The First Car Ghost Story?

Before there were fright-inducing cars like the 1958 Plymouth Fury in Christine and the 1971 Lincoln Continental in The Car, there was a haunted automobile in Geneva, New York, terrifying mechanics. The year was 1917, and newspapers printed stories like this one about the cursed car. Happy Halloween!

“A ‘Haunted Car’ Shatters Nerves of Geneva Garages.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 6 August 1917, p. 9.
This Model A is too “new” to be the one in the 1917 story, but it still has a ghostly look about it!

Ransom Eli Olds

The initials on this hubcap, REO, belong to a man who was a true trailblazer for the American automotive industry, Ransom Eli Olds. He had two different automobiles named after him, first the Oldsmobile and then the Reo, and you would be hard-pressed to name someone more deserving of the honor.

Olds started Olds Motor Works Inc. in 1899 with financial backing from Samuel Smith. After disagreeing with Smith and his sons about the direction of the company, Olds left and used his knowledge and reputation to form Reo in 1904. This Reo ad from 1905 illustrates the importance of Olds’ experience, describing him as the “man who knows how”.

That Olds paved the way for those who followed is evidenced by the many “firsts” in the automotive industry that he was personally responsible for. Olds built his first “horseless carriage” in 1886, and this was the first one to ever appear on the roads of Michigan. He built an improved version in 1892 (both were powered by gas-burning steam engines) and a London company paid Olds $400 for it. The purchaser wanted to use it to promote business in India and shipped it to Bombay in 1893, making this the first automobile ever sold for export.

As previously mentioned, Olds started Olds Motor Works in 1899. Prior to that, however, he had formed Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897. That 1897 company was the first company in Michigan organized for the exclusive purpose of manufacturing automobiles.

Olds was also the first quantity producer of automobiles, manufacturing nearly 4,000 of the popular “curved-dash runabouts” in 1903. In 1905, Reo was producing one car every 40 minutes. Henry Ford is often given credit for the assembly line, but the Olds plant was the first to use conveyors for assembly line production. In 1941, Alfred Reeves of the Automobile Manufacturers Association called Olds “the father of mass production in the motor industry” and said he was basing this statement on the fact that Olds had used the progressive assembly system to produce 5,000 of the 22,000 cars made in 1904. Ford and Olds were lifelong friends and Ford was a frequent visitor at the Olds plant where he got the idea for low-cost mass production.

Olds was also responsible for America’s first cross-country trip from Detroit to New York in an automobile. It took 21-year-old Roy Chapin (who later co-founded Hudson) a week to make the trip, performing a multitude of repairs along the way. Oldsmobile also took part in the first transcontinental trips in the summer of 1903 (along with a Packard and a Winton). Two drivers took an Oldsmobile from San Francisco to New York in 1903, taking 74 days to complete the trip.

These trips were good promotions for Oldsmobile, and promotion was another area in which Olds led the way. Olds was the first to advertise nationally in 1902 by taking out an ad in the Saturday Evening Post. Olds also hired a famous songwriter of the day named Gus Edwards to write a song about the Oldsmobile. The result was “My Merry Oldsmobile” and it was a hit. The lyrics were included in ads like this one, and they are surprisingly suggestive for the early 1900s (I guess people started making out in cars as soon as they were invented)!

Many songs have been written about cars since (check out this list as voted on by Hot Rod readers a few years ago) but the Oldsmobile ditty was likely the first about a particular automobile. And then there were promotional events like a parade in which Teddy Roosevelt rode in a Reo, or stunts like this one at Grosse Pointe in 1901:

According to a story in the Detroit Free Press, these cars were giving a novel demonstration of control on a huge teeter-totter: “Running first forward and then back, the chauffer worked the teetering board up and down with the greatest ease and balanced it perfectly.”

In 1944, a celebration took place to observe Olds’ 80th birthday. It was noted then that the pioneers of the automobile industry were quickly disappearing. Dave Buick and Frank Duryea were gone, as was Josiah Dallas Dort, John and Horace Dodge, Henry Leland and William Durant. Roy Chapin was gone, too. Charlie Nash was able to make it to the party, but an ailing Henry Ford was absent. Olds lived another six years, and by the time he passed away in 1950 he had outlived almost everyone. The headlines at that time appropriately proclaimed him the “Last of the Auto Pioneers”.

In this ad from 1927, the Reo company is still making sure everyone knows that “REO” are the initials of Ransom Eli Olds.
1928 REO 1 1/2-ton truck at Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska.
Photo credit: Delaney Tracy
1928 REO 1 1/2-ton truck at Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska.
Photo credit: Delaney Tracy


Advertisement. Oldsmobile. The Detroit Free Press, 18 June, 1905, p.9.

Advertisement. Oldsmobile. The McPherson Daily Republican, 8 May 1909, p. 1.

Advertisement. Reo. Honolulu Star Bulletin, 27 May 1929, p. 4.

Advertisement. Reo. The Illustrated Buffalo Express, 12 March 1905, p. 10.

“Cross Country in Automobile.” The San Francisco Call, 18 September 1903, p. 2.

Darling, Birt. “Yen for Tinkering Brought Fame and Millions to R. E. Olds.” The Lansing State Journal, 26 June 1955, p. 17.

“Evolution of the Automobile.” The Detroit Free Press, 10 October 1901, p. 4.

“Gus Edwards of Gaslight Era Agreed to Write Famous Melody.” The Lansing State Journal, 28 April 1955, p. 10-G.

“His Home is Chapin’s Hobby.” The Muncie Evening Press, 22 August 1932, p. 3.

“History of Reo Closely Linked with Growth of Lansing.” The Lansing State Journal, 28 April 1955, p. 14-G.

“Illness is Fatal to Roy D. Chapin.” The Detroit Free Press, 17 February 1936, p. 2.

“Long Life of Ransom Eli Olds, Last of Auto Pioneers, Had Many Highlights.” The Lansing State Journal, 27 August 1950, sec. 3 p. 4.

“Lucky Lansing Gets Big Automobile Manufacturing Company.” The Detroit Free Press 18 August 1904, p. 7.

Palmer, Paul G. “Researcher Gives Fresh Insight on R. E. Olds.” The Lansing State Journal, 9 December 1962, p. F-1.

“Pioneer Motor Maker Sees End of Steam Power.” Oakland Tribune, 17 May 1924, p. AA-5.

Vance, Bill. “Olds Left Behind Legacy of Innovation.” The Star Phoenix, 16 January 1998, p. C-7.

Oldsmobile Hood Emblems

I often hear from people who need help identifying the tail lights, hood ornaments and hub caps left in the barn they have just inherited. Their grandfather/father/uncle knew what everything was, but now he is gone and the lucky beneficiaries don’t know what they have. It is a sad fact that every time we lose a guy like that, a wealth of knowledge goes with him. I try to help when I can, and have started putting together some guides like this one on Ford V8 hubcaps. Another area that generates a lot of confusion is the Oldsmobile “ringed globe” hood emblems. The various versions do look very similar, so here are some part numbers and pictures to help you sort it out.

This 1948 with distinctive down-turned grille sports the Oldsmobile crest with the “winged spur”. This was the year before Olds started using the ringed globe.

In 1949 and 1950, all of the Oldmobiles used the same hood emblem. (Note: The ones that I have seen are marked with part number 556420, but the Olds parts book says that all 1949-50 models used part number 559173. Motor’s Flat Rate & Parts says the 1949 “98” uses part number 556649. The Olds parts book mentions something about a hood conversion, so maybe that explains the confusion.)


In 1951, the Super 88 used this emblem (part number 560055).

1951 Super 88

The other 1951 models (“88A” and “98”) used part number 560058.

1951 (other than Super 88)

In 1952, all Olds models used part number 562144.


In 1953, the ringed world emblem was two separate pieces. Only the 98 Fiesta Convertible differed from the other models by using part numbers 563868 and 563872 (not pictured). The rest of the Oldsmobiles used part numbers 562787 for the bar and ring and 562789 for the world insert.


In 1954, all models used the same emblem. It was two pieces, part numbers 565126 for the bar and ring and 563869 for the insert.


For 1955, all of the models again used the same emblem. Part numbers are 566353 for the bar and ring and 566354 for the world insert.


The 1956 version looks very different from the earlier ones. The part number is 567448.


The hood emblem was once again re-styled for 1957, and then gone completely from the hood of the ’58.



FOP Radiator Badge

It has been awhile since I’ve posted anything because we’ve been distracted by the week-long craziness known as Nebraska’s Junk Jaunt. The Junk Jaunt is a trail of approximately 500 miles, filled with hundreds of garage sales and antiques vendors, that winds along the Loup River and through the scenic Sandhills. People come from all over to treasure hunt, alone or in packs, and the whole thing has a fun, festive atmosphere.

The selection did not disappoint this year. My daughter is a World War II buff, and she was understandably thrilled to find an Air Force foot locker from that era with a leather flight suit still in it. My favorite automobile-related find was probably this item:

This is a radiator badge and, as you can see, it reads, “Associate Member Fraternal Order of Police”. It is no surprise that it has some damage. It would have been wired to the front end of an automobile where it would have faced considerable wear and tear, and it is old. No older than 1915, however, because that is when the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) formed after founders witnessed how firefighters bettered their working conditions by negotiating as a group.

I like the symbolism of the FOP’s star emblem. It is hard to make out on my badge, but the symbols on the two legs of the star are an open eye on the left and clasped hands on the right. According to the FOP website, “The open eye is the eye of vigilance ever looking for danger and protecting all those under its care while they sleep or while awake. The clasped hands denote friendship. The hand of friendship is always extended to those in need of our comfort.” The blue field represents the thin blue line protecting those served by law enforcement, and the motto in the center of the star reads “Jus, Fidus, Libertatum”. This Latin phrase translates to “Law is a Safeguard of Freedom”.