A Different Spin
By Leslie McManus
Left and above: Gary Pieper sets up a REO display at three or four shows a year, and enjoys the response he gets. “Guys come up and say they remember using these, but haven’t seen one in years.”
For men of a certain age, a teenage stint with
a push mower is a near-universal experience. While most exit that
stage without looking back, Gary Pieper has built a unique
collection in honor of the push mower, specifically, the REO
In his early teens, Gary (who now lives at Eagle, Wis.) was a
fledgling entrepreneur, repairing small engines and rebuilding lawn
mowers and snow-blowers. "I could turn repairs around faster than
most of the small shops around," he recalls. "In high school, most
guys were taking small engine repair because it was a prerequisite
for shop. But I took it so I could use the tools."
His dad quickly found that Gary could rebuild most push mowers
that had been relegated to the junk heap. A REO Flying Cloud,
however, was a fresh challenge. "My dad got it at an auction when I
was about 12," Gary says. "It was different; I'd never seen one
REO mowers were produced by a division of REO Motor Car Co.,
which was founded by Ransom Eli Olds of Oldsmobile fame. Olds
earlier founded the Olds Motor Works, home of the Oldsmobile, but
left that organization in 1904 to found REO Motor Car Co., parent
company of REO cars and trucks, in Lansing, Mich.
REO began producing mowers in 1946 with a 17-inch push-type
mower and 21-inch engine-powered reel-type mower. Clinton and
Briggs & Stratton engines were used until 1949, when the
company came out with its own engine, a cast-iron engine with the
cylinder head slanted 45 degrees. In a dramatic departure from most
other small engines, the REO's flywheel rotated
"That engine was originally designed for reel-type mowers," Gary
says, "where they needed to reduce the engine speed to accommodate
the reel-type mechanism." In a novel solution, the engineers opted
to take the power off the end of the camshaft. "They actually put a
decal on the flywheel so you'd know which way to wind the rope,"
Widely available at hardware stores and service stations, REO
mowers were a hit in the marketplace. By 1950 REO was said to be
the largest manufacturer of power mowers in the world, with annual
sales of nearly $10 million. In 1951, the company produced mower
number 500,000; production was about 1,000 units a day.
At the peak of the REO's success, storm clouds loomed on the
horizon. REO trailed the competition in making the move to
rotary-blade mowers, which were both cheaper to produce and easier
to use. When REO finally came out with an alternative to its
reel-type mower in 1953, the company made a major
"Rather than building an engine for its Flying Cloud rotary with
a vertical crankshaft, REO engineers added a separate vertical
shaft alongside the engine, driven off the camshaft, with a set of
bevel gears," writes Erv Troyer, LaGrange, Ind., in his history of
the REO mower. "This shaft was connected directly to the blade on
some models, while another model called the Flying Cloud used a
V-belt from this shaft to another jackshaft that drove the blade.
There were a number of problems with this design, but the worst
problem was with a thrust washer mounted on that vertical shaft in
the engine. In some engines, that washer would start rotating with
the shaft, and chew up the gear housing. That resulted in ground-up
metal entering the crankcase, and before the customer knew it, his
engine was shot."
The correction was simple, but the damage was done: The company
was forced to replace more than 5,000 engines still under
A year later, REO sold its mower division to the Motor Wheel
Corp., Lansing, Mich. In 1958, Motor Wheel ceased production of REO
engines for the mowers, opting instead to use Lauson engines
labeled "REO Raider." In 1963, Motor Wheel sold the entire line to
Wheel Horse Products in South Bend, Ind.
The mower that started Gary Pieper's REO collection holds a
dubious distinction. "That first REO my dad bought was one of the
first rotary mowers REO produced," Gary Pieper says, recalling a
dark era in REO's history, one in which engines were replaced in
more than 5,000 mowers. "It had the replacement warranty engine in
Gary's affection for REO mowers grew slowly, starting with the
Flying Cloud his father bought. "I started getting interested in
collecting the old cast iron, air-cooled engines in high school,"
Gary says. "When I was about 14, I saw a reel-type REO mower at an
auction, and I bought it for $2, and got a spare engine with it."
He joined his family on outings to threshing shows, and gradually
got more involved in the hobby. In college, he happened on to an
old lawn mower shop, where he found REO manuals and parts. Then
came swap meets, collector publications and a few great finds, like
a Trollabout motor, new in the box. "Some people think I'm a little
obsessed," he says. "But it's just an adult scavenger hunt."
It's more than the hunt, though. As an engineer with Husko
International, Gary's sold on the REO's unique and progressive
design. "All the belts and chains were shielded," he notes, "and
the REO was early with the single-hand control - both engine speed
and clutch." Initially, REOs were rope-start but the company
quickly added a recoil start. "It didn't work all that well," Gary
says, "and a lot of people replaced it with a rope start. There
were lots of improvised starting methods. But because the REO
engine turned backwards, you couldn't use just anything."
Today, REO mowers are increasingly hard to find. "The challenge
is to find good original stuff," he says. A top quality original is
his first choice, but Gary's built a stockpile of restoration
projects as well. He's been lucky to find choice memorabilia -
dealer signs, thermometers and promotional pieces - to complement
his collection of mowers. He counts a new-in-the-box mower and an
equally pristine motor among the prizes of his collection, but it's
clear he's crazy for all of it, no matter how rusty and battered.
"REOs are just unique!" he says.
For more information:
- Gary Pieper, (262) 594-2807; mow_with_REO@yahoo.com
Two great REO mower websites: Erv's REO Pages:
http://members.aol.com/reo43/ and Doug's REO Engine Site: