The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 6, 2012

From bikes to autos

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

Staff Writer

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.

While Olds was revolutionizing the auto industry in Lansing, a bicycle manufacturer was setting the stage for automobile manufacturing in Olds’ hometown.

The Geneva Cycle Works was the brainchild of J.A. Carter, who opened the business in 1894. Carter served a president of the firm, which manufactured bicycles that had a strong following locally. Ownership of a “Geneva” came with privileges. Owners held parties and organized rides to Geneva-on-the-Lake.

The company’s peak year was 1899, when 15,000 bicycles, were built in Geneva. But the party was short lived. That same year, Geneva Cycle Works was sold to American Bicycle Company.

The company retained the “Geneva” name, however, and in its catalog of 1900 offered two models under that moniker, the No. 17 men’s and No. 18 women’s bicycles. The catalog notes that the machines were still being manufactured by the Geneva factory under a patent issued Nov. 13, 1888.

As is often the case, the manufacturing side of the business was relocated the year after the sale was closed, thus ending the industry’s short run in Geneva. Carter, however, was not one to sit on his profits. He pulled together some capital from Cleveland acquaintances and formed the Geneva Automobile and Manfacturing Company in late 1900. The enterprise set up shop in the former bicycle shop building.

Carter did not design or invent the steam car he planned to build there. Rather, he bought patents from a man named Thompson, hired as superintendent of the plant.

Their product was The Geneva Steamer, and the first one rolled out May 8, 1901.

The steamer was as much a piece of art as transportation. It had a shiny black wood body with a red line trim, red wire wheels and red gears trimmed in black. The brown leather seat had 27 spindles painted red. Brass lights on the sides added elegance.

“Under the hood” was a marine-type, double-acting, two-cylinder steam engine. It could achieve six horsepower. The driver had to be quite coordinated -- the throttle and reverse levers were combined in one and worked from the center of the seat. The steering post was in the center but could be shifted to either side of the seat.

Despite its beauty, the Geneva was a flop. It came onto a market that already had several well established steam vehicle brands, s uch as the Stanley and White. While there were plans to build 100 of the vehicles, the actual production was probably no more than 30. Only one is known to remain, which was in the Henry Ford Museum’s collection.

The company folded in 1904 and sold its plant and machinery to the Colonial Brass Company. Four years later, a more ambitious and successful automotive manufacturing effort moved to Geneva,the E. L. Ewing Automobile Company, from Cleveland.

Setting up shop in the former Factory Row building that housed the Geneva bicycle and steamer ventures, the Ewing Company seemed to have better product than that of the former occupants — a taxi. Priced at $3,000, the vehicle featured a four-cylinder engine manufactured elsewhere. The 50 men who worked at the factory simply assembled the Ewings from pre-made parts.

The Ewing was displayed at the National Auto Show in Madison Square Garden, N.Y., but the vehicle probably left a bigger impression on the dirt roads of Geneva than it did on buyers. It simply didn’t sell.

The following year General Motors purchased the company and, in May 1910, moved the business to the Buick plant in Flint, Mich. Soon after that, the Ewing Taxi was dropped from the GM line.