Simanaitis Says

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SOME KIDS NEVER GROW UP

THIS KID, BORN in 1906, ran off to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus. After his circus career waned in the early 1930s, he disappeared in 1936. Relatives discovered the kid in 1954, after he had hung out with cousins in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. They returned the kid home to Lansing, Michigan.

In 1979, a noted car designer took the kid in and, in doing so, introduced him to his mother. After the designer died in 1991, mama and the kid moved from place to place. Then, happily, in August 2008, Peter and Debbie Stephens took loving custodianship of the pair. 

Loving, because Debbie is the great-granddaughter of Ransom Eli Olds, engineer, entrepreneur, and founder of the Oldsmobile and REO car companies. And this tale’s mama and kid are 5-passenger REO Model A Touring Cars, the kid a precise 1/2-scale of mama, both produced in the first decade of the last century.  

Photo by Ron Perry. This and following images from Automobile Quarterly, First Quarter 1988, Volume 26, Number 1.

Origins. Company records list “Baby REO $3000.00,” quite a sum given that its full size counterpart cost $1250. (Figure around $81,600 and $34,000 in 2021 dollars). The Baby REO was built with exactitude, every dimension of every component precisely 1/2 of the original.

Chassis of the Baby REO. Without other reference, there’s hardly a clue to its size.

Each car had a horizontally opposed twin-cylinder water-cooled engine (2- and 16-hp, respectively) located beneath the passenger compartment. It connected to a planetary gearbox and two-speed-and-reverse chain drive of the rear wheels.

The Baby REO’s Circus Career. In “Bringing Up Baby,” Automobile Quarterly, First Quarter 1988, Jonathan Thompson describes, “Baby’s engine, just like Mother’s in every way, could run on gasoline, but most often was propelled by a charge of compressed air….” 

The Baby REO performed in the Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1911 until 1932.

Residing with Kin. The Baby REO eventually resided with a REO truck distributor (cars having been phased out in the 1930s). The car returned to REO’s headquarters in 1954 to celebrate the firm’s 50th anniversary. 

In 1979, Dick Teague, design head at American Motors Corp., got intrigued by the Baby REO, with plans to restore the car and pair it with a full-size counterpart. Teague retired to Fallbrook, California; the Baby REO and its mother traveled with him. 

Returning Home. When Teague died in 1991, his collection went to other collectors. The Baby REO’s tale picks up with Just a Car Guy, a website devoted to “Cool things on wheels since 2006.” 

“In mid-August 2008,” Just a Car Guy wrote on January 3, 2019, “Mama and Baby were auctioned in Pebble Beach, CA and were purchased by Peter and Debbie Stephens, the great-granddaughter of Ransom Eli Olds and her husband. The Stephens are loaning the cars to the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing on a permanent long-term basis. The family is pleased to have the pair back together and in an ideal place for display.” 

The R.E. Olds Transportation Museum notes that the 1906 REO Mama & Baby have been “adopted through June 2023 by the Olds Club of Florida.

All in all, a fine result for a kid who ran away with the circus more than 100 years ago. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

2 comments on “SOME KIDS NEVER GROW UP

  1. sabresoftware
    June 22, 2021

    Great story.

    • simanaitissays
      June 22, 2021

      Thanks, Sabre. Thank pal Jon Thompson, rest his soul, and AQ.

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