Early Oldsmobile Electrics

The Olds Motor Vehicle Company was founded in August of 1897. Ransom E. Olds began development of gasoline powered vehicles in his newly constructed factory in Detroit. About 1 year into development, R.E. Olds was forced to re-think his initial vehicle program. The first gasoline vehicles he produced were mechanically complicated, not particularly dependable, and expensive to the point that very few were being sold.

It was decided that a one cylinder gasoline powered runabout would be put into development, that would sell in the $1000 price range. It was found that even at that price point, sales were slow and inconsistent. This concept however, later developed into the well known Curved Dash, eventually selling at $650, which had much sales success.

At that time, more than half of the registered cars in America were electric- as gasoline engines were more complicated/unreliable. R.E. Olds reasoned that he could bring about a line of electric vehicles (primarly based on proven components purchased from outside manufacturers), enabling revenue generated by their sales to give him time to bring to market a second generation of simpler and lower cost gasoline powered vehicles.

The electric project was put into operation, and several Olds electrics were made and offered for sale. Although dependable and easy to operate, their high selling price limited sales. The lowest model of an Olds electric had a price tag of over $1600. The average yearly wage at the time was $438!

Still, Olds saw potential in the electric car, and placed large orders for electric parts and materials. Additionally, a large area on the 2nd floor of the factory was outfitted with equipment needed to mass produce electric vehicles.

Before any significant production could begin, in March 1901, the factory was destroyed by fire. The only car saved from the factory fire was the gasoline powered Curved Dash Olds. News of the fire spread quickly, and sparked public interest in the Curved Dash, inquires and orders began arriving for it, and the company discontinued plans to market an electric vehicle.

It has been said that the Olds electric project was only a minor part of Oldsmobiles history, and that there is no evidence proving that few if any Olds electrics had been produced or sold. It has also been rumored that the electric project was never a sincere attempt by R.E. Olds to produce and sell a significant number of electric vehicles.

Recent evidence however, may uncover a different conclusion.

Two pre 1901 Olds sales catalogs have been uncovered and contained artists drawings resembling vehicles that were under development by R.E. Olds. One vehicle pictured in the first catalog was a four passenger electric "Cabriolet". Also pictured in the same catalog was a small gasoline powered "Runabout". The second catalog, showed R.E. Olds at the tiller of an electric "Stanhope". In this catalog there are pictures and texts on 2 electric vehicles. Pictures of the prototype Curved Dash were also in this catalog.

A pre 1901 Olds price sheet listed a 2 passenger "Stanhope" electric at $1650 and a 5 passenger "Phaeton" electric at $1750. Gasoline powered vehicles listed were a one cylinder "Runabout" at $1000, with gas powered prices topping out with the "Brougham" at $2750. Clearly at this point, lower priced gasoline powered vehicles (such as the Curved Dash at $650) were not available.

A trade journal dated from 1900 states that Olds Motor Works had placed a large order for batteries from Sipe and Sigler firm in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1900, Olds Motor Works displays a "Stanhope" electric at the Chicago and Cleveland Auto Shows. It is reported that R.E. Olds himself, took the Stanhope to the Chicago show. This itself suggests that the company wanted to prominently display and advertise electrics as the direction they would follow in production.

A number of pre 1901 Olds factory photos show a number of electric vehicles being tested and driven on the Detroit River island of Belle Isle. Sources have claimed to identify at least 7 electric vehicles existing in 1900.

A newspaper report quoted Olds Automobile Dept. superintendent Willis G. Murray as saying that over 20 electrics, completed or in various stages of assembly were destroyed in the factory fire of 1901. He also stated that a large amount of electric parts and materials were destoyed. He confirmed that one Olds electric vehicle survived the fire because it was being used by an Olds official and at the time, was not at the factory. A photo of this car, a 4 passenger Olds "Phaeton" electric was taken in July 1901 at a parade - four months after the fire.

This vehicle was recovered in the 1960s from a barn in Lansing, Michigan. The body of this Olds "Phaeton" electric was built by one of the leading body firms in Detroit, the Sievers and Erdman Coach Builders Company.

It was appointed with:

  • Patent leather mudguards and dashboards
  • Nickel trim on all exposed hardware
  • Top quality goatskin leather upholstery
  • Highly lacquered black wooden body featuring both gold hand striping, and contrasting purple cloth trim bands along all of the 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
  • Olds designed and built controller unit for changing speeds

Overall, the vehicle shows attention to small detail, the control arm and tiller were furnished with sterling silver, accented ebony handles.  It is a high quality, beautifully made vehicle that should put to rest the contention that the line of Olds electrics was only developed as a stopgap and cut rate proposition.

It died principally because of the fire, not because of any inherent weakness design wise in it’s make-up.  If not for the fire, it seems likely that it could have successfully found it’s own segment of the market and co-existed with Olds Curved Dash gasoline vehicles.