The name REO originated from the initials of a man named Ransom Eli Olds, who was
involved in many enterprises in and around Lansing, Michigan. He founded the
Olds Motor Works and Reo Motors, and was part owner in a number of other companies
which were involved in trucks, automobiles, and engines. These companies
include Olds Gas Power Company, Original Gas Engine Company, and Ideal Motor Company,
which built stationary engines. Ransom Olds died in 1950, at the age of 86,
but was no longer connected with any of these companies.
Reo Motors became well-known for its trucks, and supplied many trucks and engines for
the US military during World War II. Following the post-war boom, truck
sales slowed down drastically in early 1949, but three years earlier the company had
started building engine-powered lawn mowers. This lawn mower division helped
the company survive during this time.
Joseph S. Sherer,Jr. was president of Reo Motors at the time the lawn mower line was
started. Mr. Sherer was a graduate of MIT and was formerly Vice-president
and General Manager of Ideal Lawn Mower Company of Lansing. He brought several engineering
and sales people with him from Ideal.
Reo started the Lawn Mower Division in 1946 with a 17-inch push-type mower, and a
21-inch engine-powered reel-type mower. At this time Reo was using Clinton
and Briggs & Stratton engines, but engineer Francis Korff was busy developing
Reo's own engine in their engineering lab. That engine was introduced in 1949 and
became a great success. It was a well-built cast iron engine, with its head slanted
at 45 degrees. It ran "backwards", that is, the flywheel rotated
counter-clockwise, which was opposite from most other engines. However, the power
was taken from the camshaft, which meant that the drive pulley turned in the
same direction as other engines, at 1/2 the speed of the crankshaft. The intake and
exhaust valves were both operated by a single cam lobe on the camshaft. A
variation of the basic engine with a 6:1 gear reduction was used on their deluxe
lawn mower, the Trimalawn, and was also used on a
snow blower several years later.
Reo also made an item called the Trollabout, which
was made for installation in a rowboat. The standard Reo mower engine was mounted on
a slightly tilted platform inside the boat, and a power shaft went through the bottom
of the boat to drive an aluminum prop - the common man's inboard-outboard ! I have
heard a very interesting story concerning the introduction of the Trollabout. One of
the company officials who was trying to promote it had called newspapers and
radio stations to demonstrate it. Someone had apparently done a poor job of installing
the Trollabout, and had not caulked properly around the hole where the prop
shaft went through the bottom of the boat. Right in front of everybody, the boat sank !
That might just explain why the product was never very popular.
During the post-war era the power mower was in great demand, and by 1950 Reo had
become the largest manufacturer of power mowers in the world with sales that
year of almost 10 million dollars. Mower number 500,000 was produced in 1951; daily
production at that time was about 1,000 units a day.
However, Reo made an error during this time which would drastically hurt their
sales within the next few years. The mower industry was rapidly changing to the
rotary-blade mower, which was much cheaper to produce (and easier to operate) than
the reel-type unit which Reo continued to sell.
Finally, in 1953, Reo did make an attempt to market a rotary mower, but their
design was a disaster, to say the least. Rather than building an engine with a
vertical crankshaft, they added a separate vertical shaft alongside the engine,
driven off the camshaft with a set of bevel gears. This shaft was connected
directly to the blade on some models, while another model called
Flying Cloud used a
V-belt from this shaft to another jack shaft that drove the blade. There were a
number of problems outlined in Service Bulletins for the Flying
Cloud, but the worst problem was with a thrust washer
that was mounted on that vertical shaft in the engine. In some engines this washer
would start rotating with the shaft, and chew up the gear housing. Ground-up metal
would eventually get into the crankcase, and before the customer knew it his
engine was shot. Correction of the design was simple - a tab was added to the washer
to keep it from rotating. Correcting all the problems for their customers was
much more costly, however. According to Don Houghtaling, Reo Service Manager, this
little washer cost them over 5000 replacement engines.
In September, 1954 Reo sold their lawn mower division to Motor Wheel Corporation
of Lansing, a major manufacturer of automotive and agricultural wheels. Motor
Wheel continued the Reo line alongside their Duo-Therm Division, which manufactured
home space heaters. In 1955 the Reo engine was finally released in a true
vertical shaft version. The engine was laid on its side, the flywheel, coil and points
were moved to the opposite end of the crankshaft. The flywheel now rotated
clockwise, like most other engines. This vertical shaft version was used for three years.
By this time Power Products Company had convinced Motor Wheel that they
could buy their Tecumseh engines for less cost than building their own engine.
Beginning in 1958 Motor Wheel bought all their vertical shaft engines from
Tecumseh/Power Products. The Tecumseh name did not appear on the engines; they were
labeled as the "Reo Raider Engine". The Reo slant-head engines were still used
in 1958 on the deluxe reel-type mower and snow blower, then these were also converted
to Tecumseh engines. Thus ended the 10 year history of the unique Reo
slant-head engine that "ran backwards".
In September, 1963 Motor Wheel Corporation sold their entire Reo line to
Wheel Horse Products in South Bend, Indiana. Wheel Horse continued the Reo line for
several years, selling a riding lawn mower, snow blower, and some rotary mowers
with the Reo name, then the Reo name was dropped from their line.
LaGrange, IN 46761
1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by Erv Troyer
To see a complete list of Reo engines, click here