Editor’s Note: Welcome to Part III of the continuing series, The History of Diamond Reo Trucks, by M.E. Follsom. Today we begin to explore the Reo side of the Diamond Reo story. Click here for Part I, Part II, and Part III. If you have photos of Reo, Diamond-T, or Diamond Reo trucks in any age, shape, or condition please feel free to share them for possible inclusion in future articles. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diamond Reo: The World’s Toughest Truck
By: M.E. Folsom
Reo Motor Truck Company
Part One of Three
Reo Motor Car Emblem (Circa 1905)
The history of Reo Motor Trucks is not as straightforward as Diamond -T. There are many more twists and turns involved in this account. The chronicling of Reo starts back in 1864 in Geneva, Ohio with a small boy by the name of Ransom Elli Olds. The youngest son of a blacksmith and pattern maker, his parents would move the family to Cleveland Ohio in early 1870’s. The family would eventually move again to Lansing, Michigan in 1880, there his father would establish a small machine shop. Working alongside his father, Ransom developed and started to manufacture small steam engines, he would eventually turn to gasoline powered engines. This early foray into engine building naturally lead to building automobiles and in 1897 the formation of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company was brought about. By 1899 the Olds Gasoline Engine Works, which was the name that his father had used for this earlier endeavor, was incorporated into the former and the Olds Motor Works was formed. By 1901 Olds would have built eleven different prototype vehicles, including one for each type of power mode; steam, electric and gasoline. It should be noted that he is the only American automotive pioneer to have built and sold at least one type of each mode of automobile.
The junior Olds sought out investors for this fledgling enterprise. His uncle Samuel L. Smith who was a copper and lumber magnet in Detroit Michigan area fronted the substantial portion. Smith’s son Fredric L and another gentleman Henry Russel provided the remainder. The senior Smith would become president. R.E. Olds would become vice president and general manager and the junior Smith acted as secretary and treasurer. A new plant for operations was built in Detroit at the corner of East Jefferson Ave and MacArthur Bridge. Tragedy would strike this operation early in its inception when in 1901 a worker mistakenly set fire to the plant causing it to burn to the ground. Many Olds Motor Works prototypes were in the factory at the time, only one dubbed the “Curved Dash” was saved by wheeling it out from the inferno by two workers. A new plant was quickly established in Lansing Michigan and manufacture of the new Curved Dash auto commenced. The success of this automobile was made in part by this accident with the fire destroying all other prototypes prior to any approval for production leaving the Curved Dash with no internal competition.
Officially the cars were referred to as The Olds Automobile but the moniker of Oldsmobile began to be colloquially applied to the make and it stuck. The Oldsmobile was truly one of the first high production volume gasoline powered automobiles manufactured and by the end of 1901 production numbers were well over 400 cars. With the introduction and mass manufacture of the Curved Dash, the Oldsmobile was truly the first mass produced car on a stationary assembly line. This invention is often miscredited to Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company with Ford being the first to manufacture on a moving assembly line. By 1902 with the assembly line in place Olds production rose to over 2500 units produced.
In the beginning of 1904 Ransom E. Olds would leave Oldsmobile because of a dispute with his financial backers. Fredric Smith and Olds clashed quite a bit and the reasons are unclear but it has been suggested that Smith wanted to see larger and more luxurious automobiles introduced. Olds wanted to continue with the less expensive types similar to the entry level runabout Curved Dash. Smith would remove Olds from the position of general manager and take over the position himself. Smith and another gentleman by the name of William C. Durant are credited with forming the General Motors Corporation and this new entity would buy The Olds Motor Works in 1908 and have it folded into one of its first divisions as Oldsmobile.
On August 16th, 1904 Olds incorporated the R.E. Olds Motor Car Company as a Michigan corporation. The name soon had to be changed because the owners of Olds Motor Works objected and threatened legal action. Olds chose to use his initials REO as his new trade identification for his fledgling company. The pronunciation would be toted as one word, and the REO Motor Car Company was born.
In the fall of 1904 two prototypes of automobiles were built and tested and a new plant was built on South Washington Avenue in Lansing Michigan. 1905 brought full scale production of the autos and they were subsequently shown at the Madison Square Garden Auto show of that year. By 1907 over 3900 autos were produced with gross sales of $ 4.5 million thus making Reo the third largest automobile manufacturer in this new United States industry.
1910 would see the introduction of a 4 cylinder shaft drive Reo auto with the new F-engine which was left hand driven. More importantly for all us truck aficionados the Reo Motor Truck Company was formed which as a subsidiary of the Reo Motor Car Company. Land was purchased on North Grand Avenue and new plant was built for truck manufacturing. Olds realized that the large share of automobile market that his company had, was changing due to competition from the likes of the newly formed General Motors and Ford Motor Companies. The new truck market was a fledgling industry and Olds along with his protégé Richard H. Scott seized upon the opportunities it presented. A small chain drive solid rubber tire unit named the Model H, but as toted in sales literature as the “Reo Delivery Wagon”, was soon introduced. Another plant in St. Catharine’s Ontario would be built in anticipation of growing orders and to tap into the Canadian market. An independent annual national transportation tour called The Glidden Tour, which promoted better roads and legislation favorable to the fledgling automotive industry, utilized one of these early Reo model H’s with pneumatic tires as the tour participants luggage carrier.
The first big truck produced was the 2 ton capacity 4 cylinder Model J introduced in 1913, sales were very good. A Model J sold for around $1800.00 depending on the options. (The price in today’s dollars would be around $42,500.00) In September of 1916 The Reo Truck Company was consolidated into its parent motor car company. By 1919 truck sales were outpacing auto sales by almost a 3 to 1 margin.
The famous Reo-Speedwagons
The Kleenex brand of trucks
Prior to the company consolidating into its parent, Reo would introduce the ¾ ton Model F in 1915, designated ‘The Speed Wagon” this would become a colloquial term for all delivery size trucks. Not only identifying Reo but also non Reo trucks as the moniker would began to be applied ubiquitously like Kleenex is universally related all brands of tissue paper.
Throughout the 1920’s many different variants of the ¾ ton Speed Wagons were in production. Reo would provide trucks for all types of industries, not only general freight delivery, but lumber, building materials, and passenger transportation was catered to. By 1925 the Model G Heavy Duty Speed Wagon would be introduced with a 6 cylinder 50hp Reo T-6 gasoline engine. The truck had a 2 ton capacity and toted many new innovations like a double frame for superior strength and an oversize radiator for superior cooling. The even larger capacity 3 ton Model GA would be introduced in 1929. This was the first Reo truck to have a dual wheel rear axle. The truck was powered by a 6 cylinder gasoline Reo Gold Crown Engine which the company plugged “As a truck engine – not a passenger car engine- such as the industry has never known before”. Still an even larger 4 ton Model would be introduced; options included a tandem rear with power provided to only to the front axle. The extra set of dual wheels providing extra capacity for bulky loads. A 101hp 6 cylinder Reo built engine was provided featuring seven main bearings.
During these ambitious times for the company Ransom Olds would resign as president and Richard Scott would take over that position in 1923, Olds would remain on as the chairman of the board. Under Scott’s leadership the company embarked on an expansion program for both cars and trucks. 1927 would see an all-time high for Reo production, both automobiles and trucks numbered over 40,400 units. These aspiring times would lead to calamity in 1929. The Great Depression reduced sales for both cars and trucks. Reo’s stock price at the beginning of 1925 was $31.87 a share but by the end of October 1929 it was barely trading at $11.50 a share. As sales continued to slip through the early 1930’s Olds would come out of retirement at the age of 70. In the beginning of 1934 he replaced his former protégé Richard Scott as President. By the end of 1934 the company was on a firmer footing and under the direction of Donald Bates as President. R.E. Olds would retire from all active management of Reo Motors. Some sources cite he left due to his failure to get a new small 4 cylinder automobile approved. Clearly Olds still liked car building.
By the end of 1936 Reo would abandon automobile manufacturing altogether and concentrate solely on truck production. Truck production for that year was 11,662 units as opposed to automobile production of only 2,950 units. Undoubtedly building trucks was the way to go but still more upheaval was right around the corner for the company.
Next month the coming of World War II rescues Reo and “the golden era “of Reo with the famous Gold Comet Engine.