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REO’s 1932 Flying Cloud 6-21 Sport Sedan was a high-end, high-style independent

Hemmings logo Hemmings 8/15/2022 Jeff Koch

"Why can’t cars have names anymore?" we hear this rather more often than you’d think. Ever sit in traffic, look at the trunk lid of a car and try to decode the alphabet soup that appears there? Badges are combinations of letters and numbers that mean something—to the company that builds them and the staff who try to shift them out of America’s dealerships, and to the enthusiasts who keep track of the changes in that ever-shifting alphanumeric broth. What’s an XG350, an NX2000, or a 6000SUX? What does that mishmash of letters and numbers mean? What does it make you feel? Modern? Confused? In these contemporary technology-driven times, perhaps it makes you feel nothing. In an era of new-car-as-appliance, the car companies may well want it that way.

Names are visceral and easily identified. Animals, technology, geography, and dominance of the American highway have all been fertile targets for Detroit’s finest marketing minds. Mustang. Satellite. Bel Air. Roadmaster. You know what they are, and you know what they stand for.

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Alas, in our globalized world, with cars of all descriptions pouring in from across either ocean, letters and numbers are often less problematic than names. (Recall Ford’s early attempts to sell the Mustang in Germany, only to see it rebadged as the T-5 because another company held the trademark for the Mustang name for vehicles there until the late ’70s.) Recall the tired urban legend of the Chevy Nova that didn’t sell well in Spanish-speaking countries because "no va" means doesn’t go — no matter whether it’s true or not. When you’re a car company dependent on export, selling in a hundred lands speaking a hundred tongues, suddenly selling the EIEIO8000 makes a little more sense.

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So, it may come as a shock to recall that—in the infancy and teenage years of the automobile, before World War II and even before the Great Depression —names for cars were missing from Detroit’s mighty marketing agenda. This might be because, in many car lines, there was one basic model, easily enough identified by the brand name on the grille shell. Many used body style descriptors — Club Coupe, Phaeton, Sedan, Cabriolet, et al.—and quantities of passengers in lieu of names. Some used the number of cylinders under the hood —Six, Eight, 12, 16 —as a sort of shorthand to do the job of bragging for them. Some used words like DeLuxe, Superior, or Senior to indicate a degree of trim, but again these were often descriptive of a single chassis. And some simply used letters and numbers after the word "Model" to suggest identity within some sort of greater hierarchy, whether aspirational or chronological. Ford Model A. Buick Model 40.

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The changeover was quiet at first, and quite gradual. The original Jordan Playboy, arriving in the late teens, was a pioneer in this regard; the open roadster very much suited the carefree nature of its moniker—but it was an outlier, hardly a roaring success. Studebaker launched its President in 1926 and had committed to names fully by 1927, adding Commander and the unfortunately named Dictator to the lineup. And then there was the REO Flying Cloud. It wasn’t the first car to have a name, but it was certainly among the pioneers in this regard.

© Provided by Hemmings Although the Flying Cloud 6-21 Sport Sedan was one of REO’s more affordable cars, its interiors were as opulent as more expensive makes. © Provided by Hemmings Although the Flying Cloud 6-21 Sport Sedan was one of REO’s more affordable cars, its interiors were as opulent as more expensive makes.

REO was already familiar with issues surrounding naming convention. Founder Ransom E. Olds launched Oldsmobile in 1897 and left his successful outfit in 1905; he wanted to name his new endeavor the R.E. Olds Motor Car Company, but Olds Motor Works (parent company of Oldsmobile in those pre-GM times) threatened to sue. Ransom E. pivoted to using his initials, REO, and crisis was averted. REO models (pronounced as a single two-syllable word, rather than spelled out as the eponymous rock band does) were high-end cars, luxurious enough that only a handful needed to be built in order to keep the company ledger in the black. By 1907, the company grossed $4.5 million in sales, and in 1908, the year General Motors was formed with Oldsmobile as part of its starting lineup, REO outsold Oldsmobile four to one. REO was regularly in the top eight of American automobile sales in the company’s first decade, as high as third overall in 1907. Ransom E. handed the day-to-day operations and general manager title to Richard H. Scott, and in 1923 he resigned the company’s presidency, though he retained his position as chairman of the board. REO remained in the black clear through 1925.

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Seeing the democratization of the automobile unfold, watching the transition from rich man’s plaything to necessary tool, and wishing to put more cars in more hands (and make more money in the process), Scott decided to diversify and expand REO’s lineup to be more competitive. The result was the 1927 REO Flying Cloud. Never mind about the car itself for the moment—what a name! A beguiling combination of speed and smoothness, much like air travel, which was then starting to make some sense as a commercial proposition. But who needed an airplane when you had a Flying Cloud to handle all of your comfort-at-high-velocity needs? To the average Joe who didn’t pay attention to cars, taking a ride on or in a Flying Cloud sounded a lot more appealing than climbing aboard a DeLuxe Four-Door Sedan or a Five-Passenger Model X. Yes, it was styled by Fabio Segardi, who had done work for Hudson, Olds, and Willys here, as well as Fiat and deDion-Bouton in Europe. Yes, it was the first car to run Lockheed’s newly developed internally expanding four-wheel drum brakes, for far surer stopping. So what? The name evoked dreams of swift, painless travel.

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The gambit worked. With the Flying Cloud starting at $1,595, in a day when a Model T Ford cost $260, REO broke its previous sales records and banked a healthy $67 million in the process. It worked so well that REO quickly developed an even lower-line Flying Cloud; the original was now the Flying Cloud Master, with the junior model dubbed Flying Cloud Mate. The company’s profits for 1928, when it sold 29,000 cars, nearly matched record 1927 numbers. The Flying Cloud was restyled in late 1930, with style duties handled by Segardi and touted as having "Royale styling," named for REO’s new high-end luxury Royale launched earlier that year. The grille introduced a gentle V-shape. The roof featured rounded corners, rather than a sun visor jutting out over the windscreen, and the car’s distinctive front fenders rolled forward to cover more of the tire. Combined, these traits suggested a certain attention to aerodynamics and the silence that naturally followed. The smoother airflow was a quality perfectly in keeping with a car calling itself Flying Cloud. (Much of this attention came at the behest of Murray Body

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Corporation talent Amos Northup, who had also done work with Wills Saint Claire, Willys-Overland, Willys-Knight, Graham-Paige, and other independent car companies with more than one name.) This attention to aerodynamic detail would also benefit fuel mileage and shave down running costs —at least, according to the brochure.

Our featured REO’s © Provided by Hemmings Our featured REO’s

The Flying Cloud’s 268-cu.-in., seven-main-bearing L-head six put out 85 horsepower and featured full pressure engine lubrication for smoothness, silence, and durability. The three-speed transmission featured a gear known as "silent Second," which used "herringbone" cogs to eliminate all-too-common (and much-complained-about) second-gear whine in town. Pricing for 1930 now started at $1,195; by 1932, the year our featured Sport Sedan was produced, pricing dropped to $1,110.

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Unlike car companies that launched junior models only to see their good names get diluted (we’re looking at you, Packard), REO’s two-model 6-21 series continued to do fairly well—it was the high-zoot Royale, launched as a $2,700 car just as the Depression was ramping up, which sucked up all of the company’s profits and resources. Between the restyled Flying Cloud, the Royale, eight-cylinder engines, developing a Self-Shifter transmission that would bow in 1933, and other factors, REO consistently lost money from 1930 onwards and was $11.2 million in the red in the five years (combined) from 1930-’34. If REO was planning on riding out the Depression, which seemed like only a momentary financial hiccup at first, they were wrong. Output never topped 5,000 units a year after 1931; this Flying Cloud Sport Sedan was one of just 3,900 REOs built for the year. After 1936 the company turned exclusively to heavy truck production, and even then it limped along until WWII demanded the factory contribute to the effort.

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Jamie Longtin of both Benson, Vermont, and Sun City West, Arizona, has owned this example since 2019. Prior to his stewardship, this Flying Cloud was restored in the late 1990s, and has won the AACA Grand National Senior Award a total of 16 times. It has traveled less than 2,000 miles since its restoration and now spends its time in Arizona exclusively. And instead of deciphering a stick-on badge that looks like a Scrabble bag let loose, Jamie now gets to explain to car-show attendees what a Flying Cloud is instead.

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