Popular culture dictates that most people believe Henry Ford is the father of the American mass-produced automobile. However, a deeper dive into history tells us that Ransom Eli Olds was indeed the first. Founder of the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in Lansing, Michigan in 1897, Ransom Olds began production of his first and most famous creation, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, in 1901. During the development of his car, Olds consulted with Henry Leland of Leland & Faulconer Engineering on the concept of parts interchangeability. Leland’s experience in the firearms industry translated handily into the brave new world of motorcars, and he helped to develop an easily produced single cylinder engine for Olds.
The first production models appeared in 1901, constructed via a stationary assembly line process using a high number of standardized parts. This process allowed him to build 425 cars in the first year alone, which ballooned to 2,500 by 1902. For a brief period between 1903 and 1905, Olds was the largest automaker in the world. In all, over 19,000 Olds Curved Dash models were built making it the first mass-produced car built on an assembly line – seven years before the Model T made its first appearance.
Despite the success of the Curved Dash, Ransom Olds’ time at his eponymous company would be short-lived. A dispute with management over the direction of his company caused R.E. Olds to depart in 1905, splitting off to form REO Motor Car Company. Meanwhile, Oldsmobile soldiered on with Curved Dash production until 1907, with larger models soon joining it. The firm was swallowed up by William “Billy” Durant’s General Motors the following year. The years between 1911 and 1914 proved to be a renaissance of sorts for Oldsmobile, with a range of range exquisitely built, stylish, high-performance machines. The mighty six-cylinder 60-horsepower Olds Limited topped the line, followed by the big four-powered Autocrat, with the smaller four-cylinder Defender joining the ranks in 1912. Powered by a 35 horsepower, 298 cubic inch T-head engine, the Defender played the role of a sporty young sibling. Oldsmobile offered buyers a choice of five open and closed body styles. Records show that Olds produced a mere 325 Defenders in 1912, out of a total production of only 1,075 vehicles. Like its stablemates, the Defender was beautifully built, stylish and rapid. With the Defender, Autocrat and Limited, Oldsmobile (however briefly) enjoyed enviable status in the select world of prestige automakers.
Exquisitely presented, this impeccably-restored 1912 Oldsmobile Defender touring car is one of just a handful of known survivors, and is believed to be the only surviving example with this uniquely stylish coachwork. Fresh from a significant collection of brass and nickel-era automobiles, it received a complete, expert restoration, completed in 2013. The most recent owner acquired the car in 2011 from a fellow collector of rare early American automobiles. He described it prior to restoration as an amazingly solid and rust free car, with the majority of the panels believed to be original.
Any Olds Defender is a rarity in its own right; however, this car goes one step further with its distinctive coachwork. The cast aluminum cowl and sporty cut-down 5-passenger touring body are very similar in style to the larger Autocrat, though scaled down for the smaller Defender chassis. Notable differences from a standard Defender include the faired-in electric cowl lamps and the glazed “skylight” cowl vent that provides a more airy and light feeling to the driver’s compartment. The slash-cut louvers on the hood and doors are a signature feature shared across the Oldsmobile line, contributing to the car’s sporty appearance. Large-diameter artillery wheels and deeply arched fenders give the car an appealing, underslung-like stance. A striking machine in every respect, it is believed that this is the only Defender known to wear this marvelous, Autocrat-inspired bodywork.
The subject of a three-year restoration by a noted specialist, the car remains fresh and crisp. Marvelous two-tone gray livery combines with dark red wheels and pinstripes to suit the car’s sporting character. As expected, it presents in fabulous condition and the paintwork is beautiful, finished to a high standard and finely detailed with highly polished nickel and brass details. Following the restoration, this Olds has been enjoyed on tours and in concours events, appearing at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance in 2014.
The interior is trimmed in gorgeous button-tufted oxblood red leather and fully detailed with period-correct pyramid aluminum floorboards and original instruments and controls. As with the exterior, the interior nickel and brass fittings maintain a mirror-like finish. The door louvers are a particularly interesting touch, as they serve as functional fresh air vents for the front seat occupants. Exquisitely finished woodwork surrounds the cockpit, and the heavy grain vinyl top includes a fitted boot for top-down motoring.
Motivation for the Defender comes via Oldsmobile’s 298 cubic-inch T-Head inline-four with twin-plugs per cylinder, rated at 35 horsepower. The presentation is impressive, with period correct brass hardware, lacquered wiring, and proper fittings. The most recent owner drove the car with enthusiasm and reports it to have exceptional road manners, feeling very capable and comfortable at speed. The steering is light for a vehicle of its size, and the brakes pull the car up with confidence.
Having seen careful use in the hands of an avid collector, it invites regular enjoyment, yet remains truly exquisite and suitable for virtually any concours event. Originally sold in minuscule numbers, only a handful of Defenders are known to survive, and this example represents a one-off opportunity. A breathtaking and highly collectible motorcar, this Defender touring car is a fitting representative of Oldsmobile’s Golden Era.