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August 2017

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U.S. Census Bureau History: Ransom E. Olds

Merry Olds

The 1905 song "In My Merry Oldsmobile" about young lovers driving their
curved dash Olds remains a popular automobile song today. The song
continues to be featured in movies and television and is one of the songs
visitors hear when visiting Disneyland and Disney World's Main Street USA.

Photo courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
at Duke University.

On August 21, 1897, Ransom E. Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, MI. Between 1897 and 2004, the company (acquired by General Motors in 1908) produced more than 35 million cars.

Ransom E. Olds was born in Geneva-on-the-Lake, OH, in 1864. When Ransom was a child, the family moved to Cleveland, OH, before settling in Lansing, MI. In September 1896, Olds applied for a patent for a gasoline-powered automobile (Patent Number 594,338) and founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897 to manufacture it. In 1901, he introduced the "Curved Dash" Oldsmobile that would help Olds Motor Vehicle Company become the top-selling automaker in the United States in the early 1900s.

In its 107-years history, Oldsmobile's quality and reliability helped make the brand popular among consumers. Along with the popular "Curved Dash" Olds, the company also introduced a number of popular models and innovative features, including windshields as a standard feature in 1915, the 4-speed Hydra-Matic transmission—the first automatic transmission—in 1940, and the V-8 "Rocket 88" engine. (With the help of record producer Sam Phillips, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats Link to a non-federal Web site immortalized the Rocket 88 in one of rock-and-roll's first hit songs in 1951.) Oldsmobile produced the "Rocket 88"—later known as the "Eighty Eight"—from 1949 to 1998. During that time, Oldsmobile also built the first mass-produced front-wheel drive automobile (the 1966 Toronado) and introduced driver side air bags (1974).

In the years 1977–1980 and 1984–1986, Oldsmobile sold more than 1 million automobiles. It was second in automobile production behind Chevrolet in 1983 and 1985, thanks to its top-selling Cutlass models. In December 2000, General Motors announced it would end Oldsmobile production due to declining sales and corporate restructuring. Oldsmobile workers in Lansing, MI, produced the last Oldsmobile—an Alero GLS 4-door sedan—on April 29, 2004.

Thousands of Oldsmobiles still travel our nation's roads and are displayed and preserved by organizations like the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum Link to a non-federal Web site in Lansing, MI, and the General Motors Heritage Center Link to a non-federal Web site in Sterling Heights, MI. You can learn more about Ransom E. Olds and automobile manufacturing using data and records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies. For example:

  • In 1897, when Ransom E. Olds founded his automobile company, the Census Bureau reported that automobile manufacturers produced 1,200 motor vehicles. In 10 years, the number of registered motor vehicles in the U.S. rose from 2,100 to 142,061; and in 25 years, there were 12,238,375 registered motor vehicles on American roads.
  • Two years after the 1897 founding of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, William McKinley became the first American president to ride in an automobile—a "Stanley Steamer" driven by Freelan Stanley. McKinley also was the first president to ride in an electric motor vehicle—the ambulance that carried him to the Pan-American Exposition's hospital after he was shot on September 6, 1901.
  • In 1900, the Census Bureau reported that manufacturers produced 5,000 motor vehicles and there were 8,000 registered vehicles in the United States. In 1908, the year Henry Ford began producing the Model T, manufacturers produced 65,000 motor vehicles. There were 197,500 registered motor vehicles on American roads. By 1927, the United States was home to 17,593,677 registered motor vehicles. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that there was 260,350,938 total registered motor vehicles on American roads, including passenger vehicles, motorcycles, and commercial vehicles.
  • Business man William C. Durant formed General Motors in Flint, MI, on September 16, 1908. General Motors purchased Oldsmobile later that year, and soon added other brands, including Cadillac, Oakland (later Pontiac), and Chevrolet. Oldsmobile was part of the General Motors lineup until its production ended in 2004.
  • The 1930 Census counted Ransom Olds and his wife Metta twice. First at their Daytona Beach, FL, rental home overlooking the Halifax River on April 4, 1930, and again a few days later at their other home in Lansing, MI. In 1930, the population of Daytona Beach, FL, was 16,598, and Lansing, MI, was home to 78,397. Today, the two cities have populations of 66,645 and 116,020, respectively.
  • Ransom Olds and his wife Metta Woodward were born 3 days apart in June 1864. Ransom died on August 26, 1950, in Lansing, MI. His wife followed him in death just one week later on September 2, 1950. They are buried in Lansing's Mount Hope Cemetery.
  • Oldsmobile produced the last Oldsmobile—an Alero GLS 4-door sedan—on April 29, 2004. Initially displayed at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum Link to a non-federal Web site in Lansing, MI, it now resides at the GM Heritage Center Link to a non-federal Web site in Sterling Heights, MI.
  • According to March 2016 Current Employment Statistics data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, motor vehicle and parts industries accounted for 923,500 jobs in the manufacturing sector (NAICS 31–33). Automobile dealerships and automotive parts stores accounted for nearly 4 million jobs in the retail sector (NAICS 44–45).

REO Motor Car Company, 1918

Ransom E. Olds left Oldsmobile in 1904 and founded the REO Motor Car Company in August 1904 (pictured above).
By 1907, the REO factory in Lansing, MI, was one of the top four automobile manufacturing companies in the
United States.

REO stopped manufacturing automobiles in 1936 to focus solely upon commercial truck manufacturing. Following
post-World War II mergers, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1975. Today, the REO brand name is owned by
Swedish manufacturer Volvo.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Parks Service.

Lansing, MI, Capital Building
View larger image

Lansing, MI

Ransom E. Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, MI, 3 years before the 1900 Census.

Between 1890 and 1900, Lansing's population grew 25.8 percent to 16,485.

Lansing grew rapidly until 1970, when its population peaked at 131,546. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated the city had a population of 116,020, a 1.5 percent increase from 2010.

Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan.

1790 Census Pitcher
View larger image

This Month in Census History

On August 2, 1790, 650 U.S. Marshals and their assistants began conducting the 1790 Census. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson reported that the nation's population was 3,929,214.

To commemorate the announcement of the new nation's first census, merchants in Liverpool, England, produced souvenirs (like the creamware pitcher pictured above) for the American market.

Did You Know?

The "Curved Dash Oldsmobile" was the first mass produced gasoline-powered automobile to outsell its steam- or electric-powered rivals. Oldsmobile built more automobiles in 1903 (approximately 4,000) than any other American automobile manufacturer.

In 1903, Oldsmobile sponsored an attempt to complete the first coast-to-coast automobile trip, but was beaten by Horatio Nelson Jackson and his 1903 Winton.

Jackson'Ras 4,500 mile, San Francisco, CA to New York City, NY, journey took 63 days to complete!

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021