The Dawn Of The Truck
It caught on much more slowly than the automobile, partly because of the expense, partly because horses did a good job, and partly because people had to figure out just what it was and could do
Americans began building automobiles commercially in 1896, and in 1898 the Winton Motor Carriage Company produced the first American truck, a gasoline-powered delivery wagon. Winton was soon followed by a number of other companies, including that of the Mack brothers of Brooklyn. Over the next decade, as the number of cars on the nation’s roads mushroomed, more gasoline, steam, and electric trucks came along, but by 1910 there were still fewer than 11,000 of them alongside the more than 450,000 cars on the road. Why? Why didn’t businesses embrace the truck the way individuals went for the car?
There were several reasons, including the need to figure out just what a truck would be. Would it replace the railroad? The horse-drawn wagon? Handcarts? Cost was the first challenge. It was very hard for a purchaser to predict the expense of operating a truck, and different buyers had very different experiences, depending on the appropriateness of the vehicle for the job and on its efficiency, reliability, and maintenance costs.
Merely substituting a truck for a horse-drawn wagon would not reduce costs; it could do quite the opposite. Ways had to be found to exploit its advantages in speed, carrying capacity, and stamina. And sometimes trucks being put to best use still had difficulty competing with horses. Several dairies in New York City found them inferior for home milk delivery because as a 1914 article noted, “the ordinary milk horse is a well-trained and intelligent animal, and his ability to move unattended from door to door while the driver is delivering the bottles contributes largely to his efficiency.” Doing that with a truck would require a costly additional employee on the job. At one point a phone company found itself using five times as many horse-drawn wagons as trucks because the nature of the work meant a lot of idle time, which was a prohibitive expense with the new vehicles.
Many businesses hesitated to give up horses because of the investment they had in them. They might own not only the animals but also stables, wagons, tack, and other gear and have whole staffs managing them. Divesting themselves of all that wasn’t simple, especially when trucks required an investment they weren’t yet prepared to make. Moreover, in the early years of the century, banks wouldn’t lend money for buying trucks without other assets as collateral.
For those who could afford them, however, and who were prepared to be flexible and innovative, trucks could mean the opportunity to provide better service even if they didn’t save money. For example, urban food wholesalers could make overnight deliveries on grocers’ orders and then use the same machines for special orders during the day, resulting in an easier job for the retailer. Trucks could also increase the range of a wholesaler’s business, typically from about 10 miles to as much as 50. As a magazine article put it in 1912, “The grocer, the butcher, the dyer and cleaner, the baker, the clothing merchant, and hosts of others expect that the motor vehicle will cost more to operate … but they know from the experience of others that they can increase their business with the motor-vehicle.”
The potential benefits may have been clearest for basic merchandise hauling, but manufacturers also took advantage of the vehicles’ power and versatility to expand wherever they could into other areas, providing specialized equipment for jobs from digging pestholes to hauling massive steel beams. The posthole digger illustrated the possibilities. As millions of new telephone and electric-power customers came on line between 1900 and 1930, enormous quantities of poles and wires had to be installed. By about 1910 the Mack company was providing a vehicle that would dig the holes with an auger powered by its engine, set the poles with a built-on crane, and then string the wires with a power winch. For the Philadelphia Bell Telephone Company, the machine and its 2-man crew took the place of 18 laborers and 2 foremen, cutting costs by an estimated three-quarters.
Many early trucks used their engines to power tools, such as power winches to haul cables through underground conduits or safes through windows. Repairmen used telescoping towers to service telephone, electric, and streetcar poles. Coal dealers bought trucks with bodies that both elevated and tilted to dump their product down chutes; previously it had been shoveled by hand. Rugged dump trucks offloaded tons of rock or hot asphalt per minute. Truck engines also powered pumps: high-pressure, high-speed ones for nrefighting; slower, gentler ones for the petroleum-tank trucks that began appearing around 1908.
A major innovation in 1911 let trucks begin hauling long steel beams and other oversize cargo: the fifth-wheel semitrailer. Large horse-drawn wagons had a so-called fifth wheel placed horizontally over the front axle to bear the front of the wagon and pivot as the horses turned; the Knox company came out with a truck that had a fifth wheel over its rear axle so that it could pull such a wagon with its front axle removed. A contemporary journal had commented that “one of the biggest problems of the industry is to take care, in a manner not yet decided, of the large number of perfectly good wagons and similar vehicles now horse drawn.” Answering that need to protect an investment, the Knox not only greatly increased truck use but opened the door to a major new phenomenon, the tractor-trailer.
There were still only 25,000 trucks sold in 1914, a tenth the number of Model T’s produced, but the figure jumped to 74,000 the next year as France and Britain began to order them for use in the World War. By then about 170,000 trucks of every description had been produced, many of them by companies that were constantly innovating in engine size, better carburetion, enhanced metallurgy, and other technologies. At the same time, there were more than 26 million horses and mules on the farms of America, along with the 10 million wagons they pulled, and many more horses in the cities. Those hay burners still retained the loyalty of many farms and businesses.
Two things finally put all the horses and mules out to pasture: the truck’s demonstration of its economy, reliability, and flexibility during the World War, when trucking operations began supplementing the overburdened railroad system, and a burst of national road-building during the twenties, which extended the vehicles’ speed and range while lowering their operating costs. By the 1930s horse-drawn wagons had finally begun to be a rare sight in major metropolitan areas, and railroads had started feeling the pinch of losing cargo to truckers. The motor truck had at last arrived.