Ransom Eli Olds (June 3, 1864–August 26, 1950) was a pioneer of the American automobile industry, for whom both the Oldsmobile and Reo brands were named. He claimed to have built his first steam car as early as 1894, and his first gasoline powered car in 1896.
Olds was born in Geneva, Ohio, the youngest son of blacksmith and pattern-maker Pliny Fiske Olds and his wife Sarah Whipple Olds. His parents moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio, when Olds was still a boy. He eventually settled in Lansing, Michigan, where he married Metta Ursula Woodward on June 5, 1889.
He founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, Michigan, on August 21, 1897. The company was bought by a copper and lumber magnate named Samuel L. Smith in 1899 and renamed Olds Motor Works. The new company was relocated from Lansing to Detroit. Smith became President while Olds became vice president and general manager.
In 1901 Olds designed the Curved Dash Oldsmobile which sold for $650.00. It was this car, rather than Henry Ford's Model T, that was the first mass-produced, low-priced American motor vehicle. Although the factory was destroyed by fire that year, the company still sold over 600 models of the Curved Dash. In 1904 sales were up to 5000 units.
As Smith's son, Frederick, came into the business, he and Olds clashed frequently until Fred Smith removed Olds from the position of vice president and general manager in 1904 and Olds left his company. He went on to form the R.E. Olds Motor Car Company. Its name was quickly changed to Reo Motor Company to avoid a lawsuit from the Olds Motor Works. The name REO came from the initials of his name as an acronym. Olds served as president (until 1925) and later chairman of REO.
The Olds Motor Works was bought by General Motors in 1908. The Oldsmobile brand, after a production run of 107 years, was discontinued by General Motors in 2004.
Olds was also famous for his auto racing on the beaches of Florida at Ormond and Daytona. He had the first timed run on the beach in a solo run some time between 1894 and 1897. In 1896 or 1897, rich automobile pioneers Olds and Alexander Winton (Winton Motor Carriage Company) staged an unofficial event; Winton beat Olds by only 0.20 seconds.
Olds was the primary financier of the Olds Tower. When completed in 1931 it was the tallest office building in Lansing, and retains that distinction today. Located at 124 West Allegan Street, the building is now called the Boji Tower.
Olds was also involved in the Hotel Olds located at 111 South Capitol Avenue in Lansing. Today this is known as the George W. Romney Building, where the office of the Governor of Michigan is located.