Business

Born in fire -- the curved-dash Olds

A 1900 Curved-Dash Olds with William Ashcroft at the tiller.

This poster was produced for the 30th anniversary of the Oldsmobile and reproduces the minutes from the first directors meeting Aug. 21, 1897. It reads: “It was moved by Mr. Stebbins that R. E. Olds be elected manager for the coming 11 months. Carried. It was moved that the manager be authorized to build one carriage in as nearly perfect a manner as possible and complete it at the earliest possible moment. Carried. On motion meeting adjourned.”

The first auto factory in Detroit was built in 1900 by Ransom E. Olds, a
young automotive wizard from Lansing who had actually built cars and ran
them several years before the Duryeas did and perhaps as early as Daimler
and Benz in Germany. But they were steam-powered and Olds was coming to the
view that the relatively new internal-combustion gasoline engine was the
way to go.

The first Olds plant was built on East Jefferson, near the Belle IsleBridge. While the plant was being built, Olds’ engineering people designedand built 11 pilot models, including several sizes of cars and a couple ofelectrics.

      Among them was a small, light horseless carriage with a single-cylinder,water-cooled four-cycle engine at the rear. Its most distinctive featurewas its curved dashboard. The little Curved Dash Olds was a favorite in theplant, but it was not widely known to the public and was not much of afactor in the company’s sales. It was considered a “mascot” or a “toy.”

But in March, 1901, fire destroyed most of the Olds Motor Works and theonly car that was saved was the Curved Dash Olds. Olds decided to rebuiltimmediately and to put all the firm’s production resources into the littleCurved Dash Olds, the “Merry Oldsmobile” of musical fame.

It was a momentous decision, because it committed Olds to production of asmall, relatively inexpensive car, the first “high-volume” model. Provingthe adage that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, the fire had a positiveeffect — news of the fire made thousands of people aware of the car.Inquiries and orders began arriving, some accompanied by cash payments.

Ransom E. Olds

One of the ways auto makers drew attention to their vehicles in those earlydays was to take trips in them. No one had driven from Detroit to New York,so Olds commissioned a young associate, Roy D. Chapin, to drive a CurvedDash Olds to New York for an appearance at the New York Auto Show.

Chapin left Detroit on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1901. The New York show opened thefollowing Saturday, Nov. 2. He went through Ontario to Niagara Falls,covering 278 miles on Wednesday, an amazing performance.

He crossed into the United States on Thursday, then on Friday heencountered heavy rains between Syracuse and Albany. Wagon drivers warnedhim that the muddy roads were impassable.

Chapin pondered his situation. He reasoned that barges, pulled by mules,moved along the Erie Canal in any kind of weather. The towpath used by themules was level and finished well.

On inquiring about using the towpath, he was told it was federal propertyand that he would be jailed if he used it. Fifteen minutes later, he pulledthe little Olds onto the all-weather road that stretched along the canal tothe horizon.

Roy D. Chapin

By evening, he was within 200 miles of his goal, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotelin New York City. Saturday he stopped to replace a bent axle, but stillcovered 120 miles. He planned to reach the hotel on Sunday.

But after 50 uneventful miles, his transmission developed trouble and hadto be rebuilt, which took all day Monday. He started out early Tuesday andon Fifth Avenue, only blocks from the Waldorf-Astoria, he swerved to avoidhitting a man who stepped in front of the Olds. The car hit the curb anddeformed a wheel. Chapin bent it back as best he could and drove on.

Roy Chapin, who would later head the Hudson Motor Car Co. and whose son,Roy Jr., would head American Motors Corp., had completed the longestautomobile trip that had been made in this country up until that time.Ransom Olds was waiting in the lobby of the hotel to greet him, but Chapin– covered with grease and dust — was ordered by the doorman to use theservice entrance at the rear of the hotel.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Richard A. Wright / Special to The News