Trailer Features

The Fruehauf Trailer Company

 

The fascinating story of how a Detroit blacksmith revolutionised motorised transportation.

 

August Fruehauf, Otto Neumann and the team

 

By the first years of the 20th century – arguably one of the worst times in modern history to be a successful blacksmith – August Fruehauf, the Michigan-born son of German immigrants, had established a name and a healthy living for himself, building horse-drawn carriages and shoeing the animals that pulled them. 

His spacious shop could reportedly accommodate four or five dozen horses at a time: all in all, not a bad business to be in in pre-internal-combustion-engine Detroit, which was a booming industrial centre, even before the advent of the automobile.

 

 

It all started, many years before, with August’s father, Charles Fruehauf, who was born in the German principality of Prussia. He and his wife Sophia emigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century and settled in Erin Township in Michigan, 20 miles from Detroit, in a region heavily settled by German immigrants. Charles and Sophia Fruehauf had 10 children, all born in Michigan.   

Charles was a blacksmith, machinist and farmer. Charles and Sophia Fruehauf’s sixth child was a son, named August Charles and nick-named ‘Gus’. 

When August had completed his secondary education, he worked in a lumber mill, where his father had advanced to a position as the mill’s engineer. 

The company had high standards and its employees were quickly fired if they cut corners. August was exposed to the skills of the mill’s most experienced artisans and developed a talent for shaping metal at a forge.

During 1883, this Michigan farm youth quit his rural home to seek his fortune in the city of Detroit. He ventured as far as East Detroit and, with his valuable experience as a metal-smith at the lumber mill, he obtained a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. 

 

 

August later earned an excellent reputation for building fine wagons and carriages. It whetted his appetite for transportation – an association that was to last a lifetime

During his time it East Detroit, he married and had started a family, but after the loss of two homes and shops to fire, August and his wife Louisa relocated their growing family to Detroit and set up another blacksmith shop in 1899. 

He worked hard; stuck to his anvil and forge, from the break of dawn (the translation of Fruehauf [früh auf] from German is ‘up early’) until the curtain of darkness fell. His name and quality were soon to become synonymous.

In 1901, five-years after Henry Ford’s first vehicle was built, August rented another block of land and with his own hands, and those of Louisa’s relations, who’d arrived for a weekend ‘building bee,’ they built a two-story blacksmith shop

However, by 1912 the business had outgrown that shop. So, he walked across the street to a vacant lot, paced off the site, and then contacted the owner and purchased the land. He went about building the finest brick blacksmith shop in the United States of America, with big bay windows in the front and a shop so long that it could house 60 horses at one time.

A year later, an unemployed German blacksmith arrived at the shop. He was intent on impressing August, whose reputation as a tough and demanding boss was well-known. August Fruehauf’s requirements for his employees demanded they not only had to be skilled artisans, but also give meticulous care to details. Naturally those seeking employment might be intimidated. 

This visitor had a novel approach when he discovered August struggling to shoe a frisky filly. The stranger made several comments about August’s obvious difficulty with the horse. Challenged, August asked if the man thought he could do better and handed the man his leather apron. 

Rising to the challenge, the visitor shod the horse in no time and the man was hired. That stranger was Otto Neumann and he and the ‘Governor’ later developed a life-long partnership and friendship. 

Otto, a shorter man with a ready smile, was the perfect complement to the tall, thin August. Affable and eager to find solutions, Otto excelled in developing a long-list of dedicated customers. 

Otto and August became very skilled at designing and selling new carriages and wagons. Wagons and the wagon-building department became more and more important for the business, which flourished.

In post-internal-combustion Detroit, however, horses and the skills of those who shod them would be rendered all but worthless overnight. 

So it worked out quite nicely that in 1914, just as automotive mass-production was really beginning to rev up, a lumber merchant named Frederic Sibley came to Fruehauf with a challenge: Sibley needed a way to transport his boat to his northern Michigan vacation home, but he realised hitching it to a horse and dragging it north would take ages. And he just so happened to have a shiny new Model T …

 

 The boat-hauling semi-trailer soon evolved into a lumber-hauler.

Instead of moving the sailing boat over dry land with a horse-drawn wagon, Sibley wanted Fruehauf to modify his new Ford Model T to tow the vessel. Fruehauf and Otto quickly devised a device to meet the lumber magnate’s demands, by building a 20-ft (six-metre) flatbed, two-wheel trailer and they went to Henry Ford to discuss changes to the Model T. 

The then-young Henry guaranteed nothing, but Sibley still let Fruehauf proceed with some changes: removing the back seat; fitting a C-cab with custom paint; extending the wheelbase and installing a hitch mechanism for the two-wheel trailer, above the chassis.

The hitch location was above the rear axle, rather than behind it, which reduced the lifting effect on the vehicle’s steer axle and created the world’s first semi-trailer truck – regardless of the fact that it was based on a passenger car.  Their two-wheeled contraption hooked up to the Ford, above the rear axle and they christened it a trailer. 

 

 

The hitch location came to this smart and observant Michigan-born son of German immigrants from experience with the horses he’d shod as a blacksmith. He noted that working horses were in better physical shape if they had been pulling wagons instead of carrying heavy goods on their backs. He reasoned that trucks would likewise last longer if they pulled, rather than toted, loads. 

The lumber merchant with the boat then placed another order for a trailer, but this time it was for his lumberyard. August built a stronger trailer with a platform designed for hauling lumber. This ‘half-trailer’ worked so well that Sibley commissioned Fruehauf and Co to build similar trailers for carting lumber.

Sibley’s gamble had paid off and he submitted a large order for more trailers. That started a chain reaction: other building suppliers saw what was going on and the orders poured in. 

 

The practicability of the trailer idea was so successfully demonstrated that larger trucks, in place of passenger cars, were immediately purchased and placed in service. Fruehauf trailers had now arrived on the American roads.

Other local manufacturers saw the huge advantage of a motor-driven trailer to deliver their goods to market. For the first time, efficient transportation was possible from the farm and factory to consumers and suppliers. 

 

 

The new trailers were quickly nick-named Hercules’ and underwent a series of improvements as they were produced for additional customers. The nick-name didn’t stick and customers soon referred to them as ‘Fruehauf Trailers’. 

 

 

August’s name meant a great deal, as he was a stickler for quality work and customer satisfaction. His motto was The customer is boss!  He produced an excellent product that was built to last. 

August and Otto supervised each trailer as it was produced according to individual customers’ specifications. 

 

 

August’s early training in quality products and respect for his customers earned their esteem, and with it an excellent reputation. 

As problems arose, the Fruehauf team developed a variety of innovations to address them, including the addition of a fifth-wheel to the coupling attaching the trailer to the towing vehicle, which led to the automatic coupling of today. 

 

August introducing hydraulic lifting

 

It’s entirely possible that Fruehauf would have hit upon the semi-trailer idea, even without Sibley and his boat. In any event, he wasn’t the first person to tie a trailer to a horseless carriage, but in rising to Sibley’s demands, creating and successfully commercialising a ground-breaking piece of transportation technology in the process, August established a practice that would make Fruehauf Trailer Co a household name.

In 1918 the company was renamed the Fruehauf Trailer Company and became incorporated. Otto Neumann was offered a seat on the company’s board of directors, a position he would hold until his death in 1948.  

The company’s advertising pitch was wonderfully simple: By itself, a straight-frame tractor might be able to handle three tons, assuming you found a place to load it behind the cab. With a fifth-wheel, and a semi-trailer, it’s possible the load capacity be immediately tripled.   

 

 

 

The next major innovation at Fruehauf came in 1920, when the company launched the first commercially successful tanker trailer that found immediate acceptance among the dairies in Michigan. 

Following in 1926, Fruehauf introduced the automatic trailer coupling – an improvement over the fifth-wheel that was developed by Herman Farr and commercialised by Charles H Martin. 

 

 

Considered to be among Fruehauf’s most significant contributions to the modern trucking industry. The modern cargo trailer came next, positioned close to the cab and providing greater stability, with reduced risk of jack-knifing. This also reduced wind turbulence between the rear of the prime mover cab and the front of the trailer. 

   

 

August Fruehauf died in 1930. In subsequent years, his sons took the firm to greater prominence as innovators of intermodal equipment, heavy haulage and suspension designs to insulate freight and prolong tyre life.

 

 

Fruehauf also held the patent for the humble shipping container – those ubiquitous corrugated metal boxes that have arguably done more to speed the pace of globalisation than any other single piece of technology. They came from the minds at Fruehauf, developed in the mid-1950s by engineering vice-president Keith Tantlinger, at the request of containerisation pioneer Malcom McLean.

   

 

By 1954 the Fruehauf company had nine plants and 88 branches in operation in the United States and Canada, as well as plants in Brazil and France and sales reached US$152m.

 

Fruehauf opens in France and discusses design – the Marshall Plan in operation

 

It wasn’t all plain sailing, as Ruth Fruehauf, grand-daughter of founder August, documented in great detail in her must-read book Singing Wheels. The sibling rivalry between Fruehauf’s middle and youngest sons, Harvey and Ruth’s father Roy, caused middle son Harvey to betray the family, which eventually led to a power struggle and a reluctance to adapt, that would eventually tear the company apart.

 

 

A leveraged buyout in 1986 by the company’s then management left Fruehauf burdened with debt and in 1989 the company was broken up and sold. However, one segment, the truck trailer unit, retained the name Fruehauf Trailer Corporation. However, that corporation declared bankruptcy in 1996 and was sold to rival trailer and equipment manufacturer Wabash National the following year. 

  

 

Ruth Fruehauf’s quest

 

 

Documenting the rise, decline and ongoing impact of the Fruehauf Trailer Co is something of a passion for Ruth Fruehauf. Trained as an art historian, Ruth’s delving into the history of her family and the company has given her a deep appreciation for Fruehauf’s engineering accomplishments, too.

HV’s Jim Gibson spoke with Ruth about the opening of “Fruehauf: The first name in Transportation,” year-long exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum. She was eager to share the company’s story with the world, so it’s for the best that it also happens to be completely (and somewhat unexpectedly) fascinating.

 

Ruth considers the automatic trailer coupling of 1926, to be among Fruehauf’s most significant contributions to the modern trucking industry. This design was an improvement over the fifth wheel that was developed by Herman Farr and commercialised by Charles H Martin.

The Fruehauf coupling increased efficiency and completely changed drivers’ relationships to the cargo they hauled. We suspect the romantic, Lone Ranger-esque image of the trucker so popular in the Smokey and the Bandit era could never have developed if it took a team just to attach and detach a trailer from a truck.

 

 

But there was much, much more from Fruehauf: hydraulic dumper trailers – at least some of which used technology patented by speed boat legend Gar Wood – and a tanker created for Quaker Oats that formed the basis of later bulk transport and tanker trucks.

 

 

 

Significant contributions to the war effort in the 1940s and beyond, were captured in period advertising. Parnelli Jones used special trailers to transport cars to racetracks.

“Fruehauf would always adopt a trailer design for a specific industry – that was their method,” Ruth explained. 

“All of these innovations came about through customer request.” 

Fruehauf’s most impactful contribution to the modern global economy came about through one such request. While sifting through the company’s history, Ruth was startled to discover that Fruehauf held the patent for the shipping container.

It wasn’t the first time someone had conceived of standardising shipping, but it was the design that was adopted and the design that stuck. Which is what counts, really.

 

Robert F Kennedy examining a model truck with the words ‘Teamsters Union Service’ written its side. John F Kennedy is sitting at the table looking on. Photo taken on May 17, 1957. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Copyright Jones, Look Magazine.

 

All this is before you get to the meetings with President Eisenhower and Fruehauf’s hand in the creation of the Interstate Highway System; the sibling rivalry that cost the Fruehauf family its control of the company; or its long, slow decline, which led to bankruptcy in 1996 and its eventual sale to Wabash National.

The Fruehauf name still lives on, thanks to a handful of international divisions, spun off into independent concerns during the company’s bankruptcy and sale, but its most lasting legacy is undoubtedly its trove of patented transportation technologies. 

Your big-screen television, after all, wouldn’t be quite so affordable if someone hadn’t figured out how to get it from Shenzhen to your local electronics retailer economically. The same can be said for the food we eat, the clothes we wear or just about anything purchased or consumed.

If you didn’t get to the Detroit Historical Museum, to check out the Fruehauf exhibit you can read up on the Fruehauf story at the Fruehauf Historical Society website that has all the makings of an American tragedy. Ruth and co-author Darlene Norman captured it all – or at least as much as would fit –  in the book Singing Wheels: August Fruehauf and the history of the Fruehauf Trailer Company.

It is, as Ruth put it, a story of loss, but it’s also a story of incredible, world-shaping innovation. At the very least, it’ll give you something to think about next time you’re stuck behind a line of 18-wheelers going nowhere fast on a US interstate.

 

 

Roy Fruehauf’s memories

 

 

In January 23, 1957, Roy Fruehauf, son of August Charles Fruehauf, gave a speech before the National Newcomen Society in New York City.  He was the guest of honour, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Fruehauf Trailer Company.  

Following are excerpts from the speech Roy gave in honour of his father and his legacy. His speech illustrates the Fruehauf story in a unique way.

“Ten years before Charles Duryea invented America’s first successful automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts, or Dr Rudolph Diesel patented an engine that still bears his name, a 14-year-old Michigan farm youth quit his rural home to seek his fortune in the city.  

“The city was Detroit; the year, 1882 and the youth, August Fruehauf – my father.  

“Father got as far as East Detroit and took a job there as a blacksmith’s apprentice.  It was the first demonstration of his love for transportation – a love that was to last a lifetime.”

After the loss of two homes and shops to fire, August Fruehauf and wife Louisa relocated their growing family to Detroit and set up another blacksmith shop, in 1899.

“He made his name and quality synonymous, and he started building wagons, too.

“In 1901 – five years after Ford’s first car was built – Dad rented another piece of land and with his own hands, and those of mother’s kinfolk who came in for a weekend ‘building bee’, built a two-storey blacksmith shop.

“But by 1912 Father’s business had outgrown that wondrous shop, so he walked across the street to a vacant lot, paced off the site, and then looked up the owner and bought the land.

“There he built the finest brick blacksmith shop in the United States of America, with big bay windows in front and a shop so long that it could house 60 horses at one time.

“In mid-1914, Frederic M Sibley, Sr, a Detroit lumber tycoon, came to see my father about a problem.  

“It was a fateful visit, because it was to change the company’s destiny and carry it far beyond the horse and cart, and into the motor age.

“Mr Sibley had acquired a summer place on a lake in upper Michigan and he had a fine boat he wanted to get there, but a horse and wagon would take days and days.  

“Did my father think he could rig up a contraption to hook on to Mr Sibley’s Model-T Ford roadster to haul the boat?  My father and Otto Neumann thought they could.

“Piece by piece they beat out and bolted a sturdy two-wheeler that they hooked to the rear of Mr Sibley’s Model-T frame, with a pole that acted both as tongue and brake.  

“They called it a trailer.

“The trailer got the boat to Sibley’s lake and Mr Sibley, impressed by its performance, decided that such a rig – with a platform – would be most efficient for his lumber yard: getting together odds and ends orders, and delivering them.  

“He reasoned that he’d save man hours and horse feed, and could make a lot more trips more efficiently.

“So my father built a stronger trailer with a platform and it worked just as Mr Sibley thought it would.

“Fruehauf trailers now were really on the American road and orders came in with a rush.

“There were many problems, too, but the Fruehauf team managed somehow to solve them and the trailer was constantly improved.  

“One of the additions was a fifth wheel, which led to the automatic coupling of today.

“By 1918, Father found that despite a day and night shift, orders were still outstripping production, and with sales reaching US$150,000, the blacksmith shop was literally bulging at its bay windows with workmen and trailers.

“New land and a new plant became mandatory, and so did additional cash.

“On February 27, 1918, the Fruehauf Trailer Company was incorporated, but of the total US$108,000 paid in for stock only US$7935.32 was in cash, with the rest being in real estate, tools, bills receivable and inventories, but it is interesting to note that the inventory didn’t list a single horseshoe. 

“Father became Fruehauf’s first official President; my mother was Vice-President; my brother, Harvey, Treasurer and Sales Manager and Otto Neumann, Factory Manager.

“By 1925, sales at the Fruehauf Trailer Company passed the million-dollar mark for the first time, when they reached US$1,215,000.

“Each year the Company grew a bit, as more and more Fruehauf trailers took their places on American roads, and each year more and more of the things Americans ate, wore and used were carried in trailers bearing the name my father had made such a vital part of American business life.  

“In 1937, a total of  four million trucks and trailers were on our highways.  

“The Second World War gave trucking another tremendous boost, as our armed forces relied heavily on this ‘go anywhere’ type of transportation.  

“Fruehauf alone designed and built 125 different types of trailers for the armed services.

“By 1954, when the Fruehauf company had nine plants and 88 branches in operation in the United States and Canada, as well as plants in Brazil and France, sales reached US$152,000,000.”

Then Roy Fruehauf turned to a forecast of the future of road transport and some of his predictions rang true over the following 70 years. (Remember, this edited speech was delivered in 1957.)

“The years ahead promise even greater achievements, with greater service to the nation, for both Fruehauf and the country’s motor transport industry.

“There’ll be trailers, using light-weight metals to carry even greater payloads and equipped with every conceivable safety device – many of them not yet on the drawing boards.  

“Piggybacking – carrying loaded truck-trailers on railway flat cars, will be the biggest single revenue-producing factor for the nation’s railroads.

“Carrying loaded truck-trailers and trailer containers on steamships will grow to great importance along both coasts and the St Lawrence Seaway.  

“By 1966, trucks and trailers will be carrying an overwhelming percentage of the nation’s total freight load.

“I know you will agree that these are exciting forecasts and these are exciting times.

“The future concerns all of us, because, as my friend Charles Kettering said, ‘There’s where we are going to spend the rest of our lives’.”

 

 

Fruehauf Trailer Company dominated the semi-trailer industry and never had any significant competition, outselling their nearest competitor by almost 80-percent.  August Fruehauf’s motto, Built to Last was incorporated by the research and design team as they developed new and improved methods of transporting goods around the world.

Today, Fruehauf Trailers can still be purchased in many places throughout the world. Unfortunately, the US division was bankrupted and bought by Wabash Trailers in 1997, but Fruehauf France, Fruehauf New Zealand and Fruehauf Mexico, among others, still carry on the legacy of August Fruehauf.

August Charles Fruehauf, who lent his name to the General Motors of the trailer industry, was posthumously honoured with a place in the automobile industry’s prestigious Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn Michigan on 29 March 2017. 

You can see Ruth Fruehauf’s acceptance speech at the Automotive Hall of Fame on the following video:

 

 

 

The following is a passage written by August Fruehauf’s grand-daughter Ruth Fruehauf and is contained in her book titled Singing Wheels: 

‘What was formerly Fruehauf Trailer Company no longer exists: destroyed by the very people entrusted with its care.

‘The rise of a small family owned enterprise to a global behemoth is truly the American dream.  

“Greed, pride and manipulative controls for power are the substance for a Shakespearian tragedy and became the reality for the Fruehauf Trailer Company in the 1960s. 

‘The undoing of a great, durable giant, destroyed by all too human vice turned the American dream into the American nightmare.  

‘Can wealth be passed from generation to generation?  Can power struggles be averted when power is passed along? How can companies that had achieved such global success and recognition fall into obscurity as the result of mismanagement and failed leadership? How can a brother destroy everything he has worked towards in order to retaliate against a younger, smarter sibling?

‘These are the questions that will be explored, set against the backdrop of the early American industrial age filled with glamor, style and panache, of one of the most opulent and exciting eras in US history.

‘Many can relate to sibling rivalry, envy, pride and greed, and one can be fascinated to see the dark side of these vices that swallow up careers, lives and corporations. Oh, how the great fall…’

 


   

 

 

The rise and fall of Fruehauf in Australia

 

 

There were several major players in the Australian trailer manufacturing and sales business back in the 1950s, including Fruehauf, Freighter, McGrath, Bartlett and Haulmark.

They were all competitors, with varying degrees of quality, but Fruehauf scored highly, with its unique deep-sided seven-inch (175mm) coaming; high tensile frame rails with longitudinal floor boards flush with the top of the main chassis rail; and the ability to slide and lock the tandem axles in various positions along part the trailer’s length. 

This sliding system allowed each axle to move independently, allowing them to be locked into position in an adjustable spread-axle configuration: 9ft 1in, 10ft 1in and 11ft 1in (2.75m to 3.35m) were the distances legislated by the authorities.

 

Jon Mancer of Dubbo three way spread tandem

 

The spread-axle tandem trailer suspension was dictated by restrictive ‘bridge formula’ laws in some Australian states. The concept was to spread axle loads along a semi-trailer combination, rather than have them concentrated as in a normal, close-coupled tandem. The idea of different spread dimensions sprang from different bridge strengths, so on some routes a wider spread was dictated by law.

The spread-axle configuration may have solved the issue of spot-loading on old wooden highway bridges, but the strain on the trailer wheel bearings, tyres and suspension was horrendous, let alone the ‘tearing’ damage done to the roads. Fortunately, the spread-axle tandem was later replaced by today’s tri-axle.

 

Alby Twyford’s 9’1″ spread tandem

 

Fruehauf may well have initiated the independent axle sliding concept and was certainly one of the main suppliers.

Fruehauf’s rolling stock was very well received and respected, making an indelible mark on the Australian road transport scene. But what happened? Where did it go? It just seemed to disappear from our shores without so much as a by-your-leave, closing its doors and slipping out of the country under the cover of darkness. Dramatic and sinister that scenario may be, but stick with us as we follow its wheel-tracks through the land of Oz in order to solve the mystery. 

During Jim Gibson’s course of the investigation he’d contacted Ruth Fruehauf in the USA, who referred him to an article published in the Detroit Free Press, dated Tuesday 17th January 1958: 

Premier, Fruehauf Disclose Pact

Premier J J Cahill, of New South Wales, Australia, paused Monday in his three-day Detroit visit to join in an announcement of a joint venture of Fruehauf Trailer Co and Clyde Industries Ltd Sydney. 

Roy Fruehauf, president of the trailer company, explained that the two firms are setting up a new company to produce Fruehauf trailers for the Australia and Asian markets.

Production will be in Sydney and Melbourne. 

Ruth Fruehauf also put him in touch with an American, Lyman Ehrlich, then living in California. He had run the Australian outpost during the late 1960s.

“I was honoured to serve as director and general manager of Fruehauf Trailers (Australasia) Pty Ltd from 1966 to 1970,” Lyman Erlich told Jim Gibson.

“Fruehauf Corporation in the USA partnered with Clyde Industries Ltd, an Australian heavy equipment manufacturer, to form the Australian manufacturing and distributorship of Fruehauf trailers. 

“The company was headquartered in Sydney until 1967, when we moved the head office to Melbourne, where we’d purchased of the manufacturing plant of Martin & King Pty Ltd in the Melbourne suburb of Somerton.

“We also operated four sales and service branches in the major state capitals, a distributorship in Perth and two international licensees in Singapore and Malaysia.”

Lyman Erlich had very much enjoyed his stint in Australia and remembered his initiation into Australian work practices quite well:

“I was quite taken aback during my first Christmas in the job, when the management team asked what days the factory would be shutting down for the Christmas/New Year break.

“This was new to me, as shutting down production in the USA during that time of year was unheard of – we can’t just shut down production!”

(Why would anyone want a two-week vacation in Detroit during December-January, with the thermometer sitting at -7ºC to +2ºC.)

“Then they explained this was normal practice in Australia, so, my wife and I sat at the beach and enjoyed the sun with the rest of the Australian workforce for a couple of weeks!”

Lyman Erlich knew that Australians were a laidback lot, as John O’Grady under the pseudonym ‘Nino Culotta’ wrote in his book, They’re a Weird Mob, first published in 1957.

 

Fruehauf aluminium dry van at ACI in Sydney

 

With Erlich Lyman’s assistance, Jim was able to contact and interview three Australians who were ex-Fruehauf Trailers Australia employees: Kevin McDonagh, Glen Lethlean and Stan Marshall, who between them had spanned almost the entire 30 years from 1958 to 1989 when the company existed here. 

They’d all held several management positions in different state offices, one had also been the national sales manager, another the national merchandising manager – all were extremely generous with their time and very helpful in recalling their time spent at the company. 

There was also one of nature’s gentlemen from the good old Fruehauf days, Russ Woods, whom Jim knew back then and would have loved to have spoken with. Russ was the manager at that time at the Sydney branch in Cosgrove Road Enfield, but sadly had passed away in July 2016.

(Allan Whiting also knew Russ Woods, from Allan’s time at Grace Bros Removals’ Long Distance Division. AW remembers that Fruehauf’s rivetted-bodywork pantech trailers were nigh on indestructible.)

 

 

Jim Gibson had written the history of Freighter Trailers some years ago and remembered that a key figure in that company had been managing director, Noel Peel. However, in 1956 he was removed, following a government inquiry into trading practices at Freighter.

In 1957, Peel  approached his good friend Sir Raymond Purves, the managing director of Clyde Industries, which was a major Australian manufacturer of railway locomotives and rolling stock. With Purves’ blessing, Peel approached Fruehauf in America in order to establish a 50/50 partnership between Fruehauf America and Clyde Industries, to operate as the manufacturer and sales outlet for its trailers, trading as Fruehauf Trailers Australasia. 

A deal was consummated and Peel was the MD for a short time. However, Fruehauf preferred experienced American management in that position, half a world away from Detroit. 

According to Mike Davis, who had been a long-term Fruehauf America employee, told Jim Gibson that there were three American directors – Bill Carozza, Lyman Erlich and John Heffelman, who was the last. He wasn’t able to assist Jim with any further facts, as those at Fruehauf HQ in Detroit back then, who would have known more, unfortunately had passed away.

 

Fixed spread with toolbox nestled between the axles

 

Australian Fruehauf trailers were initially built by Clyde Manufacturing in Sydney and, after the acquisition of Martin & King, at Somerton in Melbourne from 1967. 

Apart from the axles and suspension, which were imported, everything else was sourced and manufactured in Australia. The unique, deep-sided, seven-inch (175mm) coaming, was a Brownbuilt Australia extrusion. According to Fruehauf engineering, it had two and a half times more load strength than the conventional four-inch (100mm) RSJ coaming used by other trailer manufacturers. 

During 1958, Glen Lethlean, who was working at Freighter, had been approached with the offer of a substantial salary increase to join the fledgling Fruehauf company; no doubt because of his knowledge and background in the industry. Glen became the merchandising manager. 

“The American director Bill Carozza to whom I reported, along with his other attributes, was the finest salesman I’ve ever known,” said Glen Lehthlean. 

“He was also good friends with Peter Abeles (TNT).”   

Glen spent seven months in the USA, studying their modus operandi.

“It was structured with a profit sharing system, so we carbon-copied that principle in Australia,“ said Glen Lethlean.

“I helped implement it by working with our manufacturing manager Mal Moyle and sales manager Stan Marshall – with positive results. 

“In the main we were producing pantechs and flattop trailers during those early days, selling about 400 units annually.”

Glen left the company in the early 1970s, following a misunderstanding with the senior management and subsequently chose to start his own business.

 

 

Readers may recall that there was some scepticism in the 1950s and 1960s by some transport operators, about the use of high-tensile main beams in trailers. The belief was that if the beams were distorted from an accident or incorrect loading they would be extremely expensive, if not impossible, to repair. Therefore, the traditional strap-type, reinforced-undercarriage trailer system was a safer purchase. 

There were also at that time several independent trailer repair companies who had worked – pushed and pulled – tried-and-true strap trailers for many years and were also somewhat cautious about the repair of high-tensile trailers.  

However, the ‘modern’ lighter-tare weight trailers soon proved their worth and eventually all manufacturers joined the high-tensile ‘club’.

 

Halcyon days

In the Canberra Times, Wednesday 8th November 1967, in the business section on page 27, was the following report: 

Clyde Industries Ltd, rolling stock and general engineer, is holding dividend at 15 per cent, despite a further small profit fall in 1966-67. During the year Clyde increased its shareholding in Fruehauf Trailers (Australasia) Pty Ltd. to 61 per cent making it a subsidiary for the first time. 

Stan Marshall recalls his first stint at Fruehauf during the 1960s, when he was initially Victorian state manager. He headed north, following two appointments: one as Queensland state manager and, later, domiciled in Sydney, looking after NSW business. He was then elevated to the position of national sales manager, until he left Fruehauf in the early 1970s.

   

Atkins fixed spread trailer

 

Fruehauf had become well established during the 1960s and 1970s, capturing a variety of trailer sales, from the unique external ribbed ‘bathtub’ tipper, as the Canadian rock dumper was colloquially known, to bread-and-butter flat-tops and pantechs, curtain siders, freezer-chiller vans, low loaders and extendables. In addition to these mainstays were specialised bespoke trailing equipment and shipping containers also in the mix.     

During the 1970s Fruehauf had great success in Western Australia, as the following two articles from north Western Australian newspapers confirm:

Hamersley News – 6th November 1975

Gascoyne Trading Pty Ltd has recently added to its fleet a unique aluminium/fibreglass constructed meat trailer. The trailer, which was built by Fruehauf in Melbourne, measures 36 feet in length, has been in service for approximately five weeks. It carries carcasses of meat in a chilled state, thus providing fresh meat and is currently running a weekly service from Perth to Dampier, Karratha and Roeboume. The unit has a capacity of 15-20 tonnes. It carries meat hung on sliding rails attached to the roof of the unit, at the flick of a switch, the trailer can be utilised for transportation of frozen goods.

Pilbara News – 22 November 1979

WEST PILBARA FUTURE ASSURED – NEW CENTRE OPENS 

The opening of the Fruehauf Service Centre in Karratha represents a big vote of confidence in the future of the West Pilbara, the Deputy Premier said at the opening of the centre.

It also signalled the extension of Rentco, the rental arm of Fruehauf, to the North West.

The continued growth of the iron ore industry, along with the development of the North West Shelf, assured the West Pilbara of a great future.

The article continued:

Equipment manufactured by Fruehauf includes platform trailers, hydraulic tippers, volume vans, refrigerator vans, tankers, low loaders, carryalls, bulk cement units and a range of materials handling equipment such as shipping containers and bulk commodity tank vehicles.

 

 

Demise

 

The 1980s were torrid years for the company in the USA and that vibe reverberated across the Pacific, causing disharmony between Clyde and its partnership with Fruehauf America and, in turn, demotivation among employees. 

With morale at a low ebb in 1983, Clyde Industries asked Stan Marshall to return and help pick-up the pieces at the Footscray branch, to inject some enthusiasm by pumping up sales. He rose to the challenge and in 1984 was appointed national sales manager. 

 

12-metre aluminium cattle cruiser

 

Around that time, Fruehauf America sent Leo Alexander out from the USA, to investigate the problems in Australia. He was its trouble-shooter and had just returned from reorganising its interests in the UK. Stan Marshall recalled:

“Leo Alexander arrived at head office and the first person he met in the foyer was our long-term national service manager, Eric Goddard.

“Alexander asked him what he did and Eric, not knowing who Alexander was, laconically answered: ’As little as possible’.

“So, Alexander sacked him on the spot!”

At this time there was great concern and much friction between the two companies in the partnership. Clyde’s Sir Raymond Purves had passed away and a new CEO, Hans Lamens was sitting in his chair. 

Fruehauf was imploding in the USA and in October 1987, the international Stock Market Slump saw markets crash around the world. (The crisis originated when Japan and West Germany pushed up interest rates, pressuring US rates also to rise, triggering a massive sell off of US shares.)

Global share prices fell an average of 25 percent, but Australia saw a 40 percent decline. This recession saw a period of economic downturn affect much of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the economy of Australia suffered its worst recession since the Great Depression.    

Against this gloomy economic background the decision was made to sell off Fruehauf Trailers Australasia. In 1988, Maxi-CUBE stepped into the breach and bought the company, accepting ongoing warranty responsibility, but excluding tankers. 

The background to the tanker warranty exclusion was provided to Jim Gibson by Jim Curtis, who was the principal of Maxi-CUBE and a veteran of over 50 years in the transport equipment industry. He was a pioneer of fibreglass road transport equipment in Australia. 

Jim Curtis was aware of a tanker problem experienced by McIver Transport in Queensland, who’d taken court action against Fruehauf Trailers (Australasia) Pty Ltd, claiming $20m damages in reference to 38 aluminium 37,000-litre fuel tankers, bought to transport petroleum products throughout western Queensland, that in their opinion had failed. 

Jim Gibson spoke to Bruce McIver, who confirmed that a settlement was made out of court and a confidentially agreement had been signed at the time. He was therefore unable to disclose any details of the failures, or the amount of the settlement. 

Bruce said that he and his brother had bought Fruehauf aluminium tankers previously, without experiencing any major problems and therefore had no compunction at the time about purchasing them again. 

Jim Curtis said that the settlement was not included in the Maxi-CUBE purchase, because he’d seen the tankers in Queensland that were supposedly engineered to be sold for use in extreme conditions.

“The tankers were carting crude oil from Geo Exploration sites in western Queensland on roads that were no better than goat tracks. 

“The twisting and torsional stresses were fatiguing and distorting the aluminium and tearing away the bulkheads and baffles. 

“The aluminium was 6mm in thickness and in my opinion and from what I have observed on other manufacturers’ tankers, like Highgate, Marshall Lethlean and Hockney, 8mm is more widely used.”

The Fruehauf Somerton factory was included in the purchase, but because the economic downturn had slowed business considerably, the facility was sold. All trailer manufacturing was consolidated under the one roof in their Hallam factory across town, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. 

The company traded as Maxi-CUBE/Fruehauf up until 1998, when the Fruehauf brand was retired.  Maxi-CUBE Ltd purchased the Freighter Trailer business from Peter White and changed its name to MaxiTRANS Ltd. 

Clyde Industries was purchased by Evans Deakin in 1996. 

The Journal of Commerce, published in New York since 1827, wrote on

Mar 19, 1987:

Fruehauf to sell Rentco to XTRA 

Fruehauf Corp said it has signed an agreement to sell Rentco Trailer Corp., its over-the-road trailer leasing subsidiary, to XTRA Corp. of Boston for about US$70 million. Rentco operates a fleet of over 10,000 trailers and last year had a gross revenue of about US$30 million, the company said.

In Australia, Fruehauf’s Rentco business was bought by the Western Australian Shier brothers, Bob and John, in 1994. 

 

 

220-ton-capacity Fruehauf low loader made for BHP, South Australia

 

More memories

   

Fruehauf Trailers – apart from the McIver tanker failures – earned an enviable reputation for quality and reliability in Australia, which lives on, even after years of absence. Its wheel tracks are ghosted on the Australia road transport landscape from those halcyon days of last century.  

Ken Whitworth, a life member of the Historic Commercial Vehicle Club of Australia (HCVCA), wrote of his experiences as a transport operator in the 1960s in a book titled, Ten Years of Trucks and Other Tales, in which he said:

We purchased new Fruehauf tandem trailers for our Leylands. We’d had some bad experiences with some McGrath trailers. Some of the features that impressed me about the Fruehaufs were the large rubber buffers on the rear that protected the trailer from loading dock damage, the large round, recessed rear lighting and the rear protection (under-run) bars to prevent cars driving into the trailer axle.

Another feature that the salesman pushed, was the high tensile steel beam construction that was the same level as the floor. The advertising said you could drive a loaded fork lift truck along the trailer, but we never tried that feature out. The Fruehauf trailers also had strong, deep coaming rails compared to the new McGrath trailers of the time. The McGraths also seemed to have lighter frame rails and vulnerable rear lighting.” 

 

Mick Debenham’s spread trailer

 

Some time ago, transport operator Mick Debenham, who had purchased a Fruehauf airbag three-way spread trailer, was looking to find out more about it – but kept drawing a blank. So, he started a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/FruehaufTrailers/ aimed at finding out more about Fruehauf trailers.

This page has more than 460 members, including Ruth Fruehauf, with a shared interest in Fruehauf trailers. The result is a plethora of information on the product and some background:

“Best suspension ever made, so easy to work on, which wasn’t very often,” said Paul Turner.

“We had reinforcing brackets fitted on the fridge vans to eliminate the only problem we ever had.

‘They used to crack the hanger webbing where it was mounted to the sub-frame, but we never had that problem with the spreads and bogies, only the tri.”

“Rocker bushes and radius rod bushes were so easy to replace and I still remember the bearing combination of the proper axles 518410 cup and 518445 cones inner and outer the same, “ said Doug Weedon.

Paul Turner replied:  “Yeah mate, same all round, the hubcap spanner also fitted the bearing nut, held secure with a bloody great split-pin, no stuffin’ around with locknuts, so easy to pre-load the bearings, only way to lose a wheel on a Fruehauf was to forget the split-pin.”

Phil Ritchie added: “K-Hitch axles today use the same principle, parallel bearings and a castellated nut with a split pin….”

Doug Weedon commented: “We had McGraths and Haulmarks but a few times we hired trailers from Rentco and we loved towing those Fruehaufs.”

Paul Turner added: “Yeah mate, they were in a class of their own, I reckon.”

 

 

 

Fruehauf New Zealand

 

Although defunct in Australia, the Fruehauf brand lives on in Mexico, Japan, France and…New Zealand. Jim Gibson covered the NZ history.

 

The Fruehauf brand arrived in New Zealand in 1969, through a licensing agreement with the Domett family, who had been manufacturing trailers at Feilding,  in NZ’s North Island, since the 1940s. The agreement gave the NZ road transport business access to world-leading trailer designs.

 

 

One of such designs was the strong and versatile aluminium-alloy, ribbed dump body that is still in production today. This dump trailer is suitable for hauling road construction materials, manufacturing raw materials and fertilisers.

 

A young Phil Watchorn with a Domett-built Fruehauf combination

 

The Domett family sold its interests in Fruehauf in 1994 and the company passed through several ownership hands over the next 15 years. One owner was W S Stephenson & Sons. However, all these owners failed to ‘pump up the tyres’ at Fruehauf, though lack of understanding of the specific needs of the NZ road transport industry.

As at the early 2020s, Fruehauf NZ Limited was owned by two long-serving members of the NZ road transport industry: Phil Watchorn and Jeff Mear, who took over the licensing agreement in 2009 and who revitalised the brand, making it a leader in road transport equipment innovation. Both partners’ wives participate in this extended family business.

Phil and Jeff are members of the National Road Carriers’ Association and met while Phil was working as national fleet manager for Orix NZ and Jeff was sales and marketing manager for Roadmaster. The two men co-operated in the design of new truck and trailer combinations for Orix.

 

Phil beside his father’s Commer tipper

 

Phil’s background in road transport began in the Bay of Plenty family trucking business, where he earned his combination vehicle licence on his 18th birthday and began driving livestock combinations all over New Zealand.

In time, Phil progressed from driving trucks to managing them in various transport management positions with local and multinational companies. He also served a stint in Australia for two and a half years.

The next step was using all of that 40+ years of experience in the role of managing director of Fruehauf NZ Limited, where he championed operational transformation and opened a service centre at Wiri, in Auckland.

Jeff’s company position is national sales director, for which his preparation was working with his father in manufacturing truck and trailer bodywork, and later, in transport equipment sales and marketing. Jeff’s ability to interpret customer requirements has been reflected in such initiatives as a specialist chicken transport trailer and walking floor bodywork.

With this pair of experienced professionals at the helm, Fruehauf NZ rested in safe hands.

 

Fruehauf NZ’s manufacturing plant in Feilding

 

Following the takeover of the Fruehauf brand, Phil Watchorn moved to Feilding, where he managed the transition of the office and the assembly/workshop areas, while his wide, Karen, stayed in Auckland for eight months, organising an exit from the business she owned.

 

Karen and Phil Watchorn with Bayleee

 

Jeff Mear remained in Auckland, attending to the all-important sales functions and his wife, Yvette, joined Fruehauf NZ some years later, to manage sales administration. That role was aided somewhat by positive government legislation, optimising trailer dimensions.

Karen, in addition to being Phil’s personal assistant, soon picked up the additional responsibilities of human resources, marketing and some administration functions. Once the Feilding manufacturing operation was headed in the right direction, Phil and Karen relocated to Auckland, to help set up a new head office on the Wiri site.

 

Yvette and Jeff Mear

 

Phil’s and Jeff’s Fruehauf business philosophy was crystal clear: taking care of customers. From the early days of their takeover it was obvious that Fruehauf-brand service had to improve and better solutions had to be found.

“Before we took over the business, even a simple drawbar stand was an optional extra,” said Phil. “So if a customer wanted one it was at additional cost.

“Now, wherever practicable, we attempt to make everything as driver-friendly as possible.

“We ensure that our trailers can be operated safely, while offering solutions and innovations for our customers.

“We don’t build designs that can jam fingers in the dark and we fit grab handles and footsteps as standard, where needed.”

 

Drop-deck 15-20m extendable quad with steerable axle

 

It must be working, because, in the early 2020s, the Feilding workforce had grown to more than 60 employees. The company had an experienced and expanding workforce and supplemented that with apprenticeships.

“I believe that we have a wide range of road transport expertise, which is second to none,” said Phil.

The sales team grew as well and Jeff managed two salespeople in the North Island and one in the South.

 

Nine-axle, 23m tipper and tipping trailer working for Lion Brewery

 

“I spend a lot of time working with our designers and engineers,” said Jeff. “Aiding communication between our customers and those responsible for the finished products.

“Quite a few customers told me that Feilding’s distance from their main routes and service areas was costing them time and money, especially when getting new truck bodies built and trailer repairs and servicing being carried out.”

 

Dry pantech on wide singles, with tuck-under dock leveller

 

As a result of these complaints, Jeff and Phil found a solution when an Auckland trailer builder closed down and Fruehauf took on his three staff members and opened up a workshop in Wiri.

“The Auckland operation has boomed and now employs more than 30 people,” said Phil. “Linehaul customers inevitably have some downtime in this area and we can service their gear without invoking too much time and expense.

 

A Fruehauf company-owned ‘tug’ for customer trailer movement

 

“We also have three company-owned prime movers with drivers, to haul trailers in and out of the workshop, or between the two Fruehauf sites.”

Most new trucks to arrive in the NZ market enter through Auckland, so it’s usually more cost-effective to build truck bodies there. However, if the combination consists of a new truck body and new trailer, the two products are usually built in Feilding, which remains the trailer building principal location.

“The Feilding facility is still our main production workshop and remains the primary facility in our 10-year plan,” said Phil. “Although we do expect additional growth in Auckland.”

 

 

Overseas innovation

 

 

“When the Domett family first formed an alliance with Fruehauf Trailer Corporation in the USA, it allowed them to access designs and bring in the latest from overseas,” said Phil. ‘This tradition continues with the current company.”

Examples include the import of Libner sliding bodies from France, following a visit to the IAA show in Hanover, Germany. These bodies were designed with sliding bodies and although they look like low-height curtain-siders, with container-style rear doors, both the sides and the roof can slide forwards or backwards, allowing loading from an overhead gantry or a forklift.

Freuhauf NZ has provided truck and trailer Libner bodied vehicles to K&S Freighters.

 

Fruehauf Cargobull

 

The company is also the NZ distributor for Schmitz Cargobull refrigerated bodies, sitting these Lithuanian units atop Fruehauf trailers.

Fruehauf NZ also builds bespoke transport solutions, including 23-metre B-Doubles with 10 axles, to carry 20ft and 40ft boxes simultaneously; monocoque steel livestock trailers; 25-tonne concrete pumping trailer; and a trailer with a conveyor V-bottom for hauling potatoes.

 

23m B-Double combination, rated at 50 tonnes GCM

 

Amid the innovation, Fruehauf’s proved externally-ribbed ‘bathtub’ dump trailers, in steel or aluminium, continue to be popular and are pressed using the same machinery that came from the USA some 50 years ago.

The future looks bright for Fruehauf NZ Limited!

 

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