The road to now

| May 01, 2007

America’s earliest truckers drove machines that demanded tough drivers and offered no frills. This 1912 chain-driven Brockway demanded a lot of arm and leg strength for steering and stopping.

In 1900 the truck was an oddity. Railroads and horse-drawn wagons hauled freight. But by the end of the 1930s the semi-trailer was becoming the dominant long-hauler of goods, and trucks had changed the way Americans worked and lived.

The first motorized truck hit the road in America in 1898, just two years after the first automobile. Names we still recognize and see on the road were among our first truck makers. Autocar made its first truck in 1899 and Mack in 1900 (it was a bus converted to a truck), White in 1902 and Ford in 1903.

They were odd contraptions at best, small and slow. They weighed 5 tons or less, and the engine was beneath the seat in most cases. The brakes were applied by hand or foot using a lever and raw muscle power, and the steering wheel was on the right side of the cab.

In the first 10 years of the 20th century the use of draught horses to pull freight actually increased, and trucks worked only on inner-city roads.

The earliest trucks were powered by steam, electricity (from batteries) or gasoline. A 500-pound electric truck could run at a top speed of 18 miles per hour, and heavier trucks made just 10 mph.

Steam was considered the most efficient source of power for early trucks, offering the most horsepower and torque, thus the ability to haul heavier loads. But steam power had been pioneered in ships, and some of those vessels had exploded spectacularly, bringing sensational front-page newspaper coverage. A lack of clean, uncontaminated water also hampered steam trucks, which were put out of service without it.

Electric trucks were popular because they could stop and start easily, a major plus for inner-city work. But their drivers constantly needed to recharge the batteries, leading to inconsistent or unpredictable service.

Almost by default, gasoline, long considered the least likely to succeed, would come to be the chosen power.

Road to good roads
Trucking was slow to develop as an industry at first because most roads outside inner cities were dirt or gravel bone shakers that turned to mud in winter and dust in summer. They were rutted, pitted and uneven.

Roads in Europe, by contrast, were far more developed, and it was on that continent that trucks first made inroads hauling freight. In London 8,000 trucks were being used in 1894. In the United States in 1904 there were only 410 trucks at work. But an explosion was coming – by 1911 there would be 20,000 working trucks in the U.S.

A push for better roads had actually begun in the 1880s and ’90s. But it didn’t come from automobile or truck users. It came from people riding bicycles. Americans from almost all walks of life saw in this amazing new contraption the chance for personal travel freedom.

The Good Roads Movement sprang up in 1880s, spearheaded by cyclists, with farmers, businesses, automobile and truck users eventually offering their support. The movement pressed for better country roads, pressure that would begin to give trucks a chance to haul long distances. The New Jersey-to-California Lincoln Highway was conceived of and began construction in 1913 and the Chicago-to-Jacksonville (with an eastern leg through Michigan to Canada) Dixie Highway in 1915.

Powering up with new technology
In the earliest years of the truck, when the vehicles were relatively small, automobile makers dominated production, but as trucks got bigger – and more specialized – specialty manufacturers like Mack, Autocar, Kenworth, Brockway and International made trucks virtually to order, usually serving a region of the country rather than selling nationally (e.g., Kenworth in the northwest).

In the early years of the 20th century, trucks were mostly two-cylinder models, with solid rubber tires and occasionally wooden or steel “tires.” They were chain driven and capable of somewhere around 1,000 rpm.

As engines became bigger, the drive train had to grow with them. By 1910 a three-speed transmission was standard, but it was not easy to use. If faced with a sudden incline or sharp downhill slope, a driver had to shift through the gears and could not jump to the one he suddenly needed. This led to the development after 1910 of selective shifts, which gave the driver the shortcut option. In the second decade of the century four-speed gearboxes were needed to help apply the additional power the gasoline engine was bringing to the truck. Six-cylinder engines developed as the need for power continued to increase.

At the same time, the chain drive was found wanting as more power was applied to the wheels. In cities it worked well, but for over-the-road hauls out onto less-than-even surfaces, it was susceptible to slipping, becoming dislodged from its drive, and tended to be inefficient if the load was exceptionally heavy.

By 1915 the chain drive was almost a thing of the past (although Macks used them into the 1950s). Its replacement was at first a double reduction chain gear drive, much like modern bicycle gears, then a worm gear, then an enclosed worm gear. As more power was delivered from bigger engines, other parts had to evolve, too: carburetor and clutch development kept pace, and solid drive shafts became the norm.

With trucks driving faster and farther, truck makers had another problem to solve. Drivers experienced extreme fatigue as trucks’ rigid axles pounded into every rut and pothole. Tiller steering systems required the driver to turn with the raw power of his muscles.

Steering could also mean other problems for drivers. Wagons could only move as fast as their horses, so the fact that both left and right wheels spun at the same rate was rarely a problem in turns. But as trucks and automobiles got faster and heavier, skidding and dragging increased, along with scary moments in turns. A French invention almost a hundred years old – and virtually unused because it was not needed – solved the problem by allowing wheels to turn independently.

Brakes in the earliest trucks were problematic. Modeled on wagon brakes, they required the driver to pull or push them on if he wanted to stop. Brakes were applied directly to the wheel’s surface or to a wheel drum, and the pads were usually made of leather, a very inefficient surface as speeds and weights rose. Resilient asbestos became the brake pad of choice by 1910, but development continued and a decade later trucks were using hydraulic brakes on all four wheels.

Early in the new century wooden and metal wheels were left behind, and rubber was used for its smoothness and safety. Solid thin tires slipped easily in muddy conditions, while pneumatics offered better rides and could carry more weight – but were subject to puncture.

At the start of the 1920s, with more sealed roads and higher speeds, the solid rubber tire was found to do more damage to the road, and the road returned the favor. The pneumatic’s smoother ride was a huge plus in decreasing driver fatigue. One of the oddities of the early pneumatic truck tires were their color – white. Only after carbon black was added to tire rubber to strengthen it did they become black.

The pneumatic’s lower profile, along with the solid drive shaft, significantly lowered the truck, making it more aerodynamic.

Product of war
On the eve of World War I in Europe in 1914 the truck was beginning to look more like the one we know today, with the engine in the front and the driver sitting on the left side of the cab. Truck manufacturing boomed in the U.S. as the countries at war needed ambulances and battlefield trucks but could not build enough themselves. The United States exported only 1,009 trucks in 1913 but 16,415 in the six months after the war began in August 1914.

The need to get such numbers of vehicles to ports for shipment, though rail did most of the work, publicly exposed the weakness and poor quality of the road system.

Then, on March 9, 1916, Francisco “Pancho” Villa ordered 485 of his men to cross the border and raid the little town of Columbus, N.M., a response to the U.S. government’s recognition of a new government in Mexico City. Villa’s raiders attacked a detachment of the 13th U.S. Cavalry, killing 12 soldiers and eight citizens, and rode back into Mexico with stolen cavalry, ammunition and weapons. The cavalry had killed 80 of Villa’s men.

President Wilson ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and 14,000 troops to Mexico to pursue Villa. The Mexican Army wanted the Americans to catch Villa but refused permission to use Mexican railroads. So Pershing demanded some new hardware never before used by U.S. military, eight aircraft and 25 trucks.

The trucks did not perform perfectly for two keys reasons: they ran inefficiently, at a mule’s pace, and the roads were alkaline – the trucks blew up great clouds of choking dust. Still, a force of 6,600 Americans spearheaded a drive 400 miles into Mexico, and, though Villa escaped both Pershing and the Mexican Army, Pershing saw the potential of his new hardware. When the U.S. entered the war in Europe in 1917, Pershing was in command and ordered 50,000 trucks for his army.

As the European war fueled demand for trucks – and the roads to support them – tire pioneer Harvey Firestone saw opportunity and asked his researchers to develop a heavy truck tire. By the end of the war he had one, and he initiated his famous “Ship by Truck” campaign, designed to show Americans that trucks could haul anything anywhere reliably and safely.

When World War I ended in November 1918, 200,000 trucks had been built by U.S.

manufacturers, and skilled mechanics and drivers were coming back from the fighting. Younger officers successfully pushed for large military buys of trucks.

At the same time roads were about to see vast improvements. Military convoys using American roads during the war years had proven them to be woefully inadequate.

In 1919, Lieutenant-Colonel (and future President) Dwight D. Eisenhower made a trek across the United States as part of the Army’s Transcontinental Motor Convoy, designed to see if troops and supplies could move across the country by truck. The trucks made it, but it took 62 days to roll from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, and their difficulties on the crude roads along the way proved a major spur to road building.

The long-haul trucking industry, which had shown promise before 1914, shifted into high gear between the outbreak of World War I and the beginning of the Depression in 1929. In 1914 there were 80,000 trucks using American roads. In 1929 there were 3.4 million. Between 1921 and 1929, the miles of paved road almost doubled.

Enabler of commerce and agriculture
Even before World War I, department and retail stores were already the leading users of trucks. One major advantage of truck transport, in some cases considered of more value that the truck itself, was that trucks could be large billboards in motion, a novelty at the time.

Before trucks, rail carried almost everything moving a long distance. That led to shippers creating bulk loads of similar materials. The truck changed American fashion, enabling clothiers to mix a variety of styles into a single shipment. The truck also allowed department stores to change their inventory more quickly, not just seasonally.

America’s basic meat and potatoes diet was also being changed by the truck. Before trucks, perishable fruit and vegetables were shipped in bulk by rail. Farmers could now vary what they grew, planting specialized and seasonal crops that trucks could load and carry directly to their destination, a process that was quicker in a number of ways, not least cutting down on time-consuming loading processes at rail yards. Produce arrived faster and in better condition. Farmers could send produce that was ripe or near ripe, and they didn’t have to send everything at once.

Manufacturing in America had traditionally been downtown near rail lines, and downtown had traditionally been relatively small outside of a handful of big cities. But trucks made transporting materials easier, so manufacturers set up on cheaper land out in what would become suburbs. When manufacturing moved, jobs and people followed, and America’s cities began to spread out from their centers.

An industry is born
Prior to the early 1930s trucks had not been regulated to any significant degree, leading to a maverick industry growing in leaps and bounds with little oversight (at a time when the regulated rail industry had to carry whatever shippers wanted hauled). The industry had been put under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1925, but the ICC’s first report in 1928 indicated it saw little reason to begin heavily regulating it. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 changed that, and with its 1932 report the ICC decided to act.

The railroad barons used their clout in Washington and in state legislatures to try and contain the growing long-haul trucking industry. Efforts were made to limit truck weight, size and length and to regulate the truck as strictly an inner-city vehicle, keeping the lucrative long hauls for the railroads. The barons likewise tried to get coastal states to limit long-haul trucks’ access to ports. Some state legislatures began to hit the trucking industry with weight and length restrictions, effectively limiting how much a truck could carry.

By 1932 things had come to a head. The battle was fought in Indiana, a gateway to the west, and the railroads saw regulation in the Hoosier state as a lynchpin in their effort to stop the truck from taking over much of their long-haul business. Indiana’s lower house passed legislation limiting truck weight and length, but trucking interests, including OEMs Mack and White, fought back, lobbying the state senate, where votes were thought to be evenly divided. The battle raged, but the railroads couldn’t find the votes in the end. The legislation died.

Three short years later Washington passed the Motor Carrier Act of 1935, which spelled out the ICC’s first regulatory moves, introducing weight, size and safety regulations with licensing and insurance requirements for carriers. Many dodged or ignored the regulations initially, but that got harder and harder to maintain.

By 1929 there were 3,379,854 trucks hauling goods in America (compared to 1,006,082 in 1920 and 2,440,854 in 1925). By 1930 the tractor-trailer combination – the trailer had been invented in 1915 by a wagon maker and blacksmith in Detroit, August Freuhauf – was becoming a common sight on American highways, with this method of hauling long distances enabling trucks to carry three times what a straight truck could handle.

Those 1930s trucks, made by an increasing number of OEMs, used such modern features as enclosed cabs, sleepers, hydraulic brakes and fifth wheels, and they began to roam farther and farther from urban bases.

In the 1930s companies like Mack, Cummins and General Motors’ Detroit Engines developed diesel engines with high compression ratios, more torque, better fuel efficiency and more horsepower than gas engines. But they were far heavier than their gasoline competitors, and the diesels did not become popular until the 1950s. Diesel engines also took up more space, so truck manufacturers used aluminum rather than steel to keep trucks’ weight down when building for diesels, something first done by Freightliner (started by fleet Consolidated Freightways in search of a lighter GVW) in 1939.

The innovation and expansion of the role of the semi continued. Trailers got bigger as trucks got more powerful, and roads expanded to accommodate them. Frozen food depots began to spring up all over the country, and trucks delivered to and from them using ice as their cargo coolant. Reefer units arrived (the first, the Thermo King “Model A,” in 1938) and put trucking further ahead of rail in moving freight, as railcars still relied on ice. By 1949 there were 11,000 refrigerated semis working in America, but not a single railcar.

The industry was established. It would continue to grow, and trucks would continue to develop, though most of the main innovations we see today already had been pioneered.

The early history of the truck and the trucking industry was scattered in hundreds of places, but this story is largely based on the work of two researchers, Dr. Shane Hamilton, a professor of history at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., and Dr. Louis Rodriguez, a professor of history at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pa. Their painstaking research produced extraordinary detail about how trucks and trucking developed.

Comments are closed. strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.