Car Carrier History: Part 1 – The Early Days (Through the 1930s)

I’ve been showing you lots of individual car carriers, a subject that caught my interest a while back after stumbling unto Dick Copello’s Flickr page. Dick hauled cars for some 30 years, and collected pictures along the way. And he has written the definitive book of the subject, American Car Haulers. I urge you to buy it if you’re interested in the subject in greater depth. I will be posting a few brief takes on this subject, for those of you not wanting to take the deep dive.

Like any subject examined for the first time in greater depth, it’s never quite as simple as it may appear, or extrapolating from the more recent period. Car hauling went through some very significant evolutionary steps, and it took some time for it to establish its current role in the automobile transport system. In the early days of the automobile, most cars were either shipped by rail or driven to their destination. There was not an established car carrier industry to speak of, and the picture above shows an early type of car shipment by truck, in this case in an American Railway Express van, a 1919 White. Note how the undersized wooden ramps are bending.

Model T’s being loaded on railcars in 1910: Ninety percent of the completed Model T’s were shipped within 24 hours, because no storage was available at Highland Park. A completed Model T was loaded on special auto carrying railcars and sent to destinations all over the United States and ultimately the world. From the collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. (Update: this shot is actually from the UK, as per the typical rigid twin axle railcars)

Here’s how many of the Model Ts were transported. Obviously these are special box cars designed expressly for the huge output of Ford’s plant. I wish I had more information on these unique railcars, but I don’t, as I just found the image in a search with the caption. As far as I know, many or most were actually shipped in conventional side-loading box cars.

This drawing from the ’40s shows the way complete cars were typically shipped in regular box cars, with special lifts. There were also turntables to facilitate getting the cars in.

Many Ford dealers chose to take delivery of their Ts in unassembled form, as seen here of some dozen chassis in one end of a box car. presumably the body parts were in the other side. It’s also possible that these were being shipped to one of the many growing number of Ford assembly plants all over the country.

Here’s a truck hauling unassembled Model Ts, in this case a 1922 Sterling.

It’s important to note that back then manufacturers sold their cars FOB, meaning that any shipping and delivery expense was on the dealer. That explains the choice to haul unassembled cars, as it was cheaper than shipping completed cars. The dealers also had to manage all of the logistics of finding their cars in the freight yards, unload them, and move them to the dealership.

This took considerable manpower and expense, so companies sprung up to handle these services for the dealers. Many of these companies ended up becoming the main early car transport companies.

The other option than rail shipment was “driveaway”, usually within some 100 miles of the factory. Dealers’ employees, family and anyone else who could drive was tasked with driving the new cars back, in a convoy. This also led to the formation of driveaway companies, some of which would deliver up to 100 cars in a batch.

Driveaway was of course cheaper than rail transport, and became increasingly popular, with drives as long as 1000 miles becoming more common. The driveaway companies claimed that they also broke in the cars “scientifically”, but that claim was dubious.

Prior to WW1, truck transport of cars was rare. Obviously the poor roads of the time was a factor, which inhibited long-haul trucking substantially.  But highway building took off after 1920, and that opened increasing opportunities for the trucking industry.

The 1920’s boom in auto production resulted in cars also being increasingly shipped by boat, through the Great Lakes, along the Eastern seaboard, and along the Pacific. That resulted in the growth of truck shipping companies to deliver the cars from ports to the dealers. The beginnings of an industry was taking shape.

And this is how the carriers of the ’20s typically looked, thanks to no regulations on trucking and in order to minimize capital expense. Ridiculously long rigid trailers, with four cars on board. Here’s a Model AA truck with no cab hauling four As.

They were dangerous for several reasons, one of them being the huge overhang at the rear which meant the trailer swung out widely in corners and curves.

But obviously these rigs were cheap and loading and unloading was a breeze.

There were some two level rigs, like this one hauling six cars pulled by a 1929 GMC truck.

The marketing point of the car haulers was “You’ll be the first driver”, meaning a fresh car and not one possibly abused on the drive from the factory.

But the unregulated era came to crashing halt in 1932, when the ICC was given the power to regulate all interstate trucking. Obviously, the highly regulated railroad industry had been lobbying for that for some time. By 1935, that started to take full effect, and all trucking companies had to file as private, common or contract carriers. Meanwhile, all the states were imposing their own regulations, on maximum length, weight and axle loading, among other things. The first effect, even in states that had a fairly generous length, was that the cars were now loaded tilted, so as to allow the same number of cars on shorter trailers.

Other creative solutions for more restrictive states followed.

Illinois and Kentucky had the most restrictive length regulations, at 35′ overall maximum in Illinois. This resulted in the “Illinois Specials”, that could still haul four cars.

Kentucky’s maximum was a mere 30′, which meant that loads coming from out of state had to be unloaded and hauled on one of these “Kentucky Specials”, which had a three car capacity.

Here’s a Chevrolet Illinois Special.

In the less restrictive states, four car rigs increasingly became the de-facto standard. This one is hauled by a White.

W & K was one of the leading early builders of car carrier equipment.

And by the late ’30s, some five-car rigs were to be seen, by utilizing a head rack.

We’ll close out this first part with this fuzzy but great snapshot of some Fords being hauled somewhere out in the West.