Publicity-savvy Ransom Olds used road trips to build a famous brand
His most prominent namesake, obviously, was the Oldsmobile. But he later founded Reo Motor Car Co. in Lansing, Mich., using his initials to name the company and the car.
And the rock band? More on that later.
Olds built a three-wheeled, steam-propelled horseless carriage in 1886, and in 1896, he produced his first gasoline-powered car. But he is most acclaimed for his Curved Dash Oldsmobile Runabout, which went into production in Detroit in 1902.
A strong advertising and promotion campaign helped. In 1901, Ransom Olds decided to display his car at the New York auto show. And he thought it should be driven there from Detroit. The driver was Roy Chapin. Sound familiar? Chapin later headed Hudson Motor Car Co.; and his son, Roy Chapin Jr., was chairman of American Motors, which was formed by the 1954 merger of Hudson and Nash.
In 1903, Lester Whitman and Eugene Hammond drove a Curved Dash from San Francisco to New York in 77 days. It was only the third car, and the first small car, to make a transcontinental trip.
Two Curved Dash models, nicknamed Old Steady and Old Scout, crossed the country from New York to Portland, Ore., in 1905. Old Steady made it in 44 days; Old Scout was several days behind. All those events helped Ransom Olds' young enterprise. And don't overlook the effect of the song "In My Merry Oldsmobile," written in 1905 by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan.
Ransom Olds' accomplishments went beyond the auto industry. In his 86 years, he had a leadership role in many other industries. For example, he was board chairman of Ideal Power Lawn Motor Co., Reolds Farms Co. and First Bond and Mortgage Co..
Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, in 1864. His father, Pliny Fisk Olds, operated a small machine repair shop, where Ransom developed his fascination for all things mechanical.
From the start, he had an inventive nature. He once repaired a discarded sewing machine and gave it to his mother so she could sew the family's clothing more easily.
When Olds was a teenager, the family moved to Lansing, Mich., and his father and brother opened a machine and repair shop. Ransom was an apprentice there and, at 21, bought his brother's interest in the business.
He changed the shop's focus from repair to designing and building. He worked hard to develop an improved steam engine. In his spare time, Olds set out to use one of his improved engines in a horseless carriage. It was minimally useful, and it encouraged him to complete a second steam-powered vehicle.
In the next couple of years, he realized the limitations of steam-engine vehicles, and in 1892, Olds formed a small company to make gasoline engines. Olds Gasoline Engine Works came out of that and was a steppingstone to Olds Motor Vehicle Co., formed in 1897.Eventually it became Olds Motor Works as a result of a sizable investment by Detroit copper magnate Samuel Smith. The company built a factory on Detroit's east side — the first automobile plant in the city. That was where Olds produced his first commercial car, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile Runabout, which cost $650. By 1906, nearly 11,000 of them had been sold.
Automotive News' obituary on Olds said, "Mr. Olds built soundly, being one of the first to see the commercial possibilities of a contraption largely regarded as a man-size toy."
Oldsmobile had an excellent reputation with the public even after Ransom Olds left in 1904 to start Reo Motor Car Co. But the company needed help with marketing.
Billy Durant, who had been helping boost Buick's sales, bought Olds Motor Works in 1908 and it grew, slowly but steadily. Sales reached 7,679 in 1915, topped 10,000 the next year and surged past 20,000 in 1917.
By 1908, Reo was No. 3 in sales.
Reo had a truck manufacturing segment, which produced the Reo Speed Wagon, made famous in more recent times by the 1970s band REO Speedwagon.
Olds enjoyed visiting Florida and was famous for racing vehicles on its beaches. He wanted to turn several thousand acres he owned on the northern end of Tampa Bay into a winter retreat for Midwesterners. He named the town Oldsmar. A marketing brochure from that time is titled "Oldsmar for health, wealth, happiness."
An article from the Web site of the Oldsmar Public Library states that Olds named many of the town's streets — such as Woodward, Jefferson and Congress — after those in Detroit.
Advertisements touting Oldsmar ran in the Detroit papers. Olds encouraged workers in Michigan plants to move to Florida. But despite his dogged efforts, the town failed to take off, and Olds lost nearly $3 million. The town exists today and is experiencing rapid growth.
Olds gave away most of his fortune during his life to colleges, charity, Baptist missions and churches.
During his long tenure in Lansing, Olds built Olds Tower (now called Boji Tower), which is the tallest building in the city, and the Hotel Olds (now the George W. Romney Building).
GM discontinued Oldsmobile in 2004.