Engine Companies of Lansing

A myriad of early engine companies were born in Lansing, Michigan.


| December/January 2015



Olds Motor Vehicle Co. ad

Ransom E. Olds founded Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897 and REO Motor Car Co. in 1905, setting up Lansing as the auto capital of the world.

Illustration by Gas Engine Magazine staff

Starting before the advent of the 20th century, Lansing, Michigan, became a center for the manufacture of gasoline engines. Thirty-two companies sprang up over time, for several obvious reasons. It’s 40 miles from Detroit, the center of automobile manufacture. Automobiles needed gasoline engines; so did farmers for their corn shelling or water pumping and other on-farm work. Tractors needed gas engines, too.

Though these companies didn’t, for the most part, provide automobile or tractor engines, the area drew inventors, workers, and other people interested in gasoline engines. And people who were already there, working in other areas, people like E. F. Cooley, of Lansing Wagon Works, who moved on from the manufacture of wagons and buggies, to the bright new future of gas engines.

Lansing, the capital of Michigan, also had stellar railroad service with railroads entering and leaving the city in all four directions, so steel and other products could be brought in overland from Lake Huron or Lake Michigan (Lansing is halfway between those bodies of water) and engines could be taken out.

Additionally, the years of Lansing’s supremacy in gasoline engines were the years of testing. Prior to 1920, the questions for almost all mechanical objects with internal combustion engines were simple: One-cylinder or 2-cylinder? Vertical or horizontal? Water-cooled or air-cooled? With automobiles it was more complicated: Which engines? How many cylinders? How many wheels? With tractors, the same questions were being asked, which was why many different engine companies began their lives.

Lansing companies

Ransom E. Olds most affected the early history of Lansing, Michigan. He founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897, and after he left that company, started REO Motor Car Co. in 1905. These two companies set up Lansing as the auto capital of the world at the time, drawing in construction workers and engine people as well as those who worked in side businesses, like rubber tire manufacture and repair, motoring garb, and so on.

Olds had his finger in a great number of pies in Lansing. He organized or was involved in the Capital National Bank, Michigan National Bank, Michigan Screw Company and Atlas Drop Forge Company in Lansing. He financed Olds Tower, the highest building in Lansing.