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FreightWaves Classics: Autocar builds severe-duty trucks

A new Autocar tractor sits proudly, ready to go to work. (Photo: Autocar)

GVW Group LLC is an industrial holding company founded in 1993. It invests in, grows and provides strategic expertise for “scalable early stage, high growth and mid-sized businesses.”

The industries it currently has holdings in include manufacturing, distribution, technology, big data, engineering and energy efficiency.

The company bought Autocar and the Xpeditor truck model from Volvo Trucks North America in 2001 and formed Autocar, LLC, a company that began in Pittsburgh in 1897. Autocar’s mission is to build the highest-performing severe-service trucks in the world. Autocar is also the oldest surviving vehicle nameplate in the United States.

The Autocar logo. (Image: Autocar)
The Autocar logo. (Image: Autocar)

Early years

Louis Semple (“LS”) Clarke built “Autocar No. 1,” which was a “tricycle powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine” in 1897. Autocar No. 1 resides now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Later that year, Clarke founded the Pittsburgh Motor Vehicle Company, with assistance from his two brothers, their father and William Morgan, a friend.

Their first project was Autocar No. 2, built in 1898 and described as “a four-wheeled runabout car.” They named the car “The Pittsburgher,” and it is owned by the Henry Ford Museum. In 1899 Clarke and his partners moved the company across the state to Ardmore, Pennsylvania; they also renamed the business the Autocar Company. 

America's first truck was built by Autocar in 1899. (Photo: Autocar)
America’s first truck was built by Autocar in 1899. (Photo: Autocar)

Autocar built the U.S.’s first commercially available motor truck in 1899. The Autocar delivery wagon could carry “a payload capacity of 700 pounds” and was equipped with either a 5 or 8 horsepower motor. The wagon’s “engine-under-the-seat” design maximized the vehicle’s area for freight. It was the forerunner of the cab-over-engine design that is used on every Autocar. 

That first Autocar truck was “purpose-built.” The purpose was to carry packages and a driver who delivered those packages. It was so simple to use that any driver “can operate it with more safety than he could drive a horse.”

The early 1900s

In 1901 Autocar built the first car in North America to use shaft drive. By 1907 the Autocar Company employed 1,000 men working two shifts daily. The company was successfully building and selling its automobiles. That same year the company announced it would build the “revolutionary Model XVIII truck.” 

Autocar’s engineers developed a number of key inventions that are still being used on cars and trucks built today. Among them are:

  • The first left-side drive vehicle, when center-drive was common
  • The first American shaft-driven vehicle, replacing chain-drive
  • The first double reduction rear axle, for smoother power transmission
  • The first American porcelain-insulated spark plug, later sold to AC Champion
  • The first circulating oil system

The owners of Autocar made the decision in 1911 to focus on building and selling trucks; the company produced its last automobile that year. Since then, “Autocar has custom-engineered trucks to provide purpose-built tools for the most demanding commercial and municipal customers.” 

A 1907 Autocar truck was used for beer deliveries. (Photo: Autocar)
A 1907 Autocar truck was used for beer deliveries. (Photo: Autocar)

During World War I, the Canadian Armoured Autocar used an Autocar chassis. Just after World War I the Autocar bowtie emblem was used for the first time (in 1919). By 1921 Autocar was manufacturing and selling three different truck models. Their capacities ranged from 1-1/2 to 6 tons, they had several different wheel bases, and both conventional and engine-under-the-seat designs. 

By the late 1920s the company’s workforce had increased to 2,600 employees. The company had focused its efforts on “severe-duty vocational and hauling markets.” As technology had evolved, Autocar was able to manufacture ever-larger trucks that had improved features such as the “Blue Streak” 6-cylinder engine, proprietary axles and 12-speed transmissions, enclosed cabs and a four-wheel drive system.

The 1930s and 1940s

Autocar launched its Model U, an “engine-under-the-seat” truck in 1933. It was seven feet shorter than conventional truck models and was fitted with purpose-built doors and special hinges. It was first purchased by the Washington, D.C. City Refuse Department to pick up garbage along its routes.

An early Autocar refuse truck. (Photo: David Penoff/
An early Autocar refuse truck. (Photo: David Penoff/

As war broke out in Europe and the U.S. began ramping up its military capabilities, Autocar began to use diesel engines before most of its competitors. In 1939 the company began offering its customers the 672-cubic inch, 150-horsepower Cummins Diesel HB-600. These diesel-powered trucks were more cost-effective than gasoline-powered models and were also able to haul heavier loads.

Prior to and during World War II Autocar built over “37,000 armored half-trucks, all-wheel-drive prime movers and standard production models,” for the armed forces. The Autocar military trucks were known for their “simplicity in maintenance and their power over rugged terrain.”

During its entire pre-war history, the company had only built 70,000 units. Autocar ranked 85th among U.S. companies in the value of World War II military production contracts. Civilian production began again in 1944 and sales increased significantly after the war. 

An Autocar truck built for use by the military. (Photo: Zandcee/Wikipedia)
An Autocar truck built for use by the military. (Photo: Zandcee/Wikipedia)

The 1950s

Autocar introduced the all-steel Autocar Driver Cab in 1950, which was designed to improve operators’ comfort and productivity. By 1953 the Autocar company-owned dealer network had over 100 locations, which was among the reasons White Motor Company acquired Autocar that year. Autocar truck production was moved to a new factory located in Exton, Pennsylvania, which is 25 miles from Ardmore.

Under White Motor Company, Autocar was known for its “Custom Engineering,” which meant that it designed each truck to the end-user’s specifications. Autocar trucks were equipped with either White’s Mustang engine, or Cummins or Detroit Diesel engines. 

An Autocar dump truck from the 1950s. (Photo: Autocar)
An Autocar dump truck from the 1950s. (Photo: Autocar)

Autocar launched its AP series of extreme-duty trucks for on- and off-road construction, mining, logging and oil field applications. The Autocar AP40 had a 40-ton capacity and was the largest single-engine vehicle in the world when it was introduced. On the other end of the scale, Autocar brought its A Model to market, which utilized aluminum frames and cabs to lower vehicle weight.

1960s and 1970s

During this period, Autocar custom-engineered “some of the biggest, baddest trucks ever put to work in the dirtiest, toughest, most rugged vocations imaginable.” An Autocar brochure boasted: “Everything about the Autocar is tough. And everything about the Autocar is geared to unusually harsh, even hazardous conditions.”

The company continued to innovate; among its unique models were the 900,000-pound gross cargo weight AP19T. It was equipped with a V-12 Cummins diesel engine, a 30,000-pound tubular front axle and 200,000-pound tandem rear axles. Autocar also introduced its CK64 Half Cabs, which were used for construction-related applications, hauling “concrete mixers, stone blocks and a 35-foot boom.” Present-day Autocar ACTTs are “descendants” of the custom-engineered Autocar CK Half Cab vehicles.

An Autocar heavy-duty tractor in the early 1960s. (Photo: Autocar)
An Autocar heavy-duty tractor in the early 1960s. (Photo: Autocar)


White Motor Company moved Autocar’s production facilities to Ogden, Utah in 1980. The next year, AB Volvo acquired White Motor Company, including Autocar. The new company was named Volvo White Truck Corporation; however, Autocar’s role did not change – it continued to produce custom-designed severe-service trucks.

In 1986 Volvo White acquired General Motors’ heavy-truck business. The company’s name was changed to Volvo GM Heavy Truck Corporation. 

In December 1987 the last Autocar with an Autocar Driver Cab (which was first manufactured in 1950) was produced. 

An Autocar DK-64 tractor. (Photo: Mr. Choppers/Wikipedia)
An Autocar DK-64 tractor. (Photo: Mr. Choppers/Wikipedia)


Although Autocar’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 1997, Volvo built its last Autocar in October 2000.

As noted above, GVW Group LLC purchased Autocar and the Xpeditor truck model from Volvo Trucks North America in 2001. Truck production facilities were relocated to Hagerstown, Indiana in 2003. Autocar won a leading position in the refuse market 70 years after introducing its first Model U for that market in 1933.

A 2001 model refuse truck. (Photo: Autocar)
A 2001 model refuse truck. (Photo: Autocar)

In addition, Autocar custom-engineered the Xpeditor for a range of demanding applications, which included mobile cranes, concrete pumpers, paint stripers and gravel conveyors.

Under the Xpeditor nameplate the company introduced the Autocar ACX Low Cab-Over in 2008. This truck had a number of “firsts,” including an “ergonomically designed cab, B-pillar corner rear windows and integrated body controls.”

The same year, the Autocar ACTT was introduced as a custom-engineered Class 8 yard truck. These terminal tractors were built for productivity while withstanding continuous severe-duty cycles. Earlier this year Autocar introduced an emissions-free, all-electric terminal tractor for the drayage market.

The Autocar electric tractor for use at terminals. (Photo: Autocar)
The Autocar electric tractor for use at terminals. (Photo: Autocar)

The 2010s

The Autocar ACMD was the only medium-duty cab-over-engine truck built in the U.S. when it was introduced in 2012 as a Class 7 vocational truck. Since then, the ACMD platform has been expanded for more applications, including two Class 8 formats. 

Autocar began manufacturing the Autocar DC conventional truck in 2019, which was first introduced by the company in 1939 as its premier severe-duty truck. As noted above, it was a diesel-powered work truck. The DC-64 joined the “ACX® and ACMD® cabover trucks and the ACTT® terminal tractor, as Autocar’s fourth line.” 

In 2021, 124 years after it was founded, Autocar is the oldest vehicle nameplate in America and the only truck manufacturer focused on severe-duty vocational applications. 

Vintage Autocar dump hoists. (Photo: Jim Duell/flickr)
Vintage Autocar dump hoists. (Photo: Jim Duell/flickr)

Author’s note: Much of this article is adapted from the Autocar history timeline. Thanks to Autocar for making this information available to the public, as well as a number of historical photos.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.