Press Release - March 28th, 2021
1906 Baby and Mama REO to attend Celebration of Brass Festival July 16-17, 2021
In 1904 R.E. Olds, the founder of the REO Motor Car Company, had left his earlier enterprise, the Olds Motor Works, where he built the famous curved dash Oldsmobile. In 1906 Mr. Olds commissioned his engineers to create a perfect running miniature of the REO Model A touring car. The baby REO is exactly ½ scale and was a marketing bonanza for the fledgling car company as it toured the country along with its full sized “Mama” REO counterpart. BY 1907 REO was the third largest car company by production volume in the USA.
The history of Baby REO and Mama REO is long and diverse but the good news is that they were reunited in 2008 and put into the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, MI. Through the efforts of that museum’s new executive director Scott Mrdeza Baby REO is now running with its original gasoline power plant and Scott has agreed to bring Mama and Baby REO to The Celebration of Brass @ the Gilmore Car Museum on July 16-17 for the museums kickoff festival. This will be the first event that these important REO's will go on a drive together at in modern history.
Setting the Stage
In the early part of the 20th century, the American automotive industry was off to a hot start. From just a few craftsmen working in garages, their efforts soon caught the attention of entrepreneurs, capitalists, scientific journals and journalists alike. It is hard for us to imagine today, but between 1896 and 1930 there were over 1800 automobile manufacturers just in the United States! Rival manufacturers were constantly trying to one-up each other in capability and showmanship.
Ransom Eli Olds began experimenting with steam powered vehicles in the mid-1880s, then built gasoline powered vehicles starting in 1896 and electrics in 1899. By 1903 his namesake company, the Olds Motor Works, was manufacturing the bestselling vehicle in the world on a progressive assembly line and he was the talk of the 1903 New York Auto Show.
This success did not come by accident as, besides being a great designer, Olds was also a great marketer having staged the Curved Dash Olds on a teeter totter, to driving up the steps of the State Capital Building, to having an employee drive from Detroit to New York in record time.
By 1904, RE, as his friends and family called him, left Olds Motor Works due to the constant and incompetent meddling by his investors. With the encouragement of a group of Lansing investors, he created the REO Motor Car Company (using his initials). In 1905, he was again at the New York Auto show with his new company, REO but he was relegated to the restaurant section of the show. How that must have irritated him given his singular accomplishments up to this point. The Olds family archives contains a terse letter to potential customers directing them to the restaurant section for the 1905 REO models. Olds was NOT going to have a repeat of this treatment in 1906.
The Baby REO
Olds commissioned his engineers to create a perfect miniature working car which would provide the needed marketing boost for his new company. In addition, the impact of this miniature car would tweak his former colleagues at Olds Motor Works, who continued to try and undermine Olds’ new automotive venture.
Every detail of the new 1906 Model A was reproduced at ½ scale and the Baby REO was born at a cost of $3600 which was roughly twice the retail cost of the full-sized Model A and over $100,000 in today’s dollars.
The new Baby REO was paired with a full-sized Model A and became the hit of the 1906 New York Auto Show. After a fantastic debut, the Mama and Baby REO embarked on a nationwide tour. Starting with the January and February Madison Square Garden Auto shows, the Mama and Baby were on display for the entirety of show week. The Cole County Democrat covered the event, lavishing much praise on Mr. Olds for the duo. “Much credit is due to Mr. Olds for this pleasing innovation, which is another chapter proving why he has endeared himself to every lover of this ideal modern sport.” The New York Herald also covered the lead up to the Madison Square Garden auto show. Predicting it to be a main feature, the Herald valued the Mama and Baby at five thousand dollars should it be available for sale.
It was around the end of January 1906 that the Mama and Baby began to attract attention nationwide. The Daytona Daily News reported that, as a result of the Baby, REO’s production for 1906 was raised to 3300 cars, making them the most well-known automaker in America. Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Leon Shettler, the REO agent for Los Angeles, would be hosting the Baby for 2 months.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Leader was showering praise on REO for the Baby’s continued success at the Cleveland, New York, and Chicago auto shows. At the Cleveland Auto Show, the Baby even attracted the attention of prominent French auto engineer Count De La Valette, who was said to be extremely interested in purchasing it.
Around mid-March, the Baby was in such high demand that newspapers across the country were publishing conflicting reports as to its whereabouts. The Los Angeles Herald reported that the Baby was on its way to Leon Shettler’s showroom. However, the Baby was confirmed to be in Boston, and its stay was even extended due to popular demand.
On the 25th of March, the Omaha Daily Bee reported that the ‘perfect car that was made for children’ would be the feature exhibit at the upcoming Omaha Auto Show beginning on April 4th. On March 30th, the Omaha World Herald echoed this, saying that the DeRight Auto Company had delivered it yesterday. They also added that Barnum and Bailey had rented it to carry 4 Lilliputians about Madison Square Garden, proving the Baby REO’s superior versatility over other cars of that time.
The Omaha Auto Show had only finished one day before the press began running stories on the Baby REO. According to the Omaha World Herald, the “smallest machine in the world, express shipped from New York, was a smash hit with children. It raises the bar for a company that won more first place prizes in 1905 than any other American car.”
As the Baby REO dominated the attention of the crowds at every auto show, its legend grew as well. The Automobile, a magazine dedicated to the car show circuit, published a standalone photo of the Baby REO, carrying 4 Lilliputians, parked next to an elephant and “Jumbo,” the Welsh giant, for scale. It is assumed that this is a promotional photo for Barnum and Bailey.
As April came to a close, Goodwin’s Weekly ran a brief article on the Baby REO. After being the center of attention at every auto show over the winter, she arrived at Salt Lake City as a promotional tool for Siegel Clothing Company where she sat in the front window of the store. A week later. Goodwin’s reported that the Baby REO was attracting a great deal of attention for Siegel’s and sales were up.
The beginning of May saw the Baby REO move further west. On May 2nd, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the Baby REO was on its way to Los Angeles and would arrive on May 10th. Leon Shettler, Los Angeles’ REO agent, would be hosting the Baby at his garage on Grand Avenue & Sixth St.Later that week, The Los Angeles Times said the arrival date had been pushed back due to being exhibited in every major city on its trek westward.
Both papers reported that the Baby has proven to be in very high demand; numerous offers exceeding $2500 were made. One man from Coney Island offered $5000 for it! However, REO decided that the Baby made too good a promotional tool and announced that the Baby would not be sold, nor would any reproductions be made.
Another week passed and with it came another story from the Los Angeles Times that the Baby REO’s arrival would be delayed another week. Evidently, as a result of being the most talked about car of 1906, the Baby stopped at every REO agency on its way to Los Angeles. Also, at some point (or several points), the Baby REO was leased to Barnum and Bailey, though the dates of the lease are unknown.
On the 19th of May, the Baby REO made its much-anticipated arrival to Leon Shettler’s garage. However, not much is known about the actual duration of the Baby’s stay. The next week, Goodwin’s Weekly published a photo of the Baby in front of Sharman-Ottinger Automobile Company, a REO dealer in Salt Lake City.
With all the marketing help from the Baby REO, the REO Motor Car Company had thousands of production orders. By 1907, REO was the third largest car company in the United States by production volumes. Olds Motor Works had steadily lost market share and in 1907 only produced a couple of hundred cars. By then end of the year they were close to insolvency and, in 1908, Olds Motor Works was saved by Billy Durant when he purchased the company and brought it into the newly formed General Motors Corporation.
The Baby REO was eventually retired from touring dealerships and was displayed at the company headquarters. It was later sold or leased to Barnum and Bailey Circus and the engine was converted to run on air pressure. A small air tank was added to the running board which would allow the car to drive around the big top a couple of times. There are a few reports of the Baby occasionally appearing at REO events.
In the early 1930s the Baby is returned to the REO Motor Company. After being returned to REO, the Baby continued to make occasional appearances at dealerships and auto shows. At one such event, the Milwaukee Auto Show, Mr. Olds hired a midget to drive the Baby REO around. Unfortunately for Mr. Olds, the midget became intoxicated and drove the car into, among other things, a brick wall. It took a while for the authorities to apprehend him and it is unknown if Mr. Olds hired him again. In 1936, REO ceased production of automobiles to focus on truck sales. A REO sales office in Pittsburgh loaned the Baby REO to a distributor for display purposes. As the car division shuts down, the Baby REO is forgotten, and becomes lost for 18 years.
The next mention of the Baby came on April 23rd, 1954, courtesy of the Charleroi (Pa) Mail. After a 30-year career as a promotional tool, followed by an 18 year disappearance, the REO Motor Co was conducting a nationwide search for the Baby. Stories about the Baby continued to be run as August comes around. In August, the Baby REO was found in a barn in Altoona, Pa belonging to a REO truck dealer. As it turns out, he had kept it since 1936. A month later, the Baby and Jack Alongi, the man hired to drive her, would appear on the cover of Automotive Service Digest.
Towards the end of the year, REO began their 50th anniversary tour, with the new V-8 and refurbished Baby as the showcase exhibits. They went on a nationwide tour, stopping at nearly every REO event around the country. By 1957, The Baby REO fell out of the public eye. She was presumed either lost or in storage during this time.
Sometime in mid-1971, the Baby indirectly appeared in the public eye again. F.L. Cappaert buys Diamond REO for $1.3 million in cash and $3.2 million in notes, thus gaining control of all Diamond REO’s assets (including the Baby). Just a few years later, in April of 1975, Cappaert shuts down Diamond REO. The Baby moves down to Vicksburg, MS, presumably with Cappaert, where she stays until 1979. In 1979, Dick Teague goes to Vicksburg to discuss American Motor Company acquiring Diamond REO’s assets. Teague also plans to buy the Baby REO. He pays Cappaert $3,000 for it, plus an additional $50 to buy dinner for a family in Jackson that wanted the car. Despite the Baby’s small stature, the doors to Cappaert’s office building had to be removed to get the Baby out!
In the early 1980’s, the Baby spent her time getting restored by Teague. This was a lengthy process that included making new tires. The most impressive part of the process, however, was reuniting the Baby with her Mama. Teague located the Mama at auction, purchased her, and restored her too. Mr. Teague commissioned Jeff Beaumont to get the Baby running using its gasoline motor and Jeff did have the engine run on his bench, although there is no indication it was run since. In 1984, the Mama and Baby make their first public appearance at the Meadow Brook Concours in Troy, Michigan. The next year, Teague loans the Mama and Baby to the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum. They stay here for an undetermined amount of time. In 1988, the Mama and Baby are the lead feature in the first quarter issue of Automobile Quarterly. They don’t make any more public appearances in the 1980s.
1991 starts out on a somber note, as Mr. Teague passed away after a lengthy illness. The next year, William Haines, owner of Haines Old Car Barn in North Canton, OH, purchases the Mama and Baby. He takes the Baby to the National REO meet, where it is a smash hit. The Mama and Baby are also shown at the Pebble Beach Concours. It is unknown if the Mama and Baby made any more public appearances during the 1990s.
The Mama and Baby kept a low profile for the first half of the 2000s, as they did not appear at any auto shows. However, in 2006, Charlie LeMatre purchased the Mama and Baby from Mr. Haines. There is no record of the cars appearing in any auto shows or magazines while LeMatre owned them.
In August of 2008, two years after purchasing the Mama and Baby, LeMatre puts them up for auction through Gooding and Company. Peter and Debbie Stephens purchase the cars and place them back in the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum. As Debbie Stephens is the great-granddaughter of R.E. Olds, The New York Times runs a feature story about the Mama and Baby titled At 102, the Baby Car Goes Home Again.
In 2021, Scott Mrdeza, the new Executive Director of the RE Olds Transportation Museum, takes a keen interest in the Baby REO and, after 2 months of work, has the Baby REO running like new. He commissioned 9-year-old Cole Rogahn to be the first person ever to actually drive the car using its original gasoline engine as intended. All previous driving was done using the air pressure system that Barnum and Bailey required back when Baby was built.