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…’
We’ll add the Fruehauf Australia and New Zealand histories to this entry in February 2024.