M35: A “Deuce” of a Truck!

With service spanning decades, it’s legendary

by Steve Turchet

During the post-WWII years, Reo entered into a competition between Reo, Studebaker, and General Motors to design a new 2-1/2 ton tactical truck to replace the U.S. military’s fleet of GMC CCKWs, I.H.C. M-5-6s, and Studebaker US6s. General Motors wanted to hang on to the deuce-and-a-half market, and even though the military seemed to favor Reo’s design—first called the M34 (shown here), then the M44 Series. While both the Reo and G.M. trucks were accepted for production, the Reo M35 and its six-wheeled variant, the M34 (shown here), with its more powerful Reo Gold Comet 331 cid. engine and five-speed manual transmission, proved to be more durable and dependable, probably due to its relative simplicity, and went on to become one the most successful military vehicles in the world.

 

My dad, who was in the Marines during WWII and the Korean War, gave me two pieces of advice about being in the military: One, never volunteer, and two, never volunteer. He also warned me about the hazards of preconceived duties: For example, if someone was a master chef, the Army would probably train him to be a truck driver. Since I had always loved jeeps and trucks, he seemed to think it was likely that I would be a cook.

In the late 1960s with the Vietnam War growing grimmer every week, it was very likely that any healthy 18-year-old who didn’t have money for college would be drafted. If so, and according to my dad, that kid would have little choice about a specialty. Therefore, my decision to join up had nothing to do with serving in a war that even my father didn’t believe in.

Those who did serve in the U.S. military during those times—whether willingly or not—may recall hours of aptitude tests followed by a five-minute interview with a bored officer who decided your specialty—and possibly your fate. This decision was supposedly based on your aptitudes, but was more likely influenced by whatever your particular branch of the service needed in the way of warm bodies that day.

After listening with one ear to what I liked to do, was good at doing, and hoped to do by way of serving my country—including my tale of driving a genuine U.S. Army truck (see “M211, The Cadillac Deuce,” MVM #187 )—he glanced at my test results before he said I was “too smart to be a truck driver.” He did think, however, I might be useful with tanks. He added that while I could ask for duty in transport, I would probably be rejected and end up chasing Charlie through the boonies.

This didn’t make any sense to me… if I was “too smart” to drive a truck then why would the government waste my brainpower? But one doesn’t ask those kinds of questions in basic training or boot camp.

I suppose some gung-ho (or oo-rah) type might say that I cheated Uncle Sam out of what may have been a reasonably good tank-jockey, but I did so in innocence by forgetting once—and only once—my father’s advice.

Even though Reo had designed one of the best military trucks ever made, the U.S. government awarded contracts to many other companies to build it. The first of these was Studebaker, which had to buy engines from Reo. Insult was added to injury when the engine contact was awarded to Continental—Reo being forced to license their design.

 

We were out on an exercise and a Reo M35—an old gasoline-powered unit—wouldn’t start. Nobody who was “qualified” could charm the beast into life. I stupidly said to a buddy, “The engine was flooded and any dumb donkey with a nose would know it!” Our sergeant overheard my remark, gave me a look that would peel paint, and said, “FIX IT!”

I not only fixed it. I drove the truck… which is how I became a hero.

There have probably always been historical military vehicle hobbyists, and some folks in ancient Egypt bought old war chariots at Pharaoh’s surplus sales. Jumping ahead a few thousand years, there were HMV enthusiasts who purchased Liberty, Nash Quad, F.W.D. trucks, and other military vehicles after the end of WWI. While such vehicles were also bought for actual work, most gradually succumbed to old age and were eventually sold for junk. Then came the massive scrap-metal drives of WWII when most old machinery from locomotives to apple peelers was melted down to make new war machines.

After WWII, the majority of vets who had frozen in jeeps and/or busted their butts on the hard, wooden benches of CCKW’s, wanted nothing to do with military vehicles, though thousands were purchased for work. For example, up into the mid 1960s, a local cement company ran a fleet of WWII International M-5-6s outfitted as mixers.

It was during this time that the U.S. public began to grow aware of recreational four-wheeling. Besides Willys Motors (later, Kaiser) civilian Jeeps, trucks and station wagons, other U.S. automakers got into the 4×4 game with offerings such as the Ford Bronco, the Chevrolet Blazer, the Dodge Ram, and the I.H.C. Scout. And, while there had always been a few individuals who drove British Land Rovers, Japan now peacefully invaded with the Nissan Patrol and Toyota Land Cruiser.

There was also a growing interest in historical  military vehicles, most of which were WWII- and Korean War-era Jeeps, such as the Willys MB, Ford GPW, Willys M38, and M38A1. Dodge WC 3/4-ton trucks (“WC” does not stand for weapons carrier) were also popular. And even though they were sill in active military service, people were beginning to discover the excellent Dodge M37 3/4-ton truck.

Of course, these are only my observations based on what was happening in my own region, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that I discovered there was a Military Vehicle Collectors Club (now the Military Vehicle Preservation Association). Again, based upon my observations, most hobbyist HMVs were small in 1950s and 1960s with the majority being jeeps.

Larger vehicles, such as the the Chevrolet G-506, Dodge WC-62 and WC-63 1-1/2-tonners, and “deuce-and-a-halfs,” like the venerable GMC CCKW, International M-5-6, and Studebaker US-6, were mostly still earning their oats as work trucks. The same applied to these trucks’ larger brothers, such as the Autocar U7144T, which were expensive gas-hogs, even in the days of 25-cents-a-gallon gas. These big boys of WWII were usually found moving houses or hauling rocks in quarries.

While a few post-WWII deuces, such as the GMC M211 and Reo M35 were starting to show up in fire and forestry departments, they hadn’t as yet—at least in my area—become widely popular with HMV hobbyists. Likewise, the monster truck market buying these deuces (usually the Reo M35) mainly for their axles, was still a decade away.

The historical military vehicle hobby is dynamic, reflecting the diversity and ever-changing interests of its members; and it seems as if deuces, especially M35 style deuces, have become one of the more popular MVs. This is probably due to the sheer numbers of these trucks available, many going for less than the price of good but unrestored jeeps. Even with today’s fuel prices, there seems to be a growing feeling that one can get more bang for their HMV bucks with a deuce.

As with jeeps, it’s impossible to write a truly comprehensive article about the M35 in the space of a few magazine pages.  But, while many articles have been written about individual M35s, their many variants, restorations, service, maintenance, and modifications, let’s take a general look at these trucks, beginning with a brief history of the company that first designed and built them.

The Reo M35 was part of the new postwar family of tactical vehicles, commonly called M-series, and which, due to the lessons of WWII, were standardized in many ways, such as sharing many components, such as lights, generators, and dashboard instruments.

 

A LOOK BACK

In 1897, a gentleman named Ransom Eli Olds founded the Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan,  though his first factory was built in Detroit. Olds’ engineers designed eleven automobiles, including several electric models. One vehicle was a small, open, buckboard-type car with a single-cylinder, water-cooled, four-cycle, rear-mounted engine. This car also had a distinctive curved dashboard (“dashboards” in those days were for preventing the splash—or “dash”—of mud and water from soaking the driver and passengers). This car was nicknamed the “curved dash Olds.” And while popular at the factory, it was not a big seller with the public—at first.

In March 1901, a fire destroyed most of the factory, and the only surviving vehicles were the little curved dash models. Ransom Olds rebuilt the plant and poured all his remaining resources into the curved dash vehicles, thereby committing his company to the production of a small and fairly inexpensive car. The curved dash Olds soon became popular with the public, and inspired the hit song, “Merry Oldsmobile.

In 1904, Ransom E. Olds became involved in a dispute with investors and quit to start a new car factory in Lansing, Michigan. Because the name Oldsmobile belonged to the Oldsmobile Company, Ransom used his initials, R.E.O., as a trademark for his new vehicles and the Reo Motor Car Company. The name was pronounced “Reo,” as in Rio Grande, though the letters varied over the years, sometimes all capitals, others with only the R capitalized. Incidentally, the 1970s rock band, R.E.O. Speedwagon, named after a very popular Reo truck of the early to mid-1900s, was pronounced “R-E-O.”

Like most new companies, Reo struggled at first. In 1905, only 864 cars were built compared to Oldsmobile’s 6,500. But, in 1908, Reo sold 4,105 vehicles compared to Oldsmobile’s 1,055. Later that year, Oldsmobile was acquired by William Durrant and became part of Durrant’s new General Motors empire.

Reo did well during the 1920s, branching into the truck market for which it became the most famous. The company name was tainted later by possible affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan, which was rumored to virtually run the factory. There is some evidence that Ransom Olds supported Klan leaders, possibly to quell labor disputes, one of whom was presented with a Reo automobile by “men of the KKK.”

In any case, like most U.S. companies, Reo was hard hit by the Great Depression and stopped building cars in 1936, focusing on truck production instead. A year or so later, following a strike at the plant, Reo declared bankruptcy but was rescued in 1939 by a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan and a government contract to produce trucks. WWII brought new prosperity to Reo in the form of more defense contracts, though Reo built mostly non-tactical vehicles. Reo also produced proximity fuses for 40mm anti-aircraft shells.

After WWII, Reo built many trucks for Lend-Lease, most of which went to Turkey, Pakistan, and middle-eastern countries, where many can still be found today. One interesting military contract was for a hundred trucks that used high-frequency electric motors to drive the wheels, incorporating a six-cylinder gasoline engine to power a generator.

It was also during these post-WWII years that Reo entered into what was basically a competition between Reo, Studebaker, and General Motors to design a new 2-1/2 ton tactical truck to replace the U.S. military’s fleet of GMC CCKWs, I.H.C. M-5-6s, and Studebaker US6s. As mentioned in “M211, The Cadillac Deuce” (MVM #187), General Motors wanted to hang on to the deuce-and-a-half market, and even though the military seemed to favor Reo’s design—first called the M34, then the M44 Series—G.M. poured lots of its own money into updating its excellent CCKW. This new truck became the M211 and its many variants.

The M211, though more sophisticated in many ways than Reo’s concept—including an automatic transmission, may have been ahead of its time and was somewhat problematic. While both the Reo and G.M. trucks were accepted for production, the Reo M35, with its more powerful Reo Gold Comet 331 cid. engine and five-speed manual transmission, proved to be more durable and dependable, probably due to its relative simplicity, and went on to become one the most successful military vehicles in the world. The M35, in all of its forms, is still serving worldwide today, while production of the GMC M211 ceased in 1957 (though the existing trucks continued to serve into the 1970s).

Ironically, Reo’s fortunes steadily declined during the 1950s. Even though Reo had designed one of the best military trucks ever made, the U.S. government awarded contracts to many other companies to build it. The first of these was Studebaker, which had to buy engines from Reo. Insult was added to injury when the engine contact was awarded to Continental—Reo being forced to license their design—becoming the COA-331, and by the mid-1970s, Reo was out of the M-series deuce game. Over the years, the M35 series, or G-742 family, was built by no less than ten companies, including Studebaker, Kaiser Jeep, Curtiss-Wright, and AM General.

The illustration in this ad may have been a bit over-the-top. The M35 was capable of deep water fording to a practical depth of about seven feet when fitted with its deep-water fording kit.

 

MULTIFUEL AND MOWERS

In the late 1950s, the U.S. military was interested in tactical vehicles that could run on many different kinds of fuels, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel—even engine oil mixed with antifreeze. It’s a little-known fact that Reo submitted designs for such multifuel engines, but the contract was awarded to Continental. While these engines could indeed run on just about any flammable liquid, the preferred fuel was diesel.

Another little-known fact is that Reo enjoyed a bit of new prosperity during the late 1940s by building power lawn mowers. Indeed, by 1950, Reo was the largest manufacturer of power mowers in the world, with sales of almost ten-million dollars and 500,000 units produced in 1951.

However, Reo failed to recognize that mower design was changing from the reel-type units it built to rotary blade models. When, in 1953, Reo finally came out with a rotary mower, it was a poor design and the lack of one little washer cost the company 5000 replacement engines. This was another blow from which it did not recover. In 1954, Reo sold its mower division to Motor Wheel Corporation of Lansing, Michigan, which continued the Reo name. In 1963, Motor Wheel sold their Reo line to Wheel Horse Products of South Bend, Indiana, which kept the Reo name for several years, introducing a snow-blower and a riding mower, along with new rotary models.

Reo itself merged with Diamond-T Trucks in 1967, becoming Diamond-Reo. In 1975, Diamond-Reo declared bankruptcy; and except for vintage car and civilian truck enthusiasts, as well as HMV hobbyists, the Reo name has been mostly forgotten. Even within the HMV hobby, these memories are fading as newer and younger HMVers refer to the trucks that Reo designed simply as deuces or M35s.

Ransom Eli Olds died in 1950 at the age of 86. Production of the M35 by Reo was in high gear at the time. Perhaps it’s fortunate that he didn’t live to see his company fade away.

LESSONS LEARNED

The U.S. military had learned many things about tactical vehicles during WWII. Even before the war was over, new designs were being tested. These tests resulted in The Conference on Qualitative Requirements For Tactical Type Ordnance Transport Vehicles in May of 1949.

There was no doubt that 2-1/2 ton cargo trucks had been a big factor in winning the war: General Dwight Eisenhower said that “The equipment most vital to our success in Africa and Europe were the bulldozer, the jeep, the 2-1/2 ton truck, and the C-47 airplane.” Along with many other types of vehicles, the Conference established new requirements for a family of two-and-a-half-ton trucks.

One may find it odd that Reo, which had mainly built non-tactical trucks during the war, was able to submit such an excellent and practical design. Maybe they had done their homework. In any event, Reo submitted prototype vehicles in 1949 that proved so successful, that production of these trucks—as already mentioned—was booming by within a year.

The truck earned the nickname, the “Eager Beaver,” though no one can document who coined it. The name may have been too cute for G.I.s, because it didn’t stick for long, surviving mainly on models and toys, such as the Monogram model I’d built as a kid and which first inspired my love of these trucks.

AN “M-SERIES” TRUCK

The Reo M35 was part of the new postwar family of tactical vehicles, commonly called M-series, and which, due to the lessons of WWII, were standardized in many ways, such as sharing many components.

During WWII, vehicle parts inventories had been a logistical nightmare. For example, a Willys Jeep used a different generator than a Dodge WC. Likewise, the Dodge used a different generator than a Ford GTB, which in turn used a different generator than a GMC CCKW. Some vehicles had 6-volt electrical systems, while others were 12-volt. Nor did dashboard instruments and switches always interchange… though these were standardized to some degree, along with tail and blackout lights.

In the new M-series, however, many of these things did interchange. Thus, a Jeep might use the same generator as deuce. Virtually all M-series vehicles used the same dashboard instruments and switches. Another standardization was that all M-series vehicles had 24-volt waterproof ignition systems. This requirement extended to such things as electric generating units, water pumps, stationary engines, and construction equipment. Additionally, most M-series vehicles, were designed to accommodate accessory kits, such as for deep-water fording, cold weather heating, and radio operation. It was also deemed practical that shifting many vehicles into all-wheel drive should be done by automatic means rather than only, or if at all, by the driver… though years later, the military would rethink this concept because there were problems.

The basic specifications for the first generation of M35 cargo trucks were as follows:

  • Weight: 12,465 lbs.
  • Length: 262”
  • Width: 96”
  • Height: 112”
  • Tire Size: 9.00-20 (ten, plus spare)
  • Electrical System: 24-volt waterproof
  • Batteries: 2
  • Service Brake System: Hydraulic with air booster
  • Parking Brake: Mechanically-applied
  • Transmission: Five-speed manual
  • Transfer Case: Two-speed, automatic engagement of front axle
  • Max. Road Speed: 58 mph.
  • Fuel Type: Gasoline
  • Fuel Capacity: 50 U.S. gallons
  • Range: 300 miles
  • Engine: Reo 331 cid. OHV in-line six-cylinder, liquid-cooled
  • Horsepower: 146 @ 3,400 rpm

These trucks were fitted with air-powered windshield wipers and “glad-hands” for operating trailer brakes. They could also be fitted with front-mounted PTO-driven winches, and “arctic” or hard tops in place of the standard canvas cab tops.

Of course, there were many variants, such as dump trucks, tankers, and van bodied trucks, as well as two basic wheelbases and tire configurations… ten 9.00-20 tires, or six 11.00-20 tires.

As with its competitor, the GMC M211, engagement of the Reo’s front axle was accomplished automatically through a Sprag-type clutch in the transfer case whenever the rear wheels began to turn faster than the front wheels, as when driving in mud, snow, or on slippery surfaces, and the driver had no choice about when to engage or disengage it.

To be precise, there is only one model of 2-1/2 ton truck that can truly be called an “M35”: The first-generation gasoline-powered, ten-wheeled cargo unit.

Just as there is only one “real” M37, all variants and most updates of M-series vehicles have their own designations. For example, there is no such thing as an “M37 ambulance.” The ambulance model is properly called an M43. There may also be sub-designations depending upon special equipment or upgrades, such as late-model M37s being designated M37B1.

Likewise, an early model M35 outfitted as a water tanker would be properly called an M50, while an updated or newer M35 would accurately be called an M35A1, M35A2, or M35A3.

Below is a listing of many common models and variants. Most designations are the same whether or not the truck has a winch. “Basic truck chassis” is a running vehicle with a cab to be fitted with a body.

  • M34: cargo truck with six 11.00-20 tires
  • M35: cargo truck with ten 9.00-20 tires
  • M35C: cargo truck with a drop-side bed
  • M36: long-wheelbase cargo truck
  • M44: basic truck chassis
  • M45: basic truck chassis
  • M46C: basic truck chassis
  • M47: dump truck
  • M48: truck tractor
  • M49C: fuel tanker
  • M50: water tanker
  • M57: basic truck chassis
  • M59: dump truck
  • M60: wrecker truck
  • M108: crane truck
  • M109: shop van
  • M132: medical van
  • M185: shop van
  • M275: truck tractor
  • M292: expandable van
  • M342: dump truck
  • M387: guided missile launcher
  • M398: guided missile launcher
  • M756: pipeline construction truck
  • M763: telephone maintenance truck
  • M764: earth-boring truck with auger

All these “Ms” may seem bewildering to someone new to the HMV hobby, but rest assured that few HMVers insist upon such precision … except maybe in the case of their own vehicles. Most HMVers are happy to educate anyone new or interested in military vehicles. And, of course, this magazine may help.

In any case, if you are new to, or interested in the HMV hobby, you can always as—“Is that an M35?” Such an opening doesn’t put the vehicle’s owner in the position of correcting you, as if you had said, “That’s a nice M35,” when the truck was actually an M36.

The M35A3 is the last or present-day generation of M35s. These are not new trucks but are actually upgrades of the Vietnam era vehicles under a plan called The Extended Service Program in which existing trucks were totally disassembled and parts rebuilt as needed. Then the trucks were reassembled, combining both new and rebuilt parts, including some modern systems. As seen here, one of the obvious changes was relocating the headlights from the grille to the fenders. Another is the “super-single” tires. The multifuel engines were replaced with Caterpillar diesels. This unit is also fitted with a Central Tire Inflation System (CTIS).

THREE FLAVORS

It might be informally said that there are three basic flavors of “M35s.” There is the first-generation of gasoline-powered trucks, either actually built by Reo, or built to the original Reo design by other companies, including the 331 cid. gasoline engines. These are often referred to as Korean War- or Cold War-era trucks. These are the “true Reos.” Most of these trucks had only one service tail/stop light and no turn signals. Parking, tail, and blackout lights were the small cast-aluminum type.

The engines in the M35A1s and M35A2s were either the LDS-427, LD-465, or LDT-465. The LDS-427 was 427 cubic inches, the others were 478 cu. in.

While they also had automatic engagement of the front axle, this was proving to be troublesome and later units were fitted with an air shift that gave the driver control. There were also many retrofits.

All of these left the factory with ten 9.00-20 tires, although late in life, some M35A2s were fitted with  six larger tires for use by Reserve or Guard units. Windshield wipers were air-powered. Very early units had only one service tail/stop light and no turn signals. Later models had two service tail/stop lights, and eventually turn signals. Most also had larger outside rearview mirrors instead of the small round types of the first-generation trucks. There were also many retrofits, including a change to the larger combination lights.

Thirdly, there is the M35A3, the last or present-day generation of M35s. These are not new trucks but are actually upgrades of the Vietnam-era vehicles under a plan called The Extended Service Program. This program totally disassembled existing trucks. Parts were rebuilt as needed. Then the trucks were reassembled, combining both new and rebuilt parts, including some modern systems. These upgrades always included the following:

  • Caterpillar 3116 diesel engine
  • Allison 1545 automatic transmission
  • Rebuilt/updated axles
  • Rebuilt/updated transfer case
  • New cooling system
  • Central tire inflation system (CTIS)
  • 14.5 R20XL single radial tires
  • Air-assist steering
  • Dual-circuit air/hydraulic brake system
  • Three-point seat belts
  • New driver’s seat
  • Updated heater and defroster system
  • Electric windshield wipers and washer

Interestingly, the electric wipers don’t seem to be proving as good as the old air-powered type. The motor slightly obscures the driver’s vision!

READY TO BUY?

Okay, say you’re hot for a deuce, either as a first HMV or an addition to your stable that may already include a jeep, MUTT, M37, or M715. If this is going to be your first large vehicle, you may want to read “Living With Large MVs” (MVM #120).

Disregarding body style or variant choices, your decision of which “M35” to buy will probably be based upon what you want or hope to do with the truck. For example, if you want to restore a vehicle of a certain era, then you will naturally shop for a truck that was built or used during that time. The change or upgrade from the Reo gasoline-powered trucks to the multifuel-powered units was made in the early 1960s, though many gas-powered trucks remained in service into the 1970s. Likewise, many Vietnam era multifuel-powered trucks remained in service into the 1990s. However, and while it would be technically accurate to restore a gas-powered Reo as an early Vietnam War truck, a multifuel unit would probably be better.

For a truly accurate restoration of a specific time—say in which you or a family member served—you should do research into what type of truck was most common during that time, and what components, lights. mirrors, etc., it was most likely to have. Accurately dated pictures, thousands of which can be found on the web, are often more helpful than manuals, books, and sometimes even “expert advice.” Of course, for example, one can add a second tail light and turn signals to a 1952 M35, but then it’s not quite a true piece of history.

If full restoration is not a concern, or if you want a deuce for work or play, you should consider your own mechanical skills as well as your plans for the truck. For instance, if you’re familiar with gasoline engines and never worked on a diesel, you might be more comfortable with a “real” Reo. Parts for the Reo engine are still relatively plentiful from both civilian and MV parts sources. Working on an early M35 is no more difficult than working on any other medium-sized truck of that time period.

The multifuel trucks, while more powerful, may be intimidating to someone without diesel experience. These engines also have special problems and maintenance requirements, and are generally more expensive when it comes to parts and service.

The last generation trucks are naturally more expensive to buy, and more complicated to work on than a 1950s model. Regardless, as with buying any HMV, you need do your homework first. Then decide, which “M35” is best for you.

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