REO Motor Car Company
|Former type||Automobile Manufacturing|
|Founders||Ransom E. Olds|
REO was founded by Ransom E. Olds during August 1904. Olds had 52 percent of the stock and the titles of president and general manager. To ensure a reliable supply of parts, he organized a number of subsidiary firms like the National Coil Company, the Michigan Screw Company, and the Atlas Drop Forge Company.
Originally the company was to be called “R. E. Olds Motor Car Company,” but the owner of Olds’ previous company, then called Olds Motor Works, objected and threatened legal action on the grounds of likely confusion of names by consumers. Olds then changed the name to his initials. Olds Motor Works soon adopted the popular name of its vehicles, Oldsmobile (which, along with Buick and Cadillac, became founding divisions of General Motors Corporation).
The company’s name was spelled alternately in all capitals REO or with only an initial capital as Reo, and the company’s own literature was inconsistent in this regard, with early advertising using all capitals and later advertising using the “Reo” capitalization. The pronunciation, however, was as a single word. Lansing is home to the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum.
Early REO production
By 1907, REO had gross sales of $4.5 million and the company was one of the four wealthiest automobile manufacturers in the U.S. After 1908 however, despite the introduction of improved cars designed by Olds, REO’s share of the automobile market decreased due in part to competition from emerging companies like Ford and General Motors.
REO added a truck manufacturing division and a Canadian plant in St. Catharines, Ontario in 1910. Two years later, Olds claimed he had built the best car he could, a tourer able to seat two, four, or five, with a 30–35 hp (22–26 kW) engine, 112 in (2845 mm) wheelbase, and 32 inch (81 cm) wheels, for US$ 1055 (not including top, windshield, or gas tank, which were US$100 extra); self-starter was US$25 on top of that. By comparison, the Cole 30 and Colt Runabout were priced at US$1500, Kirk‘s Yale side-entrance US$1,000, the high-volume Oldsmobile Runabout went for US$650, Western‘s Gale Model A was US$500, a Brush Runabout US$485, the Black started at $375, and the Success hit the amazingly low US$250.
In 1915, Olds relinquished the title of general manager to his protégé Richard H. Scott and eight years later he ended his tenure as the company’s presidency as well, retaining the position of chairman of the board.
1912 REO advertisement – R. M. Owens & Co.
Perhaps the most famous REO episode was the 1912 Trans-Canada journey. Traveling 4,176 miles (6,720 km) from Halifax, Nova Scotia, toVancouver, British Columbia, in a 1912 REO special touring car, mechanic/driver Fonce V. (Jack) Haney and journalist Thomas W. Wilby made the first trip by automobile across Canada (including one short jaunt into northeastern Washington State when the Canadian roads were virtually impassable.)
From 1915 to 1925, under Scott’s direction REO remained profitable. In 1923, the company sold an early recreational vehicle, called the “Motor Pullman Car.” Designed by Battle Creek, Michigan newspaper editor, J.H. Brown, the automobile included a drop-down sleeping extension, a built-in gas range and a refrigerator. During 1925, however, Scott, like many of his contemporaries/competitors, began an ambitious expansion program designed to make the company more competitive with other automobile manufacturers by offering cars in different price ranges. The failure of this program and the effects of the Depression caused such losses that Olds ended his retirement during 1933 and assumed control of REO again, but resigned in 1934. During 1936, REO abandoned the manufacture of automobiles to concentrate on trucks.
Reo Flying Cloud and Reo Royale
The Flying Cloud was the first car to use Lockheed’s new hydraulic internal expanding brake system and featured styling by Fabio Segardi. While Ned Jordan is credited with changing the way advertising was written with his “Somewhere West of Laramie” ads for his Jordan Playboy, Reo’s Flying Cloud—a name that provoked evocative images of speed and lightness—changed the way automobiles would be named in the future. It has a 115″ wheelbase. The final REO model of 1936 was a Flying Cloud.
In April 1927, Reo introduced the Wolverine brand of cars as a companion model to the Flying Cloud. With a Continental engine, artillery wheels, and a different pattern of horizontal radiator louvers from the Flying Cloud, the Wolverine was made until 1928.
The 1931 Reo Royale was a trendsetting design, introducing design elements that were a precedent for true automotive streamlining in the American market. The model was vended until 1935. Beverly Kimes, editor of the Standard Catalog of American Cars, terms the Royale “the most fabulous Reo of all”. In addition to its coachwork by Murray designed by their Amos Northup, the Royale also provided buyers with a 125 hp (93 kW) straight-eight with a nine bearing crankshaft, one shot lubrication, and thermostatically controlled radiator shutters. The Royale rode upon factory wheelbases of 131 and 135 inches (3,400 mm); a 1932 custom version rode upon a 152-inch (3,900 mm) wheelbase. Beginning in 1933, the Royale also featured REO’s semi-automatic transmission, the Self-Shifter.
1939 REO Speed WagonTruck
Cottage Grove Dump Truck, Lane County, Oregon
An REO Speed Wagon, from a 1917 advertisement
REO Speed Wagon Fire Truck at Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee
Car emblem for a Reo Flying Cloud (1930 model)
After passenger cars
Although truck orders during World War II enabled it to revive somewhat, the company remained unstable in the postwar era, resulting in a bankruptcy reorganization. In 1954, the company was still underperforming, and sold vehicle manufacturing operations (the primary asset of the company) to the Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation of Detroit. Three years later, in 1957, it became a subsidiary of the White Motor Company. White then merged REO with Diamond T Trucks in 1967 to form Diamond-Reo Trucks, Inc. In 1975, this company filed for bankruptcy in the Western District of Michigan and most of its assets were liquidated. Volvo later took over White and thus currently owns the rights to the REO brandname.
Meanwhile, the corporation remained nominally after the 1954 Bohn sale. Management began liquidating the organization, but due to shareholder issues, instead acquired Nuclear Consultants, Inc., a nuclear medicine or nuclear industry services organization (unclear), and renamed the combined company “Nuclear Corporation of America, Inc.” The company diversified, and purchased other companies, to become a conglomerate, including nuclear, prefabricated housing, and steel joist businesses. Most of these business were failures, except for the latter, and the company was bankrupted once again in 1965. Upon reorganizing, only the successful steel joist business remained; that company started producing recycled steel, leading to today’s steel company, Nucor.
- W series
- Gold Comet
REOs in popular culture
- The band REO Speedwagon took their name from the REO manufactured REO Speed Wagon light delivery truck, an ancestor of pickup trucks.
- An REO is mentioned in a humorous 1933 short story by James Thurber entitled, The Car We Had to Push. It tells the story of Thurber’s family car, which would only start if pushed a long way. After several odd adventures, the car is destroyed by a trolley car.
- In the John Wayne movie Big Jake, the Texas Rangers were traveling in REOs, which were later destroyed by the bandits. (The cars destroyed were replicas, rather than the actual vehicles).
- The song “The Incomparable Mr. Flannery” by band Clutch from their 2005 album Robot Hive/Exodus mentions the REO Speed Wagon.
- The American Country Music band Diamond Rio took their name from Diamond Reo trucks. The bands leader Marty Roe settled on the name Diamond Rio, taking the name from a member of the truck model line that had previously inspired the name of the rock group REO Speed-wagon. Roe misspelled “Reo” as “Rio,” but decided to make a virtue out of his mistake. “I like it like that. It has a country-Southwestern flavor,” he told the Chicago Tribune’s Jack Hurst.
1906 REO advertisement
A 1919 REO Motor Car Company Advertisement – The Syracuse Herald, June 8, 1919
REO advertisement in 1953 (back cover of the October 1953 issue of Popular Mechanics)