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A Brief History of Auto Transport in the United States and How We Began Shipping Cars

Updated on May 26, 2017

As a truck driver gets out of the sleeper compartment of the truck and walks out, perhaps to flex his or her muscles or grab a cold shower and a cup of coffee thereafter, such an individual seemingly looks to be enjoying the job. Sure, the 18-wheeler, sturdy looking vehicles of today attribute their fame and vigor to their comparatively larger engines and their design that conquers every terrain. Sometimes, though, it pays to look back at the trodden path through which this profession has followed.

But first, what is a Semi-Trailer?

Quite certainly, there are a lot that we aren't privy to about concerning 18-wheelers, including the fact that they are "Semi-Trailers." Turns out, the brain behind the whole idea, one Alexander Winton of Cleveland, Ohio, came up with the first of these designs. His semi-trailer vehicles featured a freight trailer attached and supported at the forward end by a 5th wheel of the tractor.

And, the current ones, tractor-trailer rigs or 18 wheelers are somewhat different from the 1890s ones. Yeah, the unique crop of vehicles are indeed monstrosity when they criss-cross our country roads, but they are an ultimate necessity. Some can even haul up to a whopping 800,000 pounds. More than 70% of all goods in the US alone arrive at their final destinations, courtesy of these handy vehicles.

History at a glance:

1898: Alexander Winton creates the first semi-trucks

1899: Winton embarks on commercially producing the trucks

1916: Mack joins the fray with its rear axle truck

1920: The first "Trucking Boom."

1939: Peterbilt sells the first semi-trucks

1953: Freightliner comes up with the first overhead sleeper

1986: The Peterbilt 379 becomes the best-selling truck

Alexander Winton: How he invented the first tractor-trailer designed to haul cars.

The idea of shipping goods through the road was born way back in the 1890s when one automotive manufacturer discovered the need for a convenient vehicle to haul products. Alexander Winton of The Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland created an 18-wheeler truck while going about his business of selling cars. The Scottish man was experiencing tremendous growth in his automobiles business and needed to be "suave" and better than his competitors.

You see, Winton would experience endless difficulties delivering cars to his vast number of buyers spread across the USA. He would dread having to literally drive the brand new car right into the customer's garage and risk damaging it. The same notion of driving to someone a thousand mile away would practically cost much, perhaps more than shipping it.

As a result, the problem of delivering cars facilitated the introduction of the trucking concept using 18-wheelers. All that was needed was a tractor and the truck, although one striking demerit of the whole thing was that the semi-trailer could only transport a single vehicle at a time.

But, the invention or the 'automobile hauler" not only paved the way for massive sales, but also ushered in a new era in shipping cars. In 1899, the renowned car manufacturer finally released the first semi-truck. Before that, notably in 1898, he had managed to sell as many as 22 manufactured cars and a further 100 automobiles in 1899.

As aforementioned, the first semi-trailer included the skeleton of a customized tractor, but with a cart secured to the rear. It meant that, unlike the common idea at that time - engines built on the front, the engine was at the rear.

And, while the early versions proved useful, they were extremely labor intensive, yet could only carry a single car. Nonetheless, their growth in demand created a whirlwind of modifications meant to enhance their usefulness and productivity. The phenomenon resulted in Alexander Winton's competitor automotive manufacturing firms relentlessly trying to usurp him in the business.

The Expansion:

With him focusing on creating better-performing engines, his interest in bettering the design of his first semi-trucks would continue to wane. Credit goes to such names as August Charles Fruehauf of Detroit who helped ease the process of shipping boats. But it is John C. Endebrock (1918) who was so experienced in building horse carriages that he decided to use the same knowledge and inspire the creation of the "trailmobile."

The 1918's design would allow easy and single-operator hooking of the trailer to the vehicle. It was an improvement from the early one that needed at least three men to hook it up to the car's chassis, and thus an instant hit. To date, Trailmobile still exists as a great brand.

There was yet another modification in the 1920s, thanks to George Cassens. He was a smart car salesperson who would often deliver cars to buyers. He, therefore, created a semi-trailer that could carry up to four, and his haulage capacity increased. Much of the inspiration to create it emanated from the high and prohibitive shipping costs.

Just when you thought the new semi-trailer would steal the show, Mack Trucks arrived. Between 1929 and 1944, the firm would grow in popularity thanks to their automatic starting truck engines. Mac was a sudden trendsetter in the industry, most notably because all their trucks were durable. Over 2,601 semi or full trailers at such period was no mean feat.

In a period spanning more than a century, Winton's two wheel semi-trailer has evolved into an eighteen wheeler semi-truck with three axles. And, given that the use of semi-trailer trucks serve as a backbone of the commercial trucking sector, the over 70% of all commodities hauled using vehicles in the US today is no surprise.

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