Singing wheels

by Harry Rudolfs

In her book, Singing Wheels, Ruth Ann Fruehauf credits her grandfather August Fruehauf, a Detroit blacksmith and carriage maker, with the invention of the modern truck trailer. The story goes back over 100 years to 1914, when a Detroit lumber baron and regular customer asked August to convert a horse-drawn trailer into a conveyance that would haul a boat to his vacation home pulled by a Model T roadster.

Ruth finds it fitting that Detroit, the centre of the automotive universe, would also be the birthplace of the “semi-trailer,” what’s considered a “tractor-trailer” in Canadian parlance – we rarely use the term “semi.”

Apparently the nomenclature goes back to August Fruehauf’s day. He called a trailer with wheels at one end, a “semi-trailer.”

Australians also like to use “semi” to denote a single tractor coupled to a trailer, whereas the Brits call them “articulated lorries” or “artics.”

Via e-mail, Ruth asserts that the term “semi” is important to the genesis of the invention.

“The other trailers, by and large, were four-wheeled trailers, not two-wheeled trailers. It is a big distinction. In 1919 at an early industry convention of trailer manufacturers, the Fruehauf representative was mocked and made the laughing stock. The next year Fruehauf’s sales peaked at just over a million dollars. They had the last laugh.”

However, Alexander Winton, an early auto and truck manufacturer from Cleveland, Ohio, should be acknowledged as an early pioneer of the truck trailer idea.

In 1898 he was trying to figure out a way to deliver autos to customers, and developed a float-type trailer that had wheels on one end and an elevated platform that latched to the top of the tractor’s mid-frame engine. The configuration could haul one car and it somewhat resembles the removable goose-neck configuration used today by heavy equipment haulers.

Another trailer manufacturer, “Utility created a similar design around 1915-16 but don’t claim the invention of the semi-trailer,” according to Ruth Fruehauf. So it seems the prize must go to August, the son of German immigrants to Detroit, who laid the foundation for a great manufacturing empire from humble beginnings in the family shop on Gratiot Ave.

Singing Wheels documents the rise and fall of the family-owned corporation, which at one time the author calls “the General Motors of truck trailers.” With more than 1,000 patents the company’s innovations extended to development of hydraulic liftgates, reefers, flatbeds, and aluminum and steel-bodied trailers.

Fruehauf ceased to be family-owned and controlled with the deaths of August’s sons (the last one, Roy, died in 1965), and Ruth suggests sibling rivalry, in part, contributed to the company’s eventual unraveling. Trailers are still being made in other countries under the Fruehauf name but it ceases to exist in North America. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and the corporation was bought and absorbed by Wabash, which showed no interested in keeping the brand going.

Singing Wheels is an attractive book that should be the part of any truck enthusiast’s collection. Half the volume is a record of photos and ads from various eras. These offer a fascinating glimpse into high-society Detroit during its automotive heyday.

Ruth Fruehauf wrote Singing Wheels to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her grandfather’s invention. But she also thinks it’s important to draw lessons from history.

“Some techniques and devices can inform modern day technology…It is remarkable that so many years later, so many people still are using the trailers and still rave about the quality of manufacturing and workmanship,” she said.

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