In the year 1903, things were heating up in the United States. The Wright Brothers made their historic flight, the Philippine-American war had just ended, and the country was still recovering from the assassination of President McKinley two years prior. Edwin Porter's now-iconic film The Great Train Robbery was in theaters and pedestrians were seeing, for the first time, factory-produced automobiles from American makers with names like Ford and Oldsmobile.
On a recent trip to the Pioneer Auto Show museum in Murdo, South Dakota, we took a closer look at two cars that spearheaded this early automotive rivalry from the "horseless carriage" era: Henry Ford's first Model A and the popular Olds Curved Dash.
One of the most popular vehicles of that year was the Oldsmobile Model 6 (aka the "Curved Dash"), which had been introduced in 1901 and was nearing the height of its popularity in 1903. This was the first mass-produced auto, being built on an assembly line from interchangeable parts. The Olds Curved Dash would be built until 1907, with an almost unprecedented 19,000 cars being made in that six year span. In 1902, 2,500 Model 6 cars were made and one of those now resides in the Pioneer Auto Show museum in Murdo, South Dakota.
Another automotive empire was beginning in 1903: that of Henry Ford. Now the most well-known name associated with cars and trucks from the early 1900s, Ford's first production vehicle was the Model A (aka the "Fordmobile"), introduced in 1903 as a "runabout"-style car. Like the Curved Dash, the Model A was basically designed as a carriage with an engine instead of horses. The car was only made for about a year, though, and was replaced with the Models B and C. Yet the Model A was Henry Ford's first commercial success in the automotive market and served as a building block for his career. A 1903 Model A (not to be confused with the later Model A produced in huge numbers in from 1927-31) was nestled in the Pioneer museum not far from the Olds Curved Dash.
Although stylistically very similar, with a small size based on a two-seat open carriage design, the cars were very different in other ways. The Fordmobile, for example, had a much larger engine producing more power, and the Oldsmobile had a steering lever rather than a wheel. The primary reason the Olds outsold the Ford, was due to the company's combination of lower pricing and superior marketing.
Both of these automobiles would have a huge effect on the automotive industry going forward, something their designers were unlikely to have realized at the time.
1901-1907 Oldsmobile Curved Dash
The Oldsmobile Model 6 "Curved Dash" entered the market in 1901 and was produced until 1907. There were less than 500 produced in the first year, but the second year saw sales jump to about 2,500 units as the car's low price, aggressive marketing, and beautiful look came together.
The Curved Dash sported a runabout style, which was an open carriage with four wagon wheels and a compact design. It was priced at US$650, which was ahead of some contemporaries that came later, but below its chief rival, the Ford Model A introduced in 1903.
The Olds Model 6 was powered by a 96 cubic inch (1,560cc) single-cylinder engine that was horizontally oriented and that used a brass, gravity-fed carburetor. A two-speed planetary (epicyclic) transmission controlled the forward and reverse motion of the car in a semi-automatic fashion. The car weighed about 850 pounds (390 kg) and had a top speed of about 20 mph (32 km/h) on an open road.
By the time the Curved Dash entered the market, Oldsmobile was becoming a well-established automotive concern. Founded by Ransom E. Olds in 1897, the carriage making portion of the company and the engine-production company were merged to become Olds Motor Works. Olds then moved to Detroit, Michigan and started the Oldsmobile brand. By 1901 it was the highest-volume gasoline car maker in the world.
The Curved Dash was just one of several models that Oldsmobile had designed and planned for potential production, and might have been cut in favor of some other options had a freak fire at the factory not destroyed all but the Model 6 prototype. A new factory in nearby Lansing, Michigan was quickly built and began production shortly after the 1901 fire. Olds hoped to recoup losses with this car and redesign the other prototypes.
Olds pioneered the automotive assembly line, which greatly reduced costs of manufacture by utilizing standardized parts for a single vehicle model rather than by hand-making parts for each individual car. General Motors acquired Oldsmobile in 1908. The other prototypes lost in the 1901 fire were never reproduced.
Aggressive marketing for the Oldsmobile Curved Dash included entry into several endurance competitions being held in Europe and the U.S. The Olds did very well, creating a marketing bonanza for salesmen and the company to utilize. The Gus Edwards song "In my merry Oldsmobile" became a top radio hit in, further catapulting it into the American psyche. The song was later used by Oldsmobile as a marketing jingle, but that was well after the last year of the Curved Dash.
The Oldsmobile Curved Dash not only catapulted the Oldsmobile name into the limelight, but it also made the company profitable beyond expectation. Had there not been an internal dispute that led to Ransom Olds leaving the company, Oldsmobile may have itself remained a single company rather than folding into the GM group of companies formed in the early 1900s. As it was, when Oldsmobile was discontinued as a brand in 2004, it was the longest-lived American automotive brand and one of the oldest automotive brands in the world.
From the Model 6 Curved Dash came the Oldsmobile Model 20 and other Oldsmobile models were introduced at the same time, making this one of the first brands to have concurrent models on offer.
1903-1904 Ford Model A
When the Ford Model A was introduced in 1903, it was the first production car by the ambitious Henry Ford. A two-seat runabout and then a four-seat "tonneau" model were offered. The car's basic design is of a carriage with four wagon wheels and spring suspension. Only 1,750 cars were made before the Model B and Model C "Doctor's Car" were introduced, but those first Fordmobile cars were enough to prove that Ford could make profits in automotive.
The Model A was powered by a large (for the time) two-cylinder engine that displaced 101.788 cubic inch (1,688 cc) and ran a two-speed, planetary transmission that took it to a top speed of around 28 mph (45 km/h). Two forward speeds and one reverse were fitted, which would become a hallmark of Ford for some time, being featured on the now-famous Model T. The engine was mounted amidships, behind the driver, and was steered through a primitive rack and pinion system featuring a steering wheel.
Both the two-seat and four-seat model were the same size, with the four-seater putting seats atop the rear deck of the runabout model. Adding those seats and a door to access them cost US$100 at the time. A rubber roof could be had for US$30 and a leather roof for US$50. The two-seat model sold for US$750, which was much more expensive than the fast-selling Oldsmobile it was competing with.
Ford gambled heavily on the Model A. Despite its dubious marketing slogan of "most reliable machine in the world" (it was known for its continual mechanical issues) and single color choice (red), the Ford Model A did sell moderately well. It was able to keep Ford in solvency so that investors were keen to stay and finance new models for development.
Henry Ford had raised about US$28,000 in starting capital when he began production on the Model A and had spent all but just over $200 of that when production began. The Ford Motor Company was Henry Ford's second attempt at car making, the previous one becoming Cadillac Motor Company (now a part of General Motors). He pioneered many automotive industry trends, including the moving assembly line and the idea of mass-marketing low-cost automobiles to the general public rather than just to the well-heeled. The short-lived Model A was the beginning of all that and, despite being outsold by the Olds Curved Dash, Henry Ford may have never found success in automotive without it.
Both the Oldsmobile Curved Dash and the Ford Model A are excellent examples of what automotive design and manufacturing was towards the end of the "brass era" of automotive engineering. These century-old pieces were founding fathers of today's industry, pioneering the mass-production of standardized models on assembly lines. The influence of both can still be seen other ways, too, from the carefully shielded and positioned engine and automatic transmission of the Oldsmobile Model 6 to the set driver's position (left or right), steering wheel and multiple configuration or trim options of the Ford Model A.