of National Historic Landmark Designation
Motor Car Company Plant
Lansing, Ingham County, Michigan
Reo Motor Car Company Plant in 1918.
Ransom Eli Olds, a pioneer in the design
and manufacture of American automobiles, established this plant
for his Reo Motor Car Company in 1904. At this factory, Olds
continued the success he had first achieved with the introduction
of the Oldsmobile in 1901. His production of low price vehicles
for the mass market and his manufacturing innovations contributed
to the growth of the U.S. automobile industry.
In 1885, Ransom became a partner in his
father's machine shop firm, which soon became a leading manufacturer
of gas-heated steam engines. Ransom developed an interest in
self-propelled land vehicles, and he experimented with steam-powered
vehicles in the late 1880s. In 1896 he built his first gasoline
car and one year later he formed the Olds Motor Vehicle Company
to manufacture them. At the same time, he took over his father's
company and renamed it the Olds Gasoline Engine Works.
Although Olds' engine company prospered,
his motor vehicle operation did not, chiefly because of inadequate
capitalization. In 1899 he liquidated it and incorporated a
new company, the Olds Motor Works, with financial backing from
Samuel L. Smith, a wealthy lumber magnate. Operations were shifted
from Lansing to Detroit, and Smith, who owned most of the company's
stock, became president while Olds served as vice president
and general manager. During its first year in Detroit, the company
had a slow start, largely due to Olds' indecision about what
type of car to produce.
By 1901, however, Olds had perfected
the design for the curved-dash Oldsmobile, which sold for $650.
Olds was the first to develop a low price car intended for a
mass market, and it proved a smashing success. As production
of the curved-dash car got underway, however, almost the entire
factory was destroyed by fire. Olds still managed to manufacture
and sell 600 of these cars in that year.
Heavy demand for the Oldsmobile led Olds
to modify the automobile manufacturing techniques in use at
that time. From the beginning, he relied on subcontractors and
made the use of outside supplier parts more a part of his manufacturing
process than anyone had before. In addition, Olds "devised
a progressive assembly line system, which contained all the
elements of the modern assembly line with the exception of the
power conveyor" according to his biographer Glenn A. Niemeyer.
By 1904 sales had reached 5,000 automobiles, a figure unheard
of at that time. Much of Olds' success in selling the car was
due to an unprecedented advertising campaign in national periodicals
and a number of highly publicized races and endurance runs.
Despite his success, Olds grew increasingly restive because
of Samuel Smith's control of the Olds Motor Works. Bitter feelings
between Smith and Olds culminated in the ouster of Olds from
his post as vice president and general manager in 1904.
In August 1904, Olds organized the R.E.
Olds Motor Car Company, a name that was soon changed to Reo
in order to avert a threatened lawsuit from the Olds Motor Works.
Although a number of individuals invested in the company, Olds
held fifty-two percent of the stock as well as the titles of
president and general manager. To provide Reo with a reliable
supply of parts, he organized a number of subsidiary firms like
the National Oil Company, the Michigan Screw Company, and the
Atlas Drop Forge Company.
left to right, the west facades of the Clubhouse, the 1905
Factory, and the Engineering Building.
National Historic Landmarks photograph, by Ralph J. Christian,
By 1907 Reo had gross sales of four million
dollars and the company was one of the top four automobile manufacturers
in the US After 1908 however, despite the introduction of improved
cars designed by Olds, Reo's share of the automobile market
shrank due in part to the development of giants like Ford and
General Motors. Reo's stagnation must be attributed in large
part to Olds himself, who was talented mechanically but not
administratively. Although Olds added a truck manufacturing
division to Reo in 1910 as well as a Canadian automobile plant,
he gradually lost interest in the company as he turned his attention
to other ventures. In 1915, he relinquished the title of general
manager to his protégé Richard H. Scott and eight
years later he gave up the company's presidency as well, retaining
only the honorary position of chairman of the board.
From 1915 to 1925, under Scott's direction
Reo remained profitable though small and earned a reputation
for well-built cars and trucks. In 1925, however, Scott launched
an ambitious expansion program designed to make the company
more competitive with other automobile manufacturers by offering
cars in different price ranges. The failure of this program
and the effects of the Depression caused such heavy losses that
Olds came out of retirement in 1933 and took control of Reo
Reo one-cylinder runabout.
Reo Royale Sedan.
Olds' return was brief, however. Late
in 1934, he resigned from the company's executive committee
because it refused to approve his plan for a new four-cylinder
car. In 1936, the same year Reo abandoned the manufacture of
automobiles, Olds resigned as chairman of the board. Until his
death on August 26, 1950, he devoted his time to many other
In the years after Olds left Reo, the
firm continued to experience serious financial problems. Although
World War II truck orders enabled it to make something of a
comeback, the company remained unstable in the postwar era.
In 1954 the company was sold to the Bohn Aluminum and Brass
Company of Detroit, and three years later it became a subsidiary
of the White Motor Company. White merged Reo with Diamond T
Trucks in 1967 to form Diamond Reo Trucks, Inc. In 1975, this
firm filed for bankruptcy and most of its assets were liquidated.
side of the 1905 factory.
National Historic Landmarks photograph, by Ralph J. Christian,
The Reo Motor Car Company Plant was situated
in an industrial area near downtown Lansing. Eight buildings
at the Reo factory were designated a National Historic Landmark
on June 16, 1978. These buildings included the 1905 Office Building;
a 1905 factory; the 1908 Engineering Building; a 1917 employee
Clubhouse; and four other factory buildings constructed between
1905 and 1914. At the time of designation, most of the buildings
were vacant but structurally sound.
In anticipation of site re-development,
documentation of the buildings was prepared according to Historic
American Engineering Record standards. The Reo Motor Car Company
Plant was completely demolished by January 14, 1980. The Landmark
designation was withdrawn on July 31, 1985 and the property
was removed from the National Register of Historic Places.