness and dependability.

In the 1920s, REO expanded its product line to include buses, which were sold under the name, REO and Diamond REO brands. These buses were used for public transportation and school buses, as well as long distance travel. REO buses quickly gained a reputation for being some of the most reliable and comfortable vehicles on the road. In fact, Prevost, a Montreal based bus manufacturer, used REO engines and chassis for many of its early bus models. Prevost is still today one of the top luxury bus makers in the world, well known for their over the top creature comforts.

When Ransom Eli Olds passed away in 1950, his legacy continued through the REO Motor Car Company. The company remained in business until the early 1970s, producing a variety of trucks and buses that helped drive the American economy forward.

Interestingly, some of Ransom Old’s legacy extends beyond the automotive industry and into the world of music. In the 1960s a rock band from Champaign, Illinois, took the name, REO Speedwagon, inspired by the classic REO Speed Wagon truck. The band became one of the most successful rock bands of the 1980s with its hits like ’Can’t Fight This Feeling’ and ‘Keep on loving you.’

Similarly, in the 1970s, a country rock band from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania took the name Diamond RIO inspired (spelling was modified for unknown reason) by the REO truck brand Diamond REO and released several albums in the 1970s and 1980s and their music is still remembered by fans of classic rock and country music. The band Diamond RIO is known for some of its popular hit songs such as “Meet in the Middle.”

Although Ransom Eli Olds did not have direct involvement in the formation of these bands, his legacy as an innovator and entrepreneur who inspired generations of musicians and fans like the REO Speedwagon and Diamond RIO bands are just two examples of how Ransom Eli Old‘s legacy continues to influence American culture to this day.


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