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A Circular Journey
By Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
Detroit Bureau

For those readers who think there is no altruism left in the world I’d like to tell you the story about a Mama, a Baby and the couple who brought them home for good after they wandered the country for over 100 years. Two of the principals in this fascinating story are human – they are Peter and Debbie Stephens of Dublin, Ohio. The Mama and the Baby are REO automobiles from 1906 that returned home a few months ago 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 the assembly line for automobile production and he was the creator of a multitude of other mechanical innovations. When he was forced out of Olds Motor Works in late 1903 by the money men in his company (after he created one of the most innovative cars of its time called the “Curved Dash” Olds) R. E. moved his operation about 90 miles west to Lansing and established the REO Motor Car Company. He and his 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 – everything is accurate and exactly to scale. If we do the math we find that the Baby’s footprint is ¼ of the full-size car and 1/8th its volume. 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. The REO Motor 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 until 1936. While in the circus the Baby REO served, among other uses, as transportation for “Tiny Tim,” a little person who succeeded the famous Tom Thumb in that entertainment environment, and a group of “Lilliputians.” The original Tom Thumb, referenced in some of the historical documents associated with the Baby REO, died in the 1880s but there were other little people after him who adopted that persona. One of those Tom Thumb successors might have driven it.

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, I suppose we could call it.

From 1936 until the early 1950s no one seemed to know where the Baby REO was. 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 is about this time Debbie Stephens first encountered the Baby and its legend. As great granddaughters to the iconic Mr. Olds, Debbie had her picture taken in the little car, with her older sister Diane standing along side, in the basement garage of the Olds Hotel (where her dad, R. E. Olds Anderson had his office) in downtown Lansing. 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 and many family members related it to the time when her father 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. AMC was contemplating the purchase of REO and Teague was part of the evaluation team. The Baby REO called out to him from its display in the lobby. Teague was a dedicated car collector and became immediately intrigued with the Baby REO and it 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.

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

That project, matching a Mama to the Baby and meticulously restoring both, became a labor of love that took Teague more than a few years. But 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 once again from one collector to another.

Now, back to the Stephens family.

Peter (retired CFO of Wendy’s) and Debbie knew of this matched pair of REOs and had wanted to acquire the Mama and Baby, because of 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.

Then, in early August of this year (2008), they found out through the REO national club and 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 be 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 procedure 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. But 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 through Peter and Debbie. 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 hauled away 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/representative 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. When he revealed what he wanted help storing museum director Horstik whooped with joy. This would be a real boon to the museum.

A few days later they all arrived – both cars and the entire Stephens family plus a few other Olds relatives - at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing 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 film making. 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 ’60 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. Not only was that a way to share these historic REOs with the public, but 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 recently to celebrate the arrival of this remarkable, 103-year-old baby. A diaper was carefully placed underneath to catch any drips. A special display is being planned for the Mama and Baby REOs in a large 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