Editor’s Note: Welcome to Part II of the continuing series, The History of Diamond Reo Trucks, by M.E. Follsom. For Part I of this series click here.
Diamond Reo: The World’s Toughest Truck
By: M.E. Folsom
C.A Tilt and the Diamond T Brand
(Part One of Two)
Some of you may be asking why I started with Diamond T instead of Reo. After all Reo began its operations in 1904 as opposed to Diamond T in 1905. Numerically this would make sense; the reason for this decision is to lend a continuity of the name sequence for the main brand Diamond Reo. (Diamond T plus Reo made up Diamond Reo as the end result, that’s simple enough right?)
So let’s begin with Mr. Charles Arthur Tilt (C.A. Tilt) the lifetime owner and operator of Diamond T automobiles and trucks. Born in 1877 in Chicago, Tilt would start his working career sweeping floors in his father’s factory, The J.E Tilt Shoe Company, at the age of nineteen. Eventually over the next eight years he would work his way up to managing the business when his father traveled out of town.
Tilt became interested in automobile production around the turn of the twentieth century and would begin to study and devote all his spare time to every aspect of this new industry. Around 1902 his father sublet a portion of his shoe factory to Charles Knight, the inventor of the Knight Sleeve Valve Engine and manufacturer of the Knight automobile. Tilt would become the sales manager for the Knight Motor Car Co. in 1904 and continue on as such for about year.
With 1,000 dollars of capital financed from his mother, some saying against his father’s wishes, C.A. Tilt established his own company in 1905; he chose the name Diamond T because it was the name his father used to distinguish the “top of the line shoes” from other lesser lines in his company. His father actually designed the Diamond T emblem for his son’s fledgling business, a diamond signifying top quality and a large “T” for what else but Tilt. (My question is this: Then why was his father so against his mother’s check book helping out? If indeed he helped the younger Tilt with this valuable promotion item. The world may never know.)
From 1905 to 1911 the Diamond T Company built only passenger car chassis sold locally with custom built bodies. A corner of his father’s shoe factory was utilized as a makeshift machine shop for production. The very first car was built in 1905 but was not sold until 1907. Regular production of three seat touring cars would begin that year with a new model being introduced every year. These models were very powerful for their time with ratings up to 70 HP. The younger Tilt acted as president, general manager, salesman, and chief mechanic during these formative years. In 1911 a customer requested a truck thus convincing Tilt to pursue this new form of commercial material moving as the best way to make money.
Since this is a novella that is geared towards the history of trucks, the above passages are as far I plan on going with any more specific automobile history regarding Diamond T Motor Cars.
Diamond T “the Cadillac of trucks”
“Trucks don’t have to be homely” C.A. Tilt was heard saying more than once, history would prove this to be very true. Flowing fender lines, aggressive grills, and rakish cab contours would make up the distinctive features for the line.
From that first truck customer of Chicago plumbing supplier Wolff Manufacturing, “Old No.1” as it would be referred to years later, Tilt never looked back and concentrated his future on truck manufacturing. This original truck with a 1.5 ton capacity featured a chain drive rear-end on Timken axles coupled to a Brown-Lipe transmission driven by a 40 HP cylinder Continental gas engine. The next truck would prove to be the bigger success with a production of 27 units and rated at a 1 ton capacity. This model was equipped with shaft drive and a new style gearbox.
The coming years saw the introduction of many different styles and capacity trucks generally suited for the agricultural and commerce delivery markets. With the United States late entry into World War One the Federal government sought suitable truck builders to fill the military’s transportation needs. Diamond T was appointed to build 1,500 three and five ton liberty trucks over an 18 month span. The company met this challenge with ease and was able to roll into the 1920’s with a production line ready for the increase in civilian for production. With customers demanding increased vehicle speeds Diamond T started to stream-line the way their trucks appeared and began offering larger engines and air cushioned pneumatic tires. Tilt also started to appoint chrome finishing touches to headlights, parking lights, and running boards. All of these accouterments tended to make the competition look pretty basic. Around this time Tilt issued his famous quote about the looks of a truck. He often was heard repeating the line and by the mid 1930’s an additional slogan of “but it can feel like a home” would be added. This was due to Diamond-T being the first truck manufacturer to design an integral sleeper compartment to the cab. This new cab would be welcomed by countless over the road long distance operators. To top it off some trucks during this period came with an electric clock and jeweled cigarette lighter what trappings for a rig?
One of the biggest factors in Diamond-T’s success for the 1930’s was that C.A. Tilt looked at “the big picture” by marketing his product through a nationwide distribution and dealership network considered very innovative for the times. Other soon to be industry standards included the introduction of a 100,000 mile or a one year full warranty on all trucks equipped with “super service engines” provided by Hercules. The Great Depression in the early 30’s did stifle the growth for the firm but smart management with lower pricing of truck units did help ease the pain of sales lost.
World War Two would again see a tremendous arms building program for the United States and its Allies. The need for well-built trucks would be at its greatest to defeat the Axis powers. Diamond-T would produce for the United States military and its allies (primarily the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) over 50,000 trucks of various sizes.
One of the most commonly produced units was the heavy duty Model 980/981 prime-mover which began production in 1941. Some 6000 units were built before the war’s end in 1945 and saw use by Allied forces as a tank transporter and a retrieval tractor when coupled to a Rogers trailer. The M19, as it was known in military speak, had tremendous power and reliability being able to transport the heaviest of allied tanks. Power was provided by a Hercules 895 cubic inch 185 bhp DXFE QHV inline six cylinder diesel engines or a Hall-Scott 240 bhp 440 OHV inline six cylinder engine. This Hall-Scott gasoline engine was the largest available for any military truck during the war. Many 981’s found a post war career working in the Outback of Australia as tractors for road-train applications made famous by Mr. David Baldock and Mr. Kurt Johannsen, innovators of this style of material transportation. With the company building so many trucks for the war effort the advances in truck design during this period was immense. These included the fin and tube radiators, the use of seven bearing six cylinder truck engines, four wheel hydraulic brakes, shock absorbers and fully enclosed deluxe cabs. All of these advances would become standard in truck equipment for heavy duty rigs after the war.
Immediately after the war ended the company resumed production of truck models from 1-1/2 to 10 ton capacity. Pent up demand was high for new vehicles caused by the stopping of all civilian production in order to support the war effort.
A year after World War two ended C. A. Tilt would retire as the President and General Manager of the company, but would remain Chairman of the Board of Directors. After 40 years at the helm he would appoint his younger brother Ned to take over the firm and steer it into its next half century of existence. Only this next decade for Diamond-T would see its survival be steered into an acquisition by a manufacturing trucking giant.
Author’s note: Regarding next month’s installment. I am going to fast forward and will go to the end of Diamond T’s truck history. As stated this novella really is The History of Diamond Reo Trucks so the concentration of truck design and manufacturing history will only pertain to models brought forth by The White Motor Truck Corporation when this corporate giant obtained Diamond-T in 1958. Until then.