In 1912, two men named Thomas Wilby and Jack Haney travelled across Canada in a 1912 Reo automobile, on what was the first trans-Canada automobile crossing. Wilby, a career writer and journalist, was born in England in 1867 and spent much of his career writing travel features for magazines. Jack Haney was born in Indiana in 1889 and left home when he was a teenager to be a mechanic for the Reo Motorcar Company, where he was renowned for his expertise over his years of service. When a Reo 5-passenger touring car was provided for the trans-Canada drive, Haney was selected as driver and mechanic.
The trip followed the "All-Red Route", which was entirely contained within Canada's borders. Such a journey was quite a feat in those days, as the rural roads which did exist were in poor condition and would take their toll on the Reo. Several areas across the country were impassable, which necessitated the use of local ferries and transport ships. The Reo slowly started on its way across Canada, from east to west, in late August. There were no guarantees of success, and the duo was derided by some rowdy Haligonians on their first day of travel.
Archival photographs of the journey show that the car wore 1912 Ontario plates with the letters REO where the numbers would ordinarily be. When I originally became aware of this journey, I was flummoxed by the plate. I was still in my early days as a license plate collector, and I had only just begun to learn about the licensing history of Ontario.
The blurry, low-contrast nature of the archival photos made it difficult for me to see the plate clearly. 1912 was the first of the “tin” plates, which were all-numeric, with sharp-cornered block numbers. When I saw the unusual letters on the 1912 plate in the images, I assumed that the letters were RED, for “Red Route”, and the plate had been specially made to promote the trip. Taking that idea further, I surmised that the plate could have been the very first personalized / vanity plate. It wasn’t a huge stretch for me to believe that I was seeing a letter D, since it’s not a letter that would have ordinarily appeared on the tin plates anyway, so there was no telling how sharp or curved the “belly” of the D would be. Also, the words “ALL RED ROUTE” were painted in block letters on the spare tire cover, directly above the plate, and the word “RED” looked pretty much the same on the cover as did the word on the plate.
Nice hypothesis, but wrong.
Much archival work has been done in the plate-collecting world over the ensuing twenty years, and it has now been confirmed that automobile dealers / manufacturers received special plates with the initials of the owner / company. Archival images exist of 1905-10 rubber plates bearing three-letter initials, and there are about a half-dozen known surviving examples of initialed 1911 porcelain plates. There are no known surviving 1912 dealer-initial plates, but it would seem likely that the plates issued to the Red Route vehicle bore the letters REO for Ransom E. Olds, the founder and then-president of the Reo Motor Car Company. It is not known how long the dealer-initial system continued, but archival images exist of a 1914 M-prefix dealer plate (Ontario dealer plates used M as a prefix or suffix, all the way up to 1972). As of this writing, 1914 is the earliest photographic evidence of an M-dealer plate, and the REO plate from the All-Red Route is the only evidence of a 1912 dealer-initial plate. Pictured at left is of one about a half-dozen known 1911 dealer plates, bearing initials.
Jack Haney drove the 1912 Reo model R-5 out of Halifax on August 27, 1912, with Thomas Wilby holding a bottle of Atlantic seawater in the passenger seat. Haney and Wilby didn’t get along. Wilby regarded Haney with disdain as a lowly blue-collar worker whose job it was to drive and maintain the vehicle, despite Haney’s desire to be treated as an equal on such as long journey. Repairs always fell to Haney, as Wilby sat writing in the car and refused to offer any kind of assistance; he wouldn’t even help push the car when it became mired in mud. Wilby turned his attention to his journal, where he collected his impressions on the roads, land and people, in order to inform an upcoming book. Haney kept a private diary during the journey where he expressed his displeasure with Wilby’s scornful attitude.
Ongoing minor repairs aside, the car proved durable for its time, moving the men through a nation with nearly no paved roads. Probably the most major repair to be undertaken was the replacement of the drive shaft, which had become warped and unusable over some treacherous terrain. Even a replacement drive shaft required repair at a blacksmith’s shop close to North Bay. Some areas of the country were not yet linked together by road, which meant using rail or ferries to move along. A road connection leading beyond Lake Superior was indeed available, but only by crossing into the United States. Wilby elected to stay true to the Canadian “Red Route” theme, and thus, to remain within Canadian territory, it was necessary to ship the car by ferry across Lake Superior, from Sault Ste. Marie to Port Arthur (present-day Thunder Bay), and then the car was moved by rail from there to Selkirk, Manitoba—a distance of about 1500 kilometres.
Haney drove the car into Victoria on October 17, thus signalling the end of the journey. Wilby is seen, in an archival photo, pouring his Atlantic seawater into the Pacific at the harbour in Victoria, with Haney looking on. Despite their differences, the duo was feted as they passed through many communities. Wilby’s book on the journey, A Motor Tour Through Canada, was published two years later. Although the book unfairly omitted most of Haney’s deeds and never mentioned his name, it did express optimism about the forthcoming emergence of the automobile as a catalyst to unite the communities of the nation with a trans-Canadian highway. Wilby alludes to the difficulty in acquiring fuel or repairs in remote locations by stating that the automobile had “not yet transformed the village blacksmith’s into a garage and repair shop, nor turned the rural grocery store into a motor-fuel emporium.”
Wilby frequently bemoans the lack of serviceable roads through rural Canada—and northern Ontario in particular. He is less than complimentary about the people and accommodations along the way, and generalized the inn tables in Quebec as being “devoid of wines or other attractive beverages,” and serving what he criticized as “sorry” meals. Wilby does keep his mind on the journey from time to time, and takes note of the dangerous level railway crossings throughout the journey. Haney and Wilby, during an urgent search for fuel, opted to take a short cut to a chemical factory, but a rail line obstructed the way. Wilby recalls, “…in order to cross the track it was necessary to build up the roadway to the level of the rails.”
The book, not surprisingly, makes no direct reference to the 1912 Ontario REO license plate, which was attached to the car from the beginning of the journey in Halifax. Provincial reciprocity of motor vehicle registration was not yet in force in 1912, which meant that legally, any motorist crossing a provincial boundary would have to register his vehicle in the visited province and display a license plate. Yet, the Ontario REO plate is the only one seen on the Red Route car in any archival picture taken during the cross-Canada journey. The reason why no other plates were attached to the car during the journey is open to speculation.
In 1997, Lorne Findlay, an automotive historian from Vancouver, commemorated the 85th anniversary of the first trans-Canada automobile crossing by driving his own 1912 Reo Model R-5 across Canada, retracing the Red Route as closely as possible, and following the same schedule which Haney and Wilby kept so many years ago. Lorne’s Reo was in original condition and had only 26,000 miles on it before the re-creation of the Red Route journey, which took the car another 7841 km, or 4900 miles. Accompanying Lorne was writer John Nicol, as well as Lorne’s son Peter, who drove a camper behind them in support. I read about Lorne’s re-enactment of the Red Route in the September 11, 1997 edition of the Sault Star, reprinted from an earlier edition of the Toronto Star, and I noted with interest an accompanying photograph showing the white 1912 “REO” plate mounted on the front of the car. I had to know if it was the real thing, so I resolved to intercept them.
I was living in Goulais River at the time, not far from the Trans-Canada highway leading north and away from Sault Ste. Marie. Although Haney and Wilby were forced to bypass this area by ferry in 1912, I knew that Lorne would be passing by on the morning of September 14 after leaving the Soo. I timed my departure correctly and happened to catch up to Lorne as he was stopped for a roadside leg-stretch just south of Batchewana. I pulled over and walked up to introduce myself. We talked about the car, and I indicated my interest in the plate. The original REO plates were not found and had likely not survived, so Lorne had silkscreened reproductions printed on laminated cardboard. From a distance, they were quite convincing, and the lettering was neatly and accurately reproduced. Lorne did have an authentic artifact attached to his Reo, though: Jack Haney’s horseshoe, just visible in the image below. Haney found it during the 1912 journey and affixed it to the radiator for luck, and somehow down the timeline, Lorne acquired it.
John Nicol interviewed me briefly while we were stopped. I figured that, with northern Ontario being an area of sparse human habitation, I might have a chance of being mentioned in the book, since there might not be much else to encounter along that leg of the journey. Nicol’s book, The All-Red Route: From Halifax to Victoria in a 1912 Reo, was published in 1999, and it provides an interesting continual juxtaposition of the original 1912 trailblazing versus Lorne’s commemorative tour, using Wilby’s book and Haney’s diary to effectively fill in the finer details. However, I find Nicol’s remarks, like Wilby’s, to be unnecessarily critical about some of the towns through which they passed, particularly Sault Ste. Marie. Most of Nicol’s four or so pages devoted to the Soo revolve around a dislike of the “no-man’s land” Station Mall parking lot, the one-way nature of Bay Street, and his meal with a local transient. For having spent an entire non-travel day to explore his surroundings, Nicol certainly doesn’t seem to focus his attention on anything worthwhile (nor does Wilby, as he spends three irrelevant pages of his book describing his dislike of the tea and coffee he was served in Ottawa). The Canadian Soo lock, which Wilby and Haney surely traversed via ferry, would have been a pleasant and relevant interlude, yet Nicol omits it completely, and instead focuses his attention on the locals “…going from one lottery kiosk to another, looking for one that might have a machine that works in a city that has the headquarters to Ontario’s lotteries.” I do get my own paragraph in chapter 7, but I’m reduced to a demeaned caricature: “Upton was a devotee of ALPCA, the 3000-member American [sic] Licence Plate Collectors’ Association. I’m not joking.”
Lorne continued his 1997 journey and stayed as true as possible to the Wilby-Haney pathfinding journey. The tour ended in Victoria, with a wheel-dipping into the Pacific Ocean on October 17, 1997: The 85th anniversary of the end of the original Red Route tour. Although Wilby and Haney were done at that time in 1912, and couldn’t wait to be rid of each other, Lorne had a few more formalities to attend to, and did a victory lap in Victoria on the 18th, before heading back home.
I have done some web research to try and discover what became of the original Reo from the 1912 Red Route journey, but I have not been able to uncover any information. The Reo Motorcar Company eventually stopped producing cars and manufactured trucks exclusively. Reo was later merged with Diamond-T in the 1960s, but went bankrupt by 1975. The assets were liquidated, and Volvo now owns the rights to the name. As for the car? If it still exists, it could be anywhere.
Peter Findlay created an extensive web site about Lorne's 1997 trip. It is still active, and features the day-by-day goings-on of the 1912 and 1997 tours, plus information about the people involved, the vehicle, and even distance and weather statistics.
Vancouver historian Chuck Davis has also published a brief summary of the trip on his web site.
 Thomas W. Wilby, A Motor Tour Through Canada (Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1914), p. x.
 Ibid., p. 78.
 Ibid., p. 133.
 Nicol, John. The All-Red Route: Halifax to Victoria in a 1912 Reo (Toronto: McArthur and Company, 1999), p. 129.
 Ibid., p. 135.