Car of the Week: 1923 Reo Speedwagon

By Brian Earnest

Dave Marshall probably should have seen it coming.

A man who was pretty much a stranger  — “somebody who knew somebody who knew me,” Marshall jokes — called him out of the blue and asked Marshall to come and look at a truck. The truck just happened to be an old Reo Speedwagon, and Marshall just happened to own two Reos of his own.

The truck’s owner didn’t know how to get the truck running, and he really didn’t want to keep it. The Reo belonged to his late grandfather, who died before he finished restoring the truck. The truck was mostly done, but the grandson had no real attachment to the Reo and he hoped Marshall would warm up to the old rig after he got to see it and work on it.

“Yeah, I went up to see it, and it sounded like he just wanted to get it running,” recalled Marshall, a resident of Wichita, Kan. “I liked it, but I didn’t have room for it … but he wanted to get rid of it and said he didn’t have any use for it.

“He sort of intimated that he was trying to sell it for a while and nobody was interested… He said he needed the money more than the truck, and I guess he was confident I’d take care of it. It was like adopting a child: ‘Here, it’s yours.’ He just wanted it to go to a good home.”

All things considered, the 1923 1 1/4 –ton Reo had led a fortunate and relatively pampered life for a working truck. It had served from 1923 until the late 1940s as a grain truck, working only during harvest season. It remained clean and well kept year-round, apparently resting a lot more than it worked.

“It was always a Kansas truck,” Marshall said. “It was in mid-central Kansas and it had worked on a farm as a grain hauler. Most of the grain trucks don’t get many miles on them. They’d only use it one harvest a year and then park it. They didn’t use them much because they didn’t want to get them too dirty with grease and stuff. You don’t want to pollute the grain.”

The truck stayed in service until about 1946. “That was when they got a new one,” Marshall noted. “The only reason it was used for so long was you couldn’t get trucks during World War II, and so they had to keep using it, even though it was a little small for a grain truck.”

When the Reo was finally retired, it sat untouched for nearly four decades before the previous owner rescued it in the 1980s. “The common practice was they’d park the truck and keep them in reserve, but I don’t think they ever used this one,” Marshall said. The second owner spent several years restoring the Speedwagon, fixing up the cab and interior, sprucing up the original wood bed and giving the truck a lovely, and period correct, green and black paint job with black and red accents.

“The grandfather re-did the wood around the cab, and he prettied it up,” Marshall noted. “Otherwise, it’s pretty original. It appears to me that he did a very nice job … It would appear that the engine and drive train, he didn’t have to do anything to it. It’s still got, I guess you could say, some worn-out truck attributes.”

Sadly, the previous owner apparently never got to enjoy much time behind the wheel before he died, and the truck was stashed away in a barn for another 20-some years before Marshall became its third owner. “When I first went up to take a look at it, they had it back in a barn and had a tarpaulin over it,” Marshall said. “I was expecting an old piece of junk, and it looked bad. It had been sitting and it had some cobwebs, but it didn’t have any mice in it or anything … It had a hand crank and the engine would turn over, so that was good, but the oil was all gone out of it, the water was gone out of it, the tires were flat and all that.

“I made a list of all things we’d need to get it running … Eventually we had to take the carburetor off and I took it home and got it cleaned it up and I got a fuel kit and got it to working … After that, we put a battery on it and damned if it didn’t start! It’s gravity feed, and it started and it sounded pretty good.”

Once he got it home, Marshall did some timing work on the Reo and “re-did the ignition system so it ran steady. The water pump was leaking and the generator was not working. It ran, but it was used up and it was due for some work. It had the original radiator. I took it to a local radiator guy that cleaned it out… It was full of mud, which you would expect, but it runs good now!”

The wood wheels and wood bed appeared to be original, as did the body, fenders and running boards. During its working days, the Speedwagon was fitted with 3-foot-tall sideboards and a wooden gate on the bed. Marshall still has those original pieces, but dresses the Reo more as a pickup these days.

Having a mostly original 1923 Reo truck certainly gives Marshall a conversation piece at hobby events. Such vehicles aren’t plentiful today, and the Reo Speedwagon is more associated with the rock band of the same name than a defunct automaker. At one time, however, Reo was a thriving venture, rising to No. 5 on the list of most prolific truck builders in the country in the late 1920s.  The company began in 1908 after Ransom E. Olds had departed from Olds Motor Works, the company he had started in 1899. He used his initials to name his new venture: the Reo Motor Car company. The company kept that name until 1939, when it became Reo Motors. The company was eventually bought out by White Motor Co. in 1957.

Reo jumped into the truck business in 1909, producing what were considered to be solid, well-built, durable trucks. The company made ¾-ton, 1-ton and larger trucks in a myriad of body styles — pickups, open and closed Express, canopy trucks, tow and fire rigs, panel trucks, dump beds, flat beds, bottle trucks, “bungalow” campers and other configurations.

With features like shaft drive, pneumatic tires and electric lights and starter, the 1923 Reo Speedwagon had all the right features for the era — and it also came with a six-cylinder “T6” engine, which was a key selling point. The 50 hp the six cylinders turned out was not particularly spectacular, in fact, it was less than the company’s four-cylinder power plant, but the torque and smooth operation were a definite step up. “It runs nice,” Marshall said. “Most of these trucks had four-cylinders. They only started using sixes [extensively] in 1924, so this was a very early six-cylinder installation. It actually has less hp than the four-cylinder, but the four-cylinder is not nearly as smooth.”

That doesn’t mean the trucks are swift, however. Far from it. With a three-speed manual, they were meant for slow-moving work, particularly in low gear. “These are geared so low, you can crawl faster than this can go in first gear,” Marshall laughed. “But it will pull anything. You can pull a tractor-trailer with it. It only has brakes on the rear wheels, but it has pretty big brakes so it actually stops pretty good.”

Two of  Marshall’s favorite quirks with the truck are found inside. The first is what he calls his “anti-theft” device. “I didn’t notice this about it until I started looking close, but at the base of the gear shift is little ring loop that you could put a lock through and couldn’t put into gear.”

The other oddity — the location of the gas tank — has taken some getting used to. “It’s in front of the steering wheel immediately in front of the driver,” he said. “It’s a little intimidating if you think about it.”

Being claustrophobic isn’t really an option for Reo Speedwagon owners, either. The bench seat inside the tiny cab is fixed, and head and legroom is in short supply for somebody Marshall’s size. “[The original owners] must have been a whole lot smaller than we are!” he said. “I’m 6-4 and it’s tight to get in and out. When I slide in, I have to slide in sideways.”

That hasn’t kept Marshall from enjoying Sunday drives and occasional cruises with his car buddies, however. As long as the cruising speed doesn’t climb above 35 mph, he’s just fine in his Speedwagon. “I have two other Reos — a 1909 two-cylinder chain drive, and a 1912 the Fifth,” said Marshall, who also owns a 1916 Model T Ford. “[The Speedwagon] is more of our winter driver because it has glass and a cab on it. All the other ones are open cars.”

Of course, anybody who owns a Reo Speedwagon gets to explain that, yes, there really was such a vehicle, and it was important enough to name a rock band after. “Yeah, a lot of people come up and want to know about the name,” Marshall concluded. “The kids all think the band came first!”

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5 thoughts on “Car of the Week: 1923 Reo Speedwagon

  1. Milton S Hill

    Where in central Kansas was the Speedwagon’s home? I am curious because of several family ties to central Kansas farms – including the one where my wife was raised.

  2. Charlie Self

    My father worked as an auto and truck mechanic, in the oil fields in Oklahoma, in the early and mid-1920s. He wouldn’t have worked on this Reo, but he might well have worked on one exactly like it. He definitely loved those trucks. Dad moved to New York later in the ’20s and started his own garage in Mount Vernon (NY) but gave it up when his customers couldn’t pay their bills (during Depression: he just threw the account books away and went to work for someone else). He ended his career working for a Studebaker-Packard dealer in Mount Vernon (again, the NY version–it was a neat little town in the ’40s and ’50s, though I have no idea what it’s like now).

  3. Doug Hartman

    REO Speedwagon is my favorite band of all time. Neal (Only original member of REO) named the band after an REO Speedwagon Flatbed he had studied about. Is this for sale???? Thanks!
    Awesome story and great photos!!!!
    Keep On Rollin!!!!

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