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.