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Making the Long Haul

A History of the Truck and Trucking Industry

Trucks of all kinds occupy the roads, from semi-trucks carrying mega payloads across major highways to stylish Studebaker personal truck models from the middle of the twentieth century being carefully maintained by classic truck enthusiasts. For the individual, the truck has seemingly been engineered to meet its fullest potential in modern luxury SUV/pickup crossover vehicles with touch-screen navigation, satellite radio, and DVD players in every seat. Whether the bed of the truck is used for transporting things or not, the concept of the need to carry goods connects every truck to a legacy that reaches even further back than the invention of the internal combustion engine. The modern history of the motorized truck parallels that of the car, and both are products of the twentieth century.

People have long used truck-like vehicles to transport goods, though before mechanical engines they were often drawn by pack animals or humans. But as civilizations have advanced, the need for better, more powerful methods of transportation has evolved alongside the evolution of society. Improved vehicles require better means of movement, just as improved roads and movement among places has allowed for the development of better vehicles. The trucks of today fulfill many job descriptions, but their usage is solidly defined in the human consciousness: a truck is not mistaken for any other type of vehicle. From its early use as “a cart for carrying heavy loads” to the modern “motor vehicle for carrying heavy loads,” the word “truck” definitively embodies the idea of moving goods—but the idea has come a long way (Dictionary.com).

The Early Days of Trucking

Before motor trucks, railroads controlled inland transport of goods and services in the nineteenth century. The powerful railroad industry was the focus of technological innovation in an era when intermediate transportation needs were largely met by vehicles drawn by pack animals. Trains are quick and efficient but limited in their reach. The “flexibility of the horse” in transportation had no equal until self-propelled steam-powered vehicles began emerging, first in Europe and then in America, in the late eighteenth century. While steam-powered road vehicles had little future, the pioneers in self-propelled vehicles were forced into developing technologies that are now taken for granted, including suspension, steering, and braking. Precision in metallurgy and a better understanding of center-of-gravity in a vehicle’s weight and mass, particularly with respect to passengers and payload, further contributed to the emergence of the self-propelled truck. But the invention of the internal combustion engine in the middle of the nineteenth century truly boosted the vehicle’s potential (Gibbins 1978).

Before the advent of advanced transmissions and gear drives for internal combustion engines, trucking was slow to establish its niche even as railroads were limited to rail interaction among city centers. While there were hundreds of truck manufacturers in the United States in the early twentieth century, those that survived (including Mack, Peterbilt, Chevrolet, and International) were able to adapt to meet the ever-expanding and -changing needs of the trucking industry. Drivers frequently started their own trucking companies and set out to make a living with a single truck with an open cab and solid rubber tires over treacherous cobblestone and dirt roads. Trucking companies emerged with increased demand, especially considering a trip between Philadelphia and New York was considered long distance. Companies with multiple drivers or company-specific fleets handled transportation of commodities among cities with gradually increasing ranges, corresponding to the evolution of the truck. The first major trucking boom occurred during the prosperous postwar 1920s. Not only were roads constantly improving and reaching more places, but “balloon tires” replaced the solid rubber tires and bigger trucks with closed cabs helped companies travel farther, carry more, and do so with greater comfort (Adams 2000).

A number of trucking companies were forced to call it quits during the Depression, but those who survived got a boost from the repeal of Prohibition and the slowly reviving economy. In 1935, Congress entered the picture by passing the Motor Carrier Act, which authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate the trucking industry. The bill “ended the legislative contest between rail and automotive interests which had been raging in the halls of Congress for ten years.” The federal government had invested in a railroad industry weakened both by the Depression and by intense competition from the trucking industry, which had more flexibility of movement and the ability to undercut rail rates (Nelson 1936). This pattern was true in virtually every nation in the world. Since World War I, road transport had shown great potential, and rail tariffs were easily undercut by numerous emerging trucking companies competing on the open market (Gibbins 1978).

The Motor Carrier Act established freight-hauling rate regulations, limited the number of hours that truckers were allowed to drive, and oversaw trucking company’s range as well as the type of freight they could carry. Trucking companies were concerned regulations would override their competitive advantages over rail carriers. But road infrastructures improved with driver demand, opening up opportunity for trucking traffic. Railway transportation of both people and goods diminished with the rise of the automobile, and much of the rail infrastructure, particularly in America, has been steadily dismantled over the course of the twentieth century.

The Age of the Automobile

In the United States, the authorization of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 allowed the trucking industry to burst full-force into the scene. At the same time, however, the 40s and the 50s saw the rise of the automobile in conjunction with one of America’s major population shifts from the city to the suburb. Truck manufacturers experienced a boom during the war as defense contracts encouraged big truck and heavy-duty vehicle production on behalf of the war effort. For the most part, standard automobile production halted during the war, so products that emerged following it were repackaged versions of cars from before the war. Innovative new personal truck designs, however, were direct offshoots of war efforts and fresh, modern pickups began hitting the market before new car models.

Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet all re-entered the market with competing models featuring modern styling and advancements in comfort and engineering. The enduring Ford F-Series first appeared in 1948, including the popular F-100. Other makes such as International remained competitive while fiercely independent automakers such as the recently merged Studebaker and Packer declined. Chevrolet’s 1955 entry featured “the division’s first modern V-8 with overhead valves” that offered higher speeds and greater horsepower for fewer dollars. The postwar era of truck production was the beginning of intense competition among these Detroit truck makers (especially between Ford and Chevrolet) that has persisted to the present day. Only now, however, American trucks compete with quality entries from foreign competitors who have gradually won over a large share of the market, particularly with vehicles that have proven themselves reliable and, of special concern, more fuel efficient (Mueller 1999).

Meanwhile, in the commercial trucking industry, new engine designs with a focus on performance emerged after World War II. Direct-injection turbo-charged diesel engines that became a standard emerged during the 1950s, in large part thanks to the work of Volvo in Sweden. Engine manufacturers such as the U.S. Cummins and British Perkins companies began heavily supplying the market with diesel engines through the 1960s as the trucking industry began its conversion from standard gasoline. Truck transmissions evolved with improved highways around the world. Trucks were being built for longer distances, higher speeds, and heavier loads. One significant example from the 1960s was the construction of the Asian highway, which helped link the Middle East, India, Afghanistan, and the Far East. This initial inter-Asia development spurred later construction linking Western Europe with Asia. Meanwhile, the American trucking industry initially led the way in air suspension technology though the European industry quickly followed suit. Other innovations, such as multi-axle vehicles and articulated semi-truck designs were developed to deal with new types of payloads, most importantly that of freight container shipping (Gibbins 1978).

Malcom McLean started the McLean Trucking Company with one truck in 1937, the way many entrepreneurs did. But McLean not only built a trucking empire of some 1,700 trucks and 32 terminals across the United States, but he also spearheaded the transportation industry that created the global marketplace: container shipping. McLean first pitched his idea to the railroad industry, with whom he was in direct domestic competition. Other companies and the U.S. military had broached the idea of standardized container shipping, but McLean made it ubiquitous. He acquired an oil tanker business, then obtained a major loan to acquire the Waterman Steamship Corporation, which controlled docking and related ship facilities.

At the warning of the Interstate Commerce Commission, McLean unloaded his trucking industry to focus solely on shipping. After developing standard-sized steel truck containers (that could be fixed to a trailer chassis for use on the road), McLean launched his first container ship on April 26, 1956. McLean’s idea almost instantly caught on as customers responded to increased speed of service and lower rates, and that idea was born the day he sat for hours in his sole truck in a line waiting for stevedores to break down loads from the trucks and individually haul crates and bundles onto the ships. The trucking industry began to take hold of the idea as did the Port of New York Authority which, as McLean eyed international shipping, built the first container port in the world (Evans 2004). With domestic ventures more easily connected to a global marketplace, trucking has remained a vast industry into the twenty-first century.

The Rising Cost of Energy

In 1999, Mike Mueller described an upsurge of personal truck sales that had occurred over the previous several years. American automakers such as Ford, Chevrolet, and GM were capitalizing upon the demand for larger vehicles in the form of both SUVs and trucks; these vehicles provided added versatility while breaking into stylish and more luxurious segments of the auto industry previously reserved for sedans and sports cars. The truck had clearly broken free from the confines of commercial use. Yet, as Mueller states in the introduction to The American Pickup, “the fundamental sociological forces underlying the market’s long-term shift toward a higher mix of trucks likely will continue” unless, that is, “an unexpected market shock, such as a disruption of fuel availability or the imposition of more restrictive regulations” intervenes (1999).

Today, fuel remains readily available but prices have become increasingly prohibitive for vehicles with poor fuel economy. GM has recently announced it will discontinue the popular Hummer model by 2010 and will discontinue all production at four North American truck and SUV assembly plants. “While Ford Motor Company already slashed its pickup and SUV output” in May of 2008, “the deep cuts at GM seem to be closing a chapter in the domestic auto industry” (Vlasic 2008). Moreover, early sales of hybrid SUV and truck models have not been encouraging. As automakers have partially shifted their focus toward building smaller vehicles (similar to the oil and energy crises of the 1970s that spurred the influx of smaller, more efficient vehicles), large passenger vehicles and trucks may see a resurgence only with development of new technology to more efficiently power them.

Meanwhile, commercial industries and individuals who rely upon trucks have been hit especially hard by the rising oil prices which, in turn, have affected everyone as transportation costs carry over into the cost of goods and services. Truck manufacturers had responded to the energy crises of the 1970s by developing more aerodynamic, more fuel-efficient trucks, and federal deregulation of the industry in the 1980s created uniformity among state laws that opened up the country to double-trailers and coast-to-coast carriers. But today’s energy crisis has made everyone uneasy, from small business operators to major transportation conglomerates.

The trucks of tomorrow, from the pickup to the eighteen-wheeler, may need to be powered by an existing alternative fuel--or by an energy source not yet conceived. Mass transportation has been the catalyst of the modern global economy. But without relatively inexpensive means of movement, the the transportation of commodities can be expected to experience significant changes.

-- Posted July 14, 2008


Adams, Ronald G. 2000. 100 Years of Semi Trucks. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.

Evans, Harold. 2004. They Made America. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Gibbins, Eric and Graeme Ewens. 1978. The Pictorial History of Trucks. Secaucus, N.J.: Orbis Publishing Limited.

Mueller, Mike. 1999. The American Pickup Truck. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.

Nelson, James. C. "The Motor Carrier Act of 1935." The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 44, No. 4. (August 1936): 464-504.

Vlasic, Bill. "G.M. Shifts Focus to Small Cars in Sign of Sport Utility Demise." The New York Times. June 4, 2008. Retrieved June 10, 2008 from The New York Times Web site.