Lying on a wooden “mechanics creeper,” Ken Lovell rolled himself up close to a massive car wheel with a grease pump in hand. It sounds like a typical garage scene — except that today’s cars don’t have grease fittings, and the vehicle he was working on is a 1932 Reo hearse/ambulance at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, 240 Museum Drive, in Lansing.
Lovell has been a volunteer at the museum for 14 years and was working Tuesday with Tom Morefield, another volunteer, to get the hearse ready to hit the streets.
“In the summer, we try to get as many (vehicles) out as possible,” Morefield said.
Volunteers like Lovell and Morefield help with everything from cleaning cars to managing inventory.
Executive Director Deborah Horstick said the museum couldn’t function without them.
The museum — formerly a Capital Area Transportation Authority garage — was opened in August 1981 to showcase Lansing’s transportation history.
In the building’s showrooms, cars are spread out more or less in chronological order, with memorabilia such as stop signs, license plates, car emblems and photos hanging on walls and arranged in glass cases.
A large portion of the displays focus on Oldsmobile and Reo Motor Car Co., the companies started by Ransom Eli Olds, who moved to Lansing with his family in 1880.
While the museum mostly focuses on those two companies, there are also other models featured, such as the current General Motors display in honor of GM’s centennial.
Historian Dave Pfaff, 63, said everything in the museum is either made in Lansing or has some sort of Lansing connection.
“We’re not an Oldsmobile museum — we’re Lansing transportation,” Pfaff said. “But Oldsmobile is a big part of it, of course.”
Jim Walkinshaw, a museum supporter who was working at Oldsmobile in the late ’70s when the building became available for use, said there was a group of “mostly car folks” interested in opening a museum.
“They cleaned out the place, got a mess of automobiles and started showing cars,” Walkinshaw said.
In the past 20-some years, Walkinshaw, 72, has seen the museum evolve from just a few cars to about 50 vehicles and countless other artifacts, all of which have been donated from the Olds family and supporters of Oldsmobile and the Lansing auto industry.
Horstick said the museum gets new donations every week, and as the space has filled throughout the years, they’ve had to become more selective about what to accept.
“As for vehicles … we’re much more contentious about what we take now and whether it has to do with our mission (to preserve Lansing transportation),” Horstick said.
Pfaff said most first-time visitors are “pleasantly surprised” at how much is in the museum. He said most are not from the Lansing area and some even come from out of the country.
Walkinshaw said the size of the museum doesn’t take away from the value of what’s inside.
“Although it’s a small museum, what’s in it is a rich history of the automotive industry and Lansing,” Walkinshaw said. “It has come a long way in 25 years from virtually nothing to now a recognized museum.”
Perfecting the horseless carriage
R.E. Olds’ Oldsmobile company — first known as Olds Motor Works — is responsible for many firsts in the auto industry.
In 1900, Olds built the first factory made specifically to build motor vehicles, and in 1901, he was the first to build cars using an assembly line.
“(The assembly line) is usually attributed to Henry Ford,” Pfaff said.
“It’s interesting — Henry Ford and R.E. Olds were friends … before Ford was even in the business.”
But what might be Olds’ biggest claim to fame is the creation of the curved dash automobile. Bearing the Oldsmobile emblem on its side — the first official Oldsmobile — the curved dash was introduced in 1901.
“(The curved dash is) the car that made Oldsmobile. It was so successful that it was the highest volume production vehicle in the United States,” Pfaff said.
“(It) was a car that proved to the world that you could sell a reasonably priced car and make profit on it and build them in volume.”
He also credited Lansing with virtually starting the auto industry as we know it today.
Pfaff said Olds ultimately combined the existing power plants with carriages to create motor vehicles.
“It’s part of the story of the horseless carriage,” he said, noting that the museum is an attempt to chronologically tell the story of Lansing’s transportation history.
“(I love) the evolution of the vehicles and the beauty of the vehicles,” Horstick said.
“Today’s cars all look the same, but if you go and look at the cars from years ago, they’re pieces of art. It just amazes me to watch how they started out from the carriage type and made that into a car, and that’s evolving.”
The museum follows Oldsmobile through its entire lifetime — until it was eliminated in 2004.
“We have the very last Oldsmobile, period, and it was built here in Lansing,” Pfaff said of the museum’s burgundy 2004 Oldsmobile Alero, which the company’s workers signed on its way down the assembly line. “They drove it off the end of the assembly line and brought it over here, so it’s got like five miles on it.”
Along with the history of Oldsmobile, the museum also tracks Olds’ other well-known company, Reo, which he started in 1904 in Lansing after he lost much of his control over Oldsmobile.
Among the company’s vehicles in the museum are early Reo trucks and the ever-popular Reo Speedwagon.
Dick Trierweiler, a volunteer who worked for Reo from 1960-75, helps the museum keep track of its Reo inventory.
“Whenever Reo stuff comes in, I identify it and help put it someplace where it’s kept safe,” the 68-year-old Portland, Mich., resident said.
Leaving a legacy
Pfaff said Olds also impacted MSU — Michigan State College at the time — because the engineering building burned down and Olds donated money to rebuild it, making it the R.E. Olds Hall of Engineering.
“The common story is if he wouldn’t have done that, they wouldn’t have had engineering at MSU, or (Michigan State College) at the time,” Pfaff said. “It also was the first privately funded building on campus.”
In addition to the vehicles, the transportation museum is home to many pieces of the Olds family’s history — such as a grandfather clock, two pianos and a stone and brass fireplace restored from the home.
The Olds family’s mansion, which was located on South Washington Avenue, in Lansing, was another part of the community, Pfaff said.
Trierweiler said Olds had a huge impact not only on Lansing and the U.S., but on the whole world.
“We’ve got people who had Reos all over the world,” he said. “There’s hardly a country that wasn’t affected by R.E. Olds.”
Having a hand in preserving the legacy of R.E. Olds and Lansing transportation is what keeps workers and volunteers coming back to help.
Rick Kaiser, who started as the museum’s archivist about a year ago, said being able to touch the pieces that come through make history less about facts and figures.
“We just got in (Olds’) driver’s license from when he was 71 years old,” he said. “To have his actual driver’s license in my hand changes history to a reality to me.”
The museum serves as a memorial to the people who built and worked in Lansing’s auto industry, which includes people who still live in the Lansing area, Pfaff said.
For a community with such strong ties to the auto industry, Walkinshaw said it is well worth the effort.
“If you don’t preserve your heritage, you are missing virtually half of your life in that nobody recognizes where you’ve been,” he said. “People need to recognize where we have come from and the things that have happened in the 100 and some years the auto industry has been in Lansing.”