History Nebraska Blog

Time for Me to Fly in My REO Speed Wagon

Reo Speed Wagon ad with side view of truck

As we prepare to celebrate fast cars at the Nebraska History Museum, here’s a fast truck advertised in the Omaha Bee on March 27, 1921. Imagine living in a time when driving from Omaha to Denver in 20 hours something to brag about.

Consider the challenge. The route was probably the D-L-D Highway (Detroit-Lincoln-Denver, more-or-less the future US Highway 6). Don’t let the word “highway” fool you. The word was used for centuries until, quite recently, it came to imply high speeds and pavement. The REO trip involved hauling a payload of a more than a ton along 600 miles of un-graveled, barely improved dirt roads marked mostly by painted telephone poles.

1914 map of Nebraska with highways in red

1914 Highway map of Nebraska (click link for hi-res PDF). What is shown here as the “Omaha Denver Road” was also called the O-L-D (Omaha-Lincoln-Denver) Highway. After 1920 it became the D-L-D.

Think of how such a trip would sound to farmers who grew up hauling their produce to the local elevator with a team and wagon. The practical limit for such a haul was about a dozen miles (which is a big reason why railroads and elevators were spaced as they were).

Now, fast, powerful trucks promised to extend a farmer’s range and widen their market options. The Speed Wagon was marked explicitly for this purpose. In Nebraska, it was sold at dealerships in Alliance, Hastings, Omaha, Red Cloud, and perhaps other towns.

REO Speed Wagon ad: "Bridging the Last Gap Between the Farm and the Market"

Red Cloud Chief, April 1, 1920, p.5.

This was an unfamiliar world and people were still learning how it all worked. On the same page as the ad at the top of this page, the Bee printed an article titled, “Starting Switch Key Should Not Be Left in Auto, Says Dealer.” It was all very strange, but a growing number of Nebraskans were ready to roll with the changes.

The Reo or REO (but always pronounced “Rio”) Speed Wagon wasn’t the only truck on the market. The nation was dotted with local auto manufacturers. History Nebraska owns a rare 1919 Nebraska-built Patriot truck, displayed at Neligh Mill State Historic Site. The 22.5 horsepower Patriot would have struggled to keep up with the 35-hp Speed Wagon.

REO, incidentally, took its name from the initials of company founder Ransom E. Olds (also the namesake of Oldsmobile). The Speed Wagon was produced in Lansing, Michigan, from 1915 to 1953. In the 1960s, a University of Illinois engineering student named Neal Doughty learned about the truck in a transportation history class. Doughty couldn’t fight this feelin’ that it would make a good name for his new rock band. He and his bandmates, however, pronounced it “R-E-O” — but if you are of a certain age you already knew that.

—David L. Bristow, Editor

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