The winters are hard in Michigan.
On one typically icy day in 1953, Don Parkes was taking his family out for a drive in his REO Flying Cloud Coupe, all five of them crammed on to the car’s single bench seat.
His son, Al, was barely a toddler, and remembers nothing of the car sliding off the road and into a ditch, an accident that left the REO, he says now, “pretty badly smashed up”.
But, a few years later, he does remember using the beaten up old car as a playground prop, running up the fenders, grabbing a rope hanging from the beams of a barn, and jumping into the hay with his older brother and sister.
The old brown REO
And he remembers “the old brown REO” tagging along wherever the family moved, despite his father never having the time or inclination to get it back on the road.
Finally, in his early 20s, Al took on the car himself, spending thousands of dollars he could barely afford on a protracted restoration before a globe-trotting career in the restaurant trade saw the car consigned to various lock-up garages across the USA.
Now, 72 years after his father bought the striking coupe, it’s undergone a second rebuild, this time a restomod transformation, and has followed Al nearly 4,000 miles from his Michigan roots to the seaside town of Herne Bay on the north Kent coast.
The REO has been a constant in Al’s life from the moment he was born in Ann Arbor, deep in the USA’s automobile heartlands, in December 1951.
It was manufactured in Lansing, an hour to the north west, while the motor city itself, Detroit, lies just a few miles east.
To Al, the REO is far more than just a car; it encapsulates memories of his late father, a carefree childhood, and his growth from boy to man.
“Very few people can say this,” he says. “That car has been with me my whole life. I’ve never been around when that car was not in the family.
“It’s part and parcel of my concept of who I am and my place in the world.
“Proud to have kept it alive”
“In one respect I’m just proud to have kept it alive. It came really close to the scrapyard after my father ran it into a ditch, and several times he thought ‘I need to get rid of this car’, because it was a burden hauling it around wherever we moved.
“I had the same thing. Shortly after I got it restored the first time it really killed my finances. I was trying to establish myself in a house and this car was a burden – I was paying storage fees and getting hardly any use out of it.
“I actually did take it to an auction once, but with a high reserve. The bidding got really close to that, but I thought ‘if you release the car now you will be paying someone to take it off your hands’, because of what it had cost me to restore.
“Fortunately, my dad and myself made it through these hard times when money was tight and the car was a burden.
“For better or worse, I was married to it and we didn’t divorce.”
It all began back in 1948.
Don had returned from the war, where he came close to losing an arm from a shrapnel wound sustained at the Battle of the Bulge, and took up a job with a mechanical engineering firm having completed an engineering degree at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
He got married, put a downpayment on a house in nearby Oxford, and bought a brand new Buick.
“Something older, and simpler”
Al says his father was living beyond his means, hence the need to replace the Buick with something older, and simpler.
“One day, he spotted a young fellow in town driving an old 1934 REO which he had purchased from an estate sale from a doctor who had recently passed away,” he says.
“Dad had always liked the REO brand. They had a solid reputation and were bargains since the company had ceased producing cars at the end of 1936. He offered the Buick and remaining payments due on it for the REO and the deal was made.”
On this side of the Atlantic, the REO brand is little known, unless you’ve made the connection between the American band REO Speedwagon and the actual REO Speed Wagon, one of the most popular pre-war commercial vehicles in the States and an ancestor of the modern pick-up truck.
REO (pronounced as a word), is an acronym of Ransom Eli Olds, who formed the company in 1905 after splitting from his own Olds Motor Company, maker of the Oldsmobile.
Named after the famously fast clipper ship, the Flying Cloud was produced from 1927 to 1936, when the company ceased production of cars to concentrate on trucks, just one more victim of the Great Depression.
The Depression hit
“They were doing really well, but they had decided to go upscale and started to produce some very classy, and expensive, cars,” says Al. “When the Depression hit no-one was buying expensive cars, and very few people were buying inexpensive ones.”
The model Don bought was a Deluxe Coupe, which included what Americans call a rumble seat, a dickey seat over here.
One of just 170 examples built in 1934, the coupe featured bold styling, a 268 cu in engine producing 85hp and a revolutionary Lockheed hydraulic internal expanding brake system.
Bedford cord upholstery lent an upmarket feel to the interior.
When Al came along in 1951, in truth the single bench seat was no longer adequate for a growing family.
“The car is really a two-seater, but with us three kids it became a five-seater,” he says. “One sat on my mother’s lap, one was wedged between my mum and dad, and the other one, probably me, either sat on one of the other kids’ laps or on the ledge that goes behind the seat to the back window.
“My sister remembers me being on there. We did have the dickey seat, but in Michigan it was usually too cold!”
Following the accident, the car was laid up for a number of years.
“Instead of junking the car, my father kept it and bought another, larger vehicle,” says Al, now 68. “Wherever we moved, this old beat up REO would be with us. We lived on a farm once, with 100 acres of fields, and it was stored in a barn.
A kids’ plaything
“He rented out of the rest of the barn to a farmer who stored his hay in it. For us kids, it was great.
“We would run up the running boards and fenders, trying to avoid the big bullet-shaped headlamps, grab a rope hanging from the rafters and propel ourselves into the hay pile.
“The old car took it all in its stride, including the dozens of pigeons living in the barn using it for target practice. There was pigeon poop all over it.
“The interior, however, was starting to decay, just from age.”
When the family moved back to urban Ann Arbor, however, the car began to more rapidly deteriorate.
“It just sat out in the elements, languishing alongside the garage facing the back alley,” says Al. “Some guy offered my father $1,000 in the ‘60s, which was fairly significant money back then, so he did realise it had got a little bit of value in it. He turned it down but still left it sitting there.”
There it remained until 1974, when Al decided that this old car that had around his whole life deserved better than to rot away in an alley.
He enlisted help to push the REO into the back yard, filled the tank with fresh fuel, fitted new spark plugs and a new 6-volt battery, and cranked the engine over.
“I was ecstatic”
“Lo and behold, it started up, engulfing the yard in a massive cloud of white smoke,” he says. “I didn’t care, I was ecstatic as I was never old enough to remember hearing it running.”
Having joined the management training programme at McDonald’s, Al was feeling flush enough to embark on a full restoration, finding a local garage to carry out the work.
After taking a look, they quoted him a price of $1,700, and he says: “With an accumulating bank balance, I thought ‘let’s go for it’.”
“At that time, dad just signed the title over to me as I was footing the bill on all the work,” he remembers.
But, as anyone who has restored a car will know, things rarely run smoothly, and unexpected problems are the norm rather than the exception.
“As things do, the restoration time and cost ballooned,” says Al. “Two or three years later I had already put in about $7,000 and was getting really frustrated, so I took the car out not quite finished.
“About two or three weeks later that firm burned to the ground. My ongoing payments were probably keeping them alive as long as they did.”
The REO was finished at another garage, its brown paintwork (which had originally been jade green) replaced by a then fashionable peanut butter yellow and black.
The REO and Ronald McDonald
Al was moving through the ranks at McDonald’s, and the car was pressed into service as a carriage for Ronald McDonald himself.
“I was asked if I could drive it in a parade with Ronald McDonald riding on the rumble seat,” he says. “I was driving and there was Ronald waving on the back seat.
“We had finished one of these parades, pulled off to the side out of sight and Ronald came round the back of the car and lit a cigarette – that’s not something you see every day!”
The car was used at weekends and on sunny days, but was soon consigned to the first of several lock up garages as Al’s burgeoning career took him all over the world.
He left McDonald’s to work for the growing Mexican chain Chi-Chi’s, first as a store manager in the US and then in charge of all new store openings.
The job brought him to England, as well as Indonesia, Luxembourg, Kuwait, Germany and Belgium.
While in England, he met a British woman, Jan, who became his wife in 1995, the couple eventually moving back to the States, where Al managed an Outback Steakhouse in Arizona before helping to run 20 Burger King branches in Atlanta, Georgia.
Wherever they went, the REO went with them, but it wasn’t until 2011 that Al decided to give the car a new lease of life.
“I brought it into the garage and started tinkering around with it, and suddenly realised I had another restoration on my hands,” he says, the car having deteriorated from years of inactivity.
Nut and bolt rebuild
“I thought maybe I should do this properly, from the ground up, so with help from a friend of mine, who was a mechanic, we took it right down to the chassis.”
With news from England that Jan’s mother was suffering from dementia, the couple decided to move to the UK to be with her, and of course the car came too.
As soon as the move to Kent was mooted, Al decided on some radical changes to the REO’s mechanicals.
“Having worked in England, I knew all about the roads and the roundabouts, so I decided to make it more roadworthy,” he says.
Out went the original, sluggish 85hp engine, replaced by a bespoke “stroker” unit, an old General Motors 350cu in V8 rebored and with an increased stroke to create an effective 383cu in, or 6.3-litres.
Now with an estimated 425bhp on tap, the brakes were upgraded to discs all round, independent wishbone suspension replaced the leaf springs, the original cam and lever steering was replaced by a rack and pinion system, and the electrics were upgraded to 12-volts.
The restoration began in the States, where the engine and transmission were fitted, and the bodyshell was given another colour change, this time to a metallic Buick mocha bronze with metallic slate grey wings.
“Strong lines and big curves”
“I fell in love with the colour, which was being used on new Buicks,” says Al. “I felt that a solid colour exaggerates its gawkiness, whereas this softens its very strong lines and big curves, and complements the character of the car.”
But, with Jan’s mother’s condition deteriorating, the move to the UK was accelerated and the REO was shipped over as a rolling chassis in 2013.
Jan was more than happy for the old car to follow them across the Pond, but was less overjoyed with the unintended consequences.
“Part of the deal was that we take the REO with us,” says Al. “She said OK, but she didn’t realise that the car would take up half of the shipping container, and she was not too happy when I started selling off all the furniture to make space.
“I said to her ‘the car’s been with us forever – we can always get new furniture’, plus the houses are smaller here and it would not all fit in.
“We held a large yard sale and put almost everything we owned up for sale.
“She drew the line at getting rid of a doll’s house her father made for her, which ended up coming over inside the car.”
Once in the UK, the restoration was completed in Bedfordshire at Buckland Automotive, which specialises in classic cars, especially hot rods, and undertook work on the steering, brakes, electrics, and suspension.
Inside, the car is little changed, other than vinyl upholstery replacing the original Bedford cord, a new gear shift for the automatic gearbox, and the addition of an indicator stalk, which operates bulbs hidden inside the head and tail-lamps.
So how does driving the car now, with that burbling V8 under the bonnet, compare to when it left the factory in 1934?
“It drives great,” says Al. “It’s been on the M25 half a dozen times now, and I tend to keep it at a steady 60mph, sometimes passing the lorries.
“A couple of times I’ve floored it; it will scream and sit down a little bit and really shoot out. It’s got a dual exhaust, which is not original but helps with exhaust flow, and it’s got a nice good rumble to it.”
Given that Al’s Flying Cloud is the only REO registered in the UK – he believes there’s a truck in Ireland – it’s not surprising that it attracts plenty of attention on the road.
“It’s highly unusual,” he says. “I’ve been to a dozen car meets and no-one’s ever heard of it. A few people have asked if it’s an old Rolls-Royce.
“On a nice Sunday we take it to the seafront and have an ice cream. The old folks and young kids love it. Kids will point out ‘look at that car’, and the old folks will give me a thumbs up.
“On the M25 we get a lot of people passing us and the guy in the passenger seat will be snapping pictures at us or giving us a thumbs up.
“On the way to Beaulieu for the American classic car show, we stopped at our son’s place overnight. He lives in a row house, so we were parked on the street. Someone took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram, and it got 25,000 likes.”
And son Paul, a motoring journalist who worked on the BBC’s Top Gear, will one day take on the responsibility of keeping the REO alive for another generation.
Stay in the family
“As far as its future goes, I’m not concerned,” says Al. “It will be very easy for me to pass down to him, and I’m sure it will stay in the family for another generation.
“He appreciates it and he will not sell it. He has a 1978 Daimler and a 1969 Morris Minor, and has owned his Dutton for nearly 30 years, so he also likes to hold on to his cars.”
The Flying Cloud has spent more of its life in lock-ups garages, barns or alleyways than it has on the road, and Al describes its mere existence today as a triumph of “perseverance, more than a stroke of great insight or genius”, both for him and his father, who passed away four years ago.
“It’s a story of patience and putting up with it until you can get to the point where it’s done, it looks good, it’s driveable, and you can enjoy it,” he says.
“It’s cost a lot of money, but it’s now at a point where it’s probably nearly worth what I’ve spent on it.”
But all the money spent pales compared to the satisfaction of keeping his late father’s car alive, and getting it back on the road, looking better than ever.
“The car brings up as much memory of him as anything else,” says Al, who works part time at the Strode Park Foundation, which supports children and adults with disabilities, in Kent.
“I wish I had thought of more questions to ask him about the history of the car while he was alive. Several things about the car are a little quirky, and I was never able to ask him about them.”
There’s little doubt that Don would be proud of his son for keeping alive this rare slice of American motoring history, not to mention Parkes family history.
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