The Joy of Eccentricity

Published by The Bee News

December 31, 2021

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The Octauto devised by Milton Reeves. Photo authors collection.

Milton O. Reeves was not a man without imagination. He was also a man with steadfast determination that was not afraid of ridicule or derision, a particularly important quality if you intend to manufacture and market a six or eight-wheel car, with an astounding and impractical 154 inch wheelbase.

Reeves was born on a farm in Rush County, Indiana on August 25, 1864. From an early age his imagination was filled with devices conceived to save time or labor, to streamline a process, or ease the labor of the farmer. Fast forward to 1879. It was while employed at a sawmill in Columbus, Indiana that Reeves noted that if the speed of the saws could be controlled in a uniform manner there would be a reduction of waste. And that equaled increased profits. And so in off hours he devised and perfected a variable speed transmission using a series of tapered pulleys.

As it so happened, Marshal, Milton’s brother, was a prolific inventor, a holder of numerous patents, and an astute businessman. In 1869 he had invented an improved version of the standard corn plow, and six years later established the Hoosier Boy Cultivator Company in partnership with his father and an uncle to commence production. Milton’s variable speed transmission piqued their interest and in 1888 the Reeves brothers purchased the Edinburg Pulley Company and reorganized it as the Reeves Pulley Company.

Milton Reeves devised a promotional idea for the company that was linked to the bicycling mania that had become a national obsession in the early 1890s. In 1896 he built and displayed a motorcycle powered by a Sintz engine coupled to a Reeves variable speed transmission at numerous events. Surprisingly the pioneering motorcycle soon became the Reeves Pulley Company’s most popular product. The following year Reeves used the same mechanical components and built a four-wheel horseless carriage.

However, the transmission he had hoped to promote was overshadowed by the increasing public anger over noise of the horseless carriage that terrorized horses. Hoping to alleviate these issues Reeves devised two innovations. One proved to be profitable item that forever altered the public perception of the automobile. The muffler designed by Reeves was an ingenious round metal box that housed a set of tubes with holes that dramatically curtailed noise. Reeves and his brother patented the device that was the first muffler designed specifically for automobiles in 1897.

His second idea was bizarre. Reeves purchased a life-sized papier-mache horse that a blacksmith shop was using for promotion. He then cut it off at the front shoulders and mounted it on the front of the vehicle with the idea being that something familiar would calm horse. Reeves used the hollow horse neck to house the gasoline tank, another truly odd idea.

In 1897, Reeves again developed a horseless carriage using his variable speed transmission. It featured a polished ebony body and a muffler, but not a horse head. The Reeves Motocycle garnered a surprising amount of press, and even more surprisingly, the company received unsolicited orders for five vehicles. The first two vehicles used the two-cylinder, two cycle, six horsepower Sintz Gas Engine Company engine and double chain drive unit coupled to the Reeves variable speed transmission. The other three, however, utilized an air-cooled engine designed by Milton Reeves.

After filling the orders, the company announced that they would not continue producing automobiles but would instead focus on the manufacture of the Reeves transmissions and motors only. This, however, was not the final chapter of Milton Reeves automotive ventures.

In late 1905, Alexander Y. Malcomson ordered an entire year’s production (500 units) of air-cooled engines for an automobile manufacturing company that he was launching in Detroit. His Aerocar venture proved to be short lived and so Reeves found himself with controlling interest in a bankrupt company. To recover his losses, Reeves began cobbling together a variety of vehicles. Some used shaft drive and others chain drive. They were marketed as Go Buggy in 1907 at a price of $450 without body.

The final chapters in Reeves automotive endeavors were truly unusual. After manufacturing a variety of vehicles and evaluating automobiles currently on the market, he had determined that riding comfort, and tire life, would be improved by moving beyond the industry standard of four wheels. The first endeavor was the Octoauto built from a highly modified Overland chassis. The eight-wheeled oddity on a 180-inch wheelbase was finished for display at the inaugural 1911 Indianapolis 500.

Reeves honestly felt that the concept was marketable. “The eight-wheel concept is applicable to any vehicle. Therefore, if interested contact any automobile manufacturer or myself.” This is the opening for a promotional brochure published for the debut.

For obvious reasons, the project ended with the single prototype. And so, Reeves set out to build the Sextoauto, a six wheeled vehicle. Two were built. The first was the Octoauto with one front axle removed. The second was manufactured on a modified Stutz chassis and promoted as a luxury car with variable speed transmission. There was even an abbreviated promotional tour that included a cross-country jaunt. The endeavor was as successful as the Octoauto.

Reeves, the first patent for an automotive muffler, the Octoauto and Sextoauto are today forgotten chapters in the history of the automobile industry.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America 

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