By Micheal Petti
Ransom Eli Olds thought his single-cylinder “curved dash” Oldsmobile was the ideal car for the middle class.However, his associates wanted to build more substantial automobiles, and they held a majority of stock.
So Olds left in January 1904, and by August 1904 he formed the Reo Motor Car Co., which was named using his initials but was pronounced how it was spelled. Car production began in 1904 and trucks followed in 1906. In October 1910, the Reo Motor Truck Co. was formed as a sister business venture.The advertisement slogan was “Reo — Built for Business.” The trucks became known for their strength and durability.
Early Reo trucks used one- and two-cylinder engines. Four-bangers were offered from 1913 till the end of 1934. In 1915, Reo was the first to equip its trucks with pneumatic tires as standard equipment. In the same year, the firm offered shaft drive, electric equipment and a self-starter. During this period, Reo made its own engines and other components when many trucks were assembled products using many components from other companies.
The Reo Speed Wagon, also called the Hurry Up Wagon, was introduced in 1915. The latter name did not stick.Top speed was 22 mph, although it was claimed to reach 40 mph. This was at a time when trucks could often go no faster than 15 mph. Initially, the Speed Wagon was a 3/4-ton, but the series was expanded to include vehicles up to 3 tons. Speed Wagons were built into fire trucks, tow trucks, dumpsters, delivery vehicles, buses, hearses and ambulances. A 1/2-ton Junior Speed Wagon was available from 1928 to 1931 and it looked like Reo’s Wolverine car.
Reo truck production peaked at 23,509 in 1928. The nearly indestructible Gold Crown six-cylinder engine, featuring a chrome-nickel block, was unveiled in 1929. It was employed for the most demanding tasks. Two- and three-axle frames were available in the 1930s and a semi-streamlined style debuted in 1935.
In 1933, Reo built 3,042 trucks compared to 2,623 cars. The Reo board decided that automobiles were a losing proposition for the company and decided to concentrate on truck production; car production ceased in 1936. Ransom Olds preferred cars to trucks and retired in 1934 at 70 years of age. His retirement came shortly after the board determined automobile production would end.
A rare Reo survivor
Gene Bertholf of Lock Sheldrake, N.Y., owns the pictured 1936 Reo Speed Wagon dumpster.
“My father (Raymond) bought the truck in May of 1972 from the original owner. It was in excellent condition,” he said. As a Reo ad stated, “Get a truck with a tough motor. Get one that’s designed to stand up under merciless pounding, day-in-and-day-out. Get a 1936 Reo.” That proved true for the first owner and then the Bertholfs.
“It needed new paint. My father had it repainted, keeping with the original colors. The exterior is a gray cab with red stripe around it, red dump body with black fenders, grille and bumpers.”
“The motor is an L-head, 73-hp 228-cid, 6-cylinder Gold Crown engine,” Bertholf said.
The same 1936 Reo truck ad stated, “Drivers prefer the new Reo Gold Crown and Silver Crown truck engines. They know that these sturdy, responsive motors will ‘take it’ without grumbling.” The Silver Crown had a silver-painted head unit. It was a 70-hp, 209-cid, 6-cylinder.
Bertholf pointed out that his Reo dumpster has “one wiper and a flip-out windshield. Also, [it has] a hand crank for starting if the battery is low.”
The Reo also has one round dial that houses the oil, fuel, temp and amp gauges. In the center of the dial is the speedometer. “There is no adjustable seat and the small cab has very limited leg room.” There is no heater.
Bertholf also noted that his Reo has an extra-sturdy 7-inch-deep frame; a four-by-the-knee Reo-built manual transmission; and a full-floating rear axle. He noted that the steering is hard.“However, once you get moving, it isn’t too bad.”
Bertholf particularly likes the Garwood hydraulic dump body, which was invented by Gar Wood. He said he once saw a truck driver unloading 5 tons of coal using a hand crank to make the coal slide out of the dump body. It was a backbreaking 30-minute ordeal. Wood’s invention was a mechanical device for dumping out loads that was so much easier and so successful that 90 percent of the truck makers listed Wood bodies as standard equipment.
These days, Bertholf’s 1936 Reo dumpster’s coal-hauling days are over. Instead, Bertholf is babying his 1936 Reo Speed Wagon dumpster, just like his father before him.
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