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The REO Speed Wagon: Ransom E. Olds's Flatbed Truck

1900s | November 10, 2019

Before automobiles were an American way of life, automotive daydreamers attempted to create a market with models that they thought would inspire drivers to take to the roads. The REO Speed Wagon truck is a rare animal in the auto industry. Manufactured by the REO Motor Car Company, the massive truck was given the initials of the company's founder, Ransom Eli Olds, showing the faith that the truck's creators had in it. The Speed Wagon is still considered to be one of the most versatile and dependable automobiles to ever grace the market, and while its design was the catalyst for the pickup truck, many drivers are unaware of its existence outside of classic rock radio.

The Speed Wagon was introduced as a faster version of trucks at the time

Source: (Wikimedia)

Before the REO Speed Wagon hit the road, trucks from the early 20th century weren't working with the kind of horsepower that could overpower horses. The REO Motor Car Company knew that Americans needed something powerful in order to accomplish the kinds of physical labor they were undertaking as life turned complicated. The first REO Speed Wagon was introduced in 1915 with a four-cylinder engine and a three-speed transmission that moved much faster than the trucks of the day, which could only hit speeds of about 10--15 miles per hour. The Speed Wagons were massive and meant for hauling large quantities, be it feed, fruits and vegetables, or whatever else a person needed to move at the time. 

The Speed Wagons were a major innovation for people in every industry. Not only did they speed up transport time, they were able to hold more product, thus requiring fewer back-and-forth trips for those moving more than one item. It's strange to think about a truck being revolutionary, but with this vehicle, REO changed lives. 

 Speed Wagons were easy to modify

Source: (pinterest.com)

Today, someone can just walk onto a car lot and buy a completely customized truck that perfectly fits their desires. For its time, however, the REO Speed Wagon was unusually customizable. The REO Motor Car Company initially created a basic design and chassis from which the truck could be endlessly modified. Whether someone needed to tow, deliver, or dump something, their Speed Wagons could be outfitted for any occasion. The Speed Wagons were so powerful and dependable that they were even used as fire trucks in many areas.

Speed Wagons could be refitted for whatever special purpose was needed, and the REO Motor Car Company knew that was part of their appeal. They advertised the ease with which the Wagon could be customized and started building Wagons with bigger engines, heavier flywheels, and larger water pumps. If you needed something done, the Speed Wagon could do it.

Durability was the Speed Wagon's middle name

Source: (pinterest.com)

Speed Wagons were definitely built to last, but there was somehow a larger, heavier duty version of the truck that was released as a part of the "Gold Crown" series of engines. Released in 1937, the Speed Tanker was manufactured at a plant in Lansing, but it was used as far away as Australia. It's not clear if every Speed Tanker had the same capacity, but the version used by the Plume Oil Company in Australia had the capacity to hold 1,075 imperial gallons and drove on tires fit for a school bus. Aside from simply carrying oil, these vehicles were also built with compartments to hold deliverables and hoses in case of emergency. Like the Speed Wagon, the Speed Tanker was customizable, and according to an Australian newspaper at the time, they were streamlined to decrease air resistance before commercial use. 

It's odd to think that something as simple as a truck could revolutionize the way people go about their day-to-day business, but thanks to the Speed Wagon's durability, people were spending less time and money repairing carts or smaller automobiles and more time being productive. If they were using horses before owning a Speed Wagon, the vehicle removed stress from the animals, completely changing the way people did business.

The Speed Wagon was a catalyst for innovation

Source: (pinterest.com)

The Speed Wagon wasn't just meant for hauling and towing. As an endlessly modifiable vehicle, it made a lot of firsts. Not only did it inspire other automobile companies to construct smaller and more durable pickup trucks, but the first electric starters and shaft-driven axles on a vehicle were also included on this enormous truck. The REO Motor Car Company continued innovating upon their own design as they found ways to make the vehicle heavier while giving it a larger capacity as well as making it more lightweight. By 1925, the company had produced more than 125,000 Speed Wagons.

They were unwieldy beasts to drive

Source: (pinterest.com)

As great as these vehicles were for customization and durability, the more modifications that were added to the Speed Wagons and Tankers, the harder they were to drive and maneuver. Researcher Ace Zenek explained:

Looking at the design of the cab and body, the REO Streamliner must have been very interesting to drive. Although there are mirrors at the side of the cabin, other than to the front, visibility must have been horrible. The placement of the external mirrors also indicates that the driver sat pretty far back by the small side windows. Note also the single small windshield wiper in front of the driver. 

It makes sense that the Speed Wagon would be a beast to drive. Not only were these vehicles massive, but they also weren't outfitted with anything that makes driving the breeze that it is today.

The Speed Wagon played a major part in World War II

Source: (pinterest.com)

In the 1930s, commercial production for the Speed Wagons trickled to a stop as REO shifted their focus away from the durable behemoths. However, as America entered World War II, it required a heavy-duty, lightweight, and dependable vehicle that could accomplish a myriad task. Sound familiar?

REO produced the M35 series cargo truck, a two-and-a-half-ton 6-by-6 vehicle that could be retrofitted for a variety of different uses. Like the Speed Wagon, the M35 had a ton of different uses depending on terrain and location. Once the war ended, Speed Wagon production halted, and REO closed the books on their game-changing vehicle.

The Speed Wagon had all but faded from memory until 1968 when Neal Doughty walked into his history of transportation class on the day his band started thinking about what they would call themselves. He saw the words "REO Speedwagon" on the blackboard, and from that day on, its spirit was revived every time listeners were reminded to keep on loving someone.

Tags: cars | music

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.