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FreightWaves Haul of Fame: Motor Freight Express grew for 50 years…

Another venerable trucking company that could not survive deregulation

A vintage photo of a Motor Freight Express truck.

At one point in time, Motor Freight Express was one of the oldest motor freight companies operating in the state of Pennsylvania. The company’s roots dated back as far as 1867, with the founding of the Baltimore Transfer Company in Maryland. At the time, the company was strictly a horse and wagon operation. 

Pre-World War II

The owners of Baltimore Transfer Company founded Motor Freight Express in 1929, as a less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier. They then purchased the Maryland and Pennsylvania Motor Freight Line in 1930. Following this, the company purchased Raffensberger Motor Express. These acquisitions gave Motor Freight Express its earliest operating authorities in Philadelphia, Reading and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The company immediately began seeking to expand its intrastate authority.

The owners of Motor Freight Express incorporated the company in October 1930. In 1931, the company made another acquisition, this time of the franchise and vehicles of Paul S. Dieholf. This gave the company access to a route between Reading and Philadelphia. Occasionally, these bids for new routes and authorities were met with protests, as competitors such as the Reading Company felt their territory was being threatened. In 1932, the company established its first terminal in York, Pennsylvania, and operated as a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The company soon had terminals in Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia, as well as Richmond, Virginia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. By 1934, Motor Freight Express had established daily service to New York City, Baltimore and Richmond and several points in Pennsylvania.

In 1935, Motor Freight Express had its first run-in with unionization when York Motor Express, a rival company, underwent a strike. The union, eager to represent more members, resorted to intimidation to gain more members. This intimidation took the form of brutal beatings of Motor Freight Express employees as well as their wives. 

At the height of the conflict, a Motor Freight Express pier was blown “to smithereens” by a stick of dynamite. Though York Motor Express employees claimed no responsibility, two were eventually found guilty, fined and imprisoned. However, the difficulties did not dissuade Motor Freight Express from seeking more intrastate authority and it continued to petition for more routes. The company endured  its own strike in 1936, as workers walked off of their jobs in pursuit of union recognition. 

The strike was resolved after nine weeks, but was brought before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) as Motor Freight Express applied for its operating permit, which was officially awarded in 1940. Though Motor Freight Express was involved in shipping for the U.S. war effort, its problems with the union persisted. In 1941, the company experienced another nine-week strike. In 1944, employees went on strike once more, protesting reluctance by Motor Freight Express management to sign a wage increase from the War Labor Board. Eventually, the War Labor Board demanded that the truckers return to their positions, as war-time freight sat idling on the docks.

A Motor Freight Express advertisement that appeared in the Harrisburg (PA) Telegraph

Post-World War II expansion

After World War II ended, Motor Freight Express renewed its focus on expansion. (At that time, the ICC had to approve any changes to a trucking company’s interstate routes. The easiest way for a company to expand was to buy another trucking company and take over its routes, which had previously been approved by the ICC.)

In 1947, Motor Freight Express purchased the franchise and trucks for the freight lanes run by Adam Transit, a company that ran primarily to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Two years later, the ICC approved the Motor Freight Express purchase of Almo Motor Lines. This acquisition further solidified Motor Freight’s hold on the Pennsylvania intrastate market, and expanded its service area to Altoona, Chambersburg, Pittsburgh, State College and several other points. 

After these acquisitions, Motor Freight broke ground for new terminals in Bedford, Johnstown and Pittsburgh. Acquisitions continued in the 1960s with the purchase of Daily Motors Inc., in 1961, Cleveland-Pittsburgh Express in 1965 and Holland Transportation Company in 1967. By that year, Motor Freight Express had grown and employed 1,500 people, owned 1,000 pieces of equipment and operated 16 terminals. After the completion of the company’s acquisition of Akron Chicago Inc., it was estimated that gross revenues would grow from $22 million to $33 million.

Growth – and turmoil in the 1970s

In 1969, Motor Freight Express completed its purchase of French Interstate. Motor Freight Express now had 31 terminals in eight states, as well as a terminal in Washington, D.C. While the company’s management wanted to continue its growth, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters had other ideas. In 1973, yet another wildcat strike broke out in the Northeast, affecting multiple trucking companies. Seven area businesses were unable to operate at all during the strike, including Motor Freight Express. 

Motor Freight Express managed to survive the strike, while some companies closed down and others barely held on. In 1975, it purchased Repogle and grew again. At that time, Motor Freight Express offered service from Boston to Chicago, routed through 36 terminals. In the late 1970s efforts to deregulate the trucking and railroad industries gained momentum. In 1978, amid the lead-up to deregulation (which took place in 1980), Motor Freight Express opened another new terminal in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. 

Deregulation and decline

While Motor Freight Express survived the Great Depression, disputes over authority, dynamite and wildcat strikes, the company could not survive the changes to the trucking industry brought on by deregulation. The company filed for bankruptcy protection on October 14, 1982, and its last day of operations was November 12 of that year.

In the first few years of deregulation, thousands of new trucking companies started. At the same time, many existing companies failed. There were many reasons for these failures – inefficiency, high operating costs, inability to adapt to the new circumstances of deregulation, among others. 

For the employees of the companies that failed, FreightWaves hopes that the vast majority of them found employment at another trucking company or in another industry. Deregulation was good for the industry and good for the consumers of the United States. However, it was not always good for every trucking company or its employees.

One Comment

  1. Gary Smith

    MFX was owned for many years by the Hoffberger family of Baltimore, whose other interests included a brewery, a petroleum distributor, warehousing and the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. Consolidated Freightways considered buying MFX to become Con-Way Eastern Express, but backed off after seeing how bad the company’s finances were. They bought Penn Yan Express instead.

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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.