Oldsmobile Curved Dash 1901 – the first mass-produced automobile

The first mass-produced car was built in the USA, and it was the nation’s best-selling car from 1902 to 1905. But it wasn’t the Ford Model T!

The Oldsmobile Model R, or “Curved Dash” was probably the world’s first mass-produced car, that is to say it was built out of standardised, interchangeable parts on an assembly line.

But what was a curved dash, and why did a fictitious story about a disastrous factory fire claim that only the Curved Dash design was chosen out of several prototypes?

A 1903 Oldsmobile in a museum
1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash

Who made the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, and When?

The Oldsmobile Curved Dash was introduced in 1901 by the American automobile pioneer Ransom E. Olds. He was of English ancestry, his family coming from the county of Dorset in 1667.

Interestingly, Henry Ford’s family originated a few miles away in Closworth, Somerset, England (it must have been something in the water). Olds grew up building steam engines and founded his Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Michigan in 1897 (source: Wikipedia).

By early 1901 he had built no less than eleven prototypes, trying steam engines, electric motors and gasoline engines for propulsion.

An old 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash car in a museum with little weather protection.
The1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash only carried two

Just as he was ready to select one prototype for production, a disastrous fire swept through the Olds factory in March, 1901. Panicking, the workers only managed to rescue one car from the flames, a little runabout they had christened the Curved Dash.

Ransom Olds always maintained that it was this fire that made him choose the small runabout.

An old 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash car in a museum with thing tyres.
The prototype was rescued from the flames

However, an advertising campaign run before the fire had already resulted in three hundred orders for the Curved Dash Model R.

“Olds did not need the one rescued car from which to reconstruct the plans and patterns for the runabout.”

George S.May- biographer

Why tell a tall story like this? The answer must lie in the intensely competitive American market, where a good tale could get you precious newspaper column inches.

How Much Did the Oldsmobile Curved Dash Sell for?

The Oldsmobile Curved Dash sold for $650, which is around $20,000 in today’s dollars. The little runabout was versatile, reliable and no less than $200 dollars cheaper than its main rival, the Ford Model C.

The two-seater Ford Model C cost $850 and was known as the “Doctor’s Car”. The Oldsmobile managed to undercut the Ford by the high volume of cars built, and the efficient production on a stationary assembly line.

Just 300 Oldsmobile workers managed to build 19,000 cars between 1901 and 1907.

Only later did Henry Ford perfect the moving assembly line for automobiles. To read more about the Ford Model T click here.

Olds was a pushy salesman, as his factory fire story suggests, and at the second-ever New York Automobile Show in 1901 he pressed hard to make sales. When a dealer offered to buy 500 he responded

“I would like to see you make this order for a thousand cars. Then the public would drop its jaw and take notice.”

Ransom E. Olds

The dealer took the bait, signed an order for 1,000 cars and the deal hit the headlines. He only sold 750, but “a thousand cars” was the number everyone remembered.

The Oldsmobile Curved Dash had a single-cylinder 1564 cc (95-cubic-inch) gasoline engine of 4.5 horsepower, two forward speeds with reverse, and it could carry two people. It might have been low on power, but the curb weight was only 850 pounds.

In front of them was the board which gave the car its name. Steering was done by a tiller, not a steering wheel. The toboggan-like dashboard gave the model its enduring nickname, and the tiller gives the car a unique driving experience.

An old 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash car in a museum, showing the curved board in front of the passengers
The curved board that gave the car its name

Contemporary roads were nothing more than muddy cart tracks studded with tyre-puncturing horseshoe nails. Dung from horses was dashed up and only some was intercepted by a board in front of the driver’s feet: the dashboard. In later years this dashboard was to be raised to chest height.

The dashboard on the Oldsmobile was, quite simply, curved in an attempt to deflect the worst of the filth. To cope with wind chill, the rain and the spray of dung, passengers and drivers still had to wear heavy car coats, hats, veils, goggles and gauntlets.

Despite the dashboard, drivers still became splattered with mud. When the factory test driver took the Curved Dash to the New York Automobile Show he decided to drive most of the way on the Eirie Canal towpath to avoid the filth on the New York state roads.

After no less than eight days of driving he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel only to be turned away at the door because of his mud-bespattered clothing. He looked so dishevelled that he was directed to the servant’s entrance at the back of the building. (source: Wikipedia)

So the Dash may have been Curved, but it didn’t work very well.

An old 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash car in a museum, showing the tiller steering.
The 1903 Oldsmobile Curved Dash steering was by tiller

How Much is an Oldsmobile Curved Dash worth today?

The average price of an Oldsmobile Curved Dash is around $37,000 (source: classic.com). To find out what a Ford Model T would cost today click here.

Where can I buy an Oldsmobile Curved Dash?

The auction sites are the best bet. Sotheby‘s has one for sale at the time of writing.