Automotive Innovators Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds

Ransom Olds of the REO Motor Car Co.Rather than debate the "who invented it" aspect of the automobile, we look at the evolution of the auto industry in America with a comparison of two early innovators and pioneers in the Auto industry, Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds. It is a study in innovation, a study of success, and a study of personal drive and entrepreneurial spirit.

The Olds Motor Vehicle Company

In America, Ransom Eli Olds was a true pioneer in the automotive industry, in 1886 he began experimenting with a steam-powered engine and would receive his first patent for a gasoline-powered car.  Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company to manufacture it in 1897.  In 1899 Olds sold the company to Samuel L. Smith, who relocated the company from  Lansing, Michigan to Detroit. Smith became President while Olds became vice president and general manager.

Ransom Olds is credited with designing the basic concept of the assembly line. By 1901 Olds had built 11 prototype vehicles, including at least one of each power mode: steam, electricity and gasoline. At the Old Motor Works in Detroit he mass produced the Curved Dash Oldsmobile becoming the leading American auto producer from 1901 through 1904.

Most people would recognize the name Ransom Olds as the founder of the more well known brand created by Olds that would become Oldmobile, but his association with that company lasted only a few short years. As Smith's son Frederic came into the business, he and Olds clashed frequently. Ransom Olds would leave the Olds Motor Works in 1904. 

General Motors purchased the Olds Motor Works in 1908. The Oldsmobile brand was discontinued by General Motors in 2004.

The REO Motor Company

After leaving Olds Motor works, Ransom Eli Olds went on to form to the REO Motor Company in Lansing, Michigan in 1905.  By 1907 he had built REO into one of the automotive industry’s leaders. While Ford began modifying technology to produce cheaper vehicles, Ransom Olds favored a bigger, more expensive automobile. Ransom Olds would serve as president of REO Motor Car Company until 1925, and would serve on the board of directors until he stepped away entirely from REO in 1936.

In 1938 it was reorganized as REO Motors, Inc., a bus and truck company.  REO merged with Diamond T Trucks in 1967 to form Diamond-Reo Trucks. The company went out of business in 1975.

The Henry Ford Company and Cadillac

The Detroit Automobile Company was Henry Ford's first attempt at automobile manufacturing, lasting from only 1899 to 1901. The Henry Ford Company was the second company for Henry Ford, founded November, 1901. Henry Ford was trying to create a name for himself in the auto racing community.  Ford believed having his name associated with a race winning automobile was a valuable asset.  His partners and financial backers, William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen, did not agree, and asked Ford to give up auto racing. Instead Ford walked away from The Henry Ford Company.

William Murphy and his partners at the Henry Ford Company hired Henry Leland to appraise the company's factory and other assets to be liquidated. Leland advised Murphy and his partners that should not liquidate the company, and suggested they instead reorganize. The reorganized company was named after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, Michigan. The Cadillac crest is based on his coat of arms.   Cadillac's first car produced in 1902 was based on Henry Ford's design and was essentially identical to the 1903 Ford Model A.

Leland sold Cadillac to General Motors in 1909, and remained on as an executive until 1917. The company that was born from the reorganized Henry Ford Company continues on today as the Cadillac division of General Motors more than a century later.

The Ford Motor Company

Founded by Henry Ford in 1903, The Ford Motor Company has become one of the world's largest and most profitable automotve companies over the past century.  As we said in search of the greatest inventors and technology innovators, Henry Ford didn't invent the assembly line, nor did he invent the concept of an automotive assembly line. Ransom Eli Olds, for whom both the Oldsmobile and REO brands were named, is credited with designing the basic concept of the assembly line. But Henry Ford was the first to use a moving assembly line to manufacture cars. Henry Ford perfected the assembly line producing a entire Model T Ford in 93 minutes. Henry Ford created lower cost automobiles, and created an industry.

Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds

Ransom Olds would be compared to Henry Ford in his invention and innovation in the auto industry.  Henry Ford is the name we all know, but the similarities between Henry Ford and Ransom Eli Olds are pretty interesting. Both men were experimenting with new concepts in automobiles in the late 1890s, both men left the initial companies they created over disputes with management.  The Ford Motor Company was started in 1903, The REO Motor Company in 1905. Both companies were initially successful, but Henry Ford had the personal drive and entrepreneurial spirit that took him beyond just starting up a business. Henry Ford was creating an industry. Ford was an innovator that kept pushing, and succeeding.

We look at Ransom Eli Olds as the forgotten geek in automotive invention much in the same sense that we describe George Westinghouse as a quiet man who avoided the spotlight unlike his rival Thomas Edison. Ransom E. Olds seems to be a quiet and somewhat mysterious figure unlike his rival Henry Ford.  Searching numerous public domain sources for a photo of Ransom Olds only produced the one you see on this article, found at the Library of Congress taken during a 1924 visit to the White House.

Geek History explores automotive innovation and invention

As we created the Geek History website, some topics were a natural, such as the history of the internet and modern electronics at silicon valley. But as we studied Thomas Edison our research became more intertwined with Henry Ford and the automotive industry. we saw that the exploration of automotive innovation and invention was a natural extension of our Geek History website.

Join Geek History as we explore automotive innovation and invention at Altered Automotive.  Learn more about the great automotive inventors like Ford and Olds as we explore the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit and the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan.