Gracias, Pancho

John Latta
Executive Editor
jlatta@eTrucker.com

Every August at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, I am amazed by innovations made in trucks in just one year. They just keep getting better and better.

Improving the product to improve sales is an everyday goal of the OEMs in today’s market. Change is a constant, rapid and usually electronically driven factor in the modern tractor. But it wasn’t always so. In the earliest days of trucking things changed slowly – and because they had to rather than because someone needed to sell trucks. For example, pneumatic tires (thank you, Harvey Firestone) took over from the narrower solid rubber tires, mainly because they did far less damage to roads and took some of the bone-jarring, fatigue-creating vibration away from the driver’s spine.

But one of the most significant moments in the development of the modern American truck was an unstable decision made by one angry man somewhere in northern Mexico in 1916. It’s one of those quirky little unpredictable moments that change historical narratives and maybe make you wonder just where randomness fits into the scheme of things.

During the high heat of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century, Pancho Villa, part military genius and part bandit, had virtually been in control of northern Mexico. By 1916, his powers had waned, and he was no longer a potential kingmaker. At the same time, he was upset at the United States (possibly because of President Wilson’s support of his opponent, possibly because guns and ammunition he bought from American arms dealers didn’t work very well), and in March he decided to cross the Rio Grande and attack Columbus, N.M., with hundreds of cross-border raiders. Though it did do some damage to an Army fort, it wasn’t much of a raid, and Villa’s forces were driven off by the U.S. Cavalry stationed there.

But Woodrow Wilson was fit to be tied. He ordered Gen. John Pershing to march into Mexico and get Villa. Wilson gave Mexico City very little say in the matter. But the Mexican authorities did deny Pershing the use of their railroads because they needed them for their revolution.

Pancho Villa was a mold-breaking military leader, adept at the quick strike and rapid movement of forces that other 20th-century revolutionary leaders would later emulate. He won hero status among the people of northern Mexico using tactics those other leaders would follow to gain mass public support. He also used firing squads to gain his objectives, another popular 20th-century revolutionary move.

Pershing took some newfangled contraptions on the hunt for Villa: a handful of airplanes and several hundred trucks, the latter to compensate for the lack of railroad access. He spent a year south of the border but never did find Villa. Pershing would later lead U.S. forces into World War I in Europe and rely heavily on the truck; he was certain, thanks to his Mexican experience, that it could do a better job than mules, horses and, in most cases, railroads. He was right. It was not that either of these new war machines had done that well in Mexico – they hadn’t. Few enlisted men knew how to service trucks or drive them and, in some cases, had no idea how to stop them once they got moving. Making them roll mile after mile slow enough to keep pace with mules led to overheating and other sundry problems. But the problems were fixed, advances were made, and Pershing saw their potential.

The European war experience ended with drivers, mechanics and truck makers so well trained that after 1918 trucks began their domination of the long-haul freight business in America, leaving the railroads behind. The rail men did not go quietly, putting up a stern fight by trying to have federal and state governments limit truck sizes and weights and where and how they could haul. If the truck had not come through the war in such good shape, ready to efficiently conquer long hauls with heavy loads between cities, maybe the railroads would have won. And even a short-term victory could have left this industry looking decidedly different today.

It seems inevitable that our industry would have grown and thrived without an irritable Pancho Villa attacking New Mexico. Still, you have to wonder just how different the road it took to get to this year’s GATS might have been.

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