Remembered today primarily as the name of a nostalgic rock band, the REO Speed-Wagon was an innovative truck and ushered in America’s most iconic vehicle segment – the station wagon. It seems strange then, that in today’s world, where pickup trucks are as popular as ever, that the REO Speed-Wagon is largely forgotten as a vehicle and relatively unknown in its contributions to the industry, rather than being known by the name of a band rather than one that symbolizes a rich history and great impact on the American auto industry.
Going into production in 1915, the REO Speed-Wagon set several firsts for the American auto industry, with much advanced technology for the time, but more importantly, it formed the mold that all trucks would follow. Seeing massive initial success, the Speed-Wagon was a top seller for REO for over a decade, taking root in the United States before WWII as the gold standard trucks. But this would not last, and the Speed-Wagon along with REO as a company saw a gradual decline.
REO ended its promising life with a series of mediocre mergers and slowly burned down as a company, taking the Speed-Wagon with it and extinguishing the legend of one of America’s most important classic trucks.
But that begs the question, what exactly caused REO’s demise and why did they stop making the Speed-Wagon?
Born from Oldsmobile Spite
The name REO may seem almost exotic, but it was actually simply an abbreviation of its founder’s initials. Founded in 1904 by Ransom Eli Olds, REO was born out of spite toward another household name.
If the last name “Olds” sounds familiar, there is good reason for it, as in fact, it was also RE Olds who founded what became the company known as Oldsmobile years before creating REO. Founded in 1897 as the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, RE Olds led the company to produce some really innovative vehicles for the time, including the Olds Curved Dash, which was affordable for the average person and really advanced compared to other cars of its time. Initially, the cars co-produced by Olds Motor Vehicle were known as “Oldsmobiles,” but in 1908, General Motors acquired the company and the entire brand is now known simply as Oldsmobile.
However, 3 years before this acquisition, RE Olds had left the company that bears his name, mainly out of spite due to conflicts with the newly appointed president of the company. Not deterred from the auto industry, RE Olds founded the REO Motor Car Company and began working on even better cars than the ones he had made at Oldsmobile. This move paid off and REO cars were an instant hit, acclaimed for quality and innovation. More importantly, however, REO quickly became more profitable than Oldsmobile.
The revolutionary REO
By selling 2,458 cars in 1906, REO proudly awarded it to Oldsmobile, which in turn had only sold 1,600 cars that same year. Seeing continued success in building high-quality, innovative automobiles, REO had begun to make a name for itself as a respected brand and automaker.
While REO cars were successful, the foundation for their greatest achievement was laid in 1910 when the REO Motor Truck Company was founded as a subsidiary of the REO Motor Car Company. Five years later, REO’s truck side would present its greatest success: the Speed-Wagon. Revolutionizing the truck market, the Speed-Wagon was an instant hit.
Context matters, as what we know as a pickup truck was virtually non-existent in 1915. As a result, the REO Speed-Wagon is considered by many to be the first true pickup truck, combining the industrial styling and strength of existing trucks. . , with a personal daily driver car. However, it was not just this new style of truck that set the Speed-Wagon apart as it was hailed as one of the highest quality trucks of its day, with impressive reliability, great hauling power and long-lasting durability. . The Speed-Wagon followed an innovation with several others, being the first vehicle in America to offer axle-driven axles, pneumatic tires, steel wheels, electric lighting, and an electric starter, among other desirable features. This wasn’t the end of what made the Speed-Wagon so popular either, as REO would constantly add …