Jonathan Salem Baskin

Passing Horses

Today, the horse industry was doomed.

Although Henry Ford is generally considered the father of the American automobile industry, Ransom Eli Olds came up with most of the ideas that Ford improved and exploited, and it was on this day in 1897 that Ransom founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company (Ford wouldn’t incorporate his first endeavor for another four years). Olds had been fiddling with machinery and engines since he was a child growing up on a farm in Ohio, which is also where he developed his lifelong distaste for horses. He’d built his first vehicle in 1887, powered by steam, a second in 1893, and a third — powered by gasoline — in 1896, which would form the basis of his first production car, the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, which truly looked like a horseless carriage (the seat was in the open). He proudly declared that “The time will come when the horse will be relegated to comparative discard. Men will travel…at a speed of at least thirty miles an hour. Barns with their odors from horses will disappear from the city.”

Ransom developed an approach to manufacturing called progressive assembly to put the things together on what would eventually be called a production line, allowing the creation of 20 cars per day, and making the Curved Dash the most popular car in America. But by then he’d lost financial control of his company, and would leave a few years later to start a string of unsuccessful competitive ventures (his REO Speedwagon truck in 1915 would live on as the name of a silly 70s rock band). His former company didn’t fare much better, requiring a bailout purchase by a nascent General Motors in 1908. By then, Henry Ford had just founded his company and taken Ransom’s innovations to heart, and his competition wasn’t horses but those open-cabined Dashes. So Ford’s Model T offered an enclosed driving/riding space. His improvements in manufacturing enabled him to produce cars at a rate of one every 90 minutes or so by 1914 and, by 1925, Ford was producing as many as 10,000 vehicles per day. This allowed him to reduce the Model T retail price to almost a third of what the Dash had cost, so that his cars would constitute nearly half of all cars in use during the 1920s.

Do we remember winners in part because of who (or what) they defeated?