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It’s 1973, and Al Parkes has decided it’s time.
For too long his father’s old Reo Flying Cloud has served as little but a brooding hunk of metal beside the family’s suburban home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He has petrol, spark plugs and enthusiasm – but it hasn’t run since before he was old enough to remember.
At this time Parkes is in his early 20s and life already has many ingredients of the American Dream.
He has ditched university for a career with McDonald’s, feet on the first rungs of a corporate ladder but heart set on owning one of the hot rod-era V8s that regularly shake the drive-through window.
His father, Don, is an engineer and there’s barely any distance between apple and tree when it comes to things mechanical.
The Reo’s straight-six coughs on its first taste of gasoline in more than two decades.
The last time it moved without the help of a tow was in the moments before Don was forced off the road into a ditch in ’53.
The front bumper was buckled and the wing bent – and with a growing family, a replacement vehicle with more seats was an easier prospect than repair.
And so the Reo sat, disturbed from its slumber only when the Parkes family moved home.
Like a stray dog it followed from garage to barn to driveway, including the one upon which it now sits rocking rhythmically to the tune of its tired starter motor.
Another cough. A longer splutter. Then it fires – filling the neighbourhood with thick white smoke, and Parkes’ head with dreams of a full restoration.
It was the beginning of a journey with the Flying Cloud that would go on to last most of a lifetime.
This Reo has been part of the Parkes family for longer than its owner – 71 years and counting – so he has lived a full spectrum of experiences with the coupe, from unexpected child’s toy to retirement plaything.
“My first memory of the car is in the family barn when I was about five years old,” he smiles. “We used to run up the fenders and leap off into bales of hay, hoping to avoid bruising from those great big chrome headlamps.”
At that time the ‘Old Brown Reo’, as it came to be known, was probably only about 20 years old, but such was the pace of car design in those days it already felt like a relic.
Living so close to Detroit, the streets were always full of the latest models and even though Parkes’ father was rarely in the market for new metal, he would frequently chop and change from used car lots.
Somehow the Reo lingered, in stasis between jalopy and classic.
“The first time we saw any value in it was in the early ’60s, when a guy walked past the house and offered my dad $1000 for it,” Parkes recalls. “I never thought to ask him why he said no; he worked six days a week and any time left was given to his hobby, flying planes.”
The car’s value – sentimental, at least – was creeping up.
Don had owned the Reo for only a few years before the accident, having traded down from a 1948 Buick with onerous finance repayments.
It had been well kept in the hands of a local doctor and perhaps he felt it too good to scrap, or that someone else would reap the benefit after an easy repair.
Either way, there was never an active decision to keep it, but equally no desire to let it go. Instead it waited for familiarity to mature into nostalgia, and for that moment in 1973 when Parkes would crank it over.
A few years after that white smoke engulfed the family driveway, the Reo was sent to a local mechanic to make it roadworthy.
Parkes would divert a portion of his restaurant salary each month, and in return the garage worked through the faults left by years of inactivity.
Michigan, despite the extreme winters, was fairly kind to the car – there might have been snow, but the climate was dry enough overall to hold back serious corrosion.
The wooden planks that make up the cab floor and timber in the doors and roof were rot-free, but rust had attacked some of the metal, so the car was stripped back to the chassis for what was to become its first rebuild.
Evenings, meanwhile, were spent delving into the past.
Parkes knew little about the marque besides a pop culture reference provided by the band R.E.O. Speedwagon and that its founder – Ransom Eli Olds – was also responsible for the firm that became Oldsmobile.
He discovered that Reo emerged in 1904 after a boardroom dispute spurred Mr Olds to leave and start a rival business.
The cars were of good quality and soon outsold those of his former factory, but it was trucks that would make Reo a household name (that, and the 40 million records sold by the musicians who assumed their moniker).
Further digging revealed that Parkes’ car was one of 170 Deluxe Coupe models built in 1934 and sold via a showroom in downtown Detroit.
These differed from the more common Business Coupes by offering a rear rumble seat, which folded out from where the boot would have been to provide open-air transport for occasional passengers.
A roll-down rear window prevented those in the back feeling like luggage, but Parkes’ siblings nevertheless recount stories of travelling inside the cab on the rear parcel shelf instead.
Optional shatterproof glass was selected by the first owner, along with a semi-automatic ‘Self-Shifter’ two-speed gearbox (a rumoured $2m technical development at the time that would help threaten Reo with bankruptcy).
This featured a T-shaped handle under the dashboard that allowed the driver to move between ratios without using the clutch – the pedal being deployed only to encourage the car off the line.
This, along with the other mechanicals, was nursed back to life as part of the refurb.
The bodywork was repaired and fresh paint applied (albeit in an unsuitably fashionable shade of mustard over brown).
“During the works they took the cab and wings back to bare metal,” says Parkes. “I remember seeing shiny patches where lead-loading had been carried out by the factory in the ’30s. It really made me think of the hours of craftsmanship that went into that shape.”
It is a work of art. Sculpted lines flow from the cab roof down the edges of the bonnet, merging into each other before reappearing to form a wrinkled nose above the grille.
A dozen crafted vents – opened and closed individually with little chrome handles – helped the original 268cu in flathead ‘six’ stay cool on warmer days, while the long rear end is resolved with a swooping curve that tucks behind the chrome bumper.
Ransom E Olds might have beaten Henry Ford to the production line (true story), but his workers clearly were not in a rush.
The restoration was hardly hasty, either. The garage chipped away between other jobs and as Parkes progressed towards management, the car inched closer to roadworthiness.
By the time it rolled refreshed on to the Ann Arbor asphalt, long hours at work allowed Parkes time for few miles – occasional local events (including a town parade with Ronald McDonald waving from the rumble seat) were all the Reo would achieve.
Fate, it seemed, was conspiring to return the Flying Cloud to the storage it had only recently escaped
It was bounced between garages and lock-ups while Parkes’ career took him further afield, until a new job meant a move overseas.
The car was sent back to the custody of his father in the ’90s, where, besides occasionally taxing his engineering skills to bring more reliability or remanufacture obsolete fittings (such as a cast for a missing step to aid access to the rumble seat), it was simply kept warm and dry.
It would be more than 10 years before Parkes returned to the US and retrieved the Reo.
The rebuild was by then older than some modern classics and the work was showing its age.
Infrequent use over the years that followed meant sticking brake cylinders or perished fuel pumps, and the short ratios of the Self-Shifter gearbox made longer trips almost unbearable.
Memorably, the car gained a reputation in one of its home towns for featuring in – but never once completing – the annual 4th of July Parade.
A dilemma was fighting its way to the front of Parkes’ mind. What was the purpose of the Reo, besides static family treasure?
What fate would befall the car if its only function was to demand cheques be written for storage? Thoughts turned to adjustments that favoured usability.
“This decision took nearly a decade,” he admits, shuffling in his chair. “Keep it original or make it turnkey reliable for the family to use. It was a conversation that spanned three generations.”
In six decades, the Reo averaged less than one journey per year, yet those years added up to a lifetime of reasons why the car would never be sold.
The true value of this car lay in its ability to be an active part of Parkes family life and, to an extent, the creative engineering talent of Al’s father had already started the car on a journey away from pure originality to achieve this.
In 2012, just ahead of Parkes’ retirement and move with his British wife to the UK, it was decided that a further sympathetic refresh would begin, carried out on both sides of the Atlantic and preserving original character where possible.
Stand in front of the car now and only a handful of details – twin exhausts, fat tyres and ride height – give away the effort; otherwise the Reo is very close to the factory aesthetic.
The original colour was green, but Parkes chose an autumnal two-tone faithful to the ‘Old Brown Reo’ family memory.
The interior was professionally retrimmed in a paler shade, but the dashboard still reflects its ’30s heritage and all of the dials and fittings have been restored.
Father Don even fashioned a replacement window winder for that rear ’screen.
Things get a little less conventional under the skin.
The second rebuild included chassis mods for rack-and-pinion steering, double-wishbone front suspension and disc brakes – much of the work by Adrian Smith at Buckland Automotive.
Before leaving the US, Parkes sourced a rebuilt Chevy V8 and Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed ’box, which was slotted into the blasted and repainted chassis along with a rodders’ favourite Ford rear end. That sturdy wooden floor was, remarkably, still good for another 60 years.
“The V8 was tuned by the shop in Texas,” says Parkes, “at around 400bhp it’s overkill, but the car drives really well.”
It sounds magnificent, too: those twin pipes are burdened only by a pair of straight-through silencers, so almost every crackle is audible when asking for more power.
The Reo will cruise happily at 70mph – an incongruous sight in motorway traffic, with that long, Deco-style bonnet reaching ahead of you and reflections of much more modern metal dancing over the chrome headlamps.
It’s a controversial package.
The Reo Club of America counts only four 1934 Flying Cloud coupes in the world, so you’d have to travel some distance to find another.
Whether you wince or applaud the modifications depends on which era of US automotive history you most identify with – that of the birth years early in the previous century, or the hot rods of the American Graffiti cultural age.
Being rebuilt with parts correct to the latter period, and not completely beyond the point of no return, this Reo is a blend of both.
But to Parkes this is of little consequence, because his car will never test the market.
His duty as family custodian is to prepare the Flying Cloud for the next chapter.
As he stands on his own driveway, this time as the parent with his own sons, at least he knows when they turn the key that the Old Brown Reo will start.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to Dreamland Margate