Historic Truck Brands


The White Motor Company was an American automobile, truck, bus and agricultural tractor manufacturer from 1900 until 1980. Vehicle manufacturing began when a young Rollin White patented a new design of steam vehicle boiler and offered it, unsuccessfully, to Locomobile and other makers. Finally, he persuaded his father, founder of the White Sewing Machine Company, for space in a corner of one of his buildings, to build an automobile.

The first group of 50 cars was completed in October 1900, but none were offered to the public until April 1901, so they could be thoroughly tested. Since the cars were being offered by a new automobile department of an established sewing machine company, White could not afford to diminish the reputation of the parent company by the introduction of an untested product.

The new Whites were good, as demonstrated by a racing version nick-named ‘Whistling Billy’ that set a speed record of 73.8mph (118.7km/h) on July 4, 1905.

It became necessary in 1905 to separate the automobile department from its parent company to accommodate the growth of the business and to physically separate them. 

A 1907 White steamer was one of the early vehicles in the White House when Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, allowed the Secret Service to use the car behind his horse-drawn carriage.

Commercial 2-3.5-ton-payload variants were mainly bodies as buses and fire appliances, using front-mounted compound steam engines, radiator condensers and shaft or chain drive.

However, Rollin White could see the coming demise of the steam engine and canvassed existing petrol-powered vehicle manufacturers. While attending an English auto show in 1908 he purchased the rights to the French Delahaye design.

In 1910 the White 1.5-3.0-tonners were launched. Both were powered by four-cylinder, ‘L’-head, mono-bloc petrol engines and four-speed transmissions, but the lighter vehicle had shaft drive, compared with the heavier truck’s chain drive.

The last steam car was built in January 1911, after the company made a full transition to gasoline-powered vehicles, but some stock appeared in catalogues in 1912. (Interestingly, a total of around 10,000 White steam-powered cars were built – more than the better known brand, Stanley Steamer.)

In 1912 a chain-drive five-tonner appeared and a one-tonner.

White Motor Company ended car production after World War One, to focus exclusively on trucks and soon had around 10-percent market share. 

In 1917 White released its YP-Type bus chassis and in 1918 chain-drive was abandoned in favour of shafts with double-reduction bevel gears. Detachable-head engines were used in all models.

The 1921 Model 50 was a specific bus chassis that acquired air braking in 1925.

The first six-cylinder bus chassis was the Model 54 of 1926, complemented by the Model 53 four-cylinder chassis. The 54-A appeared in 1928, with a set-forward engine and space for 38 passengers. There was also an experimental petrol-electric ‘hybrid’ version of this chassis, with two GEC rear-mounted traction motors.

Truck chassis in 1928 ranged from the Model 57’s 1.25-tons payload upon to the 3.5-ton air-braked Model 58. In the following year came Model 59 six-cylinder 7.5-tonners and prime movers.

At the smaller end of the truck market was White’s Model 60, with a 4.3-litre, 54hp, six-cylinder engine, spiral-bevel final drive and four-wheel hydraulic brakes.

Under Walter White’s management the company’s industrial relations were excellent, but after he died from injuries he sustained in a traffic accident, management changed and so did the firm’s culture, as the Great Depression bit. 

In 1932, White took over the Indiana Truck Corporation and co-operated with Studebaker-Pierce-Arrow, producing some Pierce-Arrow trucks in its Cleveland plant.

Disgruntled White employees started one of the country’s first automobile unions. In 1935, Robert Fager Black became president, but workers were still unhappy, and they went on strike. Black tried talking to the workers who were striking, and he even got baseball equipment for them and let them play while on strike, so they would have something to do. Black learned people’s names, visited the plant frequently, and asked customers if they were happy with what they purchased. Anyone could visit his office.

Black provided the employee relationship and services the company previously had and helped employees get to work by establishing carpools. He retired in 1956, still loved by most White employees.

The early 1930s saw the introduction of the 600 models, for GVMs up to 16 tons and K-Series, with engines squeezed into the cab space, to allow for longer bodywork. The first White 6x4s were also introduced.

A somewhat radical 143hp, 12-cylinder, horizontal engine with dual-starting, a wet-plate clutch and five-speed constant-mesh transmission was developed for bus chassis that could carry up to 100 passengers, but this design proved unreliable.

The 1934 700 models were powered by coil-ignition, six-cylinder petrol engines and five-speed transmissions. The next year saw a reappearance of the 12-cylinder engine in some COE models.

Since the 1920s White had produced open-top passenger buses for several US National Parks. Bus tours around the Parks were necessary, because, back then, most tourists arrived by train.

The Parks requested more protective buses and, in a four-way competition with Ford, REO and GMC, held by the National Park Service in 1935 at Yosemite National Park, the White Model 706 chassis emerged as the winner 

Starting in 1936, White produced 500 Model 706s, specifically designed to carry passengers through the seven major National Parks in western USA. 

The distinctive vehicles, with roll-back canvas convertible tops, were the product of noted industrial designer Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and used bodies from the Bender Body Company of Cleveland.

The same French-Polish industrial designer was also involved in a streamlined semi-trailer concept, under commission from Canadian brewing company, Labatts. White custom-built the prime movers and Smith Bros Motor Body Works of Toronto crafted the trailers. Several were built and one won a design award at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. 

The pre-War designs were radical for the time, but the 1947 models still look radical today.

Some export-market Whites had Cummins diesel power, but most trucks and buses were petrol powered, up to 130hp. Multi-stop delivery trucks, including the underfloor-engined Merchandor and White Horse were released in 1938.

War clouds loomed and White became heavily involved in military vehicle production, including 6×6 trucks and half-tracks. White ranked 54th among US corporations in the value of World War Two military production contracts.

Patriotic management ensured that when husbands went to serve, wives took their jobs, and the work force constantly totalled over 4000. 

Although White produced all sizes of trucks from light delivery to prime movers, the decision was made after the War to produce only large trucks. 

The pre-War heavy truck line resumed and, but 1947, torque-converter transmissions and air conditioning were options. The 1949 Super Power 300 Models had a two-speed axle option.

Bus production faltered after the War and finally ended in 1953.

White was in acquisition mode in the 1950s, absorbing  several truck manufacturing companies:  Sterling in 1951, Autocar in 1953, REO in 1957 and Diamond T in 1958. White also agreed to sell Consolidated Freightways’ Freightliner trucks through White dealers.

White produced trucks under the Autocar nameplate following its acquisition, while Diamond T and REO Motor Car Company became the Diamond REO division, which was discontinued in the 1970s.

In the 1950s White trucks were available with up to 45-ton GCM ratings, with White petrol or Cummins turbo-diesel power. New COE and conventional models were available, with Clark, Fuller or Spicer transmissions.

Highway Compact series trucks were powered by Ford, Perkins or Detroit Diesel engines.

Sales dropped during the 1960s, and White opened non-union plants in Virginia and Utah, but this did not help. 

White persisted with the idea that petrol engines were the future and went to extraordinary – and expensive – ends to achieve that. The company bought Cummins diesel engines and converted them to petrol, under the brand names Mustang III and White ‘Giesel’. Not clever!

In the mid-1970s White was the first truck maker to see the advantages of having a common ‘core’ cab that could be used behind a bonnet, as a high COE or a low-forward-entry COE. The Road Boss 2, Road Commander 2 and Expeditor trucks used this cab system. 

Semon (’Bunky’) Knudsen, former president of Ford, made the company successful for a time, but the decline continued. White dealers in the USA complained to Bunky that they couldn’t compete with Paccar trucks, so he set up a dealer conference on grandstands erected inside a darkened aircraft hanger.

When the lights came on, the dealers were amazed to see, in the middle of the floor, a completely dismantled Kenworth. Bunky’s speech was short: “OK, you guys: where’s the f*****g magic?”

After the Knudsen cure failed to work, mergers with Daimler and Renault were considered. White did not have a light truck range and that was the appeal of linking up with a European manufacturer.

However, by 1980, White was insolvent. Volvo acquired the US assets of the company in 1981 and two energy-related companies based in Calgary, Alberta – Bow Valley Resource Services and NovaCorp, an Alberta corporation – purchased the Canadian assets, including the Kelowna, British Columbia, plant and the Western Star nameplate and product range.

Volvo produced trucks as White and Autocar through the 1980s and sold Volvo-White high cab over engine models to Western Star for the Canadian market into the 1990s.

In 1988, Volvo and General Motors merged their heavy truck divisions in North America, creating Volvo GM Heavy Truck Corporation and a new brand of trucks, White-GMC. Western Star was sold to Australian entrepreneur Terry Peabody in 1990. Subsequently, Western Star was sold by Peabody to DaimlerChrysler 10 years later.

In 1997, Volvo purchased the General Motors truck business and rebadged White-GMC vehicles under the Volvo and Autocar nameplates. Volvo soon dropped any reference to ‘White’ and is now Volvo Trucks North America. 

Autocar remained a part of Volvo until 2000, when the brand was withdrawn from the market and was subsequently sold to Grand Vehicle Works, which produced custom-built conventional Autocars and the Xpeditor low-cab-forward, vocational truck.

A former White subsidiary, White Farm Equipment, produced farm tractors until 2001. As at 2006, the only products made under the White name were a series of corn planters (made by AGCO) and garden tractors (made by MTD Products).

Stay informed and receive our updates

From Jim Gibson & Allan Whiting directly to your inbox

You have Successfully Subscribed!