Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout
Henry Ford is the man usually given credit for transforming the automobile from a rich man’s toy to every man’s transportation. However, it was another Michigan resident who set the stage for Ford’s revolution. Before Ransom E. Olds, the few cars that were being built were fabricated individually in machine shops and sold on a catch-as-catch-can basis to those few wealthy enough to afford the high asking prices. Olds was the man who orchestrated the change from the shop to the assembly line, making the automobile affordable to a far larger audience, thus setting the stage for Henry’s Model T.
The son of a machinist, Olds studied accounting at a Lansing, Michigan, business college, but he always felt more at home in his father’s shop. With his schooling over he joined the business, which operated in the exciting world of repairing farm machinery. An inveterate tinker, Olds had vision far beyond fixing plows.
In the late 1880s several men from around the world were coming to the same conclusion: self-powered vehicles could be practical. Across the Atlantic, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were experimenting with gasoline-powered vehicles, as were the Duryea brothers in Massachusetts. In Michigan, Olds filled his idle hours by dabbling with vehicles powered by steam, electricity and gasoline, while keeping a weather eye out for the scant news of his contemporaries’ progress.
In 1887 he completed work on his first self-propelled vehicle, and by 1892 he was ready to give a public demonstration of the next-generation of his handiwork, the Olds Steamer. Scientific American magazine thought enough of that vehicle to give it a glowing report in its May 21, 1892, issue. Success in the marketplace was not nearly as immediate, however. Olds sold the Steamer to a British company, which promptly shipped it to India where it disappeared into the mists of history. Three lean years followed until Olds teamed with a local carriage maker’s son named Frank Clark. Their idea: quite literally the horseless carriage.
Equipped with a gasoline engine, their carriage impressed several members of the Lansing business community enough to ante up $50,000 to incorporate the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. With large diameter wheels and an extremely short wheelbase, the vehicle they built had a buggy-like body sitting above the mechanical components. It was tiller-steered, with brass side lights for night-driving. The company built four of these vehicles in its first year, but sales didn’t come easily, and it was starving for cash.
Undaunted, Olds traveled south to Detroit to try to tap into some of that city’s lumber money as a source of capital to build his business. He found just such a source in Samuel L. Smith, a copper and timber baron, who bought into Olds’ vision of an automobile factory.
This time with half a million dollars to play with, Olds reorganized his company as the Olds Motor Works. His idea wasn’t just to build automobiles, but to build automobiles on a large scale, enjoying the economies per unit that such a scheme would bring his enterprise. That, not the car itself, was Ramsom Olds’ big idea.
The budding car baron used some of the invested capital to build a three-story factory on the Detroit waterfront. Meanwhile, he retained his Lansing facility, turning it into his engine plant. But the big question was: what to build?
Conventional wisdom told him that a big, expensive machine built in small numbers was the way to success in the infant car business. That’s just how it was done.
Olds, though, decided that if he could make his new car light, small and inexpensive enough he could broaden his market considerably. From this notion was born the Curved Dash Olds. Compared to other cars of the day, there wasn't much to the Curved Dash Runabout. Its wheelbase, at 66 inches, was less than a foot longer than its track. The Runabout's frame was made of angle iron, and buggy-type springs supported its four corners. Above its midships-mounted mechanicals sat a leather-upholstered bench seat, which faced a gracefully turned-up dashboard, actually more of a foot protector, not a dashboard in the current sense.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile road on 3-inch wide tires, whose detachable rims were mounted on 28-inch diameter wood-spoke "artillery" wheels. The very direct steering was by tiller.
The engine was rather unremarkable for its time, a "one-lung" single cylinder with a five-inch bore and six-inch stroke, it produced what Oldsmobile has variously described as four or seven horsepower. It was started by twisting a crank on the driver's (right) side of the vehicle. Power was transmitted to the rear wheels via a two-speed planetary gear-set that also offered reverse. Once the driver established some forward motion, which was, of course, leisurely, deceleration was accomplished by brakes at the rear wheels and at the differential. The Curved Dash was ecumenical in its fluid capacities, carrying five gallons of gasoline and five gallons of water.
While the Oldsmobile's power output was less than many current riding lawn mowers, a saving grace was the fact that its engine didn't push around much weight. Ready to ramble off into the countryside, the car weighed just 650 pounds, a figure that was matched by its price, $650. (Interestingly enough, the dollar-a-pound figure was the target of the Ford Mustang design team 60 years later.)
While the Curved Dash Olds wasn't mechanically prepossessing and its design would properly be called serviceable or, at best, "cute," it was very well-promoted. To gain publicity immediately prior to the 1901 New York Auto Show, Olds sent Roy E. Chapin, who would later head Hudson Motor Car Company, on a journey from Detroit to Manhattan. Given the state of the road network in those days, a series of muddy, rutted paths, it's a miracle he was able to complete the journey at all, but he did (in seven and a half days), and the public relations stunt made Olds the hit of the show. Amazingly, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile averaged 14 miles per hour and used just 30 gallons of gasoline in the course of the journey.
The Olds Motor Works had already survived a disaster that year when the Detroit factory was destroyed by fire. The warm reception at the New York show gave the company a new lease on life as it repaired to a new factory in Lansing on the site of the old state fairgrounds.
This factory used a progressive assembly system, the precursor to the modern assembly line. Instead of one group of artisans completing an entire car, individual chassis were placed on castered carts and then wheeled from assembly point to assembly point where various specific operations would be performed.
In addition to using an assembly line process, Olds also used nearby businesses as suppliers to his enterprise. Some of the engines for the Curved Dash Runabout were built by a machine shop operated by the Dodge brothers, who would eventually lend their name to a line of mid-priced automobiles, and the transmissions were supplied by Henry Leland's Leland and Faulconer company. Leland, of course, would go on to found Cadillac and then Lincoln.
Using these techniques, Olds was able to build and market far more vehicles that his budding competitors. Curved Dash production reached its zenith in 1903 a 3,924 units. The next year, however, with sales down, Olds argued with his board of directors over the direction a new model might take, and when he lost the argument he quit the company. Later in 1904, he started another manufacturing concern he dubbed the REO Car Company, using his initials as the calling card.
Olds served as president of that firm until 1923 and watched as his former company became a key building block in General Motors. The man who drew the blueprint for mass production died in the summer of 1950, knowing the car he created half a century before would be ever-immortal if only because of the 1905 Gus Edwards ditty "In My Merry Oldsmobile."