Posted: 10.26.2009 The Remarkable Story of a baby REO (1905 to 2008)- A Circular Journey By Steve Purdy
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Here’s a story about altruism - a mama, a baby and the couple who brought them home after the baby wandered the country for over 100 years. Two of the principals in this fascinating story are human – Peter and Debbie Stephens of Dublin, Ohio. Debbie is a descendent of Ransom Eli Olds, engineer, businessman, and founder of both the Oldsmobile and REO car companies.
The mama and baby are REO automobiles from 1906 that returned home a few months ago to spend the rest of their days on display in their city of origin, at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan, repository of the rich automobile, truck and motor history of R. E. Olds.
The baby referenced here is a perfectly accurate, ½-scale model of the REO Model A 5-passenger Light Touring Car introduced to the public at the New York auto show for 1906. The Baby REO, hand built in 1905 at a cost of about $3,000, is powered by an accurate but scaled-down, horizontally-opposed, two-cylinder engine making 2 horsepower (as compared to the full-size car’s 16 horsepower) mated to a planetary transmission, smaller but just like the big car’s. The Baby REO was a hit and was used for promotional purposes as long as the REO Model A was produced.
Then the Baby ran off to join the circus in 1911, leased to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey folks. While in the circus the Baby REO served as transport for little people - “Tiny Tim” and a group of “Lilliputians.” The circus people made only one modification. In deference to their highly flammable tents they rigged the engine to run on compressed air instead of gasoline. An early alternative fuel vehicle, I suppose we could call it.
From 1936 until the early 1950s no one seemed to know where the Baby REO was. Then, in preparation for REO’s 50th anniversary, they found it in the possession of a REO truck dealer in Altoona, Pennsylvania, tucked away in a dusty corner of his warehouse. The Baby was cleaned up and returned to Lansing for the anniversary.
It is about this time (1954) that Debbie Stephens first encountered the Baby and its legend. As great granddaughter of the iconic Mr. Olds, Debbie had her picture taken in the little car with her sister standing along side. That picture became part of the family story as were pictures of her dad and other family members with the little car.
The next chapter of this story begins in about 1979 with a visit to REO headquarters by Richard “Dick” Teague, then VP of design for American Motors. Teague was a dedicated car collector and became immediately intrigued with the Baby REO and it possibilities. His idea was not only to restore the Baby REO but to hook it up with a perfect, matching 1906 REO Model A Light Touring Car as well.
That project of matching mama to baby and meticulously restoring both, became a labor of love that took Teague more than a few years. But it was well worth it by any measure. Teague had them in his famous collection until his death in the 1980s. The Mama and Baby REOs then ended up on the lam once again from one collector to another.
Now, back to the Stephens family
Peter (retired CFO of Wendy’s) and Debbie knew of this matched pair of REOs and had wanted to acquire them because of this wonderful family history. They wanted to bring them back to Lansing for the Oldsmobile centennial in 2004, but each time the cars came up for sale somewhere they went into the hands of another collector. The Stephens always seemed to find out too late. It was like chasing shadows.
Then, in early August of this year (2008), they got word through the REO national club and museum director, Deborah Horstik, that Mama and Baby REO would be sold through the Gooding & Company auction at Pebble Beach a few weeks hence. That was good news and bad news: they now would have the opportunity to buy them, but Pebble Beach bidders tend to have deep pockets and big egos making for often outrageous prices. They had decided to pass on the auction and follow up with the buyer later.
But, good fortune was with them. The accommodating Gooding folks encouraged them and helped with the unfamiliar remote bidding process. After less than spirited bidding Peter made his bid at just the right time. The gavel fell, the auctioneer hollered “sold!” and they had won the bid. Peter and Debbie were thrilled. Their hope to return the REOs to Lansing would now be realized.
A few days later they all arrived in Lansing for an emotional homecoming at the Museum – both cars and the entire Stephens family plus a few other Olds relatives. The Stephens’ two sons, Gregg and Matt, age 21 and 25 respectively, only then realized that the Baby REO was the car featured in the picture they had seen on the wall at home.
Peter and Debbie began getting kudos from everywhere. An emotional call from the president of the California REO club thanked them profusely for snatching the pair and sending them to the museum. Two well-known brothers, serious classic car collectors from mid Michigan who are getting on in age, were reportedly brought nearly to tears with the same sentiment. Many collectors and REO aficionados were afraid they would end up in Europe never to be seen here again.
Later, when talking to Dick Teague’s widow to gather some more details on the car, Debbie reports that Mrs. Teague told her, “Dick would be doing summersaults in his grave knowing that the Mama and Baby REOs were saved for the public and in the museum.”
Those are just some of the rewards of altruism.
A baby shower was hosted by the museum to celebrate the arrival of this remarkable, 103-year-old baby. A diaper was carefully placed underneath to catch any drips. A special display is being planned for the Mama and Baby REOs in a large corner of the museum.
The R. E. Olds Transportation Museum, named one of the ten best small auto museums by Collectible Automobile magazine, has always been a fascinating place to spend time, but now it’s even better with Mama and Baby finally home.
For more information on this story visit the REOlds Website at: