Let's celebrate 50 years of truck and trailer history

Nov. 1, 2009
Do you think the commercial truck and trailer industry will ever offer truck bodies and trailers that are light enough, durable enough, and inexpensive enough

DO you think the commercial truck and trailer industry will ever offer truck bodies and trailers that are light enough, durable enough, and inexpensive enough?

The commercial truck and trailer business is constantly striving to develop a better way to do things. And the way the market measured “better” 50 years ago is a lot like the way the market measures it today. Customers continue to want to transport more stuff in less time. They want equipment that lasts longer, is more efficient, and costs less.

After thumbing through 50 years of Trailer/Body Builders back issues, it strikes us that what was news then is news now. In the half-century that Trailer/Body Builders has been in business, the themes of the stories that we wrote decades ago have a familiar ring to them today. The “why” element of stories rarely changes. People and companies make changes (and news) to provide more value to the people that they serve.

It's the “what,” “who” and “how” elements that really keep us in business. What are people doing differently? How are they doing it? Fortunately for us at Trailer/Body Builders, these change constantly. New people, new ideas, new solutions to the changes in the marketplace. If that were not the case, we as a magazine would have nothing to offer you. Because of you and your marketplace, Trailer/Body Builders has had plenty to write about over the past 50 years. Let's take a look at the 50 years that we have spent together.

Our start

Trailer/Body Builders published its first issue in November 1959. Dwight Eisenhower was president at the time. Three years earlier, Eisenhower signed the bill that literally paved the way for the prosperity of our industry — the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the Interstate Highway System. Growth in trailer manufacturing can be attributed in large measure to the network of highways that made interstate transportation much easier. As the highway system began to be built, the implications were substantial. Building and maintaining these highways was a boon for the sales of truck bodies, equipment, and trailers. And as those highways opened, distant markets became accessible in ways they never had before. The result: local and regional manufacturers gained access to more customers.

But highways were merely one way to move freight. Our early issues gave considerable attention to the evolving concept of intermodal transportation. For example, the second issue we published carried the thoughts of John Hulse, managing director of the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association, in which he listed nine reasons why containers could succeed in the 1960s (the concept failed in the 1930s). One of the biggest disadvantages at the time was a lack of manufacturing standards.

Truck trailers also lacked standard dimensions as the 1950s were drawing to a close, but that was changing. In 1959 alone, 10 states legalized 40-ft trailers, leaving only two states in which 40-ft trailers were too long to be legal.

Steel had been the material of choice for truck bodies in the first half of the 20th century. Yeah, rust was a problem, but at least it didn't rot like the wooden truck bodies that were popular earlier. But at the end of the 1950s, engineers were figuring out how to use aluminum effectively. The Penn Body Division of the Hockensmith Corporation made big news in our second issue by developing a dump body made of aluminum extrusions. The Brown Trailer Division of Clark Equipment Company also was making breakthroughs, designing an exterior-post van trailer that provided a 94-inch load width.

The 1960s

As America entered one of its more turbulent decades, the industry continued to search for better materials and designs for use in truck body and trailer manufacturing and for more efficient ways to move freight.

Our first major feature story on the use of plastics came in June 1960. It combined two concepts that we frequently covered back then — materials and containerization. Built by Space Structures Inc (remember how captivated everyone was with “space” in the 1960s?), these containers were made of plastic and foam. They were designed to allow refrigerated cargoes to be shipped in dry-freight vans.

Ten years after the German defeat in World War II, a rebuilt Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft formed Volkwagen of America in 1955. Led by the Beetle, an array of imported automobiles increasingly entered the North American automobile market. The international influence spilled over into the truck market as Volvo, Renault, and others provided vehicles for the U S market.

And speaking of truck chassis, don't think the current talk about alternative fuels is anything new. The milkman may be a thing of the past, but our July 1960 issue carried a story about milk delivery trucks that were powered exclusively by electric motors. Smith's Delivery Vehicles Ltd from the United Kingdom opened a U S office in Runnymede, New Jersey, and began selling a 1¼-ton delivery vehicle that could carry 80 cases of milk. The truck had a cruising range of 30 miles and a top speed of 25 mph. Blantyre Dairy of Toronto had a fleet of 30. The fleet manager determined that the operating cost of the trucks was one cent per mile. “There is only one other vehicle in our operation that we can move for less money, and that is our wheelbarrow,” the owner of the company said.

The outlook for the industry was encouraging as the new decade began. A major labor strike by steelworkers had caused economic chaos, but there were plenty of reasons for optimism among those in the commercial truck and trailer market: growth of the highway system, increased use of bulk hauling, and technology that allowed more refrigerated goods to be transported by truck. Container production had shot up from 1,977 in 1958, but had grown to 6,000 in 1960. Doubles trailers were beginning to be allowed on turnpikes. And the U S economy was strengthening.

The commercial truck business was growing, as was the industry's trade association — the Truck Body & Equipment Association. The 13th annual TBEA convention drew almost 2,000 people. The association had won a favorable ruling on federal excise tax that year, along with a postponement in a lighting requirement from the Interstate Commerce Commission. TBEA also reported progress in developing standards for refrigerated truck bodies.

But all was not harmonious with TBEA members. Containing a mix of distributor and manufacturing members, TBEA had to deal with tension between the two groups. Complaints included manufacturers who were selling direct and distrust between manufacturers and distributors. As one speaker said at the association's 1963 convention, “This problem is indeed a very real one and, in my opinion, one which deserves our most serious consideration.”

In 1964, a tiny band of truck equipment distributors formed a group of their own — the Truck Equipment and Body Distributors Association.

“Distributors were complaining that the manufacturers were running the show at TBEA,” says Ron Collins, co-president of Venco/Venturo. A lot of people felt that no one was serving the truck equipment distributor.”

Ron's father, Art Collins, was president of a manufacturers rep company. He began talking to people about starting a new association — what is now the National Truck Equipment Association.

“The attraction for everyone was that it was cheap,” Ron Collins says. “For $50 dollars, manufacturers could display posters on an easel.”

Distributors could learn about sales, advertising, and managing their businesses.

“There was no money to pay anyone,” Collins says. “Art was the whole show. But he would talk to anyone for nothing, and he provided distributors with programs to improve their business.”

Collins says his father hired an addressograph salesman to serve as the association's first executive director and gave him a little desk in the upstairs office.

Membership started growing. Initially the meetings were sporadic, with no annual convention. “We were new at this,” Collins says. “We had no idea how many people would show up. Those early meetings were just get-togethers that we held to try to drum up members.”

The 1970s

As the 1970s rolled in, so did a wave of federal regulations that had major effects on commercial trucks and trailers. The three major regulatory agencies that affect our industry all were created during a flurry of legislative activity in December 1970.

The Environmental Protection Agency was proposed by President Richard Nixon and began operation on December 2, 1970, when its establishment was passed by Congress, and signed into law by President Nixon.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created by Congress of the United States under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed by President Richard M Nixon, on December 29, 1970.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also was formed then. Spurred by a rise in consumerism — personified by Ralph Nader's campaign against the Chevrolet Corvair — led Congress to pass the Highway Safety Act of 1970. NHTSA immediately began to implement an array of safety standards that impact virtually every facet of trucks and trailers — from headlights to rear bumpers.

The regulation garnering the most attention during the 1970s was FMVSS 121. Despite protests from trailer manufactures, fleets, and others that the technology at the time was not yet ready, NHTSA pushed rulemaking that mandated the use of antilock brakes for trailers. The industry claims were validated in 1978 when a federal appeals court threw out the requirement.

Trailer customers made it clear that they did not want ABS on trailers, at least back then. To beat the January 1, 1975 effective date for the standard, fleets bought more than 200,000 trailers in 1974 — the industry's best year in history. Of course, once the regulation went into effect, the market collapsed, and trailer manufacturers had their worst year of the decade in 1975.

NHTSA regulations also brought a new set of concerns to the truck equipment industry. The big challenge for truck equipment distributors was learning the ins and outs of vehicle certification. Much of the work that upfitters routinely perform has no bearing on the array of safety standards that apply to the vehicle in general. Whether the truck complies with them generally falls within the realm of the chassis manufacturer. The truck equipment industry argued that it should not be liable for the work performed by the chassis manufacturers. Over time, the efforts of chassis manufacturers, today's National Truck Equipment Association, NHTSA itself, and an occasional lawsuit crafted the vehicle certification system that is in use today.

As the 1970s ended, trailer manufacturers again were prospering — enjoying a record year in 1979. The truck equipment industry was growing, fueled in part by unprecedented popularity of light trucks and accessories. The Truck Equipment and Body Distributors Association was growing, too. In 1979, the group was renamed the National Truck Equipment Association. Headquarters moved from Cincinnati to Detroit to provide closer ties with chassis manufacturers.

The 1980s

Perhaps the dominant force that changed the world of truck body and trailer manufacturers in the 1980s was the explosive growth of computer technology.

Computer-controlled machine tools swept away the industry's remaining vestiges of blacksmith shops. Production accuracies and repeatability that previously were unattainable became routine as computers controlled press brakes and turret presses. Drawing boards and T squares suddenly became obsolete as computer-aided design software offered speed, repeatability, and the ability to drive production tools directly from CAD drawings. Nesting software, working in conjunction with CAD software, helped manufacturers reduce scrap. And management software was developed that monitored all facets of the manufacturing process.

Truck equipment distributors also bought into the new technology. Computerized inventory control systems replaced boxes of index cards. Inventories could be controlled in real time. Meanwhile, the decreasing cost of hardware and CAD software meant that distributors could afford to offer more professional engineering services.

On the regulatory front, Congress approved new size and weight regulations that created consistent limits for trucks and trailers. Approved in 1982, the law allowed the use of doubles trailers anywhere on the national network of highways. It also created a standard 48-ft length for trailers and increased the overall width limit from 96 inches to 102 inches. The new length limit created a flurry of demand in the aftermarket for trailer stretching services. But no one really figured out a feasible way to increase trailer width, so the result was another increase in demand for new trailers. Trailer manufacturers enjoyed another record year in 1984, shipping more than 214,000 trailers.

In the mid-1980s, significant changes were taking place in truck equipment. Distributors were beginning to operate their own chassis pools. As one distributor said at the time, “If you can control the chassis, you can control the market.”

The practice triggered a heated debate. As we researched our first article on chassis pools, one distributor who operated a pool tried to talk us out of addressing the subject.

“Don't run anything on this,” he said. “It's too controversial.”

Light trucks continued to grow, as did the market for light-duty trailers. A group of manufacturers gathered to form the National Association of Livestock Trailer Manufacturers (NALTM). Recognizing the need to include other light-duty trailers as members, the group has grown significantly in size and influence. Today it has a new name — the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers.

The 1990s

As they continued to buy more computer horsepower, distributors began offering increased engineering services. One of the industry's most common requests of chassis manufacturers was to provide chassis CAD drawings so that distributors could electronically “assemble” the chassis, body, and equipment before the vehicle ever existed.

Manufacturers, whether trailer or truck body, were hitting their stride with the use of automated equipment. Production standards were never higher, and efficiency continued to improve. Increasingly manufacturers borrowed ideas from the automotive industry, including capital-intensive e-coat lines, robotic welding, and continuous improvement programs.

A New Century

Y2K failed to cause the economic collapse that many predicted, but it has been a turbulent decade, nevertheless. Mergers and acquisitions at all levels were common early in the decade. Private equity companies bought some of the industry's most successful companies. Truck body manufacturers bought some of their distributors. Distributors grew as manufacturers. The once simple channel of distribution had become more of a web and less of a channel.

The other Web — the Internet — exploded in the first decade of the 21st century. Early ventures into cyberspace typically were nothing more than billboards on a computer screen. Increasingly, however, companies are using their Web sites as places to view videos, check order status or inventory levels, and place orders. But you know that. You probably have done at least one of these things already this morning.

The present decade has been a true roller coaster ride — two downturns separated by some of the best years in industry history.

It's been a remarkable 50 years. A lot of changes. But the future promises that more changes will come, because truck bodies and trailers still are not light enough, durable enough, or inexpensive enough to permanently satisfy the customers who buy them.

All of us at Trailer/Body Builders would like to genuinely thank you for your support over the past century. While we can't know each and every reader, we count many of you as personal friends. We have grown up together. Together we have watched our children grow, and together we have mourned the loss of many in this industry who have passed on after contributing much.

Thank you for sharing your ideas and your industry with us these last 50 years. We look forward to serving you for many years to come.

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.