By Candace Brown, Photos by Jack Harrison
After the Allies’ invasion of Europe during World War II, in June 1944, a parade took place in the small town of Flushing, Michigan. It included the local fire department’s 1927 REO Speed Wagon triple-combination fire truck. The REO was old, but the purchase of newer apparatus would have to wait until the war ended. Many trucks like it, retained out of necessity, were later scrapped. This lucky example survived for two reasons: a collector wanted to do the right thing; and current owner and restorer Brian Reed, who lives in Flushing, wanted to bring home a forgotten piece of local history.
“Flushing bought a new Mack fire truck as soon as they were available after the war,” Reed said. “Trucks were hard to get, so it would have been maybe 1947 or ’48. They either put the REO in storage someplace or they sold it. We don’t know what happened until it reappeared 12 years later.”
The 1927 REO Speed Wagon was Flushing’s second apparatus built on a REO chassis—the first being a 1921 model. Flushing bought the 1927 truck at a REO dealership in Owosso, Michigan. Then, it went to Boyer Fire Apparatus Co. in Logansport, Indiana, to be equipped for firefighting and ornately decorated. Boyer built fire trucks on many different companies’ chassis.
At the time, the REO Motor Car Co. ranked fifth among U.S. automobile and truck manufacturers. According to the Reo Club of America, the Speed Wagon was introduced in 1915, as a speedy (for its day) delivery vehicle. [Editor’s Note: The name “Speed Wagon” appeared as two words until the 1930s, when it became “Speed Wagon.” Similarly, “REO,” so named for founder Ransom Eli Olds’ initials, appears in literature as both “REO” and “Reo.” For purposes of consistency in this article, we will use the all-capital spelling, except when referencing the Reo Club of America.]
This 1927 model featured the unusual “T-6,” 6-cylinder engine. It used a 6-volt chain-drive starter, mounted on the front of the transmission. The clutch had to be engaged, and in neutral, to crank the engine.
“The exhaust valves are in the engine block, like you would have on a flathead, and the intake valves are on the head, like an overhead-valve engine,” Reed said. “That was different. Normally, it’s either a flathead or an overhead-valve engine, and this was a little bit of both.”
This REO, with its Boyer fire body, resurfaced in the early 1960s in the collection of another Michigan resident named Herman Weir, now deceased. Weir titled the truck in his name, but apparently never drove it much, if at all. He stored it in a barn for about 50 years. Reed knew none of this until a stranger’s message appeared out of nowhere in November 2013.
“My son Eric [a paid, on-call, Flushing firefighter] was maintaining the Facebook page for the Flushing Firefighters Assoc. when Doug Pratt, a fireman and collector from Memphis, Michigan, contacted him,” Reed said.
“He sent pictures and Boyer serial numbers, confirming that he had found a Flushing truck.”
Pratt acquired it because he and Weir had each been members of the local Model A club, the Eastside A’s.
“Herman was quite a collector,” Pratt said. “I had seen the fire truck years ago, in his barn. He had barns [near where Pratt lived] full of all kinds of stuff, lots and lots of stuff.”
After Weir passed away, the collection sat for many more years until the family decided to part with it. Another member of the Eastside A’s, Joe Cairo, accepted the job of clearing out the barns. After discovering the fire truck, he contacted Pratt, knowing of his interest, and Pratt bought it.
“It was buried in this barn, stuff on top of it, in front of it, beside it,” Pratt said. “We had to clear a spot to get it out. I took my equipment trailer over there, with my Bobcat skid steer, and we pulled it out of the barn and up onto the trailer and brought it home.”
The condition was not too bad, except for a horrible mess—the nasty leavings of raccoons who had used the truck’s bed as a bathroom for years. Pratt dug out enough waste to completely fill a garbage can. He gave the REO a thorough cleaning, parked it in his own barn, and then began his research. On the internet, he found a delivery list for Boyer fire trucks, based on serial numbers.
“I actually matched up my serial number to one on the list,” Pratt said. “Everything lined up. They had the right year and make of the truck.”
It had been shipped to Flushing, about 67 miles away. Through the Facebook page for the Flushing Firefighters Assoc., Pratt sent the message Reed’s son saw and shared with his father. Eric Reed had served the department for 12 years, and Brian Reed had already restored a couple of fire trucks. Both were intrigued. They knew of the 1921 REO, but this 1927 model was a surprise.
“We were a little bit skeptical at first, but after looking at all the information Doug Pratt had on it, and looking a little better at some books from the local history museum here, we found pictures of it,” Brian Reed said. “Sure enough, that was the same truck.”
The news excited both Reeds, but Pratt simply wanted information. At the time, he intended to keep and restore the truck. By July 2014, however, he reconsidered.
“It was a neat old truck,” Pratt said. “But then there was the realization of me getting around to doing anything to it, and them wanting it really bad. I got back with them and said, ‘Come over and look at it.’”
“We jumped in the truck, grabbed up a bunch of cash, and went over there,” Reed said. “We didn’t even have any idea what he was asking for it, but we made sure we had enough money with us. We weren’t going to let it get away.”
Getting the truck back home required a second trip with a trailer. Then, Reed eagerly went to work. With the carburetor missing and no hoses, it could not run, but had great potential. He disassembled the vehicle, down to the frame, and sandblasted every inch of it.
“I grew up on a farm, where we fixed everything, so I learned all the mechanical skills from my dad,” he said. “As far as doing bodywork, it was just kind of by trial and error that I learned that. Painting isn’t too hard, if you’re not afraid to sand it all back off and start over!”
Reed chose to coat the REO in a 1960s Ford single-stage acrylic enamel in the perfect shade of red. He taught himself how to do the gold leaf lettering and pinstriping. The renowned Kenneth Soderbeck of Hand in Hand Restoration in Jackson, Michigan, offered many helpful tips over the phone. Since the restoration took place during winter, Reed brought the painted sheetmetal parts indoors and set up what he called his “art room” in an extra bedroom upstairs. His wife Susan helped him with some of this detail work. He finished with a clear coat of urethane over the entire paint job.
This truck left the factory with two chemical tanks. By the time Reed bought it, they were gone, replaced by an ugly, homemade 300-gallon water tank. He speculates that the modification happened during the 1930s. From Soderbeck, Reed bought a donor truck specifically for its pair of heavy, lead-lined, galvanized chemical tanks. The Boyer Fire Apparatus Co. produced these.
Reed fabricated the missing ladders from scratch, heavily modifying a couple of regular extension ladders from an estate sale. The maple bed wood and the steering wheel looked solid. On the maple wheel spokes, he needed only to remove old paint, sand, prime, and repaint. The fire truck came with four new old stock tires. Although not from 1927, they were vintage, still wrapped in paper, and without any cracks. These are the tires on it today. The two-year restoration involved the help of good friends. Bill Mackey rebuilt the T-6 engine. Bill Rausch found many parts. Tony Salem revived the seat. The radiator cap was missing; but Norm Bolz and Jerry VanOoteghem machined a new one from solid brass. Reed had the truck ready to go in time for the 2016 fire muster in Frankenmuth, Michigan, on the last Saturday in July. While there, he gave Pratt a ride in it. Later, he drove it in the annual Homecoming Parade in Flushing.
“That was kind of the first time anyone in Flushing had seen it,” Reed said. “I don’t think anybody really even knew that truck existed.”
Now, the truck is where it belongs. Without the internet or Pratt’s own goodwill, it might not be.
“A lot of amazing circumstances had to come together for that truck to make it back to Flushing,” Pratt said. “It’s definitely the right thing to have done. If I’d kept it, it would still be looking the very same, sitting in the corner of my barn, but now it’s beautiful and running.”
Reed and his son were not about to let this piece of Flushing history get away when they first went to see it, and they never will.
“As long as I’m around, and with my son being involved with the fire department, it will always stay in the community now,” he said.