Many people will call an 18-wheeler a “truck.” But it is actually a tractor-trailer, made up of the tractor (the power source) and a trailer of one kind or another.
The three most common types of trailers are dry vans, refrigerated trailers (reefers) and flatbeds. There are hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of trailers on roads and highways across the United States each and every day.
But how were trailers first developed, and by whom?
Earlier this year, FreightWaves Classics covered the legacy of Malcom 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 (Gus) Fruehauf (1868-1930), who is credited with inventing the semi-trailer. As it turns out, Fruehauf had a hand in Malcom McLean’s success as well.
By the turn of the 20th century, Fruehauf was a successful blacksmith and horse carriage builder in Detroit. By 1914, the number of automobiles had increased significantly and thinking up new ways to use them. One of Fruehauf’s customers asked him to develop a way to transport an 18-foot boat behind his Ford 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 Fruehauf (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 Classics thanks Ruth Ann Fruehauf for her contributions, as well as the Fruehauf Trailer Historical Society for information and photographs that contributed to this article. If you are interested in the company and its contributions to the trucking industry and American industry, the Society’s website will be of great interest to you.
Creating an industry
Frederic M. Sibley, the lumber dealer who had asked Fruehauf to build that first trailer, asked Fruehauf to build additional trailers that he could use to transport products from his lumber yard. That led owners of other lumber yards to request similar trailers. Due to the popularity of his semi-trailers, August Fruehauf founded the Fruehauf Trailer Company in 1918. Over time, 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 FreightWaves Classics 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 manufacturers pulled the trailers that almost overwhelmingly were manufactured by the Fruehauf Trailer Company.
Within a few years of starting the company, its semi-trailers were demonstrating their practicality and orders for more rapidly increased. 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 early versions of the shipping containers used by a number of U.S. railroads (and, after 1956, on Pan-Atlantic Steamship Co. ships, which were controlled by container pioneer McLean and later known as Sea-Land).
Observations by Ruth Ann Fruehauf about her grandfather and the company he founded
When I asked Ms. Fruehauf “What is the single thing you would want a reader to know about your grandfather?,” she wrote, “The Fruehauf Trailer Company was created and built by many people, including my grandfather. My grandmother was in charge of all the painting, my uncles also participated along with the Otto Newman family.”
She added, “I do know that my grandfather found ways around obstacles in order to please his customers. This kind of customer service produced new inventions and subsequent patents as they discovered engineering techniques to solve problems presented by customers and the military. They never said no; they said let us try to find a solution.”
I also asked “What do you think he would think/say about the state of the trucking/trailer industry in 2021?”
Her response was, “The trucking industry now is about cubic volume, weight and economics. These were also important in my grandfather’s era but not the critical goal. They made it possible for goods and materials to be available coast to coast. Oranges grown in California could be enjoyed by consumers in Chicago, parts manufactured in Ohio could be made available to service centers in Texas and so on.”