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.

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