Historic Truck Brands
This US truck brand isn’t well known outside its home country, but some of its military truck developments were produced in large quantities by other, better known makers – particularly White. Four Corbitts made it Down Under in the 1920s.
Richard J Corbitt became a buyer and seller of leaf tobacco in North Carolina, in 1894, but he foresaw big companies dominating the tobacco industry, so in 1899 he decided to enter the buggy manufacturing business. There were four buggy builders in Henderson, NC and eight years later, Corbitt had bought all three of his competitors.
In 1905, Corbitt built his first automobile, which he called a ‘motor buggy and was in full production by 1907. However, he lost money on every car he sold, so, in 1910, Corbitt built his first 1.5-ton truck with a chain drive in 1910 and the profit picture began to change.
In 1913, he dropped cars altogether and become a full-time truck builder. For most of the next 40 years, the company made money, building trucks and trailers. The trailers included vans, drop-frame vans, and flatbeds up to 36 feet (11 metres) in length. Most of the large motor carriers of the Carolinas became Corbitt customers.
In 1917 the company built North Carolina’s first school buses and began supplying trucks to the US Army and Navy. Corbitt started building 4x4s and 6x6s for the Army in the early 1930s.
In 1934 Corbitt bought obsolete automobile sheet metal designs from the Auburn Motors Company and used them for the front ends of its lightest trucks – those in the 11-13,000 pound ( 5000-6000kg) gross vehicle weight category.
The panel dies became available after famous designer Gordon Buehrig, who also was responsible for the Cord Model 810, determined that Auburn cars needed a complete restyle and the sensational Auburn 851 Speedster of 1935 was the result.
However obsolete Buehrig thought the car panels were, they looked just fine on what was probably one of the best looking US light trucks ever made.
Auburn panels on medium-duty Corbitt – US Army photo
By the 1930s, the relatively small Corbitt company was supplying the US military with a wide range of its commercial trucks with payloads from 1.5 to 8 tons.
When World War II began in Europe, Corbitt built a prototype six-ton bonneted truck – Corbitt-AA (6×6) – for towing anti-aircraft guns, powered by a six-cylinder engine, with a four-speed gearbox and optional three-speed ‘joey’ box, V-shaped windshield and 22-inch tires.
From 1939 until 1945 Corbitt built more than 3200 50SD6 six-ton, 6×6 prime movers for the US Army. These trucks were equipped with either the 779 or the 855 cubic-inch Hercules six-cylinder gasoline engine. They were used in every theatre of operation during World War II.
Corbitt lacked production capacity for all the trucks needed, so White, Brockway, Ward LaFrance and FWD built the same or very similar trucks. Altogether, more than 10,000 of these trucks were built by the five manufacturers.
One reason for Corbitt’s success with the military was that the small company was flexible and able to do quick modifications. The Army demanded an all-steel cab, so Corbitt discontinued wooden framing from the 1930s and built nothing but all-steel cabs from then on.
In the first post-war years, the company continued to develop new military vehicles. In 1946, a 12-ton tractor – TZZ (8×8) – was built with two front axles, a radial nine-cylinder air-cooled Continental aero engine with a power output of 450bhp, mechanical transmission, and a seven-seater cab. The TZZE1 variant was distinguished by a hydromechanical three-speed gearbox. The tractors weighed 17-23 tons and achieved 55mph 88km/h).
Working on the Cook brothers’ project, in 1947, the company assembled two prototypes of an eight-ton artillery tractor – T20E1 (8×8) – with an elongated cab above the engine and two-axle driven front bogie with single wheels. They were powered by 320hp Continental engines and had Fuller hydromechanical four-speed gearboxes.
Martin Turnbull photo
In 1946, Corbitt played a role in one of the biggest moving jobs ever. A Corbitt truck pulled the fuselage of Howard Hughes’ 75-ton seaplane – nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose’ because of its wooden construction – from Hughes Aircraft at Culver City, California, to a pier at Long Beach 28 miles away. At the time, this was the largest bulk load ever pulled on a US highway.
In the early 1950s, Corbitt supplied the US Army and Navy with its D800N35 (4×2) and 800V60 (6×4) trucks with 150-200 hp Cummins diesel engines, as well as D404 (6×6) crane chassis with a single cabin.
Also, the State of North Carolina was one of Corbitt’s best customers. The government still had many 4×4 trucks and crane carriers in its fleet, when the Corbitt went out of business in 1955 and continued to operate some Corbitts into the 1970s.
Smith Auction photo
Corbitt’s largest post-War production year was 1946, when it built 600 trucks. After that, demand began to slacken. Corbitt realised that reliance mainly on military orders was problematic, so the company looked at where it could innovate in the commercial highway truck market. This is how the Corbitt D800 was born.
After World War II, in the USA, there were overall length regulations in place – 55 feet, with a maximum trailer length of 45 feet. Obviously, truck operators wanted the longest trailers they could legally use and that forced truck makers to build high-set ‘bubblenose’ prime movers, with 94-inch bumper-to-back-of-cab (BBC) dimensions.
The problem with these short-BBC prime movers was there was no room behind the cab for a sleeper box. Many drivers had to be satisfied with sleeping across a bench seat, or in the semi-trailer, if space allowed. For two-up operators, there was no sleeping option at all.
Corbitt’s D800 solution was nicknamed the ‘Highboy’, for obvious reasons and in the early 1950s, Corbitt built 10 of these very tall cabover tractors for Turner Transfer of Greensboro, NC; a specialised machinery mover. They could seat four or five across the cab and one could sleep in the space beneath the windshield. These trucks were powered by eight-cylinder Gardner diesels, imported from the UK.
Production of the Highboy began in 1951 and ended in 1953, with the cabin shape constantly changing and decreasing in height. However, access to the engine was restricted to side hatches that allowed only minor repairs. For more serious work, it was necessary to disassemble the floor of the cab.
Less than a dozen of these trucks have survived to this day, out of about 500 of the total production.
Common sense prevailed in the USA, in 1956, and the legal overall length of a truck and trailer was extended to 65 feet (20 metres), which allowed for more comfortable sleeper cab trucks. Later, prime mover length was deregulated entirely, which is why we see such ultra-long prime movers in the USA today.
Corbitt employed about 325 people at its peak, but the engineering department consisted of no more than five men. Corbitt built its own cabs and the frame rails were bought from Parish, then drilled and assembled by Corbitt. The assembly line moved slowly, with the first truck pulling the rest up the line by chain. Every new Corbitt went through a dynamometer test and road test and was ready for work with no further preparation.
Corbitt used mostly Continental gasoline engines and Cummins and Hercules diesels. It took the first 50 JBS 600, 150hp, supercharged engines from Cummins, in the early 1950s, but stopped using them because of the problems they developed.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Corbitt built farm tractors as well as trucks. They were similar to Cockshutts in design and came with gasoline, kerosene and diesel engine choices. Most were exported to Brazil, but a few were sold in the USA and one of these tractors was still in use in the early 2000s – after nearly 60 years – by its original owner!
Another example of Corbitt quality and longevity was ‘Geraldine’, a 1951 Corbitt diesel sold new to the Daniel’s Company of Springfield, Missouri. By the early 1980s she had run up 2,600,000 miles in 48 states!
By 1952, the well-respected R J Corbitt was nearly 80 years old and in declining health. Worse, the son he hoped would run the company had died. The Corbitt family owned over 90-percent of the company stock and Mr Corbitt discussed continuation of the company with various employees, but no long-term successor could be found. So in December of that year, the company was sold to the United Industrial Syndicate of New York City; a liquidation specialist.
Corbitt built its last truck in 1953, although some were sold as 1954 models. Everything had been liquidated by 1955 and the company closed.
After Corbitt closed, Wallace White, former Corbitt service manager and Gus Bachman, former parts manager, continued to sell parts to Corbitt owners from one of the old factory buildings. They even assembled a complete new truck in 1958, but decided the demand wasn’t sufficient to warrant building more.
The Oren Roanoke Corporation of Roanoke, VA acquired a number of the last Corbitt chassis built, along with cabs and sheet metal. Oren, a fire apparatus manufacturer, produced about 125 Corbitt look-alike fire trucks, some before Corbitt folded and some after. The last of these fire trucks was not built until 1963. When it rolled out the door, an era had ended.
Forty years later, in 2003, the Corbitt Preservation Association was formed to preserve the Corbitt name, Corbitt products and Corbitt property. Historic Vehicles is indebted to the Association for the information in this brand story.
Corbitt Down Under
RHD Corbitt – 1920s
It seems that four Corbitts came to Australia in the early 1920s; all on solid rubber tyres, according to local Corbitt enthusiast, Ian B. However, he has not found evidence of any later ones, including the military vehicles that could be expected to have been sold here as War surplus. That’s interesting, given Corbitt’s design influence on the WWII six-ton 6×6 US Army project, but, although Corbitt’s design was adopted as the standard, most trucks were manufactured by other companies.
Also interesting was the fact that Corbitt advertised its 1920s trucks exclusively having worm-drive diffs, whereas those that came to Australia had conventional diffs.
Ian B said there was a chance that a known one might have been recovered and restored, but its owner passed away and the fate of the truck is unknown. Of the four that came here, one was destroyed early in its working life at Wauchope, NSW and the other two still in existence – 1921 and 1923 models – are both in pieces.
Like Ian B, Historic Vehicles hopes that enough can be salvaged to rebuild at least one of these surviving Corbitts.