Stupid Question ™
July 18, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: What does the “REO” in REO Speedwagon mean?
—Deron J. Husak
A: Of course, we must also ask ourselves, “What the heck is a speedwagon?” The answers are linked.
The Speedwagon was a workhorse-type truck popular in the early days of automobile history. It was built by the REO Motor Car Co. of Lansing, Michigan. The company was more commonly referred to as Reo, pronounced like the Spanish rio.
REO are the initials of the rather incredibly named Ransom Eli Olds, for whom the Oldsmobile is named. He was born in Geneva, Ohio in 1864. In 1897, as a pioneering automobile designer, he teamed with Samuel Smith to form the Olds Motor Vehicle Co., which later became Oldsmobile.
Olds left in 1904 to start his own company, but Oldsmobile retained the rights to the “Olds” name, so he went with “REO.” The first REO cars shipped in 1905.
In was 1909 when the REO began making Speedwagons, which quickly became famed for their power and endurance. They were used as fire and police trucks, ambulances and dump trucks, and for similar demanding duties.
A boxy affair, the truck by today’s standards looks like more wagon than speed. Production peaked in the late 1920s.
REO was nearly killed by the Depression and by 1957 was only a truck line, which was then purchased by the White Truck company. White continued producing a “Diamond-Reo” line until 1974.
The band REO Speedwagon formed in 1968 and enjoyed superstardom in the 1980s with such hits as “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Keep on Loving You” and similar clichés.
Their band logo, featuring wings and a prominent “REO,” references the old REO Motor Vehicle Co. logo. And the cover of their 1971 debut album is a close-up detail of an actual REO Speedwagon.
Keyboardist Neal Doughty once said in an interview that he learned of the vehicle in a college class on the history of transportation, where he saw “REO Speedwagon” written on a blackboard. Supposedly, he saw this on the very day the band began searching for a name.