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R.E. Olds and the Mystery of the Lost Electrics

R.E. Olds was a pioneer in the auto industry who had built a steam powered car by 1894, a gasoline–powered car in 1896, and an electric car by 1897. He founded Oldsmobile and the REO Motor Company. He was the among the first American manufacturers to work with steam and electric engines.

Debbie Anderson Stephens is the great granddaughter of Ransom Eli Olds, and is the family's unofficial historian. She has provided new insight into his early work:
"He started tinkering with cars in the 1880s and powered them with steam, then electric, then gas. Electric was his favorite."
"WHEN R.E. OLDS CHASED AFTER STRANGE ELECTRIC GODS" chronicles the fact that Olds planned to introduce numerous electric vehicles, and that more of these survived a factory fire than has previously been acknowledged:

A second, much less-known undertaking by R.E. at this same time was his decision to make what he called “city” vehicles powered by electricity. Though previously rejected by R.E., he now reasoned that a line of electrics could quickly be put on the market, as they were to be primarily assembled from proven components that Olds planned to purchase from outside manufacturers. The electrics would hopefully reach a segment of the buying public not at all interested in owning a gasoline-powered vehicle. Well over half of the 8000+ vehicles registered in America in 1900 were electric. Consequently, the market for the sales of electric vehicles envisioned by Olds appears to be reasonable in hindsight. Further, any revenues generated from their sales would do much to soothe the cash flow worries of his backers, and hopefully would provide the needed time for him to bring to market his “second generation” of less expensive and simpler to operate gasoline vehicles.

The new electric project was quickly put into operation, and in a short time, several electrics were assembled, tested, and offered for sale. Although found to be very dependable, easy to operate and of high quality construction, the necessarily high selling price drastically limited their sales appeal. With a selling price of over $1600 for the least costly model, the Olds electrics were not “cheap” by any standards of the day. Still, R.E. saw enough selling potential for them that the Olds Company placed several large orders for electric parts and materials. Also, a large area on the second floor of the factory was outfitted with the equipment needed to assemble a substantial number of electric vehicles.

Just as significant production of electric vehicles was getting underway, disaster befell the entire automobile operation of the recently renamed Olds Motor Works. On March 9, 1901, the factory was almost totally destroyed by fire. Reportedly, all but one of the existing Old’s vehicles, both gasoline and electrics, were destroyed in the fire. This catastrophe brought an immediate and total end to R.E.’s hopes for marketing a successful line of electric vehicles.

Some post-fire historians have stated that there is no “hard” evidence that any Olds electrics were ever sold. They also point out that several “knowledgeable, first hand” sources have stated that only a handful of electrics at best were ever produced. Thus, they make the case that the electric project was not, and never had been, (even in R.E.’s mind) a sincere and all out attempt to produce and sell an ongoing and significant number of electric vehicles. They quote the fact that (in 1954,) Theo Barthel, Oldsmobile’s official book-keeper in 1901, stated that he recorded a total of only 5 electrics on the official company inventory report for the year of 1900. Also often quoted is Fred Smith’s 1928 published account that proclaimed that R.E. did actually “Chase after strange electric Gods” for a short while, and may have even sold “one or two” of what Smith obviously, and in hindsight, perceived to be a worthless and ill-conceived undertaking.

These historians draw the conclusion that the entire electric project was at best, only a minor footnote in Oldsmobile’s long and storied history and is not important enough to warrant more than a brief mention in passing. Other equally compelling evidence, more recently un-covered or re-discovered, calls for a somewhat different and possibly more accurate conclusion.

The following brief account of events in the Olds electric vehicle story are presented in as accurate a chronological order as can be yet determined, and will serve to shed new light on the Olds electric vehicles themselves. It will also expand their significance in the overall history of Oldsmobile vehicle production.

  • A pre-1901 Olds sales catalogue shows many fanciful artist-drawn renditions of a number of never existing and obviously never built vehicles. Of the many fanciful artist sketches that are included in this catalogue, only two drawings do closely resemble actual vehicles under development by R.E. They are a four passenger electric “Cabriolet” and a small gasoline powered “Runabout” that is shown having a straight dash front-end configuration. There are no prices or descriptive texts covering either of these vehicles included in this early catalogue. If the Olds Motor Works had any other saleable gasoline powered vehicles ready to market, wouldn’t they logically have been pictured in this catalogue?
  • A second pre-1901 sales catalogue (published shortly after the “fanciful” catalogue mentioned above) features R.E. Olds on the cover. He is shown at the tiller of an electric “Stanhope.” Also included inside the catalogue are pictures and text covering two electric vehicles. Further, quite possibly for the first time, several pictures of prototype “Curved Dash” gasoline vehicles are shown as well.
  • A pre-1901 one page Olds price sheet that lists the two-passenger “Stanhope” model at $1650 and the five-passenger “Phaeton” model electric at $1750. A number of gasoline-powered Olds vehicles are also listed at prices ranging from a low of $1000 for a one-cylinder “runabout” to $2,750 for a four passenger “Brougham.” Obviously the new lower priced gasoline powered vehicles as envisioned by R.E. aren’t “up and running” or being offered to the public as of yet.
  • A 1900 dated trade journal article states that Olds Motor Works has placed a “large” order for batteries with the Sipe and Sigler firm of Cleveland, Ohio.
  • In 1900, the company at both the Chicago and Cleveland Auto Shows displays a “Stanhope” electric. R.E. himself takes the vehicle to the Chicago show. The vehicle is given very good reviews by the automotive reporters covering the two shows. Doesn’t it stand to reason that Olds would have shown their proposed new line of gasoline vehicles at these shows as well if they were ready for production?
  • The fairly recent discovery and identification of a number of actual pre-1901 Olds factory photographs that show a number of electric vehicles (certainly more than five) being tested and driven on the Detroit River island of Belle Isle. A close study of these photographs identifies at least 7, and perhaps more, electric vehicles existing in 1900.
  • A newspaper account appearing one day after the factory fire quotes Olds Automobile Department Superintendent Willis Grant Murray as saying that over 20 electrics, either completed or in varying stages of assembly were destroyed in the fire. He further states that a large amount of electric parts and materials stored at the factory were also destroyed. One other interesting statement of Murray is that one Olds electric vehicle survived the fire because it was being used by an Olds official and therefore was not at the factory site.
  • There exists a photograph of a four-passenger Olds electric “Phaeton” being driven in a Detroit parade in July of 1901. R.E. Olds is at the tiller and Fred Smith is his fellow passenger. This is some four months after the fire.
In the 1960s an electric vehicle is recovered from a barn in Lansing, Michigan. It is subsequently identified as an Olds electric “Phaeton.” A study of this newly found and apparently sole-surviving Olds electric reveals much about the fine engineering and high quality workmanship that R.E. lavished on his line of electric vehicles. To begin with, R.E. bought the high styled and beautifully executed bodies for his electrics from one of the leading body firms in Detroit, the Sievers and Erdman Coach Builders Company. The bodies were appointed with patent leather mudguards and dashboards; nickel trim on all exposed hardware and top quality goatskin leather upholstery. The highly lacquered black wooden bodies featured both gold hand striping and beautifully contrasting purple cloth trim bands along all exposed seat edging.

The mechanical features of the vehicle included: instruments by Weston; motor by the Eddy Company of Windsor, Ct.; hard-rubber tires by Goodyear Tire Company; top grade Sarvin wheels and hubs; and an Olds designed and built controller unit for changing speeds. Showing nice attention to small details, the control arm and the tiller were furnished with sterling silver accented ebony handles. In short, a high quality, beautifully made vehicle that puts to rest the contention that the line of Olds electrics was only developed as a stopgap and cut rate proposition. That it did not survive and succeed sales wise was a shame. It died principally because of the fire, not because of any inherent weakness design wise in it’s make-up. But for the fire, it seems likely that it could have successfully found it’s own segment of the market and thus co-existed with Olds Curved Dash gasoline vehicles.

1899 Olds Electric Phaeton

1901 Oldsmobile Stanhope

1903 Oldsmobile Model R Curved Dash Runabout (Stanhope body style, gasoline propulsion)
note brass headlamps and horn, and wheel guards

The owner of one of the Olds electric Phaetons cites a letter indicating that Olds took at least two electric vehicles with him when he left Oldsmobile:

We have pictures of our car in the 1903 Detroit parade on Bell Isle with Olds at the tiller, well after the factory fire. When Olds left to start his own company, there were legal problems between he and the financial backers of his original company. One letter of correspondence from an Attorney to Olds makes mention of two vehicles that Olds took with him when he left that his former backers believed were the company's and not Olds'. The letter mentions the "large electric vehicle" in possesion by Olds that the backers wanted returned.
I'm keeping my eyes open for the missing Olds electrics :)

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I'm keeping my eyes open for the missing Olds electrics :)
Given your location, you have a better chance than most of us of spotting them! I'll keep an eye out here on the "west coast!"

Fascinating read. It's easy to imagine the butterfly effect being a factor here. Had that fire not occurred, it might have led to radically different auto, oil, and electric industries.
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