Road Trip: Part 1


Ransom Eli Olds (c1901), Wikicommons
Ransom Eli Olds (c1901), Wikicommons

We’re hitting the road today on Museum Bites with a tour through the R. E. Olds Museum in Lansing, Michigan.  Growing up in an Oldsmobile loving family, I relished the opportunity to visit this small but mighty museum dedicated to the life and works of automobile pioneer, Ransom Eli Olds (1864-1950). Olds began his career working in his father’s machine repair shop. A gifted engineer, he created his first gasoline-powered vehicle in 1896.  The following year, Olds and several business partners opened Olds Motor Works (later changed to Oldsmobile).

The R. E. Olds Museum includes an assortment of memorabilia, but the showstopper on this tour is the 60+ vintage vehicles dating back to 1886. It’s time to kick some tires and peek under the hood of Oldsmobile’s 107 year history. Our first stop is the Curved Dash Runabout, Oldsmobile’s first automobile.

Curved Dash Runabout (1901-1904): In My Merry Oldsmobile

1901 Curved Dash Runabout, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)
1901 Curved Dash Runabout, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Just a few years after opening its doors, Oldsmobile was nearly destroyed by a factory fire, and the Curved Dash Runabout was the only prototype to survive. Despite this shaky beginning, Olds and his team rolled up their sleeves and set about crafting a phenomenal (read: sellable) automobile.  The Curved Dash had a 1-cylinder, 4 horsepower engine that reached a hang-on-to-your-hat top speed of 20 mph.  The bowed dashboard was modeled after a sleigh in an attempt to sway a skeptical public of the Runabout’s superiority over the horse. R. E. Olds and his team’s efforts paid off when the Curved Dash received rave reviews at the 1901 New York Auto Show.  Orders came flying in and Oldsmobile cranked out runabout after runabout using the very first assembly line method of manufacturing.  In addition to saving the company, the Curved Dash inspired a song by Gus Edwards called, In My Merry Oldsmobile.

REO Logo, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)
REO Logo, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)

The company flourished but unfortunately R.E. Olds and his business partners could not agree on how to proceed.  Olds wanted to make smaller, more affordable vehicles, but the board instead chose to pursue a line of luxury cars.  They parted ways in 1904.  Ransom left to open RE Olds Motor Car Company where he continued to manufacture cars, and eventually trucks, and Oldsmobile was bought by General Motors in 1908.

Oldsmobile Deluxe Roadster (1926):  A Fine Four Fendered Friend

1926 Deluxe Roadster, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)
1926 Deluxe Roadster, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)

By the 1920s the Oldsmobile line of cars was well established within General Motors and the Deluxe Roadster was a jaunty addition.  The 6-cylinder, 42 horsepower Roadster included disc wheels, bumpers, a trunk rack, “rear vision mirror”, K-S Telegage fuel gauge, and plush leather interior.  Its swooping fenders and bug-eyed headlights give this vintage beauty a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang vibe.  It’d be a thrill to take it out for a truly scrumptious spin or in true Chitty Chitty style, a flight over the Bavarian Alps. Unfortunately, no one has written a song about the Oldsmobile Deluxe Roadster but click on this pretty chitty clip and enjoy a virtual ride with the Roadster’s British cousin.

L37 Club Coupe (1937): Silver Streak

1937 L37 Club Coupe, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)
1937 L37 Club Coupe, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)

In the 1930s, Oldsmobile began offering two different models. The 6-cylinder F series provided comfort and quality at an affordable price, while the 8-cylinder L series was all about the bling.  Despite the Depression, Oldsmobile celebrated its 40th anniversary with the luxurious L37 Club Coupe. The sleek, silver model on display at the R. E. Olds Museum harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. The plush and roomy interior contains a variety of conveniences including a sofa-esque backseat with ashtrays, footrests, hand straps, and a garment bar to conveniently hang your coat or lap blanket.  I imagine the roomy L37 Club Coupe is a challenge to drive, or for that matter parallel park!  This car seems more attuned to rolling up to red carpets and paparazzi as opposed to a quick trip to the grocery store. The hood stretches on for what feels like miles, and the fetching hood ornament—a chrome rocket—is a whimsical delight. If you’d like to geek out on the “new” and “exciting” features included in the L37 Club Coupe, click on this vintage sales film created by Oldsmobile.

Declaration of War: Rosie Can Do It!

Rosie the Riveter (public domain)
Rosie the Riveter (public domain)

In the 1940s, automobile assembly lines came to an abrupt halt. Factories and ship yards across the United States were quickly converted to support the war effort. Rosie the Riveter and a generation of women went to work in the factories to help manufacture ammunition, weapons and war craft. Soon after the war ended, the Oldsmobile team got to work producing newer and more powerful engines. We’ll take a look under the hood of Oldsmobile’s muscle cars and family trucksters next week when we conclude our cruise through the RE Olds Museum. In the meantime, buckle up and have a great week!

Fun Fiery Facts:  The band REO Speedwagon gets its name from the REO Speed Wagon fire truck, manufactured by the one and only, RE Olds Motor Car Company.

1938 REO Speed Wagon, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)-2
1938 REO Speed Wagon, RE Olds Museum, Photo by cjverb (2017)



Classic Car Database

Oldsmobile Club

R. E. Olds Museum

Song Facts

The Atlantic

United States National Park Service

YouTube – In My Merry Oldsmobile

YouTube – 1937 Oldsmobile Sales Video: Follow the Leader


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