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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Luella Bates was the nation’s first female licensed truck driver

Luella Bates and a FWD Model B. (Photo: Four Wheel Drive Auto Co.)

Today is International Women’s Day. FreightWaves Classics is continuing its series on women who have made an impact on the fields of transportation, logistics and supply chains.

Luella Bates was born in Wisconsin on October 17, 1897. Very little can be found about her earliest years, but she began working for Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. during World War I. Bates was the first female licensed commercial truck driver (as well as a mechanic and truck inspector). 

She had an influential role in the history of trucks at a time when the vehicles were still in an early stage of development and use in the nation – and most people thought that they should be operated only by men.

Before her career is highlighted, an overview of Four Wheel Drive is provided.  

 Luella Bates driving a 1922 Model B. (Photo: FWD Auto Co.)
Luella Bates driving a 1922 Model B. (Photo: FWD Auto Co.)

Background

The Four Wheel Drive Auto Company was one of dozens of companies that built automobiles in the first quarter of the 20th century. Its founders (Otto Zachow and William Besserdich) built the nation’s first four-wheel drive automobile based on a design by Zachow in their machine shop in 1908. That led them to found the Badger Four-Wheel Drive Auto Company in Clintonville, Wisconsin, in 1909. “Badger” was dropped from the name in 1910, and the company’s first production facility was built in 1911.


Besserdich’s and Zachow’s four-wheel drive system was the first simple and effective design for transferring power to all four wheels of an automobile. They patented their full-time four-wheel drive system, which “combined a lockable center differential with double-Y constant velocity universal joints” to steer their vehicles. 

(Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society/hemmings.com)
(Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society/hemmings.com)

The company was reorganized in 1911-12 and its emphasis shifted from manufacturing automobiles to trucks. In 1912 the U.S. Army tested trucks as replacements for mules and wagons; this gave the company its first major publicity. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 provided new markets in Europe and the United States. The company became known as Four-Wheel Drive (FWD), but did not change its name to FWD Corporation until the late 1950s.

World War I

The early four-wheel drive trucks were successful in military tests. This led to a U.S. Army order for 147 “Model B” three-ton trucks from FWD in 1916. The trucks were to be used for the expedition into Mexico to hunt for Pancho Villa. That order was followed by another order from the U.S. Army in 1917 – this time for 15,000 FWD Model B three-ton trucks that were to be used in World War I. More than 14,000 Model B trucks were delivered, and orders for more trucks came from the United Kingdom and Russia.

Four other manufacturers produced the FWD Model B under licensing agreements during the war: Peerless Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio; Kissel Motor Car Company of Hartford, Wisconsin; Premier Motor Corporation of Indianapolis, Indiana; and Mitchell Motor Car Company of Racine, Wisconsin.

Soldiers pose on a FWD Model B in World War I. (Photo: hemmings.com)
Soldiers pose on a FWD Model B in World War I. (Photo: hemmings.com)

Other successes 

Early FWD trucks were made with a track width of 4-feet 8.5 inches so that they could quickly be used on a standard gauge railway line after changing the wheels.

Three FWD Model B trucks were included in the 1919 Motor Transport Corps convoy that has been profiled in previous FreightWaves Classics articles (here, here and here). According to First Lt. E. R. Jackson, the official Ordnance Department observer, “The three Four-Wheel Drive Trucks were, in general, the most satisfactory in the Convoy and of all of the various makes represented, the F.W.D.’s alone were able to pull through all of the bad, muddy and sandy stretches of road in Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada absolutely unaided.”

A Canadian subsidiary of FWD was established with Dominion Truck of Kitchener, Ontario by 1919. That was followed by a British subsidiary in 1921. In 1926, the British FWD, also known as the Jeffery Quad, was produced with a larger 70-horsepower engine.

The 1932 Miller FWD race car. (Photo: conceptcarz.com)
The 1932 Miller FWD race car. (Photo: conceptcarz.com)

A relationship with noted race car builder Harry Miller resulted in the Four Wheel Drive Miller that competed successfully at the Indianapolis 500 in 1921 and later. The race car demonstrated that the advantages of FWD’s lockable center differential were not limited to off-road driving.

Luella Bates

Bates’ then-unconventional career as a truck driver began as a result of the U.S. entry into World War I. She became one of about 150 women hired by FWD to take over jobs that had been vacated when male employees reported for military duty. 

She was the first of six female FWD employees chosen to test and demonstrate the company’s trucks, a job she held from 1918 to 1922. Bates and other female drivers drove the new Model B trucks under various road and weather conditions throughout Wisconsin. In addition to improving their driving skills, the test drivers also learned how to solve many of the various mechanical issues the trucks had. 

After World War I, many former FWD employees came back to reclaim their jobs, which led to the majority of the women at FWD being laid off. However, Bates stayed with FWD, continuing her career as a demonstrator and driver. “War’s Over, But Luella Bates Refuses to Be Mustered Out,” was a headline in the Shreveport, Louisiana Times. During her time at FWD, Bates’ decided that with her expertise in driving and fixing trucks that there was no other job that she wanted. “I like the business and expect to stay in it,” she said at the time.

Luella Bates in a FWD Model B drops a load of sand. (Photo: transportationhistory.org)
Luella Bates in a FWD Model B drops a load of sand. (Photo: transportationhistory.org)

1920

Recognizing her hard work and passion, FWD appointed her as a goodwill ambassador and sent her on an interstate tour in 1920. This tour was part of FWD’s and Francis Hugo’s (New York Secretary of State) “Safety First” advertising campaign. 

Bates drove a Model B truck from Clintonville to New York City to display the FWD truck at the New York Auto Show. During her visit, she met with Hugo, and became the first woman truck driver to receive a driver’s license.

Because of the national attention Bates received due to her trip to New York, FWD’s executives decided to further promote her fame. During the rest of 1920, the company sent her on three transcontinental tours throughout the country. Bates’ tours were accompanied by publicity and advertising that reinforced the idea that the FWD truck was easy to steer, as evidenced by a woman driver. She also demonstrated the power and versatility of the company’s four-wheel drive trucks.

Luella Bates shakes hands with New York Secretary of State Francis Hugo in 1920. (Photo: FWD Auto Co.)
Luella Bates shakes hands with New York Secretary of State Francis Hugo in 1920. (Photo: FWD Auto Co.)

During Bates’ tours she had several roles – tester, demonstrator, mechanic and goodwill ambassador for the company and its trucks. She attended state fairs and auto shows to display the power and versatility of FWD trucks. Bates also inspected company trucks and developed recommendations on their upkeep and repair for owners and dealerships. She performed these duties with unmatched passion and proficiency, making it clear to the public that trucks weren’t just for men anymore.

On her first tour Bates visited 25 cities and towns, beginning in Kansas City, Missouri, and finishing in Belefontaine, Ohio. In Erie, Pennsylvania, she flew over the city in an airplane and saturated Erie with information about the Four Wheel Drive Company and its vehicles. In its May 1920 issue, Popular Science Monthly magazine ran an article about Bates and FWD entitled “She’s a Truck-Driver.” The article’s author referred to her as “exhibit A for feminine efficiency.” The author also wrote, “Not only does [Bates] drive her own truck, but she does all the repairing herself.”

She returned to Clintonville in late July 1920, and then began her next tour in August. She traveled to state fairs throughout the eastern United States. Then she drove her truck (loaded with coal) through the streets of Utica, New York in September. As an expert driver and mechanic, Bates did all the maintenance on her truck.

During her last tour of 1920, Bates barnstormed through the South. She was well-known as “our girl driver.” In Oklahoma, she defied local police and drove her truck safely across a flooded road, hauling meat for a packaging plant. This led to the sale of 10 trucks for FWD and another round of publicity for Bates and the company. 

Luella Bates performs maintenance on a FWD Model B. (Photo: Four Wheel Drive Auto Co.)

1921-22 

During 1921 and 1922, Bates traveled as a demonstrator throughout the country, demonstrating the FWD Model B and the company’s newly developed fire trucks.

Bates moved to Milwaukee in December 1922, leaving FWD at that time. She later married and had two sons.

Legacy

Luella Bates died in 1985 at the age of 88. She was featured in several books that were written about the Four Wheel Drive Company, the history of trucking and the history of Clintonville. During the early years of the trucking industry, she had a key role in the history of women in trucking.

Moreover, Bates became the face of women in the trucking industry and opened the door for women who also sought work in the transportation industry. In an article in The Daily Republican on June 30, 1920, the question “Can a girl be as good a mechanic as a man?” was raised. Bates stated that women were equal to men as mechanics and said, “Didn’t the war [World War I] prove that women could step into virtually every branch of industry and successfully replace men?”

Luella Bates standing on her FWD model B truck in 1919. (Photo: Four Wheel Drive Museum)
Luella Bates standing on her FWD model B truck in 1919. (Photo: Four Wheel Drive Museum)

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.