Axles of evil

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE a trailer drawing that much attention.

Some of the trailers at the recent Mid-America Trucking Show attracted a crowd — including salesmen and engineers from competing companies.

But nothing like this. An army had to fight to find this trailer, and armed guards were posted to protect it. A team of scientists probed it, and has considered taking it apart to see what's inside.

Yet the owner of the trailer had tried desperately to hide it.

At a time when the trailer manufacturers at the Mid-America Trucking Show were spending thousands of dollars to show off their products, the U S military was trying to find the most clandestine trailers in history.

In the 44 years of serving this industry, Trailer/Body Builders has seen some amazing creativity when it comes to unusual uses for commercial trucks and trailers. If the customer has a specific need, odds are that a manufacturer somewhere will be able to design a vehicle to do the job. But leave it to the twisted thinking of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen to design trailers with the capability of terrorizing the world.

As this is being written, the conventional-looking military trailer found near Mosul in northern Iraq in April had not yet been definitively identified as a mobile weapons lab. In a related note, the trailer reportedly had been thoroughly scrubbed with a caustic agent such as bleach or ammonia. Not exactly the method most fleets use to clean their platform trailers.

However, according to a report in the May 10 New York Times, the team of experts assigned to investigate the trailer — after a four-day investigation — concluded that the trailer is in fact a mobile biological weapons laboratory.

Much like we in the U S build specialized trailers by modifying a conventional model, the trailer appears to be a standard trailer equipped with some highly unusual mobile equipment. Complicating the diagnosis was the fact that, like the trailer on which it was installed, the equipment could be used for peaceful purposes or for harm. For example, the fermenting equipment could easily have been used to produce pesticides. However, the trailer reportedly also contained additional equipment designed to capture the gases that the fermentation process generates. Hardly the kind of concern for air quality that one would associate with a regime accused of killing tens of thousands with poisonous gases.

These hidden trailers — and the equipment they may or may not have transported — have affected the North American trailer industry half a world away. Their presence — and their potential to produce biological weapons — was one reason for the war in Iraq.

Apprehension leading up to the war seemed to put the economy on hold. Virtually every economic forecast we heard earlier this year had war in Iraq as a caveat. So great was the uncertainty that Delos Smith, a renowned economist, offered no real specifics in his address to the NATM convention earlier this year, citing uncertainty about the war and its effects on the economy. Consumer confidence, as measured by the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center, hit its lowest point in nine years the week after NATM met.

But with the triumph in Iraq, confidence seems to be coming back. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index, which had been on the decline for the past four months, improved sharply in April. The Index stood at 81.0 (1985=100), up from 61.4 in March.

Not surprisingly, demand for peacetime trailers (those vehicles designed for purposes other than to poison the infidels) also seems to be coming around — despite the apparent collapse of the weapons-of-mass-destruction trailer market.

The latest figures from Peter Toja and Economic Planning Associates indicate that the quarter-by-quarter growth in the trailer market continued during the uncertainty of the first three months of 2003, although not quite as robustly as in the previous two quarters. Even so, manufacturers shipped 63% more trailers in the first quarter of 2003 than they did a year earlier.

The industry still has a long way to go, and no one we know expects a return to boom times anytime soon. But we increasingly are hearing more optimism. Now that the Iraq's poisonous regime has been toppled, the world just may be ready for more trailers that deliver benefits instead of botulism.

Thank you, troops, for a job well done.

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