You don’t see many of these anymore. Hard to imagine in today’s online, interconnected world that there was a time when libraries were the main source of non-electronic information and entertainment for most Americans. But even then, there were regions, mostly smaller towns and rural areas, that lacked the resources or population base to sustain their own public library. For those areas, residents were typically served by a “Bookmobile”; a large commercial vehicle with a special body. In the US, the company that provided 90% of these vehicles from the post-war period through 1986 was the Gerstenslager Co. of Wooster Ohio – the picture above is one of their medium-sized, forward-control models from the 1960’s.
Gerstenslager was one of the many custom body builders that flourished in the 1920’s and 30’s – providing custom body work that went over an existing chassis supplied by one of the major truck manufacturers. During this period, its primary customers were the US Govt, which purchased over 5,000 Ford Model A-based small postal delivery vehicles, and moving/storage companies for the company’s large vans.
Post-war, the company was looking to expand, and searched for a niche to exploit – they found one in building mobile libraries; “Bookmobiles.” Communities could choose from several different sizes; on the right above is a smaller version, built on the ubiquitous Ford Vanette chassis, and on the left is a larger model, with chassis by International Harvester.
The Ford could be powered by one of several inline sixes, depending upon model year – a 226 Flathead, a 223 OHV, and finally Ford’s 240 and 300 cu in fleet/truck engines. The IH had the company’s “Red Diamond” inline gas six in 5.2 to 8.2 litre sizes.
High quality craftsmanship made for many repeat customers…
Larger models could also be ordered using a transit or school bus chassis – this one appears to be from White.
Sales increased in the 60’s as larger cities sought to bring books to poorer, disadvantaged neighborhoods that lacked a library annex.
1959 Ward LaFrance with Gerstenslager body
Gerstenslager supplemented the bookmobile business with a line of fire apparatus (both full trucks and special bodies), rescue vehicles, and mobile hospital suites.
They also built the 1952 “Gen 2” version of a this somewhat famous vehicle.
The last Gerstenslager Bookmobile was built in 1986 and unfortunately a downturn in all its products forced the company to discontinue its custom body line in the 90’s, but it is still in business today, providing custom steel stampings to all the major auto and truck manufacturers.
So, when was the last time you saw one of these?