Oldsmobile History Curved Dash

1901 Factory Fire & The Curved Dash Olds

On March 1, 1901, a fire broke out at the Olds factory and burned the facility to the ground. Olds had just returned from a vacation to find his factory in smoldering ruin and most of his prototype vehicles destroyed. However, one vehicle was saved from the fire; the gas-powered “Curved Dash” runabout. The plans for the vehicle had also survived the fire, as had the foundry.

Though Olds had built other prototype vehicles, it was decided to rebuild immediately and put all of the firm's production resources into the little Curved Dash Olds. He began producing it later in the year and not only radically reduced the price of the car but made interchangeable parts the order of the day. This was a momentous decision because, it committed Olds to production of a small, relatively inexpensive car, its first "high-volume" model.

Proving the adage that "it's an ill wind that blows no good" (few things are so bad that no one profits from them), the fire had a positive effect -- news of the fire made thousands of people aware of the car. Inquiries and orders began arriving, some accompanied by cash payments.

An affordable automobile

While other carmakers concentrated on large, high-priced automobiles, Ransom Eli Olds introduced his simple little Curved Dash Oldsmobile in 1901 and sold it for a relatively inexpensive $650 (this would be roughly $23,000 today according to US inflation calculators). Olds was among the first to realize the potential in an affordable automobile for the masses, and his Curved Dash runabout put car ownership within the means of the middle class.

A single-cylinder, four horsepower engine powered the Oldsmobile Curved-Dash runabout. It had one cylinder, one piston, one connecting rod and crank, one balance wheel, and two valves. The complications of larger multi-cylinder engines were eliminated. The engine's simplicity and the vehicle's affordable $650 price made the Curved-Dash runabout America's first car produced in large numbers.

Curved Dash Olds Specifications
Curved Dash Olds Advertisement 1903
RE Olds near the Belle Isle bridge circa 1902
Olds Motor Works: prototype cars and building lost to fire in 1901
1901 Olds factory fire - smoke enhanced with generative AI

Automobile Suppliers & The Assembly Line

Incidentally, the factory fire also led Olds to create the first system of automotive suppliers.

In late 1900, to keep up with demand, Olds contracted with the Dodge Brothers for engines and Henry M. Leland, head of Leland and Faulconer Co., for transmissions. These were some of the first large component orders made by an auto maker to outside suppliers.

Olds continued contracts with Leland and Dodge in June 1901 to make thousands of engines and transmissions for the curved-dash Oldsmobile.

Former Olds supplier forms Cadillac

When Ransom E. Olds turned down an improved engine design offered by Leland (Olds didn’t want to pause production on the Oldsmobile line long enough to re-tool for a new engine), Leland ceased upon the opportunity presented to him by the officers of the failing Henry Ford Company (formerly Detroit Automobile Company). Leland founded Cadillac in 1902 out of the ashes of the Henry Ford Company. Cadillac, named for Detroit founder Le Sieur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.

Electric starters & lighting, Lincoln aircraft engines

As a note of interest, years later Leland combined with Charles F. Kettering and introduced the electric self-starter and lighting systems for Cadillac. Also under Leland's leadership, Cadillac introduced the V8 water-cooled engine. Henry Leland left General Motors in 1917 formed the Lincoln Motor Company to build Liberty aircraft engines. After the war, the company's factories were retooled to manufacture luxury automobiles. In 1922, Lincoln was purchased by the Ford Motor Company.

Invention of the assembly line

When supply was outstripped by demand, Olds developed and patented the very first assembly line. Ransom put in place much of what we recognize as the assembly line today, defined repetitive operations, fixed stations and parts delivered to the worker. In 1902 the factory's output quadrupled from 425 cars in 1901 to 2,500.

The credit for the invention of the assembly line often goes to Henry Ford because of one very critical addition, Ford put the cars on a mechanised conveyor of sorts, creating the all-important moving assembly line. This was in comparison to Olds' version where automobiles were moved via rope & chain manually.

Production of the Curved Dash increased exponentially in the ensuing years and by 1903, Olds Motor Works had become the largest automotive manufacturer in the United States. Oldsmobile made 30% of the cars built in the United States in 1903. By 1905 Olds had moved back to Lansing and was building 5,000 cars a year.

Canadian production

Packard Electric of Canada built cars on license from Oldsmobile for the distribution in Canada and the British Empire. In 1904, the Olds Motor Works of Lansing, Michigan started on a program to build bigger, more modern cars for the 1905 season. The St. Catharines Ontario-built cars that appeared in 1905 were mostly lightweight, one- and two- cylinder runabouts with a hood in front and optional removable rear tonneau. Prices began around $800 and production was in the hundreds.

Canadian production began in 1905 and was discontinued before the end of 1907 due to a change in market need - these cars were seen as too large and expensive for the Canadian market of the time.

Oldsmobile’s Canadian operation became just a selling and servicing agency for imported vehicles, and headquarters were moved to Toronto. Oldsmobiles were not made again in Canada until 1920, when the newly founded General Motors of Canada began building them in Oshawa.

1903 Oldsmobile 1 cylinder engine
Leland and Faulconer Testing Room early 1900's
Olds cars at the Packard Electric Plant in Canada
Olds cars at Packard Electric Plant Canada