Fifty years and counting

Nov. 1, 2009
Our founding editor reflects on the past half century of our industry

FIFTY years ago, Trailer/Body Builders was created to chronicle the events of an emerging industry that, in itself, was less than fifty years old. Early in the 20th century, pioneering wagon builders had forged that new industry making steel and wood cargo carriers hitched to the power of the truck. Two world wars had proven the worth of these rubber-tired freighters on the battlefield and on the home front, and after the war they helped fuel the growth of the country.

That's when we decided to record the stories and the growth of this still-developing concept. Our leader was Charles N Tunnell, who had been publishing magazines for industry since 1931, partnering with his daughter, Wanda Lynn Tunnell, and the senior editor, Paul Schenck.

When we started publication of Trailer Body Builders in November 1959, manufacturers were completing a good year building some 68,000 truck trailers and semi-trailers. Six years later, the industry passed the 100,000-trailer milestone, and 15 years after our start-up, it topped the 200,000-trailer mark. (That was an abnormal production year in 1974, artificially stimulated by an abortive federal attempt to impose antilock braking systems on a reluctant trucking industry).

The peak year in trailer production was not reached until our magazine's 40th anniversary, when over 300,000 trailers were built in 1999. It wasn't exactly consistent growth, going from annual production of 68,000 to over 300,000, but rather cycles of peaks and valleys that took a tremendous toll of this industry's individual company finances.

The economic cycles have been a wild ride for the winners, but the trail is littered with the debris of companies that didn't make it. Just look at the list of the “top ten” trailer manufacturers a half century ago. It was headed by Fruehauf with a 35% market share and Trailmobile with an 18% share. Together, these two companies controlled over half the market. Also in that top ten list in 1959 were Highway Trailer, Brown Trailer, Gindy, and Lufkin. All six of these leading manufacturers are gone now or are in bankruptcy. The only “top ten” companies remaining at the top of the list 50 years later are Great Dane and Utility Trailer. Kentucky Trailer is now one of the Top 25 manufacturers, and Dorsey Trailer is farther down the list.

In that same 50-year span, truck body builders have transformed mass produced truck chassis into the most diverse array of working trucks imaginable. From pickups to medium- and heavy-duty truck chassis, their ever-increasing horsepower has been harnessed to perform specific, labor-saving chores and custom hauling jobs.

The truck body numbers have been at least as great as on the trailer side. However, a limiting factor on truck body production growth has been the tendency to shift the load from the back of a truck to a trailer whenever the cargo box becomes too long. A good example is the way livestock is transported on the farm. The once-popular combination stock-and-grain body or livestock truck body has now been replaced by a medium-duty trailer pulled by a pickup truck.

But unit production numbers don't tell the whole story. An even bigger story is the virtual ballooning of the internal capacity of the nation's freight carriers. Who would have believed 50 years ago, when the largest semi-trailers were mainly limited to 35 and 40 feet in length, that today the standard size freight van would be 53 feet long? Or that the overall width would be pushed out another six inches to 8½ feet? Who would have predicted sidewalls less than a half inch, or a quarter inch thick? Cubic capacity has become all-important as freight density has become lighter with more pre-packaging of retail goods.

Truck trailer manufacturers in the United States have engineered the largest freight vans with the lightest tare weight anywhere in the world. Yet we are sadly behind most other developed nations in the total weight of standard trucks and trailers allowed on the road. State and national legislatures have been generous in allowing truck sizes to increase, but niggardly in allowing gross weights to increase.

So where do we go from here? Do we continue building larger and larger trucks and trailers in increasing numbers to satisfy every want of our increasing population? Do we continue our boom-and-bust market cycles, or is someone, some agency, or some government bureau going to regulate our business cycles so we don't commit suicide trying to out-produce our neighbor in satisfying a fickle market that wants everything now? Maybe the truck transportation industry has peaked out? That 300,000 trailer annual production record was set 10 years ago. Is the truck transportation industry now in decline?

As the recession is winding down, now is a poor time to predict what will happen in the future. We are like a drunk recovering from the latest binge. Our sobering thoughts are to never do that again. But we know that when this long and deep recession ends, there will be many more new mouths to feed and bodies to clothe with everything that is hauled by truck, and that a new batch of entrepreneurs will rise to the challenge. The cycle will continue.

We know that the slow-down in production has given inventive minds in our industry time to complete designs that have been floating around in their heads. It has allowed staff and idle workers the time to rearrange production lines for more efficiency. It has allowed merging of companies and branches for more market impact. It has forced managers to think more competitively.

Our government's new recognition of climate change will open up new markets and new possibilities to refine our equipment to meet the new realities, while obsoleting some old ways that harm our environment.

The emphasis on rebuilding infrastructure and other continuing stimulus measures may offer new opportunities for government (local, state and national) contracting in the coming years and beyond.

Many other changes on the new regime's agenda spell opportunity — business opportunities for profit, or for failure. How we prepare now during this receded economy may make the difference.

The last 50 years have been a wild ride in a growing industry that is now approaching middle age. The next 50 years will be harder work just learning to live with a mature industry, while exploring new industry branches and off-shoots that can open up more space and markets not yet realized.

Just as those old wagon builders evolved into truck body builders and trailer manufacturers, so will some present-day truck body and trailer builders hitch their future to a new star or a whole galaxy of stars. The cycle will continue.

The team publishing Trailer/Body Builders today includes some seasoned veterans in addition to Paul Schenck, senior editor, and Wanda Lynn Tunnell, marketing, who were part of the start-up staff 50 years ago.

Ray Anderson signed on 30 years ago, and 13 years ago he became publisher, following in the footsteps of his grandfather.

Bruce Sauer has 35 years experience writing exclusively for this magazine, and for the past 10 years he has been the editor-in-chief.

Patricia Bernard is the art director with 28 years of experience in that position, and she is assisted by Maria Singletary, a staff member for 20 years, and J R Delgado for 15 years.

Martine Ewing has worked in our advertising services department for the past 30 years.

Jay Miller has been an in-house editor and layout specialist for 2l years, and Rick Weber, associate editor for 10 years. Eileen Jacobson, administrative assistant, has 12 years here.

With dedicated workers like these, we are well on our way to our second 50th anniversary.

About the Author

Paul Schenck | Senior Editor