Early Big Rigs Were Known As “Commercial Cars”


These days, semi trucks are a common sight on the highways of America. Most people take it for granted that countless everyday items, from their groceries to their Amazon orders, are delivered via 18-wheeler. However, these powerful trucks – originally called “commercial cars” – have undergone an extensive evolution to get where they are today. As you can read about on Truck Driver News, the history of commercial cars is a long one, starting well over a century ago – in fact, you may not even recognize the earliest “commercial car” as the ancestor of today’s big rigs. Even so, it’s pretty interesting to look into the past and see how far the trucking industry has come since the late 1800s.

What defines a modern semi truck?

It’s called by many names: semi truck, 18-wheeler, big rig, and so on. Technically, it isn’t even a truck; it’s a truck with a trailer attached. While the trucking industry uses all different kinds of vehicles, semi trucks are typically used for large, heavy loads. In fact, they’re responsible for hauling more than 70% of the commodities in the US. 

Some of these rigs have chilled trailers, which are used to transport perishable goods. Others have flatbed trailers, and are used for everything from freshly cut timber to small houses. Then there are the standard enclosed trailers, which is what most people think of when they hear the name “semi truck”.  Regardless of the type of trailer that’s used, a semi truck includes a truck (also called the “tractor”), and a freight trailer that’s attached to the truck by a fifth wheel device. With either part missing, it isn’t really a semi truck.

Why “commercial cars” were invented

In 1896, the Winton Motor Carriage Company officially went into business. By 1898, they’d completed the manufacture of their first 22 cars, and were ready to deliver them to buyers. There was just one problem: these buyers lived all over the country. If these vehicles were to be delivered to their new owners in brand-new condition, they couldn’t simply be driven to their destinations, some of which were quite a distance away.

Of course, Alexander Winton (the founder of the Winton Motor Carriage Company) had already thought of this problem, and come up with a solution. Along with his motor carriages, he also invented “automobile haulers” that were large enough to transport the vehicles to buyers. These automobile haulers started getting manufactured in 1899, both for the Winton Motor Carriage Company and for other car companies. Even though the format has changed a lot over the years, these are regarded to be the first semi trucks ever made.

The invention of the first “semi trailer”

While Winton’s automobile haulers were the first example of a truck-and-trailer rig being used to haul a heavy load, some credit also goes to August Charles Fruehauf. He was a Detroit blacksmith who, in 1914, had a client in need of a way to transport his boat over land. Fruehauf built a trailer that could be attached to a motor carriage, in this case a Ford. It was a big hit, and eventually caught on as an efficient way to transport lumber and other loads over long distances. The Fruehauf Trailer Company was founded in 1918, and is still in business to this day.

Expansion of commercial use

Even though the Winton Motor Carriage Company had technically invented the first ever semi truck, they were more focused on improving their car designs, rather than their delivery trucks. However, the demand was constantly growing for this type of vehicle, and other people stepped in to fill the gap.

John C. Endebrock already had an extensive background in horse-drawn carriages when he invented the “trailmobile” in 1918. This was a trailer that could easily be hooked up to a Ford Model T, built with an iron chassis, wheels, and springs. While the concept wasn’t necessarily new, Endebrock’s design allowed the trailer to be attached with just one operator, rather than the three that were required for previous designs. 

The 1930s saw further innovations in the evolution of the semi truck. George Cassens, a car salesman, wanted to streamline the process of buying and delivering cars. His idea started with the suggestion that new cars could be shipped directly from manufacturers to buyers, but there was a problem. With the way things were done at the time, the associated shipping costs were simply too high for manufacturers. His solution was to offer to take care of delivery himself; he then invented an auto trailer that could accommodate four vehicles at once. This was attached to a two-ton Dodge truck, and successfully lowered shipping prices to a manageable level.

Mack’s contribution to semi trucks

Mack may not have been the first company to build semi trucks, but they were certainly the first to develop many engineering aspects of heavy-duty commercial vehicles. They also happen to be the reason why we aren’t still hand-cranking our vehicles to get the engines going, but that’s another story. 

In 1916, the Mack AC was released; it was such a huge step forward in terms of engineering and design that it was granted 18 different patents. Where other companies had focused on the trailer aspect of the semi truck, the Mack Truck Company wanted to make a truck that was sturdy enough to haul almost any load. This resulted in a much more durable vehicle than had previously been available, with an unprecedented 74 horsepower engine. There were three different versions of the AC, capable of pulling 3.5, 5.5, and 7.5 tons. Not only were they used commercially, but they were also used by US and British forces in WW1. Mack ACs were affectionately nicknamed “Bulldogs” by the British Army, due to their snub-nosed appearance and overall toughness. To this day, Mack trucks are still known for their durability.

The takeaway

The trucking industry has come a long way since the first automobile haulers hit the road, but it’s still characterized by the pursuit of innovation and improvement. 

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