Curbside Classic: 1949 REO Speedwagon Pickup Truck – The Hunting Trophy

(first published 5/30/2011)   It’s not that the larder was getting low, but after a few days of hut-building, the primeval urge to find fresh prey can no longer be denied. Its the essence of CC; we hunt, then gather around the (electronic) campfire to share our quarry. Armed with a brand new weapon with which to capture the elusive prey, my companion and I set out on our walk-and-stalk. I’m on high alert, scanning up and down every street we cross for distant tell-tale clues. I follow my nose: “no, let’s go a different way today”. Good thing too: rounding a corner I see it two blocks away:

“A Rhino! I mean REO!”

“What? Where? I don’t see anything”.

There’s no other truck with that distinctive prow, and is it ever rare. Catching one of these in the wild is the automotive equivalent of catching a  near-extinct Javan rhinoceros, if not more so. There’s about forty of those rhinos still alive; Reo Speedwagon pickups of this vintage? Maybe half a dozen or so. Kill!

And to what do I attribute my rare catch? Let’s just say my odds of catching it were improved by sneaking up on Eugene’s exotic cars’ favorite watering hole, The Sports Car Shop. No, it’s not there for sale; that would be cheating. This Reo really does live in the wilds hereabout, and it was out for a romp. It’s owner Ike had just pulled into the parking lot, his passenger eager to check out a lovely white Porsche 356 coupe out front; the perfect decoy for car lovers.

And Ike is quite the hunter himself, although he hunts to keep; I’m a catch and release (the shutter) type. The Reo is hardly the only one in his corral. I didn’t get the full rundown, but he owns what are undoubtedly the two coolest and my favorite pickups in town. The Reo, and…

this little pygmy truck, a 1979 Suzuki Jimny pickup (CC here). We do share taste in big-wheeled out-of-the ordinary pickups, big or small. These two trucks perfectly bracket the two extremes of pickupdom, as well as my own specific range of needs and desires in them.

The baby one to run to the hardware store for that kanuter valve bushing, and that one-tonner to haul really big loads of gravel and whatever. My F-100 is the compromise right between them: too big for parts chasing; too little for really heavy loads and trailers: jack of all trades; master of none. Kind of sums me up too; some of us just have to learn to live with our compromises. Not Ike, apparently.

He proudly showed us pictures of his latest find: a Triumph TR-3 with overdrive he spotted mostly hidden under a tarp in a shed, but in remarkably good condition. Bagged it for $500. That raised a few eyebrows in our circle, especially Bob Macherione’s, the pro in the group. The TR definitely has a certain truckiness to it, and not in a bad way.

But the Reo; well that’s the trophy. Records are a bit sketchy, but it seems like about 200 of these 1949 D19XA pickups were made, and only a handful survive. The story of REO, and the pickup model is quite a yarn, so let’s pull in a bit closer to the fire…

REO stands for Ransom E. Olds, whose first company carried his last name, and built the first mass-production car ever, the 1901 curved-dash Olds. Selling for $650, the one cylinder Olds was the first car that really caught the public’s interest on a large scale, and it’s ruggedness earned it a stellar reputation. Henry Ford’s Model T was the logical next step.

Like so many founders in the automotive gold-rush days, Olds clashed with his backers and was shown the door in 1904. He started his next company, named REO, to avoid a copyright suit with Olds. Reo It got off to a fantastic start, but the Model T put the brakes its success, like so many other car companies at the time. Olds stepped back from active management in 1915, and in the late twenties, Reo’s ambitious expansion set it up for a crash in the Depression. Reo stopped building cars in 1936.

Reo also started making light trucks in 1915, under the REO Speedwagen moniker. Incidentally, both spellings, REO and Reo, were used at various times by the company. Car and truck sales were roughly equally divided, and pretty modest in numbers. Reo never achieved the success of Olds’ first company.

After car production was suspended, Reo became a truck only manufacturer, mostly in the mid-sized range like this dump truck from 1939. Reo’s mainstay engine was its Gold Crown six, which typical for the era was profoundly undersquare, with a 3 1/8″ bore and 5″ stroke. A straight eight was also made between 1932 and 1936.

Like many truck manufacturers, the smallest models were firmly in pickup territory, with 1/2 ton ratings. The 3/4 ton Model BN was the basis for this lovely woody wagon. During the late twenties and thirties, truck styling generally mirrored car styling as much as possible, and even the biggest trucks, which really weren’t very big in the pre-interstate era, tended to sit low and have handsome hoods and fenders. During this era, the smaller Reos typically used a Continental-sourced six.

1941 was a year that many manufacturers restyled their vehicles, and often for the last time until well after the end of the war. Reo introduced its new “alligator” front end, named after the way the whole front clip (minus the fenders) flipped up for engine access. Most truck continued with a center-hinged two-piece hood. For some reason, it reminds me more of a rhino’s head.

Actually, it reminds me much more of this, the Union Pacific M-1004 of 1936 (built by GM’s EMD). The train streamliners of the thirties were profoundly influential, as is all-too obvious on the new 1941 REO.

This 1949 pickup is a mode D19XA, which was the smallest version of the post-war Reo lineup. It’s hard to get a lot of detail information about it, but it appears only some 200 or so were built, apparently because Reo was essentially abandoning the low end of the truck market, to focus on the mid and larger part of it.

The post war era saw a rapid expansion of highways and of course the interstates, which corresponded to an explosion of truck sizes as interstate trucking really took off. And the small end of the market was crowded, as the big manufacturers used their economies of scale to undercut a smaller company like Reo.

Reo eventually couldn’t keep up in the large truck market either, and was taken over in 1954 by Bohn for a few years before Reo was absorbed by White Motors.  White eventually consolidated its Diamond T and Reo divisions into the Diamond Reo brand. Eventually, that was spun off, and Diamond Reo continued as a small builder of specialized trucks until the end came in 1995.

This one or one and a half ton truck is the equivalent of the big super-duty pickups that have become common again, but had rather fallen out of favor in the fifties and sixties. With its big wheels and heavy duty components, this is one tough looking and working rig.

We lifted up the alligator jaws to check out the Gold Crown 245 Cubic inch (4 liter) side-valve six, which is rated at 89 hp @3100 rpm. This is pretty typical of the period, when even the biggest trucks might have 150 hp. Trucks were just slower, which was a perpetual pain when coming up behind one. That was the big appeal of four-lane highways, as the speed differential was often huge, especially on any upgrade.

Ike fired up the six, which like all old low-compression flathead sixes runs so quietly and smoothly, you hardly know it’s alive. The hydraulic pump is there for a good reason:

This Reo has a dump bed. Now I’m really jealous. I’ve been needing a truck of this size and capacity with a dump bed for years. Makes me want to go look for something like this, but just not quite so exotic.

I’d be pained to see a couple of yards of gravel get dropped into this bed by a front end loader, although it looks like this one has seen a bit of use since this truck was restored.

With this Detroit-Timken rear axle geared at 5.66 to 1, this Reo is anything but a speedwagon on the road. I forgot to ask Ike, but I’d guess it tops out at somewhere between 45 and 50. That wouldn’t be a problem for me, given my usual radius of action.

The cabs on these old trucks are as far a cry from modern trucks as are the horsepower ratings. That’s the accessory heater down there (heaters were an option back then, cars included). The stick shift , hidden by the big wheel, works a Warner T-97 four speed, which was a mainstay in light-medium trucks for ages. Its granny low first will pull stumps indeed.

Don’t try to take pictures of a flat-glass instrument panel on a (rare) sunny day, for obvious reasons.

Having shared our hunting stories, we were all ready to roll. Ike pulled out in the Reo, Bob went back in to close up the store, and we walked on, satiated, and not even bothering to look for other prey.