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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The Founding of Oldsmobile

Updated: Aug 27, 2023


Founding of Oldsmobile
photo credit: www.automotivenews.com

In 1897, Ransom Eli Olds of Lansing, Michigan, founded Olds Motor Works, marking the inception of a brand that would eventually become synonymous with innovation and automobile history. His venture would pave the way for the birth of one of America's iconic automotive brands - Oldsmobile. This is the story of how a small startup in Michigan grew into a household name in the automotive world.

Olds Motor Works factory
photo credit: www.touringohio.com

The Early Years: Ransom Eli Olds and the Birth of Olds Motors Works

Ransom Eli Olds had a fascination with mechanical inventions from a young age, and his passion for creating something groundbreaking led him to experiment with various machines. In 1887, Olds built his first steam-powered automobile, an impressive achievement for the time. However, it was his shift to internal combustion engines that would set the stage for his lasting impact on the automotive landscape.


In 1897, Olds founded Olds Motors Works with a vision to produce reliable and affordable automobiles for the mass market. His early designs incorporated innovative features that set his vehicles apart from the competition. One of his key inventions was the curved-dash Oldsmobile, later introduced in 1901 after he had sold the company. This affordable and easy-to-operate vehicle gained popularity, solidifying Oldsmobile's position in the burgeoning automotive industry.

Early Oldsmobile ad
photo credit: www.myautoworld.com

The Transition and Growth: From Olds Motors Works to Oldsmobile

In 1899, Samuel Smith, a copper and lumber magnate, recognized the potential of Olds Motors Works and purchased the company. The acquisition marked a turning point for the brand, as Smith's involvement brought the necessary resources and expertise to propel Oldsmobile to new heights. The company was renamed Olds Motor Vehicle Company, and in 1901, it was renamed Oldsmobile, reflecting its new direction and ownership.


Under Smith's guidance, Oldsmobile continued to innovate and expand its product offerings. The introduction of the curved-dash Oldsmobile marked a significant milestone, as it became one of the first mass-produced automobiles in the United States. Its affordability and practicality made it a favorite among consumers, contributing to the brand's reputation for accessible and reliable vehicles.

Oldsmobile introduces the Rocket engine V8
photo credit: www.hagerty.com

Innovations and Industry Impact

Oldsmobile's commitment to innovation didn't stop with the curved-dash model. In fact, the brand was responsible for several automotive innovations that left a lasting impact on the industry. One notable example was the introduction of the first assembly line for automobile production. While Oldsmobile's assembly line was not as extensive as Ford's later version, it laid the groundwork for the mass production methods that would revolutionize the automotive industry.


Oldsmobile also made significant advancements in engine technology. The brand was among the first to introduce the V8 engine, which became a hallmark of power and performance in the automotive world. This innovation resonated with consumers and enthusiasts alike, solidifying Oldsmobile's reputation as a brand that pushed the boundaries of what was possible in automobile engineering.

This is not your father's Oldsmobile
photo credit: www.motortrend.com

Evolution and Legacy: Oldsmobile's Impact on American Motoring

Throughout the 20th century, Oldsmobile continued to evolve and adapt to changing consumer preferences and technological advancements. The brand's commitment to innovation and high-quality vehicles earned it a dedicated following, and Oldsmobile cars became a common sight on American roads.


However, as the automotive industry evolved and new competitors emerged, Oldsmobile faced challenges that eventually led to its decline. Changing market dynamics and shifts in consumer preferences prompted General Motors, Oldsmobile's parent company, to discontinue the brand in 2004. The decision marked the end of an era for Oldsmobile, but its legacy lived on through the countless vehicles it had produced and the impact it had on the automotive landscape.

REO Speedwagon
photo credit: www.motortrend.com

What Happened to Ransom Eli Olds? Following the sale of Olds Motor Works, Ransom Olds established a new automobile company called the "REO Motor Car Company" in 1905. The name "REO" was derived from his initials. Under his leadership, REO produced a range of automobiles that gained popularity. One of its most popular was the REO Speed Wagon truck, first produced in 1915, the same year that Olds sold the company. The Speed Wagon trucks gained popularity for their durability, reliability, and versatility, making them a prominent choice for various commercial and industrial applications during that era. Yes, the REO Motor Car Company is connected to the popular rock band REO Speedwagon. The band's founding member, keyboardist Neal Doughty, came up with the name after seeing an old REO Speed Wagon truck in a parking lot. An electrical engineering major at the University of Illinois, he liked the name's combination of "REO" from the company and "Speedwagon," which evoked a sense of fast and powerful movement. The name resonated with the other founding members of REO Speedwagon - Alan Gratzer, Joe Matt, Mike Blair, and Gregg Philbin - who were also attending the University of Illinois. They adopted REO Speedwagon as their official name when they formed in 1967.

First lunar rover
photo credit: www.space.com

Did You Know?

  1. First Mass-Produced Automobile: The curved-dash Oldsmobile is often credited as one of the first mass-produced automobiles in the United States, making automobile ownership more accessible to a wider range of consumers.

  2. Role in Indy 500: Oldsmobile played a significant role in motorsport, and the brand's engines powered various vehicles in the Indianapolis 500, showcasing their performance capabilities.

  3. Innovations in Safety: Oldsmobile was an early adopter of safety features such as hydraulic brakes, contributing to advancements in vehicle safety that benefit drivers to this day.

  4. V8 Engine Prowess: The introduction of the Rocket V8 engine in the 1949 Oldsmobile 88 marked a pivotal moment in American muscle car history, setting the stage for powerful and performance-oriented vehicles.

  5. NASA Connection: Oldsmobile engines powered the Lunar Roving Vehicle used during the Apollo missions, showcasing the brand's engineering prowess even beyond Earth.

  6. Influence on Marketing: Oldsmobile's marketing campaigns played a role in shaping consumer perceptions, and slogans like "Not your father's Oldsmobile" aimed to attract a younger audience.

  7. Contributions to Hybrid Technology: In the early 1970s, Oldsmobile experimented with hybrid technology in the form of the Oldsmobile Tornado Gas Turbine-Electric Hybrid, showcasing the brand's forward-thinking approach.

  8. Presence in Pop Culture & Legacy: Oldsmobile vehicles made appearances in various movies and TV shows, contributing to their cultural impact and recognition. Despite its discontinuation, Oldsmobile remains a beloved brand among collectors, enthusiasts, and those who appreciate its contributions to automotive history.

From its pioneering founder, Ransom Eli Olds, to its status as a trailblazer in engineering and design, Oldsmobile left an indelible mark on American motoring. While the brand may no longer produce vehicles, its legacy lives on through the countless cars that once graced the roads and the memories of those who experienced the thrill of driving an Oldsmobile.

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