With just a terse statement through P.R. Newswire, Livermore, California-based Fabco Automotive, one of the last vestiges of the San Francisco Bay Area’s proud automotive history, vanishes. The meat of the statement reads as follows:
“TROY, Mich., Sept. 5, 2017 /PRNewswire/ — Meritor, Inc. (NYSE: MTOR) today announced that it has acquired the product portfolio and related technologies of Fabco Holdings, Inc. (“Fabco”) and its subsidiaries. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.”
The name Fabco is not well known, even within the heavy truck industry where most of its products have been focused. This invisibility was partly by design – the strategy the company pursued throughout most of its history was to target niche markets, avoiding direct competition with better-financed firms usually, enjoying greater economies of scale as found on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Of these niche products, the most notable over the years are probably the Lettuce Trucks which still roam the Salinas Valley of California
The F.A.B. Manufacturing Company was organized in December of 1918 and incorporated on February 28, 1919 as a California Corporation. The company was named after its three founders, Freitag, Ainsworth, and Beane. A manufacturing plant in Oakland, California was acquired to manufacture pumps for handling lubricating oils and other liquids from steel barrels, and an external contracting brake system for Model T Fords, always under the brand FABCO. The brake system was the first foray of the company into the specialty vehicle market where FABCO would focus its efforts over the next 99 years. The manufacture of extension truck frames for Ford trucks began in 1919. Sales were made through the Ford dealer organization in Northern California and Western Nevada. Extension truck frames and lumber handling equipment were produced for several makes of trucks and the sales territory extended to cover the entire Pacific Coast.
The manufacturing plant was located at 1249 67th Street and eventually expanded to 208 acres, split between Emeryville and Oakland, with the border between them running through the offices adjacent to and connected to the plant itself. The plant itself was by no means an anomaly on the West Coast. Just down the road in Oakland, Chevrolet (before it merged with General Motors) had opened its West Coast Assembly plant in 1916, with a Fisher Body plant to follow in 1923. Fageol, later to be taken over by T.A. Peterman and become Peterbilt, began with a plant also in Oakland and in the same year, 1916. Gillig, later to move to Hayward, south of Oakland, began focusing on custom vehicle body manufacture in their original San Francisco location in 1907. Just north of the Fabco plant, the Berkeley-based Hall-Scott engine company was a key player in early aircraft engines but made most of its profits from large gasoline engines for heavy trucks, buses, and marine applications. The Ruckstell two-speed axle for Model T Fords was originally developed by an employee of Hall-Scott, and manufactured in Berkeley until 1926, when the product was taken over by Eaton Axle Company of Ohio.
These automotive manufacturers were supported by a large industrial base which got its start supporting the West Coast shipping industry. Notable in the early years were Union Iron Works (later to become part of Bethlehem Steel) in San Francisco, Judson Iron Works in Emeryville, and numerous foundries, the most notable of which were the H.C. Macaulay Foundry in Berkeley, which among other feats cast the blocks for the Offenhauser racing engine, and Pacific Steel Casting Company, regular supplier of castings to FABCO throughout their mutual history (though no longer as Pacific Steel is closing as of December 2017).
In the 1920s, FABCO expanded their line of extension frames to cover both Ford and Chevrolet trucks, developing along the way custom truck suspensions, and a series of dump bodies, tag axles, semi-trailers, and full trailers, concentrating on markets unique to the West Coast, which meant lumber (FABCO “Grizzly” log trailers for Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Phillipines), and specialized trailers for sugar cane harvesting in Hawaii.
The company continued to look for additional markets, designing a line of flexible couplings in 1925, and in 1927 beginning the manufacturing of a diesel engine, the FABCO Tuxham, under license from Europe.
In the early 1930s FABCO developed a tandem drive axle unit for trucks was developed and manufactured. Because interaxle differentials had not yet been developed, this was designed as a drop-box power divider, with individual driveshafts sending power to forward and rear axles of the tandem axle pair, with the power divider directly coupled to a Brown and Lupe two-speed auxiliary transmission.
The development of the tandem axle conversion lead directly to fire truck and school bus chassis production, along with special lettuce harvesting and packing equipment. Originally fire trucks were manufactured for California Fire Departments on modified Chevrolet chassis, but by 1940 the company had begun building its own complete chassis.
More importantly, the power divider led directly to the development of FABCO’s first transfer case, the DD71-4B of 1936. The complete custom chassis capability also led to the first Gillig bus with a midship-mounted engine, with a chassis by FABCO and powered by a laid-down Hall-Scott engine. By 1940 sales distribution of FABCO products covered most of the U.S. and Hawaii.
During World War II, tandem drive axle conversion units were built for the U.S. Army for use in airport construction and other uses. The company was also a prime contractor for the production of barrage balloon winches, fire trucks and trailer-mounted emergency pumper units for the U.S. Army and Navy.
After the war company solid its fire truck business to two employees, who formed Coast Fire Apparatus in Martinez and built fire apparatus mainly on International Harvester chassis until 1966, which they obtained from the new International Harvester plant built after the war just down the street in Emeryville. FABCO eventually found itself neighbors not only of International and Peterbilt, but also of Mack Truck, which opened a plant in Hayward in the 1960’s.
FABCO turned from building school bus and fire truck chassis to concentrating on various niche markets where its expertise in tandem axle and transfer case design would provide the greatest return amid the least competition. The most memorable of these products were the FABCO WT (“Wide Track”) Lettuce Trucks. These were 6×6 trucks using special wide-track single-tire axles on both the front and rear, designed to drive right into the lettuce fields without hurting the produce, take on a load of lettuce whilst moving slowly down the rows in concert with the farm workers, and subsequently drive down the highway to refrigerated storage as quickly as possible. The design originated from FABCO’s experience converting trucks to 6×4 for the lettuce industry. The most common versions utilized either Ford V-8 or Detroit Diesel power, coupled to 5-speed Clark main and 3-speed Spicer auxiliary transmissions, with a Fabco 2-speed transfer case, providing a total of 30 forward speeds and 6 reverse, allowing for speeds down to 1 mph.
The FABCO Lettuce Truck became ubiquitous in the Lettuce-growing regions of the Salinas Valley in California and the Yuma Valley in Arizona. Production continued throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, only ceasing sometime in the early 1980’s.
A number of factors contributed to the end of production – the prospect of increasingly stringent Federal regulations (some of which never went into effect) made further investment in lettuce truck production a risky proposition. But perhaps a more significant factor was simply market saturation – by this time most operators had built out their fleets, and the product, being simple and rugged in design, proved long-lasting – operators preferred to maintain, repair, and improve (and in many cases manufacture their own replacement parts) rather than buy new trucks. Even today, more than 35 years since the last WT-series truck was produced, a large fleet of them is still utilized by Massolo Brothers in the Salinas and Yuma Valleys.
In the early 1950’s the company also began in earnest to develop products for the conversion of medium- and heavy-duty trucks to all-wheel-drive. FABCO saw as its niche four-wheel drive components that would also allow for traveling at typical highway speeds. In this way, it aimed to differentiate itself from the typical all-wheel-drive trucks produced before or during WWII, which gained all-wheel-drive capability at the cost of limited top speed and/or decreased agility and driver comfort.
The first postwar Fabco all-wheel-drive conversions were applied to Ford and GMC trucks in the early and mid-1950s.
In the mid-1950s the company extended these to include a range of front drive axles which were developed to span the range from 9,000 to 18,000 lb load rating. The FABCO TC-500 was developed with an increased capacity, and a range of options including differentials for full-time AWD, as well as declutchable front driveshafts. These drive axles and transfer cases were applied to FABCO’s own specialty trucks as well as conversions of other manufacturers’ medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
FABCO continued to build tandem axle conversions, including developing a lightweight version, and also continued to build specialty trucks. FABCO designed and built the first yard tractors in 1958, and in 1972 FABCO designed and build the first yard tractors for the roll-on roll-off (“Ro-Ro”) method of container and trailer loading. A range of specialty utility vehicles were also designed and built in the 1960’s. These included various utility trucks, the FABCO Flat Top for transporting and installing pipelines and utility poles, an arctic vehicle for the U.S. Navy, a dual-steer/dual-direction tunnel washer for CalTrans, a specialty self-propelled fruit harvester, a container loader for the first generation of wide-body aircraft, and the FABCO “Hy Gy” for power line insulator washing.
In 1968 the descendants of the founders sold the company to Kelsey-Hayes Corporation, and F.A.B. Manufacturing became the FABCO division of Kelsey-Hayes. Increasingly the company focused on the business of front drive axles, transfer cases, and conversion kits. Notable in this time frame was a project to equip a fleet of several hundred International Unistar tractors with special double-cardan front drive axles with an overrunning clutch, for use in the winter conditions encountered in the western mountains. Trucks with this system regularly logged a million miles of service with only regular maintenance.
A complete line of transfer cases was developed to accompany Fabco’s axle offerings, and included innovations such as de-clutchable output shafts, automatic front axle engagement, differentials, high torque capability, proportioning differentials, integral air shift capability, two-piece housings, tapered roller bearings, among other engineered features. The current line ranges from variants of the TC-237 two-speed transfer case nominally rated at 6,000 lb-ft input torque and 350 Hp, and its iron-case 4-shaft cousin the TC-38 nominally rated at 8,500 lb-ft and 350 Hp, up to the TC-143 single-speed and TC-142 two-speed transfer cases nominally rated at 20,000 lb-ft input torque and 600 Hp. Transfer case variants have been produced for both “part-time” AWD and “full-time” AWD, the latter incorporating differentials to allow for varying speeds between the front and rear axles. A recent application of the latter is a variant of the TC-170 used on the Australian Bushmaster.
As the 1970s progressed, FABCO concentrated more and more on the front drive axle and transfer case business. The specialty truck market had become more difficult, with both increased regulation (the introduction of the FMVSS standards) and increased competition. The last endeavor in the specialty truck market was a line of all-wheel-drive utility trucks with full-width cabs, the UV series, introduced in 1972. By 1975 FABCO had withdrawn from all specialty truck manufacture apart from the continued production of Lettuce Trucks. Sometime during this era the logo changed from FABCO in all upper-case, typically block-style letters, to a script “Fabco” with only the first letter capitalized.
One of the first fruits of the Kelsey-Hayes/Fabco linkup was the incorporation of Kelsey-Hayes’ newly developed disc brakes for heavy trucks into Fabco’s newly designed 23,000 lb steerable drive axles, first introduced in 1976. This was partly spurred by the introduction of the Federal brake standard FMVSS121, which specified no more than a 245 ft stopping distance within a 12-foot lane.
There exists an SAE paper from 1977 about the Fabco SDA-23 Axle, SAE paper #770669 “A Front Wheel Drive 23,000 pound axle”, by J. Stanley L. Thomas. The paper includes a cutaway diagram of the Fabco axle:
The diagram illustrates a number of characteristic features of Fabco axles, including adjustable Nylatron bushings used for the king pin pivots, a bronze bushing inside the wheel spindle to locate the yoke shaft, and tapered roller wheel bearings. At various times both single-Cardan and double-Cardan universal joints have been utilized. The related SDA-18 and SDA-21 (21,000#) had wedge brakes, and the later SDA-1800/2100/2300 and its successors have S-Cam drum brakes as is conventional for domestic applications in the United States. Over the years Fabco has had a number of U.S. patents granted, including #’s 2781211, 3253670, 3472349, and 3605930.
Fabco had always had a relationship with International Trucks, made simpler perhaps by the Emeryville International Truck plant just down the street. Building off their experience with the Unistar, International began to offer Fabco axles and transfer cases as factory options, as they do to this day. Eventually, Fabco axles spanned the range between 8,000 and 23,000 lbs, with transfer cases ranging up to 20,000 #-ft of input torque, and were offered as factory options by International, Mack, Peterbilt, Kenworth, Western Star, Sterling, and Autocar, and on Freightliner, Volvo, and GMC/Chevrolet trucks through conversion shops such as Monroe Truck Equipment or Tulsa Truck Manufacturing.
Fabco, in cooperation with International, for many years had a large percentage of the medium-duty AWD market. This was due to a combination of the economies of scale provided by installation on the International factory assembly line, and the advantages of the Fabco axle and transfer case – in contrast with their competitors at the time, Fabco offered axles with an offset bowl which allowed for reduced frame height, in combination with the four-shaft Fabco TC-38 and TC-200 transfer cases.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Fabco expanded from axles and transfer cases to “split-shaft power take-offs”, or split-shaft PTOs. Installed between the transmission and the rear axle, these devices, essentially a 3-shaft transfer case mounted with the input shaft at the bottom, allowed pumps and other devices to be powered by the full power of the engine when the truck was stopped. The current TC-180 and the Cushman-derived TC-500 series build upon this success. Recently Fabco expanded into the auxiliary transmission business with a variant of the TC-237 used in Agricultural fertilizer spreaders, and the FAT-30, named for the 30,000 lb-ft input torque rating, used in heavy-haul applications.
Throughout all this time Fabco remained a small business with a total headcount rarely exceeding 100 people up until the absorption of R.A. Cushman and GMH Transmission. Yearly production for the largest-selling range of front-drive axles rarely exceeded 1000 units, and the assembly line never incorporated much in the way of automation. For much of its history Fabco in some sense was “allowed” to operate by the larger manufacturers Rockwell (now Meritor), Dana/Spicer, and Eaton, since Fabco serviced a small niche market which was an inconvenience at best for the large players, yet significant enough that if these customers were not served by someone it would become a problem. To that end, Fabco was allowed to purchase differential and brake assemblies from large suppliers, initially from Eaton and subsequently from Dana, after Dana bought Eaton’s axle and brake business.
Even after the Kelsey-Hayes takeover, descendants of the founders and long-term employees continued to contribute. In 1970 Lane Ainsworth, the son of the “A”, was president, with Terry Smith and J. Stanley L. Thomas in Engineering. Mark Niemela began as production manager, eventually promoted to general manager sometime in the 1970s, and maintained his leadership until his retirement at the end of the 1990s. Terry Smith likewise ran Engineering until his retirement in the mid-1990s as well. Sam Ruffino began working in Engineering in 1970 and (apart from a few detours) has been a constant presence since then. In the mid-1990s Al Sunderland joined, first in Sales, then taking over Engineering, finally leading the company as president for nearly 20 years, for much of that time assisted by Tony Miller as head of Sales. Other longtime employees from both the Emeryville and Livermore locations included Robert Anderson, Robert Barter, Rini Indriani, Lou Keane, Emmanuel Marti, Sean Murray, and Stephen Sellick.
In the later period of Sunderland’s management, the company enjoyed a period of expansion, buying their competitor in specialty gearboxes, R. Cushman of Michigan (successor to Noster Industries), and subsequently GMH Transmission based out of Austria. Perhaps this period of expansion led to the takeover by Meritor, historically the truck components manufacturer most commonly in direct competition with Fabco, dating back to the days when the Meritor truck components division was known as Rockwell.
The stability of the company internally was not matched by the stability of ownership. Kelsey-Hayes merged with Fruehauf in 1976, and the marriage was rocky, leading eventually to the bankruptcy of Fruehauf and the re-emergence of Kelsey-Hayes as an independent company. In 1987 Fabco was packaged with sister companies Gunite Corporation and Brillion Iron Works (Brillion itself was shut down in 2016) and sold to a group of investors organizing themselves as Truck Components, Inc. Thus began a sequence of mergers, divestments, relocations, and acquisitions. Here is the timeline since 1968:
- 1968 Fabco acquired by Kelsey Hayes.
- 1973 Kelsey Hayes and Fruehauf Merge.
- 1987 Fabco acquired along with Gunite and Brillion by Lovejoy Management Truck Components Inc (TCI).
- 1994 TCI acquired by Castle Harlan.
- 1995 Castle Harlan sold TCI to Johnstown America.
- 1999 Johnstown America formed Transportation Tech Inc (TTI) .
- 2003 Oakland site sold and plant demolished to make way for condominiums. Fabco relocates to Livermore, California.
- 2005 Accuride acquired TTI.
- 2011 Wynnchurch Capital acquired Fabco from Accuride.
- 2012 Fabco acquired R. Cushman and Associates, formerly Noster Industries
- 2013 Fabco acquired GMH Transmission (Austria)
- 2017 Gerry Giudici (Management) acquired Fabco.
- 10/2017 now owned by Meritor.
All in all, it’s been a good run. For most of its history Fabco survived in equal parts in spite of and because of its small size and location in out-of-the-way/off-the-radar California. It is ironic, perhaps, that it is disappearing just as it has expanded both geographically (with locations in Michigan and Austria) and financially. Perhaps Fabco finally became too successful for its own good. The products themselves may live on, as well as perhaps the Livermore location, but the name Fabco has in all likelihood passed into history.