The story of Navajo Freight Lines began in 1934 when Red Arrow Trucking was founded. Four years later, Red Arrow was rebranded as the Kansas City Los Angeles Flyer Transport Company. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) granted the company routes from Kansas to Los Angeles, and by 1938, the company serviced New Mexico as well.
However, in 1940, the ICC revoked all routes given prior to the New Mexico lanes. This was a huge blow to the company, and its story might have ended there. Thankfully, Mitch Howe acquired the ailing carrier in the same year, and renamed it Navajo Freight Lines.
Howe had a different vision regarding expansion and pursued acquisitions to broaden the company’s reach. That year, Howe purchased Colorado New Mexico Express and renamed that company Navajo Express Lines. Lastly, Howe acquired Tucumcari Truck Lines, located in New Mexico. After the acquisition, Tucumcari was renamed Navajo Truck Lines Inc., and the Navajo family of companies was born.
The blue-eyed Indian sees growth
The Navajo companies were known primarily for the mascot painted on their trailers, a blue-eyed Indian. In fact, Route 66 was known as the “Route of the Blue-Eyed Indian.” Initially, the mascot was not Navajo, nor blue-eyed. The Navajo tribe complained about the inaccurate portrayal of the Navajo in the first mascot. The first iteration featured the Indian wearing a complete headdress, which is not part of the Navajo tradition. To remedy this mistake, Howe hired an Italian painter to revise the logo. The Italian painter, having no knowledge of the Navajo, mistakenly painted the mascot’s eyes blue. Howe elected to keep the mistake rather than correct it, and the iconic image was born.
Another owner, more acquisitions… and another owner
Navajo Freight Lines continued to grow, and in 1948, the company was incorporated and set up its headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Despite these advances, Howe sold the company to Laurence Dohner in 1953. The company grew through a series of acquisitions, including Arizona Nevada Express, Ellis Trucking Company, Smith Transfer, F&S Transit and General Expressways. The company quickly became the nation’s third-largest transcontinental trucking company, reporting revenues of over $40 million in 1964.
That same year, Navajo Freight Lines was sold to David H. Rotner, the company’s fourth owner. By this time, the carrier had 2,500 employees and was operating 44 terminals with 2,800 pieces of equipment. In 1973, revenues exceeded $100 million, and the company had established even more terminals, now operating 67 in 33 states.
The company peaks and begins to decline
Unfortunately, Navajo Freight Lines had reached the peak of its financial success. In 1974, an economic recession took a bite out of the company’s profits. In 1975, Navajo Freight Lines reported annual revenues were down 12.2% from the previous year. The company reported a net loss of $1.9 million, and stated in its financial report to shareholders that it was a direct result of the economic downturn that year. That year’s financial report also warned stockholders of the difficulties coming if deregulation legislation passed, stating, “These types of deregulatory proposals would inevitably bring about a rate war disastrous to both the buyer and the seller of transportation services.” Revenues recovered somewhat in 1976 and 1977, but incomes were still low, reporting at $450,000 and $41,000, respectively.
Navajo is acquired and retired…
Navajo was acquired and absorbed by Arkansas Best Freight Truck Lines in 1978. The acquisition was approved by the ICC in 1979, just before deregulation began to affect the industry. The iconic blue-eyed Indian was painted over or sent to the scrap yard.
In 1981, another trucking company purchased the rights to the Navajo name from ArcBest, and the name lives on (at least in part) as Navajo Express Inc. Though those trucks now carry the name, the famous “Route of the Blue-Eyed Indian” has slowly faded from memory.