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 lawn mower.
In his early teens, Gary (who now lives at Eagle, WI) 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 like it.”
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 counter-clockwise.
“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,” Gary says.
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 miscalculation.
“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 warranty.
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 it.”
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. FC