The unassuming Curved-Dash Oldsmobile is significant not only as the first best-selling American car of the 20th Century, but as a car that saved its maker. Had it not been as popular -- or "rescued'' from a disastrous fire -- Oldsmobile might not have lasted past 1902. Just as important, the Curved-Dash was everything "horseless carriages" had to be to become a permanent part of this century's landscape: versatile, available, and most of all, reliable.
Its story begins with Ransom Eli Olds, born in 1864 in Geneva, Ohio. His father, Pliny Olds, repaired machinery, a trade "Ranny" began learning at an early age. By 1880, the family had settled in Lansing, Michigan, then a town of about 2,000, where papa Olds and his older boy Wallace set up shop as P.F. Olds & Son, "practical machinists" specializing in castings and steam engines.
Ransom, meanwhile, attended high school and took an accounting course at a local business school, the latter enabling him to join the firm in 1883 as both machinist and bookkeeper. The business was incorporated in 1890, when Ransom bought out his brother's share. He became sole proprietor when their father retired four years later.
All the while, Ransom tinkered with horseless carriages, building a three-wheeled steamer by 1887, an even better four-wheeler in 1891, and another in 1992. Yet that first car was enough to persuade Edward W. Sparrow and Samuel L. Smith, lumber and copper magnates, respectively, to give him $30,000 to start the Olds Gasoline Engine Works 1890. Despite its name, this firm made small steam engines, "gasoline" referring to the fuel that fired their boilers.
Still, Ransom recognized the internal-combustion gasoline engine as the most promising for motorcars, and in the summer of 1896 he built his first such automobile: a small machine with a five-horsepower water-cooled twin, chain drive, two-speed planetary transmission, and a top speed of 18 mph, Sparrow and Smith saw potential profit in this rig, and gave Ransom another $50,000 to set up the Olds Motor Vehicle Company that August.
Ransom wanted "to build one carriage in as nearly a perfect manner as possible," but his workers managed four (some say five) within three months-then walked out. Sparrow soon followed, but Smith still believed, and in May 1899 put up $350,000 for yet another a new venture called Olds Motor Works, which absorbed the two previous companies. Because Smith and his sons Fred and Angus were Detroiters, Ransom became one, too, setting up a new plant -- the first specifically erected for car production -- on Jefferson Avenue near the Belle Isle bridge.
On the next page, learn how a fire in the Olds factory spurred on the development of the 1901-1907 Oldsmobile Curved-Dash.