The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

May 6, 2012

From bikes to autos

Geneva's auto manufacturing industry never got out of first gear

GENEVA — On the west side of Geneva is an Ohio Historical Society marker that alerts motorists to the birthplace of an American automotive industry giant, Ransom E. Olds.

Although Geneva lays claim to Olds, who was born there in1864, his parents soon parted ways with the city. In Lansing, Mich., his father opened a blacksmith and machine shop, where a steam engine that the young Ransom designed was produced. By 1887 Ransom had built his first steam powered vehicle, which was underpowered. Four years later, he made second and successful attempt at a vehicle, which he exported as a novelty to India. It was the United States’s first exported automobile.

Olds eventually turned production to gasoline-powered automobiles, producing his first one in 1895. A corporation, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, was formed with Detroit businessman Samuel Smith in 1897. Smith, as the president and principal stockholder, insisted the plant be built in Detroit. A fire at the factory destroyed all of the prototypes of the vehicles they planned to produce, save one, the curved-dash Olds. More than 12,000 of the little Olds automobiles were produced in three years.

The little Olds, also known as “The Merry Oldsmobile,” was chided by other auto manufacturers, who were focusing on large, luxurious vehicles. Nevertheless, Ransom’s spirited Olds logged 278 miles in one day, setting a record for that time.

Under pressure to produce the larger cars, Olds in August 1904 left the Olds Motor Vehicle Company and started his own company, REO Motor Car, in Lansing. Known for quality workmanship, durability, power and innovation, the REO debuted in October of that year and started shipping in January 1905. The company sold 2,458 cars in 1906. Truck models were added three years later, and the REO soon became the choice for demanding hauling tasks. Truck production peaked at 23,509 in 1928.

REO ceased auto production in 1936, but the REO truck line survived until 1974. The line was purchased by White Truck in 1957 and renamed Diamond REO.

Old’s original company was purchased by General Motors in 1908. The Olds brand was associated with GM until 2004, when the marque was phased out. In its long history, 35.2 million vehicles were built with the Geneva native’s surname on their bodies.

R.E. Olds is credited with being the first to use the progressive assembly process, which broke with the prevous model of one set of workers producing a motor car from start to finish. Olds’ apoproach was to move the car from station to station. Henry Ford would take this process one step further, using a conveyor belt to delivery assembled parts to the car at the time the parts were to be attached. His first automated assembly line opened in August 1913.

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