What’s the story on the B-Train? It ‘s arguable that what we call the modern B-train (a set of trailers joined by a fifth wheel on the lead trailer) is a Canadian invention that was prototyped and developed in Canada by Hutchinson Industries of Toronto, Ont., (now a subsidiary of Treamcar), under the tutelage of Ralph Hutchinson Jr., sometime in the mid to early 70s. I’m saying that because I’m looking at an ad from 1982 that Joe DeSimone tells me depicts a set that was manufactured in 1977, originally on behalf of Imperial Oil (Joe was a young engineer at the time who had just started with the firm but wasn’t involved with the prototype). The photo shows it’s a tandem/tandem/tandem configuration, and the ends of both opposing tankers are beveled (presumably for better clearance on tight turns). But it’s really not unlike what Canadians are driving today on the highways grossing 140,000 lbs. LCVs excluded, although Ontario has allowed for the inclusion of fifth wheel-coupled 53s, although I haven’t seen any yet.
On the subject of B-trains, it is worth noting that Martin Phippard has passed through this world on Nov. 11 of this year. He will be sadly missed by trucking enthusiasts and those close to him.The guy was a great writer, truck salesman, and for a brief time an assistant editor in the early days of Motor Truck magazine, sister publication to Truck News. Martin lived in Warminster, England, but spent some of his years in Canada. He was a terrific truck journalist and videographer, and his pages on Hank’s Truck Pictures are worth viewing.
But the point I’m getting to is that Martin loved B-trains and drove them whenever he could get the chance, in places as diverse as Holland, Sweden and Zimbabwe. He wrote a serious essay about the configuration on Hank’s Truck Pictures and came to the conclusion that there were B-trains running around much earlier than 1977 in places like New Zealand and South Africa.
In Canada, itself, Ken Hellawell says that Adam Ledig was driving a flat deck B-Train for OK Transportation back in 1961. The front deck had a fifth wheel bolted on the back which was mounted on another piece of frame that fit inside the lead trailer’s frame.
And according to Doug McKenzie, “My Dad was an owner-operator with Tank Truck Transport back in the 50’s and he frequently mentioned that they had developed one for their use.”
Whether or not the B-train was born in Canada is debatable. But the fact is that the modern version of the B-train became popular after several crashes, mostly in Michigan in the early 70s, involving heavily laden fuel and lumber A-trains (this is why Michigan has some of the strictest axel-weight restrictions and why you see six axle trailers in the State. A-trians with their converter dollies and pintle hooks might better described as “wiggle wagons” which are in another league and nowhere near as stable as the B-trains. C-trains were also developed at this time, but are rarely seen these days. But B-trains are found in every province in the country and have proven themselves as the best method for hauling the most weight in 60 feet of combined trailers. Whereas the US, with a few exceptions in places like Michigan and Washington State, have never embraced the B-train. Some States won’t even allow them on their roads. B-trains in a word, are as Canadian as hockey, lacrosse, back bacon and maple syrup.
Have you got a B-train story? When did you first encounter them? How do you like driving them? Let me know, I’m researching a feature.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs