How American truck makers thrive under global ownership

Imagine the United States as a body, with the highway system as its veins and arteries. The blood made up of middle- and heavy-duty trucks, delivering the goods we need while carrying our waste away. 

The precursors of trucks were horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches and farm equipment. But trucks actually developed out of automobiles, specifically, the Winton automobile.

The Winton Motor Carriage Company hand-built automobiles beginning in 1897. Alexander Winton raced his 10-hp car around a track in Cleveland at the awe-inspiring speed of 33.6 mph and later drove from Cleveland to New York City. He drew buyers, but how would the motor carriages be delivered?  The solution was to mount a trailer on a Winton model truck, creating an auto hauler.

If automobiles could be hauled from producers to sellers, so could other goods. By 1914 more than 100,000 trucks were rolling. A handful of states enacted weight requirements, even though trucks were still constrained by speed limits and solid tires. Truck drivers formed the first union in 1901; the Teamsters Union followed in 1903.

Charles Fruehauf was hired to build a boat trailer in 1914. His client was thrilled with the result and asked Fruehauf to make trailers for his lumber yard. The idea caught on with other industries. Long-distance trucking was made viable with inflatable tires, developed during World War I. More than a million trucks plied the roads by the early 1920s. The introduction of much more efficient diesel engines came in the 1930s, followed by power-assisted steering and brakes.

Trucks, it turned out, were useful for all sorts of tasks. Their growing presence led to several developments, such as refrigerated trucks in 1938, emergence of truck stops in the ‘40s, the invention of the CB radio in 1945, and the construction of the Interstate Highway System beginning in 1956.

What Are They?

Trucks generally fall into essentially eight (8) classes.

  • Classes 1-3 include pickups, vans and SUVs – mostly non-commercial vehicles, although some Class 3 pickups qualify as medium duty.
  • Class 4 (14,000-16,000 pounds) – e.g., delivery trucks.
  • Class 5 ( 16,000-19,500 pounds) – e.g., bucket trucks, farming equipment.
  • Class 6 (19,500-26,000) pounds – e.g., beverage trucks.
  • Class 7 (26,000-33,000 pounds) – e.g., garbage trucks
  • Class 8 trucks (33,000 pounds +) – e.g., tractor-trailer/semis; also cement and dump trucks.
  • Classes 4-8 generally require special training and driving licenses

Truck Fast Facts

  • The American Trucking Association (ATA) reported that 11.92 billion tons of freight were transported by trucks in 2019, representing 80.4% of the nation’s freight.
  • Medium and heavy-duty trucks accounted for 26% of all U.S. trucks in 2018.
  • There were 3.91 million Class 8 trucks operating in 2019, including both tractor-trailer/ semi-trailer trucks and straight (single chassis) trucks.
  • America’s heavy-duty truck drivers traveled more than 432 billion miles in 2018, using 54 billion gallons of fuel, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.
  • There were 3.6 million truck drivers employed in 2019 and 795 million people in jobs related to trucking (excluding those self-employed) – about six percent of all full-time jobs in America.
  • While the trucking industry is made up of 928,647 private motor carriers, the overwhelming majority of them (91.3 percent) are small businesses with five or fewer trucks.
  • U.S. trucking industry’s 2017 revenues exceeded the GDP of more than 150 nations.
  • Commercial trucks paid more than $41 billion in state and federal highway user taxes in 2015, according to the ATA.

While there are scores of manufacturers, just a handful dominate heavy- and medium-duty truck manufacturing. Freightliner (Daimler) leads the pack with 29%, followed by Ford (19%), International (13%) Kenworth (11%), Peterbilt (7%) and Volvo (5%). Others continue to make notable vehicles, though, including Mack, GMC/Chevrolet, Ram, Isuzu and Hino. Legendary status belongs to at least one no longer built: the REO.


Ransom Eli Olds was successful building cars with his original company, Olds Motor Works, which became part of General Motors in 1908. REO Motor Truck Co. was formed as a subsidiary of his later company, REO Motor Car Company, in 1910. It mounted truck bodies on modified auto chassis to create three-quarter ton trucks. Heavier-duty trucks followed beginning in World War I.

The famous REO Speedwagon was introduced in 1915 and manufactured until 1949. It is widely considered the precursor to the pickup truck. In the 1920s, the Speedwagon pioneered electric starters and lights, shaft-driven axles and steel-mounted pneumatic tires. The product line grew to include trucks that could carry up to two tons.

Experiencing financial problems, REO declared bankruptcy in 1938. It reorganized and supplied military vehicles during World War II. After the war, REO manufactured heavier-duty trucks, until it was sold in 1957 to White Trucks Motor Company in 1957, forming Diamond REO. The company and its iconic name changed hands again to a Class 8 dealer with plans to continue building REO’s C-116 Giant but it was not successful and REO ceased to exist in 1995.

International: From Farm to Trucks

Cyrus McCormick developed the horse-drawn reaper in the 1830s and co-founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago in 1847.  After a series of mergers it became International Harvester in 1902.

While continuing to manufacture tractors, IH moved into vans and trucks. Beginning with the Auto Wagon, the company built light trucks from 1907 to 1975. It was also an early producer of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The cab-over-engine (COE) heavy-duty CO-4000 – the first entirely designed and built by IH – was introduced in 1965. Through the 1980s, IH trucks were characterized by a variety of names ending in “star.” Beginning with the Loadstar, there was the Class 8 Transtar, Paystar, Cargostar and Fleetstar.

IH’s finances were precarious throughout the 1960s and ‘70s and it was substantially affected by labor problems in the ‘80s. It sold off pieces of its business but kept the truck and engine divisions, changing its name to Navistar International in 1986. Navistar’s subsidiary, International Truck and Engine Corporation continues to build and sell trucks and engines badged with the International name.

White’s Rise and Fall

White Trucks grew out of the White Motor Car Company, which in turn grew out of a business that manufactured everything from roller skates to sewing machines. After World War I, the company stopped making cars and focused on a range of trucks. Following World War II, it concentrated on heavy-duty trucks and acquired a string of competitors, including REO. It distributed Freightliner Trucks from 1951-77. Sales started dropping in the ‘60s and White began to have financial problems. When White filed for bankruptcy in 1980; Volvo acquired its American assets.

Mack: the Industry’s Bulldog

Carriage-makers Jack and Gus Mack founded Mack Trucks in 1900 in Brooklyn, NY. Jack was reported to be inspired by riding in a neighbor’s automobile.

An early bus builder, Mack’s 40-hp, 20-passenger sightseeing bus operated in Brooklyn for several years before being converted into a truck. Mack produced the first motorized hook-and-ladder fire truck in 1910.

Mack adopted the cab-over-engine (COE) configuration in 1905. It can also claim credit for features that prevented stripped gears and allowed drivers to shift gears without going through intermediate gears. It introduced air and oil filters and rubber mounts in 1918, power brakes using a vacuum-booster system in 1927, and four-wheel brakes in 1936. Mack pioneered the all-fiberglass, metal cage-reinforced cab in the MH Ultra-Liner in 1982.

Mack’s bulldog trademark originated during WWII, when the truck’s blunt-nosed hood and durability reminded British soldiers of their bulldog symbol. The war effort required 35,000 Mack Trucks.

Mack became a wholly-owned Renault subsidiary in the early ‘80s and subsequently was bought by AB Volvo.

Peterbilt and Kenworth: A Family Affair

Peterbilt and Kenworth compete as separate brands. However, both are owned by the Pacific Car and Foundry (PACCAR) conglomerate.

William Pigott, Sr. founded Seattle Car Manufacturing in 1905, soon merging with Twohy Brothers to become Pacific Car and Foundry Co., which stayed in the Pigott family for many years. The company acquired Kenworth Motor Truck Co in 1945 and rebranded as PACCAR in 1972.

Peterbilt started as a solution to T.A. Peterman’s problem in the 1930s: How to move logs from forest to mill? Floating them downriver or hauling them by steam or horse would be too slow. Ultimately, using Army surplus trucks, Peterman later bought a failing motor company in 1938, establishing Peterbilt to build a truck chassis. His relentless pursuit of improvement and innovation continued until he died in 1944. Employees bought and continued to grow Peterbilt until 1958. Pacific Car and Foundry purchased Peterbilt when Peterman’s widow sold the property where the factory was located.

Peterbilt’s innovations include using aluminum to reduce weight (1945); the all-aluminum tilt hood (1965); the first Smartway Designated Alternative Fuel Vehicle and the first standard Air Disc Brakes (2011). It announced plans in 2018 to produce all-electric semis. Peterbilt hit the million-truck mark in 2018 with the Peterbilt Model 567 Heritage.

Seattle-based Kenworth is named for both of its founders: Edgard Worthington and Captain Frederick Kent. They acquired Gerlinger Motor Car Company in 1917, renaming it Kenworth Motor Truck Company in 1923. Kenworth expanded to building buses in 1927 and in 1932 built its first fire truck. It became the first American truck builder to make diesel engines standard in 1933; diesel was a third the cost of gasoline. It also introduced the first factory-made sleeper cab in 1933.

Kenworth supplied American forces with almost 2000 vehicles for World War II and by war’s end, had supplied almost 2,000 vehicles for the war effort and has continued to contract with the government since. It also supplies components for Boeing’s B-17 and B-29 bombers.

Pacific Car & Foundry acquired Kenworth in 1945 when employees couldn’t get financing to buy their company. Kenworth grew from a regional to an international truck manufacturer by 1950, selling trucks for Middle East oil production. In 1959 it expanded manufacturing to Mexico and later to Australia. By its 50th anniversary in 1973 , annual sales had grown to 10,000 units. Kenworth continues to manufacture trucks as a PACCAR company.

The Swedish Invasion

Volvo has continually sought to improve safety and fuel efficiency in both its cars and trucks.

It has manufactured trucks in Europe since 1928, moving into the U.S. market in 1971. Volvo launched the F613 medium-duty truck in 1976 and in 1981 bought part of the White Motor Corp. A joint venture between Volvo and General Motors – Volvo GM Heavy Truck Corp. – was formed in 1988. In 1997, Volvo bought GM’s truck division to become Volvo Trucks North America. Since 2001 the truck company has used the Volvo brand name. With its Renault and Mack Trucks, Volvo is the second-largest truck builder in the world.

Freightliner – American with a German Accent

Freightliner launched itself into the truck market in 1942 with its all-aluminum cab. Truck-building halted during World War II while Freightliner manufactured military equipment. It introduced the Eastern Freightliner tractor to haul trailers in 1950 and in 1953 followed with its first overhead sleeper tractor, which could run on multiple varieties of fuel. Both Freightliner and Peterbuilt lay claim to the first 90-degree tilt cab that eased maintenance in 1958. Along with Cummins engines it developed a power-assist for tractors hauling double or triple trailers over high mountain passes.

Daimler-Benz AG bought Freightliner from its parent company, Consolidated Freightways, in 1981, followed by firetruck maker American LaFrance (1995); Louisville Lines; Ford’s heavy-truck division Louisville Lines (1997); and Detroit Diesel (2000). Daimler/Freightliner continued to innovate, building larger sleepers and electronically assisted articulating steps. The company created a full-scale wind tunnel in 2004 to test aerodynamics and adopted its “Run Smart Predictive Cruise” in 2009 to allow modeling the road ahead to achieve fuel savings. Freightliner was chosen by the federal government in 2013 to find ways to improve Class 8 trucks’ fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions. Freightliners’ Detroit engines met federal greenhouse gas emission standards in 2016 – a year ahead of schedule. It was the first manufacturer to offer a suite of safety systems using radar to prevent collisions and cameras for lane departure warnings.

As for Ford selling Louisville Lines to Daimler/Freightliner, I have a personal connection to that evolution.  My cousin, John Merrifield, who grew up near Richmond, Missouri, and spent an entire career with Ford Motor Company, was head of the Ford’s Louisville Lines division when Ford made the sale.  The Louisville Lines division became Sterling Trucks, under Daimler/Freightliner and John was the CEO of Sterling.  After a few years as a standalone brand, Daimler/Freightliner rolled Sterling division into Freightiner.   

The company turns 80 in 2021.

Japan Shows Muscle in Middle-Duty

While heavy-duty trucks haul the goods, medium-duty trucks are the workhorses of society; they are contractor’s vehicles, delivery trucks, bucket trucks and cherry pickers and farm trucks.

Isuzu has been a leading supplier of middle- and some heavy-duty trucks since it began importing to the U.S. in 1984; it’s KS22 truck had an 87-hp diesel engine. Isuzu quickly became the best-selling low cab forward brand in America. Low cab forward (LCF) trucks’ engines are located under the cab, rather than in front and it’s easy for a user to choose the body that will work best for their application.

Isuzu has delivered more than 500,000 trucks in North America. It began assembling trucks here in the mid-‘90s. Isuzu’s commitment to become cleaner and more fuel-efficient has been a theme in the company’s development: LCF medium-duty trucks were the first to achieve compliance with 2010 EPA regulations in 2010;  2015-16 diesel models met greenhouse gas emissions standards in 2015 – a year early; and an all-electric Isuzu truck was shown at the Work Truck Show in 2018.

Japanese powerhouse Hino has been Japan’s top-selling truck brand for almost 50 years, and boasts it is America’s fastest-growing medium-duty truck brand but also manufactures heavy trucks. Hino was established as an independent company and began selling in the U.S. in 1995; it became a subsidiary of Toyota in 2001. It has plants in West Virginia and also manufactures parts in California and Arkansas for Toyota.

The Americans – Tough, Rockin’ and Ram-in’

Ford, Chevrolet/GMC and RAM are best known for pickup trucks, but also manufacture bigger trucks, including farm and construction workhorses such as Ford F-350  through 650, Chevy/GMC Silverado 4500 – 6500  and RAM 4500 and 5500 trucks. Ford continues to build medium-duty F-650 and 750, as well as some Class 8 F-750s.

Chevrolet began building versions of its iconic pickup in 1918 to compete with Fords Model TT It continues to specialize in pickups. Chevrolet and GMC trucks share architecture but have individual badges. The C/K line debuted in 1960, with pickups but also incorporating some heavier models. From 1966-2003 these General Motors twins produced the B series medium-duty “incomplete” trucks, based on the C/K chassis, that could be built out for commercial use. This was popular adapted for use as a school bus.

The Chevy/GMC C/K series underwent several iterations until 2000. Now, its Silverado “Heavy Duty” versions, the 1500HD, 2500HD and 3500HD are capable medium-duty trucks; GMC uses Sierra HD branding. In 2001 Chevrolet introduced the Duramax 6.6L turbodiesel, which morphed into the second-generation Duramax producing an impressive 910 lb-ft of torque.

Stellantis (formerly Chrysler Corporation, Daimler-Chrysler, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) Ram Trucks grew out of Dodge Trucks and became their own line in 2010, led by the flagship Ram 1500. The 2500 and 3500 were manufactured beginning in 2010, with both Hemi V8 gasoline and Cummins diesel engines and availability as both automatic or manual transmissions. Ram also built chassis cab versions, which could be adapted for several uses beginning in 2010. Currently Ram boasts “Best-in-Class Towing Capacity,” of up to 35,220 lbs., which it showed off at the 2019 Denver Auto Show, and elsewhere among other major shows and events.

Future Direction of Heavy-Truck Industry: Power Source Technology

Along with the push for zero emission cars by governments around the world, there have been growing demands for zero emission trucks.  That is a very tall order.  Diesel engines are very efficient and packs a great deal of energy.  These engines also tend to be very reliable and durable.  Many diesel trucks on the road today are 20 or more years of age with rebuilt engines.  Diesel fuel has powered the trucking industry for the past ninety years.  Trucks have become more fuel efficient over the years and have, for the most part, eliminated brown cloud particle emissions from their tailpipes.  The other kind of emissions from motor vehicles is the clear, climate changing CO2.

While the industry has greatly improved efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions, we are a long way from being emission-free.  There seem to be three avenues at this time, to reach zero emission trucks.  None will be easy nor will any be inexpensive.

  1.  Battery-electric Trucks (BETs): Just as batteries are fast becoming the preferred power source for emission-free cars, there are those who believe battery powered semis can eventually replace the fleet of over the road trucks.  The challenges of powering cars with batteries are magnified greatly when applied to heavy freight hauling trucks.  These issues include 50 to 100 percent added costs, as well as battery size and thus weight (estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 pounds greater than a conventional diesel at this time).  There is also the question of range, as in how far a truck can go while pulling its capacity load.  Will there be charging systems on route and spaced as needed?  Charging time and the amount of power required to fully recharge the batteries (current estimates are that a full BET may require 1 megawatt of power to charge it fully).  On the good side, to offset some of these fierce negatives is: anticipated lower operating costs and reduced maintenance costs over time [rework this sentence].  Freightliner, Peterbuilt, Kenworth, International, Volvo, White, and Tesla are all testing ranges on early editions of BETs.  Volvo has gone one step further and committed by 2040 to have a complete fossil-free product range using battery and hydrogen technologies. 

Elon Musk first unveiled the Tesla Semi in 2018 and announced it would be ready for fleet use the next year.  Countless trucking companies put down sizable deposits with expectations of deliveries io 2019.  Now, in early 2021, there are still no Tesla Semis in production.  As Kermit the Frog would say, “It‘s not easy being green!”  As any car or truck manufacturer would say, its not easy to mass produce quality products. 

  • Hydrogen fuel cell technology (hydrogen, for short): Hydrogen powered semis are expected to address some of the concerns of BETs.  Hydrogen would take up less space and weight being carried in the payload of the truck, compared to BETs.  Refueling times would be significantly less that of BETs.  A startup truck company called Nikola hailed its over-the-road hydrogen powered semi technology.  General Motors and others placed big bets on Nikola’s investment in hydrogen powered over-the-road semis.  Then news broke that was no “there” there in Nikola’s hype.  Personally I think hydrogen makes more sense for over-the-road trucks than the mammoth batteries required for long-haul service in BETs. 

3) Renewable Natural Gas and Renewable Diesel Powered Trucks –

  • Compressed natural gas (CNG) makes great sense as a long-term bridge between diesel or gasoline powered vehicles and the ultimate, yet extremely difficult, goal of zero emission trucks. Various studies indicate that carbon emissions can be reduced by something between 20 and 40 percent versus traditional diesel or gasoline fueled trucks. Additionally, compressed natural gas is home-owned and home grown. In essence, the United States has an abundance of natural gas and is actually producing more than we use, so we have become a net-exporting state when comes to CNG. And, another bonus, natural gas is less expensive than diesel or gasoline so buys more miles per dollar than other fossil based fuels. Ultimately, CNG is more accessible, more affordable and easier on the environment through lower carbon emissions. CNG makes sense for truck manufacturers, for trucking companies and for the public at large.

  • The other major, game-changing advancement in over-the-road trucks is that of self-driving technology, what some of us are now calling, Robot trucks.  Just as passenger cars and light duty trucks get closer, to driving themselves each and every year, so too do over-the-road, freight-hauling semis.  This technology, when perfected, is game-changing.  No longer will freight routes be dependent on relay system drivers or sleep time for overworked drivers.  If it lives up to its promise, the technology will take the pain out of engaging personnel to get the payload down the route toward destination.  You have heard the phrase, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the really, really good.”  In this particular instance, we all must demand the perfect.  The “really, really good” just isn’t good enough to cut it.  This technology must excel to the magnificent magnitude of perfect.  When it does, the industry can literally just keep on trucking.

About timwjackson

Working every day for a better Colorado.
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