Vintage Truck of the Day: 1940s/1950s Sterling, Still With Chain Drive – And Belt Drive Too

Sterling trucks was one of the venerable old truck companies, going back to 1906 when it was founded in Milwaukee, WI. It was bought by White in 1951, and the brand was retired in 1954. The name was revived in 1998 by Daimler, to slot in between their Freightliner and Western Star brands, initially a line of rebadged the Ford Louisville/Aeromax trucks after Freightliner bought Ford’s HD truck business in 1997.

We’re not going to spend anymore time  on those neo-Sterlings, and instead take a look at a few original Sterlings, which were all heavy duty trucks, many like the one pictured above used chain drive right to the end of their production. Why? There were a number of good reasons, actually.

Here’s a closer look at this truck and its chain drive, as well as the guy with two left arms. Chain drive was a natural for trucks (and a fair number of cars back in the 00’s and teens) because it was a logical way to give them the massive gear reduction they needed, given their low power to weight ratios, as well as an easy way to change that ratio, should the need or desire arise. It avoided having to engineer and build a heavy and complex driven rear axle, especially in very challenging environments like construction, dump, concrete and off-road trucks. The famous Mack AC “Bulldog” truck used chain drives exclusively for two decades. Others too.

And there were few downsides to chains, since truck speeds were low. As long as top speeds were kept to some 25-30 mph, chain life was not a problem. Obviously they did break from time to time, but then so did rear axles, and it was a lot cheaper to replace a chain. Their reputation as being tough and having the capability to move almost anything given their low gearing made them highly functional and even legendary.

From the mid-30s on, when truck speeds increased from 20-25 mph to 35-40 mph or so, chain drives on highway trucks became rare, but were still common on “pit” trucks, as used on construction sites, logging and other slow heavy-duty work. But this Sterling hooked up to a trailer and shot in 1957 still has chains, quite visible. This truck appears to date back to the 1930s.

It’s impossible to tell if this Sterling has chains or not, but given the kind of work it’s doing, most likely it does. The dual axle chain drives typically had the differential/”drive axle” in between the two chain driven axles.

Several companies, including Cook, Fabco and Maxi made conversions of cheap Big Three trucks to chain drive, repositioning their drive axles further forward and adding chain drive to make the suitable for slow, heavy duty work, like this Ford converted by Cook. Top speed would be lowered to 25-30 mph, but much greater pulling power.

Here’s a Cook-converted Ford with a center-drive differential (likely from Sterling).

Cook Brothers even built this wild all-terrain prototype for the military in 1942, with two Cadillac engines driving two chain-driven bogies, front and rear.

Cook also built their own trucks, and was the last to build a chain drive truck, in 1964.

This post was to be about Sterling, not chain drive, but it’s a fascinating digression. Here’s a few Sterling gasoline haulers, likely at their terminal in Portland. Like almost all heavy duty truck makers back then—Mack and GMC being prime exceptions—Sterling used a variety of engine suppliers: Continental gas engines and diesels from Cummins and Buda, and both types from Waukesha. Sterling was a fairly early adopter of diesels.

This 1952 shot by Joe Wanchura in Seattle shows a Sterling straight (rigid) truck with a trailer.

Sterling also built COE trucks, like this 1938 Model G, here still hard at work in the ’50s hauling a big truck.

We’ll close out with this fine restored Sterling from Best Rigging and Transfer. Just the truck for hauling oversized loads like houses and such.

Postscript: Belts were also used on trucks, to power a normally undriven tag axle. Thousands of sugar beet haulers and other grain/farm product haulers were converted from single axle to belt-driven tandems by the Silent Drive Company.

Belt drive was also used fairly extensively in over-the-road big trucks.

It was a cost-effective solution to add capacity and traction.