Oldsmobile History Pre-GM

Olds Promotion & Popularization

Olds Motor Works’ well-priced, reliable runabout was the bestselling car in America from 1902-1905. Despite its popularity, automobiles were not a significant player in the transportation world. In 1903, 4000 people bought Oldsmobiles, but more than 900,000 bought buggies and carriages.

Many would-be customers balked at the high price of an automobile.

Oldsmobile offered a popular counterargument in a 1903 advertisement. The car required $35 in gasoline for a year of operation, while a horse needed $180 in food. What's more, the car only used gas when it ran, while a horse had to be fed whether it worked or not.

Motorizing society

Carmakers sought customers beyond private owners. They saw lucrative potential in motorizing police departments, fire departments and other municipal agencies. This 1906 advertisement from Oldsmobile promotes the car's use by the Boston Fire Department. There is an implied message, too: If the Oldsmobile can handle rugged fire service, think how well it can serve your everyday needs.

Publicity stunts

Olds also was the first to use publicity stunts to market his vehicles. To draw attention to his vehicles in those early days, Olds commissioned a young associate, Roy D. Chapin, to drive a Curved Dash Olds to New York for an appearance at the 1901 New York Auto Show.

Chapin left Detroit on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1901. He went 278 miles through Ontario to Niagara Falls, an amazing performance. On Friday he encountered heavy rains between Syracuse and Albany. The muddy roads were nearly impassable, so Chapin asked about driving on the level and well-finished roads along the Erie canal (used by mules to pull barges). He was told he would be jailed if he used it! Nonetheless, fifteen minutes later, he pulled the little Olds onto the all weather road that stretched along the canal to the horizon.

On Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, only blocks from the Waldorf-Astoria, he swerved to avoid hitting a man who stepped in front of the Olds. The car hit the curb and deformed a wheel. Chapin bent it back as best he could and drove on.

Success from Olds test driver who later headed Hudson Motor Car

Roy Chapin, (who would later head the Hudson Motor Car Co. and whose son, Roy Jr., would head American Motors Corp.), had completed the longest automobile trip that had been made in the USA up until that time. Ransom Olds was waiting in the lobby of the hotel to greet him, but Chapin -- covered with grease and dust -- was ordered by the doorman to use the service entrance at the rear of the hotel.

New York to Portland in 44 days

In 1905, two Oldsmobiles competed in an east to west transcontinental race from New York City to Portland, Oregon. In the photograph Dwight B. Huss navigates "Old Scout" through Iowa's flooded Skunk River. Old Scout won the race over his competitor "Old Steady" reaching Portland in forty-four days.

Moving away from the Curved Dash

The Curved Dash runabout made Oldsmobile a success, but some customers wanted something more modern than the little runabout's decidedly carriage-inspired look. Oldsmobile's "French Front" touring model featured a long hood out front, just like sophisticated import automobiles. But the Olds hood was largely for show -- the one-cylinder engine still sat under the seat. (1905)

1906 Olds Ad featuring Boston Fire Dept
Roy D. Chapin 1901
Dwight B. Huss navigates Old Scout through flooded Skunk River in Iowa
Old Scout, winner of Transcontinental Race in 1905

Ransom Olds Departure, REO & Acquisition by GM

When early backer Samuel L Smith wanted to produce a more expensive car to serve the burgeoning luxury market, Olds quit and formed REO Motor Car Company in 1905.

Ransom Olds later years

Again using publicity to attract attention to his vehicle, Olds arranged for a long distance automobile trip. The most famous REO episode was the 1912 Trans-Canada journey. Traveling 4,176 miles (6,720 km) from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, British Columbia, in a 1912 REO special touring car, mechanic/driver Fonce V. (Jack) Haney and journalist Thomas W. Wilby made the first trip by automobile across Canada.

In 1915, Ransom Olds relinquished the title of general manager of REO Motor Car to his protégé Richard H. Scott and 8 years later he ended his tenure as the company's presidency as well, retaining the position of chairman of the board.

In 1915, Ransom Olds formed the Ideal Power Lawn Mower Company to manufacture his newest invention, the gasoline-powered lawn mower.

Ransom Olds would retire in 1925, having given Detroit’s signature industry a generous portion of innovations.

1908 Oldsmobile under General Motors

In 1908 Oldsmobile was acquired by William Durant and became part of the new General Motors Durant was building. Oldsmobile was integrated into the General Motors empire and gradually emerged as an upscale sporty and experimental car.

Industry consolidation by Billy Durant

In the first years of the 20th century, the automotive industry was a mess. There were over 40 different car companies in the United States, most of which sold only a handful of cars each year, there was a tendency to take customers’ down payments and then go out of business before delivering.

To build consumer confidence and drive the weak car companies out of business, consolidation of the largest and most reliable manufacturers into one big company was an idea that appealed to Billy Durant, who had made millions in the carriage business just that way: Instead of selling one kind of vehicle to one kind of customer, Durant’s company had sold carriages and carts of all kinds, from the basic to the luxurious.
Ransom Eli Olds signed photo
William C. Durant
GM incorporation Sept 1908