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Trucks for cars
October 15, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
One of the new products Herpa announced for the end of the year caught my eye. It's a Mercedes-Benz car transporter wearing the orange and green of Frikus, an Austrian shipping company that operates a large fleet of auto carriers.
My fascination with auto transporters goes back to my youth in Detroit. On the Saturdays I spent with my Dad down at Dodge Main in Hamtramck, I could see the trucks being loaded in the yard. Being in love with cars, the trucks that carried them were right up there with fire engines and wreckers, my other childhood favorites.
In the very earliest days of the automobile, customers would normally collect their new vehicle at the factory or shop where they were built. However, as the industry grew, that was no longer practical. Since railroads were more reliable than what passed for highways in those days, the early automakers began shipping their cars in boxcars. For shipments where rail wasn't practical, new cars would be driven up wood planks onto a flatbed trailer.
It wasn't too long before the limitations of these methods became apparent, and increasingly expensive. A flatbed trailer could hold only two or three cars and a boxcar could hold only perhaps four. When you have to ship hundreds of thousands of cars every year, you need a lot more capacity.
The railroads responded by developing new styles of boxcars. The railcars grew in size and were fitted with various types of moveable racks to allow each car to carry more automobiles. Doors were enlarged or moved to allow faster loading.
Surprisingly, it wasn't until the 1950s that the railroads realized the boxcar was not the way to go. Taking a tip from circuses which used flatcars connected by ramps to transport the show from town to town, the railroads started using flatcars to transport new autos from factory to their distribution points. Up to six cars could be loaded onto an extended flat and all the railcars could be loaded at the same time, eliminating costly and time-consuming train movements.
In the meantime, the trucking companies had already improved on the old flatbed. Building trailers with multiple angled platforms, auto transporters could haul four or five cars at a time and still stay within the length limits of the day. Adding a special platform over the truck cab, called a "headrack" in the industry, meant an additional car could be carried.
Volkswagen was the first to combine the benefits of a long flatcar and multi-level loading. Working with the German railroads, VW developed a railcar that could carry ten vehicles at a time.
Canadian National took the VW concept a step further. In 1957, they introduced a railcar that became the direct forebear of the model autorack. It was a 75-foot long two-level car with doors on each end. These cars could carry eight North American-size automobiles.
In the 1960s, these cars grew and a third rack was added. Depending on the size of the vehicles, modern autoracks can carry fifteen to eighteen automobiles apiece.
Auto transport trucks also evolved. As regulations permitted larger trucks, new designs appeared. The traditional tractor and semi-trailer gave way to a new rig incorporating a longer truck and trailer. Nowadays, the truck itself will carry as many as three vehicles and the whole rig can rival the capacity of an autorack. Of course, the railroads still have the advantage because they can put a number of autoracks in a single train.
Not far from my home is a large auto auction facility. On the days leading up to the weekly auction the roads we see a variety of different types of auto transporters, from pickups pulling an inclined trailer loaded with two or three cars to the big trucks carrying loads of ex-fleet or rental vehicles.
These new trucks are fascinating to watch in action. Back when I was a kid, the driver of an auto transporter would attach ramps to unload the cars. The lower deck was not much of a problem; I recall seeing wood planks used on more than one occasion. However, the upper deck involved a set of long ramps and supports and making sure everything was spaced correctly. On a modern truck, the platforms themselves move on hydraulic lifts, raising and lowering to position each one for quick loading and unloading. Those cumbersome ramps are a thing of the past and I am sure there isn't a driver who misses them.
With all the different types of truck models on the market today, I've been a bit surprised there haven't been more American-style car carriers. There are certainly enough car models around, especially when you consider Audis, BMWs, Mercedes and Volkswagens ride on these trucks, too. But that's not the case. Real 1:87 American auto transporters are hard to find. In fact, I know of only a couple.
Back in the early 1960s, Revell made an HO-scale car carrier kit based on the Ford C tractor and a two-level trailer. I guess it was supposed to go with their 1961 Chrysler cars, even though a transport service that sent a Ford truck to a Chrysler plant would have been in big trouble. In any event, the tooling for that model is long gone.
Almost forty years later, in 1999, Walthers produced an auto transporter as part of their "Driving Force" series using a Ford LNT-9000 and a fairly modern semi-trailer, but that, too, is out of production.
Right now, the only game in town is Lonestar Models' new auto transporter. Beginning with a Promotex Ford Aeromax, Lonestar added a brass headrack and trailer to make a replica of the 9-car Quickloaders used by Allied Services, a Georgia-based company that is one of the largest auto transport services in North America. It's a great model but it's only going to be produced in limited quantities.
It would be nice to see another car carrier from an earlier era. Promotex already has a very nice mid-70s GMC General truck. Perhaps a good future project could be an auto transport trailer to go with it. Load it up with Camaros, Pontiac Grand Prix or Buick Grand Nationals and you're good to go.
Special thanks to Hank Suderman, proprietor of Hank's Truck Pictures, for permission to use the photo of the vintage auto transporter. Thanks also to Fred Gruin, Jr. for permission to use his photo from the late 1950s.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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