Ransom E. Olds was one of the great innovators in American history, well known for founding both the precursor of Oldsmobile and REO Motor Car Company. Though both of his brands are now defunct, after almost two total centuries of operation between the two of them, their impact on the motor industry is still remembered to this day, especially in the town of Lansing. Ransom founded both of his motorcar ventures in the the capitol of Michigan, starting with the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897. Though he saw the company through a terrible factory fire in 1901, he was ousted from it in 1904 due to internal disagreements. He wasted no time in forming the REO Motor Car Company in the following period, and with its success he went on to become a major employer in the community. Over the years, he was involved in racing (before 1900), started a bank, served in politics, made a screw company, a forge company, and in truth used the assembly line before Henry Ford, who gets the credit for inventing the moving assembly line.
Today his legacy lives on in Lansing in the form of the R.E Olds Transportation Museum, tucked away near the capitol building, right off Grand River (the actual river, not the road). With a slight entrance fee one can see decades of motoring innovation, from stationary five horsepower steam engines to modern twin turbocharged 1000 horsepower race engines. You’re taken on this journey chronologically, starting with the farm implement steam engines. The cast iron workhorses sit immobile, massive wheeled slabs long since dormant since their true existence many lifetimes away. The sight of such well preserved artifacts opens your imagine to contrast what they may have looked like in operation, surfaced in oil and grease, discoloring the otherwise picturesque sky with the black smoke of whatever flammable liquid was on hand.
Early attempts weren’t great.
The automobile was an obvious fit for the internal combustion engine as it scaled down, and after a general mess of first efforts, recognizable early cars began to take shape. The simplification of their engines is beautiful in a way, these old cars wear their engineering on their sleeves. A 1912 REO Depot Hack truck sits with it’s hood open, revealing a two cylinder powerplant. It’s pushrods and valve springs are exposed, rocker arms shining proudly above them. Everything is easily identifiable, even to someone with no knowledge of cars this old. Of course, some of this obvious engineering wasn’t so good, the pedals on this particular truck seem to be in the middle, while what looks like the gearshift is on the left, by the door. I suspect this would be handy for busting your knuckles. A quick look under the old worker transport vehicle reveals a small leak. The blood of the vehicle is proof of life, a warm feeling passes over me knowing someone still keeps it pumping.
Video games have taught me to always steal or photograph blueprints whenever possible
I move past a design desk, pausing to look at a blueprint of an early Curved Dash car (I believe), before walking into a room filled with the early half of the 19th century. An Oldsmobile Viking, an REO hearse, 70 series Olds, and, sitting proud above all but a semi, the ubiquitous REO Speedwagon truck. This particular model had been a firefighting vehicle, and was beautifully painted with slight gold and black accents. The entire truck would have been perfect, if not for the obviously newer tires in the rear, which didn’t look to be period, with tread more befitting a lifted Silverado rolling coal around campus.
In the corner was an old style coach, of the sort you’d expect a minor dignitary and his wife to step out of at an old embassy party. While appreciable in it’s style, the accommodations actually seemed quite cramped relative the the expected wealth. In fact, most of the older vehicles (before the 40s) have interiors not befitting their footprint. With their running boards, and most importantly, fenders separate from the body, the lines of the car pinch in around the cabin. It’s not a wonder so many people died back then, in the event of a car accident, your loaded car would become congruent in appearance to a compressed can of beets. (Interestingly, it was after the 30s, as car design got bigger overall, that manufacturers really started peddling the safety aspects of vehicles).
A supercharged 3800 engine cutaway. Though the valves and rocker arms are visible, the supercharger’s screws really steal this show.
From there on it’s all what most of us recognize as modern cars, the 40s and up. The early cars are certainly reigned over by the 88, a car we all know as the genesis of the muscle car era. The Rocket V8 engine powered across American States and into our culture, for this was the engine that gave you power above and beyond the rest. The big sedan and it’s charismatic V8 set the tone for years in the American car market. We’re a country of over preparedness for the unnecessary. We have more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. We’re a country of 60 year old Corvette owners driving 5 miles under the speed limit. We’re the kind of country that drinks bottled water. We’re the kind of country with doomsday preppers. We’re a nation of $80,000 pickup trucks that haul a boat once a year. We monitor all of our citizens calls. We’ve invented technology beyond it’s time. The point is, we don’t need all of this shit, but it sure feels good to know that WE’RE NUMBER ONE! U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A! Hell, there’s even a song called “Rocket 88”, recorded by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, considered to be one of the first rock and roll records of all time. America.
In the corner, between car sections, are many engines on stands. All are beautiful pieces, minimalist design working well with the grayscale color scheme of the metal. Two Quad Four engines sit, single turbo on one, and twin on the other. These were the engines used in the Oldsmobile Aerotech concept, a car that hit 267 MPH in the standing mile in an impressive yet vain attempt to prove it wasn’t for your dad. Incredibly, the Oldsmobile engineers managed to get 900 horsepower out of the single turbo, and a whopping 1000 out of the twin variant. And this was in 1987, Bugatti needed 4 times as many cylinders to get 200 more than that in 2011.
Please imagine this picture is rotated correctly (thanks Kinja)
Onto the 60s and their expanse of size and excess of chrome. Today it may be an overplayed styling element, useful only to identify those pretending to have money, and those who shouldn’t have it. But we forget that before we had 4wd, twin turbos, stereos, TVs, GPS, power seats, refrigerators, cameras, and brakes that worked for us, cars had to distinguish themselves in other ways. When your options are stuff like HVAC, radio, turn signals, seatbelts and power brakes, your car has to stand out with design, not technology. So it made sense that your Starfire had a massive chrome grille, four headlights, a console mounted automatic shifter, and Oldsmobile logos in the taillights.
I forgot which engine this was. I almost think it’s a diesel, but I wasn’t able to find anything later on after searching “Oldsmobile TID engine” Let me know if you’ve got info.
It is perhaps because of these amazing engines and beautiful cars that the museum curators don’t find the need to bury the diesel era like Project in the Jungle and Metal Years. Instead, a Toronado Diesel is lined up next to all its contemporaries. Sure, the information panel doesn’t say “The Oldsmobile Diesel was a massive flop perpetrated by the automotive equivalent of chefs microwaving a good steak”, or mention that some Olds Diesels took 21 seconds to get to highway speed. Instead, it focuses on how the cars were capable of 30 MPG at the time, which was pretty much the only good thing about it. Also, it was NOT a gas block converted to run on diesel. But the bore and stroke were the same, leading to confusion. These engines were ruined by a fundamental misunderstanding of what is required for a diesel engine to function properly for a long time. The head bolts couldn’t hold up to the compression, leading to gasket failure, and potentially hydrolocking. Furthermore they didn’t have a water separator in the fuel system, a crucial reliability component of any diesel engine.
God damnit, why is this stuff still here.
Towards the exit of the museum lays one of the few non REO or Olds cars. Outshined by the line of muscle cars opposite it, sits a GM EV-1. The car killed by those on the inside, and thus a perfect parallel to the life and death of Oldsmobile. For a time, they were both looking into the future. Oldsmobile was one of first companies to shift more than a million cars in a year, only behind Ford and Chevy. People loved the brand, they loved the engines, and they loved the status. But decades of mismanagement left the brand a shadow of what it once was. The individuality and innovation that Oldsmobile was once known for faded as GM consolidated all of its operations. The last years of its life were spent in the doldrums of retirement living, badge engineering lesser cars before heading to the Legion to get drunk. One final gem was released when the Aurora came about in 1995. It was a clean break, new design, new chassis, new engine, but it was too little too late to save the branch. Oldsmobile officially went defunct on April 29th, 2004. You’ll see their cars on the roads for a decade or so more, maybe longer. Eventually, however, this brand will be consigned to the history books, only revived on weekends by gentlemen in H/O 442s, comfortably barreling down back roads in a classic piece of Americana. He’ll be remembering the days when he was a kid, wanting the fast, futuristic, but still respectable Oldsmobile he drives today. And though you can’t buy a new Oldsmobile or REO anymore, they’ll always live on in this fantastic museum tucked away in Lansing, the eternal home of Ransom’s automotive ventures.
Toy car, real car