Ransom Eli Olds
In the summer of 1904 Ransom Eli Olds decided to retire from his 'Oldsmobile' motor company and set off to the country for a long holiday. But he had not been long absent before he received a telegram asking him to return home at once. 'As I stepped off the train,' he recalled, 'I was met by an old friend who handed me a very interesting looking paper. Reading it, I found that a group of my friends had organised a half-million-dollar company which I was to head, and within three hours had raised the money to finance it. Of this I was to have a controlling interest, or $260,000. To say that I was astounded would be putting it mildly. But I was still young enough to enjoy the harness.
This happened in August 1904, and we got to work so quickly that within a month ground was broken for the new factory, and by 15 October we ran out the first Reo car for trial. Of course, it was built in temporary quarters. By 20 November, I had personally driven this car over 2,000 miles in tests besides supervising the construction of the plant and its equipment, and had placed orders for the material for the first 1000 Reo cars. And by the middle of March we shipped our first carload of cars.
Before the end of the season, we had shipped 300 carloads and sales had amounted to $1,378,000. The following year shipments reached 100 carloads a month, and we had more business than we could handle.' There was, however, nothing remarkable about the original Reo, a typical gas buggy of the period with a single-cylinder engine mounted horizontally under the floor, a dummy bonnet, chain drive, and a two-speed epicyclic gearbox. It was just a slightly updated version of the Oldsmobile, and however much midnight oil had been expended in setting up the factory, it's obvious that very little had been burned in the design office.
The Reo Runabout
The low price of the Reo, and Ransom Olds's flair for publicity, were sufficient to ensure its success. Originally priced at $685, the Reo was progressively reduced in cost until in 1909 it was available for $500. Olds advertised that in 1907, with 'the rain coming down in sheets', a Reo Runabout with four people aboard had covered 57 miles on 1.75 gallons of petrol, and had taken the same quartet 682 miles at a cost of $13.52. There was a two-cylinder Reo, too, and in 1906 Olds built a tiny replica of this model as a publicity vehicle for Chiquita, the midget with Barnum & Bailey's Circus. Powered by compressed air, the little car was exhibited at every performance of The Greatest Show on Earth.
The 1911 Reo the Fifth
The company's first attempt to market a four-cylinder model, in 1906, had not been too successful: but Ransom Olds was in no doubt about the merits of his next four-banger, the 1911 Reo the Fifth. In his advertising, he called it 'The Car That Marks My Limit', for it represented the apotheosis of automobile engineering in his opinion. At a selling price of $1055, Reo the Fifth came 'pretty close to finality', claimed Olds, adding: 'I call it my farewell car. Obviously, 'farewell' was not synonymous with 'goodbye' to Olds. New four and six cylinder models continued to appear, easily identified during the World War 1 period by their pointed V-radiators.
1904 8hp Reo which was powered by a horizontal single-cylinder engine mounted under the floor, driving the rear wheels through a planetary transmission, so the bonnet lid was there solely to enhance the looks.
The Reo Flying Cloud Coupe.
In 1936 Reo decided to stop making cars and concentrate on the manufacture of the Speed Wagons.
Only four-cylinders were made during 1919: then Reo announced that they were going to adopt the six-cylinder Reo Model T as standard for the coming season. It was a car of mechanical individuality; there was no handbrake (but two independent foot brakes) and the radiator, engine and gearbox were carried on a sub-frame, while the chassis was under-slung at the rear and ignition was by magneto rather than the more common American feature of coil-and-battery.
The marque was early in adopting large-section balloon tyres in the interests of ride comfort - these were shown on the 1924 Olympia Show model, though Reo persisted in fitting detachable rims on disc wheels, which was supposed to make tire changing easier for lady drivers. The British concessionaires, Harris & Hasell, of Bristol, exhibited two cars at Olympia that year, including a four-door saloon, 'wide doors, with 136 in plate glass drop windows, interior framed in polished walnut, roof specially constructed to avoid drumming and the whole carefully built to prevent body rattle, deep seats and squabs well sprung and stuffed, upholstered in motor cord cloth, double panel windscreen protected by sun and storm visor, cowl-type ventilator on dash controlled from driver's seat, robe cord, interior roof lights and heater which can be regulated to any temperature. Price complete as shown £595.'
The Yale Lock and Key Anti Theft Device
The Reo also sported an early anti-theft device, a 'Yale lock and key which locks starter, gears and floor boards'. A new chassis replaced this model in 1927, with a 25 hp six-cylinder side-valve power unit and four-wheel hydraulic brakes (the earlier model had always been two-wheel-braked only); it was available in two price ranges, the Wolverine and the Flying Cloud. The Wolverine was sold under the headline ... 'a Brougham body of low attractive lines to comfortably accommodate five persons with two wide doors'; the Flying Cloud Sedan de Luxe, 'of low graceful lines with large windows'; the Standard Sedan on this chassis 'of generous proportions and low design', and the coupe, 'built upon low graceful lines with bold sweep to rear compartment'.
The new models sold well, and in 1928 Reo enjoyed its biggest-ever output, with 29,000 cars delivered. However, the Wolverine was dropped at the end of 1928 and production concentrated on the Flying Cloud, which had an improved specification, including rubber-mounted springs and rubber mounting for the engine, as well as more comprehensive instrumentation. Prices were reduced drastically at the end of 1929, but there was a new long-wheel-base de luxe chassis, the 'Master'.
Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky
The 1931 season saw an eight-cylinder Flying Cloud, as well as the stylish Custom Royale Eight, with coachwork designed by the flamboyant hand of Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky; but it was the six-cylinder model which still formed the backbone of the range. In the summer of 1933, Reo made a remarkable step forward with the introduction of an automatic gearbox, one of the earliest to be fitted to a production car. Reported The Motor: 'This device functions with great smoothness and certainty. It consists essentially of two mechanisms: a two-speed gear which automatically selects a direct drive, or an indirect ratio of about 9 to 1, according to road conditions, together with further gearing controlled by a selector under the facia.
Normally, this gearing is not required, but should the car be driven in difficult country the selector enables an indirect drive to be engaged which lowers both the automatic ratios. Furthermore, this hand control is employed to obtain reverse. 'The car is normally driven like a two-speed model. At a speed of 12- 15 mph, the box changes up of itself into a direct top-gear drive, but so smooth is the action of the mechanism that only by listening closely to the engine note can one realise that the change has occurred. When slowing down the car will hang on to top gear until the speed is reduced to about 5 mph, but changes into the low gear as soon as the throttle is opened' for acceleration.'
during this period the septuagenarian Ransom Olds returned to the company after a successful second attempt at retirement. The engine size on the six-cylinder model was enlarged at the end of 1934: the 'great power' (85 bhp) was obviously more suited to the two-speed automatic, which only added around $20 to the chassis price compared with the conventional synchromesh gearbox. Design of the automatic gearbox was modified on the 1936 models: Now with four speeds, it embodied two sets of ratios, low or high, either of which was obtainable by moving a control. The selection of either set of ratios according to conditions was under the driver's control, but otherwise the gear change was entirely automatic, being operated by a centrifugal governor as the car's speed increased.
The End of the Flying Cloud
But the 'very imposing and ultra-modern' Flying Cloud was nearing the end of the road. For a number of years, Reo had been very successfully manufacturing trucks, which had an excellent name for performance (and were reputedly much favored for the rapid transit of bootleg hooch), and in mid-1936 the decision was taken to drop car production in favour of the company's commercial vehicle activities. As events proved, it was a wise move, for the Reo truck survived, as a part of the White Motor Company; in a market dominated by the big three car manufacturers, the future of the Reo automobile would have been much less certain. Ransom Olds lived on as well to become a patriarch of the industry before his death at 86 in 1950.