Ransom Eli Olds--the Man, His Cars, and His Music
By my unofficial, unscientific reckoning, around half of all automobile brands were named for the entrepenuer who founded the brand's original manufacturer. The streets and parking garages around us are filled with rolling commemorations of the life and accomplishments of the likes of Henry Ford, David Dunbar Buick, Horace and John Dodge, Louis Chevrolet, Walter P. Chrysler, Karl Benz, and Honda Sōichirō. There are still others, the founders of defunct brands, who once had their names up in lights chrome, if perhaps only for a short while: Charles Warren Nash, Harry C. Stutz, James Ward Packard, John Z. DeLorean, and the five Studebaker brothers, to name just a few.
Of all the members of this select club, Ransom Eli Olds has the unique distinction of having given his name to, not one, but two makes of automobile direct competitors for about thirty years or so, the survivor of which lasted for 107 years. We must also credit Mr. Olds with a considerable and lasting influence on American popular music. (Seriously!)
The 1901 Oldsmobile Model R1 "Curved Dash" runabout was arguably the first true mass-produced automobile. The "Curved Dash" nickname derives from the shape of the car's dashboard, which is a dashboard in the original horse drawn vehicle sense: a shield to keep mud and dust from flying up and hitting the driver in the face. The Curved Dash was a true "horseless carriage"--it looked more like a carriage than what we think of today as an automobile. It had spoked wheels, a carriage-style transverse eliptical leaf spring suspension, and a two-place "dickey box" seat perched high up such as you would find on a horse-drawn vehicle. The 4HP one-cylinder engine was mounted in an enclosure above the rear axle, and the transmission and flywheel extended under the seat. The drivetrain had two gears, forward and reverse. It cruised at around 22-25 MPH on level ground and was capable of sprinting to a blistering 30 or so on a downslope.
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile was built on an assembly line. Contrary to popular belief Henry Ford's Model T wasn't the first car built this way, although Ford was the first to use a powered conveyor system on his assembly line. Olds Motor Works also "subbed out" the manufacture of certain components to specialists rather than trying to make all the parts itself. The "supply chain" for the Curved Dash Olds included a few other famous names: Dodge Brothers built the transmissions, and Henry Martin Leland, later the founder of both Cadillac and Lincoln, built the engines.
The relatively efficient production process--virtually all other automobiles were then built by hand, with little subcontracting--allowed Olds to price the Curved Dash starting at just $650. $650 was a non-trivial sum of money in 1901 (it equates to 16,500 or so of today's post-inflation dollars), but the Olds was a bargain compared to the two-cylinder Ford "doctor's car" ($850) and many other direct competitors, most of which were priced well into the four-digit range. An Oldsmobile runabout was orders of magnitude more affordable than anything made by Packard, whose "base model" was stickered close to the median price of a new house!
The $650 price point was affordable enough for a large enough segment of the population that Olds Motor Works began selling Oldsmobiles in quantities that were then considered astonishing: 2,500 units in 1902, either 3,750 or 4,000 in 1903 depending on who you ask, and 5,000 in 1904. Thanks to the Curved Dash Olds, automobiles began to be seen as a mass-market consumer product, and not just a luxury item for the super rich. Other manufacturers responded with their own entry-level models. Soon there were $500 cars, and then $375 cars, the equivalent of what you'd pay for a low-end Hyundai Accent today. In 1906, one short-lived outfit even got the price of its base model runabout down close to Tata Nano territory at $250, which equates to under $6,000 today. As it was now rapidly becoming possible for relatively ordinary people to own automobiles, the Oldsmobile became something of a pop-culture icon. (More on that a bit later.)
The very popularity of the Curved Dash Oldsmobile had fateful consequences for Ransom Olds and his company. Now that they were making steady money, Uncle Samuel and Cousin Frederic wanted to take Olds Motor Works up-market and build more opulent and expensive Oldsmobiles, while Ransom thought the future lay in mass producing entry-level runabouts like the Curved Dash. The disagreement led to tension between the three. Uncle Samuel owned the most shares of stock, so he won the argument, and Ransom Olds was forced out of the company in 1903. The Olds Motor Works stayed under the control of Samuel Smith until it was sold to General Motors in 1908.
After an unpleasant experience like that, many a man would have given up on this newfangled auto business and taken up some less-chaotic vocation. Ransom Olds, however, was undaunted. In August of 1904, he formed the R. E. Olds Motor Car Company as his vehicle for re-entering the trade. Having just received a hard lesson in the disadvantages of being a minority shareholder, he made sure to hold on to a majority of the voting stock!
Shortly thereafter, trademark lawyers from the Olds Motor Works threatened to sue if Ransom so much as dared to sell cars under any brand name with "Olds" in it. As a matter of legality Uncle Samuel and Cousin Frederic had him on that point. He quickly renamed the firm "REO Motor Car Company"--the "REO" standing for "Ransom Eli Olds," of course. "REO" was always pronounced as a single word ("rio") and not as individual letters ("R-E-O"), and as time went on only the R was capitalized, resulting in "Reo." The company was never very consistent about this, though, and while it started out as "REO" and eventually ended up settling on "Reo" there was a long transition period during which you could see the name rendered both ways in advertising published, and on vehicles built, at around the same time.
REO (or Reo, if you prefer) hit the ground running. Production started in late 1904, and its first cars were shipped to customers in January of 1905. By 1907, REO was turning a $4.7 million annual profit. (That's $107 million in today's money.) In what must have been particularly sweet revenge, Ransom's new company (REO) sold more cars than the old company (Olds Motor Works) every year from 1905 through 1917. Oddly enough, REO did not concentrate on the low end of the market as you might have expected. It sold entry-level runabouts, to be sure, but it also offered ritzy touring cars with price tags north of $1,000--the very sort of high-end product that Ransom had objected to building at Olds Motor Works!
In 1909, REO started building trucks as well as cars. One of its first was a commercial truck with a semi-enclosed cab and a low-sided cargo bed, which could be fitted with a high fixed roof and roll-down canvas side curtains. It was intended to replace horse-drawn wagons for in-town deliveries, but it was also capable of running on highways at the same cruising speed as a car--at a time when other trucks couldn't break 15 MPH with a tailwind. REO called it the "Speed Wagon," and it has a legitimate claim to being both the first pickup truck and the first inter-city road freight truck. The Speed Wagon was successful enough that the term "speed trucks" became, for a time, a generic reference to the Speed Wagon and its direct competitors.
Later, REO began building heavy commercial trucks, buses, and fire engines, and the "Speed Wagon" name (sometimes rendered as the compound word "Speedwagon," sometimes not) was variously used on light delivery trucks and on some larger two-axle commercial haulers. Some 1930s print ads describe REO as a builder of "Speedwagons and Trucks."
As things shook out after the First World War, the REO/Reo was more or less a mid-priced make. So was Oldsmobile, which ended up as the middle rung in GM's "ladder of success" brand hierarchy. As a unit of a much larger company, Oldsmobile had an advantage in resources and economies of scale over its upstart rival, but REO held its own through the 1920s. Its cars and trucks earned a reputaton for ruggedness and reliability, and it was an early adopter of the Lockheed hydraulic brake system which we still use today.
REO was also what might be called an early adopter of Car Lust as a marketing tool. In the 1920s and early 30s, most cars had terminally unexciting model names such as "B-70," "Light Six," "Series V," "Model U," or "Single Eight." If the guys writing the catalog and ad copy were feeling particularly creative, you might end up with something along the lines of "Advanced Six Sport Touring," but that was about as fancy as it got.
In 1927, Reo introduced a new sedan with attractive styling which it dubbed "Flying Cloud," after the clipper ship. The Reo Flying Cloud was a dead conventional late-20s passenger car; not a whole lot different than its competitors, but certainly good enough for the times.
But oh, that name! It had a certain majestic weight to it that "B-70" and "Advanced Six Sport Touring" lacked. A "Flying Cloud" promised speed and adventure in quantities that you just weren't going to get from a "Single Eight" or "Series V." I mean, c'mon, all other things being equal, would you rather be rolling in a "Flying Cloud" or a "Model U?" The question pretty much answers itself.
Reo continued to favor flowery and evocative model names for the rest of its existence, even for its blue-collar commercial trucks. As best I can tell, though, Reo did not export vehicles to Brazil--meaning that they missed the chance to sell a "Reo DeJanero" in Rio de Janero.
Unfortunately, after the Flying Cloud, things started to go downhill. Richard H. Scott, who had succeeded Ransom Olds as Reo's president in 1915, decided to expand Reo beyond its traditional mid-market niche and develop a full line of cars, from stripped-down basic transportation all the way up to luxury land barges, challenging the big boys like GM and Ford in every market segment. Starting in 1925, Reo made considerable investments in product development and plant expansion to accomodate its enlarged product line.
It might have all worked out, but in October of 1929 the economy went sour as a result of the stock market crash, beginning the Great Depression. Sales declined, of course, but Reo expected the economy to recover quickly--as did most everyone else--and so it pressed on with the rollout of its next new model. Designed by Amos Northrup of Murray Products, which built Reo bodies as a subcontractor, the new Royale 8 still had a lot of squared-up 1920s styling to it, but the grille and front fenders were starting to pick up the streamlined Art Deco look that was coming into fashion. Under the mile-long hood, between the side-mounted spares, was a big, smooth, 338-cubic inch 115 HP straight eight. It was the grandest Reo yet: opulent, imposing, and drop-dead gorgeous.
It was also pretty much exactly the wrong car to be selling in 1931. In a contracting economy--the worst economic contraction of the Twentieth Century, in fact--there just weren't all that many customers who could still afford a Montana-class luxury dreadnought like the Royale, and more than a few who could shied away from such conspicuous consumption in hard times. It was tough enough for a manufacturer the size of General Motors or Ford to adapt to the collapsing economy, much less a smaller "independent" like Reo. Reo would have been better off to redirect its efforts toward a lower price point but, well, it didn't have the resources to do that, and it certainly couldn't just abandon the Royale without at least making some attempt to recover the development costs.
Reo had a second big project which came on the market in 1933, the "Self-Shifter" transmission, which was standard on Royales and an $85 extra-cost option on the Flying Cloud. This was one of several "semi-automatic" gearboxes developed in the 1930s, precursors to the fully-automatic transmissions we know today. The Reo Self-Shifter has a conventional clutch, which you "let out" in the usual fashion when starting from rest. The transmission had two planetary gear sets, and once you were moving it automatically switched from low gear to high based on road speed, with no need to use the clutch again until you came to a stop.
Though a clever bit of mechanical engineering, the Self-Shifter was never popular enough to recover the $2 million Reo had spent developing it. Sales of Reo automobiles fell well below the break-even point. Through all of this turmoil, the truck business kept Reo afloat. Though truck sales had taken a hit from the Depression as well, the truck line recovered faster, and managed to make money (or, at least, not lose too much of it) even in the lean years.
Give 'em credit, Reo didn't go down without a fight: after a series of executive-level shakeups, Ransom Olds came out of retirement to try to turn things around. Reo restyled its cars every year from 1933 on, and the designs at least kept up with the times. It de-contented the Royale to get the price down under $1,000; the last ones ditched the expensive straight eight for a cheaper straight six. As a further economy measure, the 1936 Reo Flying Cloud used the same major body panels as the Graham-Paige Cavalier, an early example of "platform sharing" that allowed both companies to split the tooling costs.
Sales of the Reo automobile line rose a little in 1934, and the company actually made a small profit in 1935. Even then, Reo was selling less than 5,000 cars a year, which was pretty much the definition of "unsustainable," and the business case for getting out of the car business and concentrating on trucks was too compelling. The '36 Flying Cloud was the last Reo automobile. With the end of Reo car production, one could say that Uncle Samuel and Cousin Frederic got the last laugh on Ransom Olds. GM continued to build Oldsmobiles of various sorts until 2004, when the brand name was retired.
In the meantime, Reo concentrated on trucks. Its most successful postwar design was the M35 2½ ton 6x6 military cargo truck, which first entered service in 1950 and is still rolling today. After Ransom Olds died in 1950, Reo underwent a bankruptcy reorganization and was sold a couple of times, ending up as a subsidiary of White Motor Company. Ten years later, White acquired another truck manufacturer, Diamond T, and merged its two subsidiaries to form Diamond Reo Trucks, Inc. Diamond Reo went bankrupt in 1974 and was liquidated under court supervision. The brand name and trademarks have passed through a succession of owners who've done business under variations of the name "Diamond." One of these firms built about 150 "Diamond Reo" trucks a year through the mid-90s.
But what about Ransom Eli Olds' influence on popular music, which I alluded to at the beginning of this post? It started early: in 1905, composer Gus Edwards and lyricist Vincent P. Bryan published "In My Merry Oldsmobile," a parlor music waltz that was probably the first pop-music car song, certainly one of the most successful, even to this day, and definitely the first which alluded (however indirectly) to making out in a car! The phonograph recording of "Merry Oldsmobile" cut by vaudville tenor Billy Murray, the "Denver Nightingale," became one of the first true hit singles. It would have topped the Billboard "Hot 100" chart, had there then been one.
"Merry Oldsmobile" became what we'd call a "meme" today. It was one of those tunes, like "Happy Birthday" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," that everybody just knew. In 1932, animator Max Fleischer built a theatrical cartoon around the tune. The cartoon ended with a sing-along "follow the bouncing ball" audience participation segment--and Fleischer could be certain that the audience would know the tune well enough to participate. Indeed, "Merry Oldsmobile" was still familiar enough even after World War II that composer Carl Stalling could drop a few bars of the chorus into the music score of a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon (as he did several times) and everyone in the theatre would get the reference. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that GM often used the tune in Oldsmobile advertising, even well into the late 1950s, and that more than one Olds dealership conducted business under the name "Merry Oldsmobiles."
While "Merry Oldsmobile" was the first song about Oldsmobiles, it wasn't the last. If you search the Allmusic data base for songs with the word "Oldsmobile" in the title, you get at least 25 distinct titles other than "In My Merry Oldsmobile." The list includes "98 Oldsmobile," "Oldsmobile 4-4-2," "Red 69 Oldsmobile," "Daddy's Oldsmobile," "Oldsmobile Tornado," "Rocket Action Oldsmobile," "Bionic Oldsmobile," "Unstoppable Oldsmobile," just plain "Oldsmobile," and the implausible "Oldsmobile Girl Magnet." There's also a "He Took My Oldsmobile" and a "She Took My Oldsmobile"--but, curiously, no "Gimmie Back My Oldsmobile," at least not yet. (Those of you in the Car Lust audience who are musically talented and want to take a shot at songwriting should consider this an opportunity.) The strangest of them all has to be "Jesus Drives an Oldsmobile," a country song that sounds exactly like you'd expect a country song with the title "Jesus Drives an Oldsmobile" to sound.
A few more songs are named for particular Oldsmobile models. The once-ubiquitous Oldsmobile Cutlass has been saluted with the likes of "75 Cutlass," "85 Cutlass," "Cutlass 71," "Rolling N-A Cutluss," and "2 Door Cutlass." There have also been at least three different odes to the "Vista Cruiser" station wagon.
But Ransom Olds' infuence on pop music doesn't even end there; his other car company has given its name to three different recording acts, one or two of which you've probably heard of.
In the fall of 1967, four students at the University of Illinois formed a band, and named it after a truck one of them had learned about in a class on the history of transportation: REO Speedwagon. The band has consistently spelled "REO" in all caps and pronounced it as individual letters ("R-E-O"), and "Speedwagon" is a compound word even though the band's automotive-style logo (seen on the screen behind them in the photo at right) splits it in two.
In the late 1970s and well into the 1980s, REO Speedwagon became wildly successful on the strength of radio-friendly power-pop tunes like "Keep On Loving You" and "Roll With The Changes." They also gave the world one of the most awesome album titles of all time, 1978's You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish. The band is still in business and playing live shows.
In 1974, just around the time that the Diamond Reo Trucks was filing its bankruptcy petition, four young musicians in Pittsburgh formed a band called Diamond Reo. I'm not sure why they picked that name, possibly because they figured that the truck builder wasn't using it any more. They had moderate success as a live act in the Pittsburgh area and recorded three albums, but never quite broke into the big time, and disbanded in 1978. You can hear a live recording of a 1975 show at the link.
Many years later, six musicians in Nashville formed a country band called Diamond Rio--like their predecessors in Pittsburgh, they intended to name themselves after the truck, but they spelled the "Reo" part phonetically. Their 1994 debut single, "Meet Me In The Middle," went to #1 on the country music charts, and they've had a long string of hits including "How Your Love Makes Me Feel," "Imagine That," "Beautiful Mess" and "I Believe." Like REO Speedwagon, they are still active, and according to their website they have several live shows scheduled for next month.
Well, having made a beautiful mess of this topic it's about time for me to fly; but before I take it on the run, baby, I've just got to say that I can't fight the feeling that the Ransom Eli Olds musical legacy is still incomplete. What more does it need? I believe Diamond Rio or REO Speedwagon should record a cover version of "In My Merry Oldsmobile." Even better, they could both meet in the middle and record it as a collaboration.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The Curved Dash Oldsmobile photos come from the Curved Dash Oldsmobile Club website; if you have any interest at all in "CDOs" you'll find it a valuable resource. The 1906 REO print ad came from Google Images. The advertising line drawing of an early Speed Wagon comes from an RV history site called Haw Creek. The Flying Cloud ad came from John's Old Car & Truck Pictures. The '31 Reo Royale came from How Stuff Works. The Self-Shifter diagram comes from Kit Foster's Car Port. The '73 Diamond Reo Royale ad came from Biglorryblog. All other illustrations came from Wikipedia.