A Gallery (And History) Of Freightliner COE Trucks – All Shot In The Sixties At The Same California Rest Stop

The long-nose conventional Peterbilt and Kenworth may be the most readily identified big American semi truck, but the Freightliner COE (Cab Over Engine) was the most popular of its kind, outselling all others, for decades. How did a truck designed by the president of a freight company for their own use become such a massive hit? It was light—the first to be made out of aluminum—and compact, allowing longer and heavier loads, and thus made its owners more money. How’s that for a winning formula?

These shots are part of a large number all taken by Brian Williams at the same rest area on I-5 near Lebec, on the Tejon Pass near Fort Tejon in the 1960s and early ’70s. It’s only appropriate that the first one should be of a Consolidated Freightways truck, as that’s the company where it was first conceived in 1940 and which gave it its iconic name. The success of the Freightliner propelled its maker, owned by Daimler since 1981, to the top of its field of Class 8 manufacturers.

In 1940 CF President Leland James conceived of a lighter and more compact truck to haul his company’s loads in order to increase net payload. The result was an all-aluminum cab, and a very short one, the Model 600, first built in 1942, and dubbed “shovelnose”. CF sold its first truck to an outside client in 1949, and since it did not wish to get involved in the marketing, distribution and service business, it entered an agreement with White Motors in 1951 to provide those services, and the badge on the grille was changed to “White – Freightliner”.  The range was expanded to include sleeper cabs.

This is a typical West Coast Freightliner from the 50’s, with a long wheelbase as the overall length limits were much more generous out West than in the Eastern parts of the country.

Due to its short cab, Freightliner was able to offer Eastern operators a sleeper cab that could still haul a 35′ trailer; this was the key to its rapid acceptance and popularity in the East, where it quickly became the dominant COE semi truck.

On the West Coast, rigid trucks with full trailers were quite common, as it took advantage of the longer lengths allowed. This is a typical example.

In 1954, the “shovelnose” was replaced by the iconic WFT series, which was even more compact. And starting in 1958, it was available as a 90 degree tilt cab, a huge boon for servicing the engine.


These first two truck with the vertical grille ribs are from the first few years of WFT production.

Later versions had this grille design.


This is a “dromedary”, with a cargo box on its long wheelbase.

Another straight truck and full trailer.



Another long wheelbase semi truck. When I first saw these after arriving in California in 1972, I was a bit baffled by them. Why all that wasted space on that long wheelbase? They do things different out here…


Freightliner pioneered the cab-over sleeper; with a penthouse. All to make another 2-3′ of space for the…livestock, in this case.

Around 1958, quad headlights became optional. Aluminum front wheels were a popular weight-saving option. This looks to have aluminum rear wheels too. Aluminum frames were another option. And another weight saving trick was no front brakes. Seriously; prior to 1980, front wheel brakes on three-axle trucks were not required, and I saw lots of them that way out West.

A couple of milk haulers.

A load of wine.

This one has had the paint blasted off by sand and dust, exposing the bare aluminum.


This is a another variation, with a rigid truck that has a fifth wheel very far back. A real space saver.




In 1974, Freightliner not only had introduced its conventional truck (left) but also the Powerliner, a super-powered version of the COE that came standard with a 400 hp DD 12V-71 and an optional  600 hp Cummins KTA-600 with 1150 cubic inches (19 L), a larege and heavy engine originally not intended for highway trucks. It was the biggest displacement diesel engine ever offered in regular production highway trucks. No wonder the Powerliner had a massive 2000 square inch radiator as well as numerous other changes. The full story on the Powerliner is here.

In 1999, the final version of the traditional Freightliner COE (FLA/FLB) was replaced by the new Argosy, the last new Class 8 COE truck in the US. But the rapid demise of COE trucks due to more generous length limits nationwide made it irrelevant within a short time, and sales in the US ended already in 2005. It was produced only for export markets until 2020, when it was shut down, ending a 78 year tradition of Freightliner COEs.


Be sure to check out CC’s huge archive of posts on trucks (click this link).

Here’s one about The Rise And Fall Of The American COE (cabover) Truck