Men Who Made Cars: Ransom E. Olds

A machine tinkering, high school dropout in Ohio named Ransom E. Olds (1864-1950) founded the car company known as Oldsmobile and created one of the first affordable cars in America.

During its existence, Oldsmobile made historic automotive accomplishments, including the first factory with assembly line manufacturing, the first automatic transmission with four forward speeds, and—in those early days—a gas-burning steam engine that made a decent profit.

Ransom Olds switched from using the hybrid steam/gasoline engine to a fully gas-powered motor after attending the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Within a few years, he was producing an internal-combustion engine. Olds applied for the first patent for what was called an "automobile carriage." After securing investors, he established the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897, which by most accounts struggled in the early years.

After a dispute with an investor’s relatives, he broke off and founded the REO Motor Car Company in 1904. In 1908, the company was purchased by pre-nationalized General Motors (GM) and branded as Oldsmobile. Mr. Olds was president until 1924.

Under GM, the brand had a mixed record. With sales declining, Oldsmobile made the Rocket V8 engine Cutlass, which became the nation’s best-selling car in 1976. Oldsmobile’s final new model, the Bravada sport utility vehicle (SUV), was in buyer demand—but GM’s Oldsmobile produced its last car, an Alero GL four-door sedan, in 2004, which is on display at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan.

[sources: Flint, Michigan, public library, others]

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