Trailer production up sharply in 2003

Feb. 1, 2004
THE THREE LARGEST trailer manufacturers increased their production of truck trailers by about 30% in 2003, according to Trailer/Body Builders' annual

THE THREE LARGEST trailer manufacturers increased their production of truck trailers by about 30% in 2003, according to Trailer/Body Builders' annual survey of the truck trailer industry. 

In 2002, the top three built about 54% of the truck trailers produced in the USA. In 2003, they increased this share to 56%.

By comparison, the top 10 manufacturers in North America had a 25% average growth in 2003, and the top 25 had a 22% average growth. This does not necessarily mean that the largest companies are growing faster than the smaller ones. It means that in an expanding market, the biggest companies increase production faster and have a bigger share. In down years, the biggest companies have a faster decline and lose market share faster. In other words, production is more even and controlled among the smaller companies, who thus provide stability in the market.

The table below shows the unit production for the past two years by the 30 largest trailer companies that report to this annual Trailer/Body Builders survey. The total trailer units produced by these 30 companies was 174,991 in 2003.

The companies included in the survey are the largest in North America. To compare this total with sales or production in the United States only, we must subtract out the trailers built by two Canadian and two Mexican trailer plants, as well as the remanufactured trailers using reconditioned axles. That leaves a total of about 152,000 trailers built new in the U S.

This Trailer/Body Builders annual survey is made by telephoning a member of the management team at each trailer manufacturing company. It is built on the voluntary contribution of trailer production information at each company. An estimate is made for two companies that chose not to participate. The survey is the work of Trailer/Body Builders and should not be confused with any other survey.

Here are the results:

Great Dane Limited Partnership is estimated to be the largest producer of truck trailers in North America. Trailer/Body Builders estimates the company produced 41,000 trailers in 2003.

Wabash National Corporation built 36,230 complete trailers in 2003, a 33% increase over 2002. Most of these (32,909) were van trailers, up 36%. Refrigerated trailers were up 11% to 3,321 units.

Incomplete trailers, where Wabash scored big gains in 2002, returned to more normal levels in 2003. Wabash built 1,306 containers and 739 container chassis for the year. These 2,045 units were down 71% from the 2002 level. Converter dollies numbered 336, about the same as the previous year.

The big increase in van trailers was helped by Wabash National's launch of two new models in 2003 — the DuraPlate HD and the FreightPro van.

The recent upsurge in the trailer market is encouraging, says William Greubel, CEO. “We think 2004 should be a strong year for the trailer industry as fleets add capacity to offset the hours-of-service regulations and fleets invest in new trailer technology to improve productivity.”

Utility Trailer Manufacturing increased total trailer production 35% in 2003, reaching 23,688 units. Of those, 12,510 were refrigerated trailers — an increase of 31% over 2002. Production of dry vans was up 56% to 9,721 trailers. The company manufactured 1,457 flatbeds, down 17% from the previous year.

Utility reports that it remains the world's largest manufacturer of refrigerated trailers, claiming a 49% share of the market in the United States.

Much of the growth in the dry van sector at Utility came from the company's new 3000-DX van. This is a sheet-and-post van with an all-steel lining that is squeeze riveted to the steel side posts, giving it more than 101 inches of inside width.

Order backlogs are continuing to stretch out at Utility.

“Our reefer production will be up 20% in 2004,” says Craig Bennett, senior vice-president of sales and marketing. “And the market acceptance of the DX van is continuing to grow our market share in the dry van sector. Even in the depressed platform market, our backlog is growing.”

Stoughton Trailers in Stoughton, Wisconsin, built almost as many trailers as in 2002 (down 4% to 9,900), but the company had a nice increase in the intermodal business.

Soughton built 1,050 container chassis and 2,400 intermodal containers in 2003 in its Evansville, Wisconsin, intermodal plant. This is up from zero production the previous year when intermodal equipment buying was dead.

Don Wahlin, CEO, says intermodal quoting is quite active, indicating a busy year in 2004.

On the van trailer side, Wahlin says business picked up in the fourth quarter of 2003 and has been getting better almost daily since then. Much of the increase centers on Stoughton's new Z-Plate van that has a composite plate sidewall sandwich of high-tensile steel skins and a core of polyethylene and cellulose.

The company's Brodhead plant is being converted to build Z-Plate as well as conventional sheet-and-post vans. The main plant in Stoughton already can build both lines.

Hyundai Translead production was up substantially across all three product lines. Including 193 insulated trailers, the company built 8,871 van trailers in 2003, an 86% increase over 2002.

Domestic container production was up 200% in 2003. Of the 4,026 domestic containers, 25 were insulated for heated service. Hyundai built 12,074 new container chassis, a 132% increase. The company also remanufactured 3,027 chassis, resulting in a total of 15,101 container chassis moving through the plant last year.

Hyundai produced 50 converter dollies during 2003.

MANAC in St Georges, Quebec, built 6,300 trailers, an 8.7% decline from 2002. The decline was attributed to two factors, according to Charles Dutil, president. First, the recovery arrived in Canada later than expected. Second, the sharp decline in the U S dollar made Canadian goods more expensive. The relatively strong Canadian dollar made MANAC exports to the U S more expensive and put the company at a competitive disadvantage with U S manufacturers who were selling into Canada. In response to the weak market, MANAC closed its van trailer plant in Orangeville, Ontario, in July 2003.

The 6,900 trailers that the company produced in 2002 include end-dump and bottom-dump models built in the MANAC Trailer USA plant in Oran, Missouri.

Strick Corporation, now producing van trailers from a single plant in Monroe, Indiana, increased its output 20% in 2003. The company employed two 10-hour shifts to produce 6,000 trailers last year.

President Denny Williams says that the market is firming, and the backlog is improving. However, trailer pricing is not increasing as fast as the rising costs for components and materials. In spite of this, Williams feels optimistic about the trailer market in 2004.

On the container chassis side of the business, Strick produced 8,500 Cheetah chassis at its plant in Berwick, Pennsylvania, nearly double the number of chassis built in 2002, according to Strick's Murray Zwickel.

Trailmobile Canada Ltd in Mississauga, Ontario, built 5,479 van trailers in 2003, a 17½% increase over the previous year.

With production strong at the end of 2002, the build rate faltered in the spring. However, the Canadian market picked up again in July and August, and the fourth quarter was strong all the way through the end of December.

In spite of the fact that Trailmobile currently has no plant in the United States, 70% of the company's production was sold through Trailmobile branches and dealers in the United States. The remaining 30% was sold in Canada.

Sales levels remain strong in 2004, according to Tom Wiseman, president of Trailmobile Canada. He reports that the company is on target to produce 7,500-8,500 van trailers in 2004. The company is planning to boost production in mid-February — from 28 vans per day to 33.

Fontaine Trailer Company produced 3,900 trailers last year, including the Ravens Metal Products line of all-aluminum platforms and dumps. This is a 28% improvement over 2002, and the growth is continuing in 2004.

While the Fontaine Trailer posted gains in its platform and dump lines, the growth did not extend to lowbeds. Fontaine Specialized in Springville, Alabama, produced 800 heavy-hauler trailers last year, down 53% from 2002.

Transcraft Corporation reported a 2% drop in unit sales in 2003, but margins have improved. As such, net income is somewhat better than in 2002, says David de Poincy, president.

At its plants in Anna, Illinois, and Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Transcraft built 3,629 platforms in 2003, including flatbeds and drop-decks — either all steel or a combination of steel and aluminum.

Management says the biggest surprise was the sharp increase in ordering during the last week of December and continued into the new year. The spike is attributed to pre-buying ahead of increases in steel prices. Most vendors of steel and components are increasing their prices 7%-8%, with others raising prices as much as 18%. Fleets will need additional trailers soon to comply with the new hours-of-service regulations for drivers, de Poincy says.

“We now have the biggest backlog we've had in several years,” he says. “Our conservative projection is to build 4,200 platforms in 2004.”

Trail King Industries in Mitchell, South Dakota, reported increased unit sales and dollar volume in 2003. Production of smaller tag and utility trailers last year helped make 2003 a growth year in spite of a flat truck trailer market. Trailers with axle capacities of less than 10,000 pounds are not classified as truck trailers.

Trail King built 1,314 lowbeds and 1,070 tag and utility trailers last year. Of the tag and utility trailers, 675 had at least one axle with a capacity of 10,000 pounds or more.

The company produced 447 dump trailers and 200 live-floor trailers in 2003. Trail King also entered the dry-bulk market, building 41 dry-bulk pneumatic trailers in its Brookville, Pennsylvania, plant. Total trailer production — including smaller tag and utility models — reached 3,072 at Trail King last year.

Dorsey Trailer Company and Fruehauf de Mexico together produced 2,537 trailers, down 1% from 2002.

Production and sales were split almost evenly between the U S and Mexico. The Dorsey Trailer plant in Elba, Alabama, built 1,287 trailers — including 335 refrigerated vans. The Fruehauf de Mexico plant northwest of Mexico City built 1,250 trailers, including 241 tank trailers — all of which were sold in Mexico.

For the coming year, president Chriss Street anticipates production in the Elba plant to improve about 50% and looks for a 25% gain in Mexico. He expects production in the two plants to total 3,600-3,700 trailers in 2004.

Heil Trailer International enjoyed a 5% increase in its commercial tank trailer business. The company produced 2,300 units in 2003, an increase in all product lines and one that has continued into the new year.

In addition to the 2,300 trailers produced in U S plants, Heil started production of an order for almost 900 trailers for the U S military. These 5,000-gallon refueling tank trailers will be built in 2004 and 2005.

In the international market, Heil is also seeing increased business at its plants in Europe, Asia, and South America, according to Andy Fincher, executive vice-president.

Lufkin Trailers of Lufkin, Texas, had a 15% increase in trailer production last year. The 2,206 complete trailers included 1,760 vans (up 14%) and 389 platforms and dropdecks (up 57%).

Dump trailers, however, were in the dumps, as the company only produced 56 for the year. Lufkin has high hopes that its recently introduced bottom dump will improve that figure.

Not included in the total are 31 converter dollies that Lufkin produced in 2003.

Roland McGee, new trailer sales manager, says sales activity is picking up, particularly for van trailers.

Kentucky Manufacturing Company in Louisville, Kentucky, built 2,085 van trailers in 2003, an 11% increase over 2002.

Because the market for Kentucky's traditional drop-frame and moving van business was not showing any real improvement, the company took a large order from UPS for straight-floor vans. Production on that order will continue into the second quarter of 2004. In addition, the company is anticipating even more growth in its core drop-frame van business.

“We're very optimistic for the new year,” says Larry Hartog, president. “We're looking for a 15%-20% increase in volume this year.”

Road Systems Inc of Searcy, Arkansas, increased its van business 65%, but business still has not reached what the company considers a normal level. The company remanufactured 1,815 doubles vans and 82 converter dollies in 2003.

Lynn Reinbolt, general manager, expects 2004 to be much improved. The company, a subsidiary of CNF Transportation, will build new and remanufactured vans — 28-ft, 48-ft, and 53-ft — for its parent company and for outside customers.

Timpte Inc of David City, Nebraska, experienced a 7.5% increase when it produced 1,774 bulk commodity trailers last year. Management says that increasingly these hopper-bottom trailers are being purchased by farmers, rather than commercial haulers. And like many other individuals who own trailers, farm operators opt for trailers equipped with cosmetic features such as extra lights and more stainless steel options.

President Ken Allred expects another moderate increase in 2004. He bases his outlook on orders already received and projected increases in net income for the farm market.

Pitts Trailers in Pittsview, Alabama, increased trailer output 15% in 2003. The company turned out 1,550 forestry and lowbed trailers for the year.

The product line includes loader-delimbing trailers, logging trailers, and lowbed trailers with capacities of 20-100 tons.

President Jeff Pitts says the forestry market has made a comeback, and he hopes for increases in construction trailers as well this year.

“It was our best year dollar-wise,” Pitts says. “We are hoping for another record year in 2004.”

East Manufacturing Corp of East Randolph, Ohio, completed 1,360 trailers in calendar year 2003, a 13% increase over 2002.

The improved sales outlook and backlog have resulted in increased employment. From a low of about 200 on the payroll in September 2003, employment at East has rebounded sharply. The company rehired 55 people last fall and is adding another 60, according to David Tate, president.

East specializes in aluminum dump trailers, transfer trailers, platforms, and tipping platforms.

Polar Tank Trailer built 1,200 tank trailers, down 9% from 2002.

“It was not a good year,” says Jim Jungels, CEO. “It was particularly bad in the chemical industry. Ordering is up a little now, and our backlogs are out farther than any recent time. The economy is picking up, and we see loads being projected to increase 3% this year. We are basing our plans on an improved year.”

MAC Trailer Manufacturing of Alliance, Ohio, built 1,158 dump, platform, and transfer trailers, a 19% increase over 2002.

President Mike Conny is so optimistic about the prospects for this year and beyond that he is expanding his plant again. The 50,000-sq-ft addition will be used to produce platform trailers. When the addition is complete, MAC will have 150,000-sq-ft under roof.

Talbert Manufacturing in Rensselaer, Indiana, built 1,072 truck trailers last year, topping 2002 production by 17%.

Stephen Kingman, executive vice-president, says sales in the last months of 2003 were very good. With a healthy backlog, the company is optimistic about additional production increases in 2004.

Talbert is a 65-year-old company that builds lowbed trailers, platforms and single-drops, heavy haulers, and special modular transporters.

Kidron Inc of Kidron, Ohio, built 875 refrigerated trailers, good for a 15% increase from its 2002 production. The company's entire output consisted of food distribution trailers ranging from 27 to 48 feet in length.

Benson International of Mineral Wells, West Virginia, increased its output 15% in 2003. The company turned out 819 trailers last year — a mix of aluminum and steel dump trailers, solid-waste trailers, aluminum platforms, and some steel platforms.

Benson has plants in Mineral Wells and in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania.

The decline in the number of owner-operators during the recession reduced the number of trailers that Benson produced. Now, however, sales of aluminum platforms are coming back strong — and not just among owner-operators.

Bill Gibson, national sales manager, says managers of flatbed fleets are taking another look at aluminum, attracted by its weight savings that results in additional cargo capacity. He says ordering is strong now, and the company is hoping for a much improved 2004.

Reitnouer Inc of Reading, Pennsylvania, built 812 all-aluminum platforms, a 17% increase over its 2002 business. Backlogs have improved significantly during the first six weeks of the new year, says Bud Reitnouer, and the company is on track to climb back up to its pre-recession high of almost 1,500 all aluminum platforms per year.

Beall Corp of Portland, Oregon, built almost 1,000 units in 2003. Production, however, was not exclusively trailers. A fifth were truck-mounted dump bodies or tanks that make up a truck-and-trailer combination. The end-of-the-year count was 768 truck trailers (up 25%) and 211 truck-mounted bodies or tanks.

Beall's diversified line includes tank trailers, bottom dumps, and end dumps. Dan Jarboe, vice-president of marketing, notes that about half were extra-axle combinations such as the 105,500-lb GCW combinations for Washington and Oregon, 129,000-lb rigs for Wyoming, or 140,000-lb B-trains for Canada.

Brenner Tank LLC in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, dropped back 19% from its 2002 production. The company produced 650 tank trailers last year, but president Bruce Wadman thinks 2004 business “will be up substantially.”

X-L Specialized Trailers in Oelwein, Iowa, increased unit numbers 1% in 2003. The 536 trailers the company manufactured were lowbed and heavy haulers.

Scott Wall, general manager, says the introduction of new models will help the company have another year of growth in 2004.

About the Author

Paul Schenck | Senior Editor