The Remarkable Story of the Baby REO – 1905 to 2014: A Circular Journey

Debbie Stephens, Peter Stephens, REO, REO Olds Transportation Museum

For those readers who think there is no altruism left in the world I’d like to tell you the story of a Mama, a Baby and the couple who brought them home for good after they wandered the country apart for over 100 years. Two of the principals in this fascinating story are human – Peter and Debbie Stephens of Dublin, Ohio. The Mama and the Baby are REO automobiles from 1906 that returned home to spend the rest of their days on display in their city of origin at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan.

Debbie (Anderson) Stephens is the great granddaughter of Ransom Eli Olds, engineer, businessman, and founder of both the Oldsmobile and REO car companies. It was R. E. Olds, by the way, not Henry Ford, who adapted an assembly line for automobile production and he was the creator of a multitude of other industrial and mechanical innovations. When he was forced out of his original company, the Olds Motor Works, in late 1903 by the money men in his company where he created one of the most innovative cars of its time called the “Curved Dash” Olds, R. E. moved his operation about 70 miles west to Lansing and established the REO Motor Car Company. He and this new company built a variety of automobiles through 1936 and trucks from the mid-teens into the 1970s. R. E. Olds and his many projects are legendary around Lansing and throughout the automotive world.

The R. E. Olds Transportation Museum, acknowledged as one the best small museums in the country by Collectible Automobile magazine, is the repository of this rich automotive, truck and motor history. The museum occupies an old city bus garage on the banks of the Grand River in downtown Lansing where a wonderful variety of vehicles, artifacts and archives document R. E. Olds’ life and his influence on the world.

The Baby we’re talking about here is a perfectly accurate ½-scale model of the REO Model A 5-passenger Light Touring Car introduced to the public at the New York auto show in 1906. The Baby REO, hand built in 1905, is powered by a structurally accurate but scaled-down, horizontally-opposed, two-cylinder engine making 2 horsepower (as compared to the full-size car’s 16 horsepower) mated to a planetary transmission – smaller, of course, but just like the big car’s unit. The brass details, chassis, radiator shell and everything else are accurate and exactly to scale. The Baby REO cost $3,000 to build – just about twice the cost of the car it was made to promote.

The Baby REO was a hit right from the start. After the New York Auto Show the REO Motor Car Company used it for promotions around the country for as long as the Model A was produced. All the Olds grandkids and some of the great grandkids, including Debbie’s dad, Olds Anderson, were photographed in the Baby REO over the years.

Having spent its usefulness in its first life, the Baby ran off to join the circus in 1911, being leased to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey folks who used it until 1936 serving, among other uses, as transportation for Tiny Tim, a little person who succeeded the famous Tom Thumb, and a group of “Lilliputians.”

The circus people made only one modification. In deference to their highly flammable tents they rigged the engine to run on compressed air instead of gasoline. An early “alternative fuel vehicle,” we could call it.

From 1936 until the early 1950s no one knew where the Baby went. Then, in preparation for REO’s 50th anniversary the PR folks, who had a sense of history, started a concerted search for the long lost Baby REO. In response to a newspaper story about the search, Carl Hell, a REO truck dealer in Altoona, Pennsylvania, revealed that he had it tucked away in a corner of his warehouse. The Baby was found at last, cleaned up and returned to Lansing for the anniversary.

It was about this time that this story’s hero, Debbie Stephens, first encountered the Baby and its legend. As great granddaughter to the iconic Mr. Olds, Debbie had her picture taken in the newly found little car with her older sister Diane standing along side. The photography, she recalls, was in the basement garage of the Olds Hotel  in downtown Lansing. Their dad, R. E. Olds Anderson had his office in the hotel. This was 1954. While she doesn’t remember the details of the day, being only three years old, the picture became part of the family story. Family members related it to the time when Olds Anderson had his picture taken with his siblings in the car in 1919.

The next chapter of this story begins in about 1979 with a visit to REO headquarters by Richard “Dick” Teague, then VP of design for American Motors. Since its liberation from storage the Baby had gone on display at the REO truck headquarters in Lansing. AMC was contemplating the purchase of REO and Teague was part of the evaluation team. The Baby REO seemed to call out to him from its display in the lobby. Teague was a dedicated car collector and became immediately intrigued with the Baby REO and its possibilities. His idea was not only to restore the Baby REO but to hook it up with a perfect, matching 1906 REO Model A Light Touring Car as well – a Mama REO, he would call it.

And that’s what he did. But first he had to track the Baby down again. While this plan developed, it had been moved to the Mississippi offices of one of REO’s financial backers who had taken possession of it. Teague wanted it and would not take no for an answer. He ended up paying $3,000 (just about the original cost to build the Baby) plus a nice dinner out for the seller.

The project – matching a Mama to the Baby and meticulously restoring both – became a labor of love that took Teague more than a few years. It was well worth it by any measure, and Teague had them in his famous collection until his death in the 1980s. Mama and Baby then ended up back on the lam again from one collector to another.

Now, back to the Stephens family:

Peter Stephens (retired CFO of Wendy’s fast food restaurant chain) and his wife, Debbie, knew of this matched pair of REOs and had wanted to acquire the Mama and Baby, because of all this wonderful family history, and bring them back to Lansing for the Oldsmobile centennial in 2004. Each time the cars came up for sale somewhere and went into the hands of another collector, they found out too late. It was like chasing shadows, Debbie recalls.

Then, in early August of 2008, they found out through the REO national club and R.E. Olds Museum director, Deborah Horstik, that Mama and Baby would be sold through the Gooding & Company auction at Pebble Beach a few weeks hence. That was good news and bad news: they now would have the opportunity to buy them, but Pebble Beach bidders tend to have deep pockets and big egos making for sometimes outrageous prices. Early estimates indicated the price could rocket into seven figures. They had just about decided to pass on the auction and follow up with the buyer later.

Well, here’s where the plot gets more exciting.

Just a few days before the auction, a Gooding representative called to ask if they would like to bid remotely. Having never participated in such a process they were a bit intimidated, but the Gooding folks were helpful and accommodating. So late on a Sunday night in the middle of August Peter and Debbie found themselves on the phone nervously listening to the auction activities. They had set a modest budget fully understanding that they might lose the cars this time as well. Fate and karma were on their side.

Peter held off making a bid initially not wanting to stir the pot. As the struggling bids began to plateau he jumped in and made his. Bang went the gavel. “Sold!” barked the auctioneer, and a rush of adrenalin coursed at once through the respective veins of Peter and Debbie Stephens. Mama and Baby REO were headed home.

They were a bit surprised at how quickly things happened from there. Payment needed to be arranged immediately and the cars needed to be transported within a few days. After getting an outrageous transport bid from one hauler who wanted to charge full price for two cars an enthusiastic driver from FED EX, after remarking that these were his favorite cars at the auction, agreed to treat them as one.

Immediately after the purchase Peter and Debbie called Deborah Horstik at the museum to ask a little favor. “Could we get a little assistance with long-term storage?” Peter asked. Horstik whooped with joy. This would be a real boon to the museum.

A few days later the entire Stephens family plus a few other Olds relatives arrived along with both cars at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum for an emotional homecoming. The Stephens’ two sons, Gregg and Matt, age 21 and 25 respectively, only then realized that the Baby REO was the car featured in the picture they had seen on the wall at home all those years. They, too, now have a full appreciation for that glimpse into their family history. Gregg is studying journalism at Scripps University focusing on filmmaking. Perhaps he’ll do a documentary on this story one day.

While the Stephens knew for many years they wanted to buy these cars they never had any intention of savoring them as part of their own modest collection – a 1903 Curved Dash Olds, a 1905 REO Touring Car, a 1930 Olds Convertible and a 1960 Mercedes 190SL. Rather, it was always their intent to immediately lend them out long-term to the museum so that they could be shared with the public in their home town and also with the extended R. E. Olds family as well, many of whom also have memories of, and an affection for, the Baby REO.

Peter and Debbie started getting kudos from everywhere. An emotional call from the president of the California REO club thanked them profusely for snatching the pair and sending them to the museum. Well-known brothers, serious classic car collectors from mid Michigan, who are getting on in age were reportedly brought nearly to tears with the same sentiment. Many collectors and REO aficionados were afraid they would end up in Europe never to be seen here again. Later, when talking to Dick Teague’s widow to gather some more details on the car, Debbie reports that Mrs. Teague said, “Dick would be doing summersaults in his grave” knowing that the Mama and Baby REOs were saved for the public and in the museum.

Those are just some of the rewards of altruism.

A baby shower was hosted by the RE Olds Transportation Museum to celebrate the arrival of this remarkable pair of REOs, a diaper carefully placed beneath the Baby to catch any drips. A special display for the Mama and Baby REOs now dominates a corner of the museum.

The museum has always been a fascinating place to spend some time, but now it’s even better.

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© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved