One of the great pioneers in the development of American automobiles was Ransom Eli Olds. Working as a partner in his father’s machine shop in Lansing, Michigan, Ransom developed an internal combustion engine which he incorporated into a car. In 1897, he opened the Olds Motor Vehicle Company. The vehicle did not sell well, but his engine did.
In 1899 the company was sold to copper and lumber magnate Samuel L. Smith and renamed the Olds Motor Works. Smith became president and Olds was vice president and general manager. The reorganized company moved from Lansing to Detroit.
Olds built 11 prototype vehicles—including steam, electric, and gas vehicles—when the factory burned to the ground in 1901. Following this set back, he put his Curved Dash Oldsmobile into production. This vehicle was simple, affordable, and, more importantly, it was cheaper and more dependable than the horse. With the Curved Dash, the automobile gained legitimacy with the American public.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile sold for $650 (that’s about $18,426 in today’s dollars). To mass produce the vehicle, Olds developed the assembly line. Sales rose from 600 in 1901, to 3,000 the next year, and to 4,000 by 1904 when Olds left the company due to conflicts with Frederic L. Smith.
In 1904, Olds founded a new company: initially the company was called R.E. Olds Motor Car Company, but when Olds Motor Works threatened legal action, it was renamed REO (also spelled Reo). Olds became president and general manager and held 52% of the stock. To make sure that REO would have a dependable supply of parts, Olds organized a number of subsidiary companies including National Coil Company, Michigan Screw Company, and Atlas Drop Forge Company.
Shown above is the 1906 REO Runabout.
Olds Motor Works, by the way, was purchased by General Motors in 1908, which continued to produce the Oldsmobile brands until 2004.
Shown above is the 1907 REO Model B Runabout which is on display in the Museum and Art Center in Sequim, Washington.
By 1907, REO was one of the four wealthiest automobile manufacturers in the United States. While REO introduced improved cars designed by Olds in 1908, REO’s share of the overall automobile market decreased due to competition from Ford and General Motors.
In 1912, REO made history with the completion of a 4,176 mile journey across Canada. Fonce V. (Jack) Haney (mechanic and driver) and Thomas W. Wilby (journalist) drove a REO touring car from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver, British Columbia.
In 1915, Olds stepped down as general manager of REO and Richard H. Scott assumed the title. Under Scott’s leadership, REO remained a profitable company for the next decade.
Shown above in a 1917 REO Model 7 touring car.
Shown above is an ad for the 1917 line of REO automobiles.
Shown above is a 1919 REO touring car.
In 1923, Olds resigned as the president of REO though he retained his position as chairman of the board. With major losses due to the Depression, Olds ended his retirement in 1933 and briefly assumed control of REO. In 1936, REO stopped manufacturing automobiles and concentrated on trucks.
One of the trucks developed was the REO Speedwagon, a name which a rock group later took for its name.
Shown above is a 1931 REO Royale Victoria Eight.