Story and photo by Bill Vance

1932 Reo Royale convertible coupe
1932 Reo Royale convertible coupe. Click image to enlarge

It was natural for Ransom Eli Olds to go into the automobile business. His family’s company, P.F. Olds & Son (the son wasn’t Ransom), was one of the biggest manufacturers of gasoline engines in Michigan in the late 1800s. After experimenting with steam, Ransom decided that gasoline was the way of the future.

Olds produced his first gasoline car in 1896, and organized his Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in Detroit in 1897, making it the oldest continuous American automobile manufacturer, until its demise in 2004.

Olds soon experienced problems, and with financing from a Michigan lumber magnate named Samuel Smith, the company was reorganized into the Olds Motor Works in 1899. Several experimental models were made before a disastrous fire levelled the plant in 1901. The only vehicle saved was a small curved dash runabout developed by Olds.

The company was soon back in business in Lansing, Michigan, building the Curved Dash, and this capable, inexpensive little vehicle would go on to become the world’s first mass-produced car. Unfortunately, Olds and Smith disagreed. Olds favoured the light Curved Dash, while Smith wanted to go into heavier, more luxurious cars. Unable to reconcile, Olds left in 1904.

He soon organized another car company, the R. E. Olds Co., attracting an immediate lawsuit from Smith for using his name after just selling out to them. Olds decided to use his initials, and the Reo Car Co. was born, also based in Lansing.

The Reo Car Co., which became the Reo Motor Car Co. in 1904, showed its first product, a light, one-cylinder model, at the 1905 New York Automobile Show. It was joined by a two-cylinder, and the company prospered, trailing only Ford and Buick in sales by 1907.

The introduction of Ford’s Model T in 1908 convinced Olds that more than two cylinders were needed. In 1909 Reo introduced a low priced four, an excellent car powered by a 35-horsepower, 3.7 litre (226 cu in.) engine with F-head design (inlet valves in the head and exhausts in the block).

This and subsequent car and truck models – Reo had gone into the commercial market in 1908 – helped the company prosper. A six- cylinder, F-head model was introduced in 1916. By emphasizing quality over high production, Reo’s solid reputation carried it through the 1920s.

In 1927 the Reo Flying Cloud was introduced, the name implying the smoothness and quietness of a fast clipper ship. The Flying Cloud abandoned the F-head engine for a conventional L-head 65-horsepower, 4.1 litre (249 cu in.), seven main bearing inline six. The rounded body was gracefully styled, and it was an early user of four-wheel, Lockheed hydraulic brakes.

The Flying Cloud expanded to two model lines in 1929, three in 1930, and four in 1931. Profit exceeded $5 million in 1928, and management seemed to be indeed flying on its own cloud of euphoric optimism until the 1929 stock market crash found Reo badly over extended.

Ransom Olds, who had turned the operation over to hired managers, returned to active participation. He reorganized, appointed a new general manager, cut production, and cleared the unsold inventory at reduced prices.

Then for 1931, Reo did what some others were also doing; it flew in the face of a plunging economy with a large, powerful, expensive car that was totally wrong for the times. The Reo Royale, Reo’s mightiest car, arrived as the world was mired in the Depression.

The beautiful Royale came as a sedan, coupe or victoria, and its lines flowed gracefully from a V-shaped grille, with fenders much rounder than on previous models. Its 3,429 mm (135 in.) wheelbase was 127 mm (5 in.) longer than the longest Cloud. A small number of 3,861 mm (152 in.) wheelbase chassis was also produced for custom bodies.

The Royale’s 5.9 litre (358 cu in.) side-valve, nine bearing, inline eight developed 125 horsepower. The Royale had the company’s patented “silent second gear,” automatic chassis lubrication, and thermostatically controlled radiator shutters.

Unfortunately the lovely Royale, and a flurry of other models over the next few years, would not turn the tide for Reo. It was a victim of the deepening Depression.

Reo introduced its expensive and innovative “Self-Shifter” semi-automatic transmission in 1933. It had some problems, such as harsh shifting, and hopes of recovering their investment by selling the transmission to others didn’t materialize.

The Reo Flying Cloud was also assembled in Canada briefly in the early 1930s by Dominion Motors in Toronto, formed out of the failed Durant Motor Co. of Canada. And Reos were assembled in St. Catharines, Ontario, prior to the Second World War.

By 1936 Reo’s car building was over. In spite of some good funeral car business, and selling engineless cars to the Franklin Automobile Co. of Syracuse, N.Y., who fitted air-cooled engines and sold them as Franklins, it was not enough. Reo continued to manufacture commercial vehicles. Ransom Olds wasn’t much interested in trucks, and left the company in 1937. He died in 1950, the last of the American automobile pioneers who was there from the beginning.

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