In its Flashback Friday series, FreightWaves publishes articles that look back at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
A few weeks ago, this series covered the legacy of Malcolm McLean, the founder of Sea-Land Corporation and the man credited with developing standardized shipping containers. Today’s article highlights the history of the Fruehauf Trailer Company and August Fruehauf, who is credited with inventing the semi-trailer. As it turns out, Fruehauf had a hand in Malcolm McLean’s success as well.
At the turn of the 20th century, Fruehauf was a successful blacksmith and horse carriage builder in Detroit, Michigan. As the sale of automobiles flourished, one of Fruehauf’s clients asked him in 1914 to develop a way to transport an 18-foot boat behind a Model T. Fruehauf built a device to successfully do that, and he named his invention the semi-trailer.
To commemorate the centennial of the invention, Ruth Ann Freuehauf (August’s granddaughter) and Darlene Norman wrote “Singing Wheels, August Fruehauf & The History of the Fruehauf Trailer Company.” The book is available through Amazon or The Fruehauf Trailer Historical Society. FreightWaves thanks the Fruehauf Trailer Historical Society for information that contributed to this article. If you are interested in the company, the Society’s website will be of great interest to you.
Frederic M. Sibley, who had asked Fruehauf to build that first trailer, asked Fruehauf to build additional trailers that he could use in his lumber yard. Because of the popularity of his semi-trailers, August Fruehauf founded the Fruehauf Trailer Company in 1918. It became the largest and most successful company manufacturing semi-trailers in the world. The Fruehauf Trailer Company became the Fruehauf Trailer Corporation in 1963, and that company was in business until 1989.
If Fruehauf and his company did nothing else but manufacture trailers to haul goods it would have been successful. However, much more was accomplished. In the press release announcing “Singing Wheels,” it states, “Fruehauf… is an integral part of North American transportation history. The pioneering company facilitated the growth of transcontinental transportation by road as a viable alternative to rail and brought efficient shipping from the farmer’s gate and the factory’s loading dock.”
White Motor Company, Mack Trucks (both companies featured in previous Flashback Fridays articles; use the links to read the articles) and other companies pioneered and refined heavy-duty trucks (tractors) in the early part of the 20th century. But without Fruehauf there would have been no “tractor-trailers.” August Fruehauf had a slogan “A truck is like a horse; it can pull more than it can carry!” The tractors developed by the truck manufacturing companies pulled the trailers that almost overwhelmingly were manufactured by Fruehauf.
Within a few years of starting the company, its semi-trailers were demonstrating their practicality and orders burgeoned. Numerous types of trailers were designed and built. Fruehauf Trailer Company introduced many revolutionary inventions to trucking and transportation over the course of the company’s history. In fact, the company was awarded over 1,000 patents for its pioneering work. Among the key patents were those for the automatic fifth wheel coupling, hydraulic dump trailers, bulk tanker trailers and the shipping container used by Malcolm McLean in 1956 to launch SeaLand.
The following paragraphs provide information on the key trailers developed and manufactured by the Fruehauf Trailer Company.
Dry freight vans
Dry freight van semi-trailers manufactured by Fruehauf were modified numerous times during the 85 years they were produced. There were customized semi-trailers for specific industries with modifications tailored to order. Fruehauf dry freight vans were manufactured from corrugated steel, stainless steel and lightweight aluminum. Drop-frame furniture vans were also manufactured. Fruehauf’s chassis and light wall system gave customers a competitive edge; a statement by Roy Fruehauf in the late 1950s indicated that the company sought to increase the payload capacity of the trailers by decreasing the weight of its vans without sacrificing their strength.
In the 1920s, Fruehauf was the first manufacturer to use hydraulics in freight transport. On its trailers, lift gates could be raised or lowered for easy loading and unloading. Fruehauf engineers used hydraulics to create dump trailers; utility trailers were modified to allow unloading of bulk contents by using gravity instead of manpower. Another innovation was the use of multiple axles; this increased the weight the trailers could hold. Such industries as mining, road-building and others needing to haul heavy loads were the beneficiaries of these innovations.
Companies that transported commodities in bulk sought an enclosed semi-trailer for liquids and dry bulk cargo. The first tank trailer for flour was designed and built by Fruehauf. The tanker concept was then expanded to liquids of many kinds, including milk and other liquid foods, petroleum products and industrial chemicals. An issue with tankers was the weight of the cargo; if the liquid moved around during transport it could alter the trailer’s center of gravity and forward momentum. Fruehauf developed smaller compartments within the larger tanks that diminished these issues. Tankers were built from a variety of materials, including steel, stainless steel and aluminum. Because of the variety of liquids transported, some of the tankers were equipped with insulation; others were pressurized; some were built to be refrigerated.
As early as the late 1870s railroads were utilizing refrigerated railcars to carry perishables. Coincidentally these refrigerated railcars were built in Detroit, the headquarters of Fruehauf. In the 1920s, August Fruehauf adapted the technology used in the railcars to build a semi-trailer that could transport perishable foods. The Fruehauf trailers had capacities of either four- or six-tons. Early models of the refrigerated trailers had an opening on the roof; pulverized ice and salt was dropped onto the cargo to keep it cold. Later refinements included adding front and back vents to the trailers to allow the passage of air over the ice during transit. Another improvement for these early “reefers” was the use of grooved metal floors; the water produced as the ice melted was then discharged through drains in the flooring.
Flatbed semi-trailers are designed to carry boxed or “raw” freight (lumber, metal railing, etc.) that needs a platform (the flatbed) but no sides. Such loads are almost universally heavy and the semi-trailers needs to be reinforced with steel. Fruehauf’s trailers were manufactured with I-beam axles, heavy-duty brake systems and springs. Some Fruehauf customers ordered additional modifications that allowed additional uses for the flatbeds. In the 1950s, Freuhauf flatbeds were used in railroad/trucking intermodal efforts – the piggy-backing that became widespread during that decade. In addition, flatbeds were used for another intermodal use – carrying the shipping containers developed by Fruehauf for Malcolm McLean.
Fruehauf partnered with McLean’s Pan-Atlantic Steamship Co. (later known as Sea-Landshipping and later Sea-Land Service) to create the shipping container after World War II. The containers used by the U.S. military during the war were too small for commercial application. A Fruehauf engineer, Keith Tantlinger, developed many of the innovations that led to the standardized intermodal container in use since the mid-1950s. Moreover, he convinced the two companies to provide information to the industry. Fruehauf hired Tantlinger in 1956; among his inventions (although Fruehauf received the patents) included vehicle construction spring-to-axle mountings, the bolster locking head to secure a semi-trailer to a tractor’s fifth wheel, a container coupler and a pivoted draw-bar with lock.
On November 3, 1950, the following appeared in TIDE, The Newsletter for Advertising Executives: “How important is Fruehauf Trailer Company in the trailer industry? To say that it is the General Motors of the business understates the case. Not only was Fruehauf the biggest firm in the field, it sold more [trailers] than all the others put together.”
By 1954, the company had nine manufacturing facilities, 88 branches/distributorships in the U.S. and Canada and manufacturing plants in Brazil and France. Its sales exceeded $152 million.
Like many other manufacturers, Fruehauf developed products for the U.S. military during times of war. It built semi-trailers for use in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The company held over 150 patents for various military-related products; many also had commercial applications.
Fruehauf also was involved with the military during the Cold War. In the 1950s and 1960s, Fruehauf developed and manufactured “missile vehicles, ground-based and submarine-based missile launchers, transporters/erectors, shipping containers, ground handling equipment, equipment shelters” and other components for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. Among its products were “systems for the Atlas, Bomarc, Corporal, Falcon, Genie, Hawk, Jupiter, Matador, Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules, Polaris, Redstone, Regulus I and II, Sergeant, Thor and Titan missiles.
The company also produced 5,000-gallon fuel tank semi-trailers and 12-ton semi-trailers for use by the U.S. Army. At its Fullerton, California facility, Freuhauf manufactured 15-ton amphibious lighters and reusable metal shipping boxes for the military. The company’s Military Products Division took part in the U.S. space program, producing practice recovery spacecraft for the Gemini missions.
Fruehauf Trailer Company was a founding member of the American Trucking Associations. Company leaders also advised President Eisenhower on the development of the interstate highway system in the mid-1950s.
While much of its growth was organic, Fruehauf bought competing companies for distribution, new technology or geographic advantages. Examples include Warner-Fruehauf in Baltimore, Hobbs in Texas, Strick in the Midwest and the Carter Manufacturing Company of Memphis, Tennessee (with another manufacturing facility in Birmingham, Alabama). As it did with Warner-Fruehauf in Baltimore, all trailers made at the Memphis and Birmingham facilities were called Fruehauf-Carter.
Fruehauf continued to expand; it had 16 manufacturing facilities and over 80 distributorships for parts and service. The company also expanded into Europe, South America and Asia.
However, following the deaths of August’s sons (Harvey, Harry and Roy Fruehauf), the Fruehauf family was no longer in charge of the company by the mid-1960s. Resting on the laurels of its earlier success, the company’s management did not make the difficult sacrifices needed to withstand market changes and economic challenges. While the company eventually diversified and expanded its operations, financial issues resulted in the sell-off of company divisions in 1989. The truck trailer unit continued operation as Fruehauf Trailer Corporation.
A proxy battle for control of the company occurred in the late 1980s; the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1997. Prior to the bankruptcy, Fruehauf’s Bellinger Shipyard in Jacksonville, Florida, was sold in 1995 and then the Jacksonville Shipyard was sold to developers in 2014. A number of U.S. subsidiaries (Kelsey Hayes, Pro-Par, Budd Wheels and Hobbs) were sold. Fruehauf’s U.S. manufacturing and sales business was sold to Wabash National on March 17, 1997. International divisions/companies in France, Japan, Mexico and New Zealand became independent and continued to operate under the Fruehauf name.
While the company is gone, the Fruehauf Trailer brand continues to be recognized for innovation, quality, craftsmanship and dedication to excellence.