FREIGHTLINERS! PART 1 - 75 years of chasing payload

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Freightliner’s father, Leland James
The embodiment of vision and determination.

One man’s unwavering desire to shift more freight on a truck than anyone else resulted in him taking an ‘If we can’t buy it, we’ll build it’ stance.

Early days to post-World War Two before becoming involved in the trucking industry, the man who is regarded as the father of the Freightliner brand, Leland James, ran a tyre business in the city of Portland, Oregon in that part of the United States known as the Pacific Northwest.

In 1929 James and several other men combined four trucking operations – Portland-Spokane Auto Freight, East Oregon Fast Freight, Portland-Medford Truck Line, and Portland- Pendleton Truck Line – to form Consolidated Truck Lines, based in Portland.

In 1931 the company name was changed to Consolidated Freight Lines. From 1939 when company headquarters were shifted from Portland to Salt Lake City in Utah it became Consolidated Freightways. Consolidated Freightways was considered a confederation of six independent carriers with the parent company known as Freightways Inc.

By 1960 Consolidated Freightways had absorbed 67 other trucking companies, was running approximately 2,900 units, and through the purchase of large Ohio and New Jersey-based truck lines were able to offer a nationwide Pacific Coast to Atlantic Coast service.

Consolidated Freight Lines were pioneers in the adoption of diesel engines and by 1937 there were 115 diesel powered trucks in the fleet. More diesel trucks meant a 60% saving in fuel costs between 1932 and 1938. Another area of innovation concerned brakes. During the 1930s, 4” wide brake linings/shoes were the largest size readily available.


The Hyster 900 series model A-64. This is generally regarded as the first Freightliner sold to a private operator.

For West Coast truck operators faced with many long and steep grades, the existing brake shoes were barely adequate in the days before the Jacobs compression brake. Paul Eaton, assistant Freight Lines workshop foreman, developed 6” and 7” brake shoes to make descending those western mountains so much safer.

In 1937 the company took delivery of a 3-axle, Cummins H series 6-cylinder diesel powered cab over engine (COE) Fageol truck. Jack Snead Jr, a maintenance engineer at Freight Lines, worked alongside Fageol personnel and was instrumental in the design of the COE Fageol. This was just the kind of truck Consolidated Freight Lines needed as it allowed four feet of additional load space compared with a conventional truck of similar size. Unfortunately the Fageol Truck and Coach Company of Oakland, California was in very poor shape financially and was facing bankruptcy.

In 1938 the truck manufacturing side of the Fageol business was sold to the Sterling Motor Truck Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which subsequently sold the Fageol production rights to a successful Tacoma, Washington-based forest owner and lumberman, T. A. (Al) Peterman, who began manufacturing Peterbilt trucks in the former Fageol factory at Oakland in 1939.

The forerunners of what we know as Freightliner trucks were constructed in Consolidated Freight Lines’ Portland, Oregon workshops under the guidance of Paul Eaton between 1937 and 1939. Later, these converted COE trucks – which were mostly rebuilds of older Fageols – were referred to as ‘Monkey Ward’ Freightliners, owing to their somewhat less than professional appearance and the fact that it appeared that the various cab parts could have been sourced from the large mail order company, Montgomery Ward.

Trucking operations in the sparsely populated western United States were vastly different from those in the east, with steep terrain, extremes of temperature, and often vast distances between towns. By the 1930s, most western states were reasonably liberal in their weight and length laws, allowing a 60-foot maximum length for truck and trailer combinations, although the state of Oregon would only allow a maximum length of 50. Consequently Consolidated Freightways ran 2-axle trucks with 20-foot trailers in Oregon and 3-axle trucks with 24-foot trailers in the other states.

There were never that many West Coast-based heavy-duty truck manufacturers. In California there was the Moreland Motor Truck Company based in Burbank, the Kleiber Motor Truck Company of San Francisco, and Fageol based in Oakland, which by 1939 had become the Peterbilt Motors Company.

The other two California-based manufacturers would not survive past World War II, with Kleiber finishing up in 1937 and Moreland gone by 1940. In Washington State, Seattle-based Kenworth had evolved from the earlier Gersix truck in the 1920s, and north of the border in British Columbia, Canada, the Hayes-Anderson Motor Company of Vancouver had become the Hayes Manufacturing Company in 1928.

1940s

Leland James was obviously very much in favour of running trucks with the lightest tare and the greatest area of cargo space possible, to allow for the maximum amount of paying cargo to be carried. To achieve this required lightweight aluminium components and a cab over engine configuration.

Jack Snead was tasked with sounding out truck and component manufacturers to see if any were interested in building trucks based on the radical weight-saving designs he proposed. It would appear that none of them was, so James decided they would build their own trucks.

In 1940 Freightways Manufacturing Company was set up to build Freightways trucks. At first, cab assembly, machining and axle and brake assembly were carried out in Portland, cargo bodies and trailers were fabricated at Portland, Oregon, Spokane, Washington or Billings, Montana, and final assembly was at Salt Lake City, Utah. The first truck, which became CF No. 82, was completed in July/August 1940.

The first Freightways trucks were designated model 100, then model 400, and finally model 600, and were fitted with what was known as the ‘shovelnose cab’. It would appear that only the first few trucks built carried the Freightways badge as by the middle of 1941 they were badged as Freightliner.

As well as building the COE Freightways/Freightliner trucks from the ground up, a series of Fageol conventional (bonneted) trucks were modified in the Portland workshops. These trucks didn’t have nameplates and came to be known as the ‘no-name conventionals’.

In 1942 Freightways Manufacturing became the Freightliner Corporation. A cloud on the horizon, however, was court action instigated by the United States Department of Justice in 1942, charging Freightways Inc. with anti-competitive restraint of trade. Consequently Freightways Inc., the dissolution of the parent company of the Consolidated Freightways Group, was ordered. One of the outcomes of these judicial orders was that James was able to move the assets of Freightliner Corporation from Salt Lake City back to Portland.

Another wartime problem affecting the truck building operation was the commandeering of aluminium supplies, especially for use by the aircraft industry and other manufacturers of military hardware, by the federal government.

In 1947 the Freightliner Corporation was reincorporated and in March of that year construction of a new manufacturing plant in Portland commenced. Ken Self, who had previously worked at the Spokane, Washington workshops, was appointed as production manager, Tom Taylor was general manager, and Jack Jolly became sales manager.

Thirty of the 600 series shovelnose trucks were built in 1947. For 1948 a new truck, the 800 series with ‘bubblenose cab’ was released. The bubblenose cab provided more space for a larger radiator and was entirely constructed in aluminium. The former shovelnose cabs used a mixture of steel and aluminium components. Other aluminium components used in the 800 series trucks were axle housings, frame rails, cross members, brake drums, wheel hubs, and radiators.

In those early days of truck production, most major component manufacturers did not consider Freightliner to be a legitimate truck manufacturer as all its sales were to Consolidated Freightways, and therefore would not allow Freightliner to take advantage of the manufacturers’ discount they offered to other truck manufacturers.

The first Freightliner sold outside the CF organisation was an 800 series truck sold to a Portland produce hauler, Vince Graziano, in 1948. Although Graziano was a private operator, he did have an affiliation with CF, which was probably a factor in James’ approval of the sale. Apparently at this time some Freightliners were fitted with Hercules diesels as Kenworth had put pressure on Cummins not to supply the Portland manufacturer.

In 1949 another 800 series was sold to an Oregon timber hauler who had no connection to CF, and at around this time, the Hyster Company, a well-known manufacturer of forklifts, winches, straddle trucks and cranes based in Portland, purchased a sleeper cab tractor unit to run from their manufacturing plant in Oregon to Peoria, Illinois.

The sleeper cab 800 series trucks were known as 900 series. Day cab bubblenose trucks had a 68” bumper to back of cab measurement (BBC) while the sleeper cab versions were 91”. The Hyster 900 series model A-64 is usually regarded as the first Freightliner sold to a private operator and it was the sale of this and Graziano’s trucks that established Freightliner’s legitimacy as a truck manufacturer.

The B-42 model introduced in 1950 was a 4x2 tractor unit designed to pull two 24-foot semi-trailers and still comply with the 60 foot overall length limit.

1950s

In 1951 Freightliner Corporation signed an exclusive sales and service agreement with the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio. From now on the trucks would be badged White-Freightliner. Prior to the agreement with White, Freightliner only had one dealer; now they could rely on a nationwide dealer network.

The last bubblenose cab trucks were built in 1952/53. These were the models WF-42 and WF-64, with the WF prefix standing for White-Freightliner.From building just 30 trucks in 1947, sales for 1952 were 251.

A new 48,000 square foot factory with a moveable chassis assembly line designed by Ken Self was opened at Swan Island in Portland in 1952. New models introduced in 1953 were the WF-4842 and WF-4864 Spacemaker series. The Spacemaker trucks featured a very short 48” BBC ‘flat face’ cab with a ‘pancake’ horizontal Cummins diesel mounted between the frame rails behind the cab. Horizontal Cummins engines available at this time were all NH series 4-valve head 743 cubic inches NHH naturally aspirated, NHHS and NHHRS supercharged with Roots blower and NHT turbocharged.

Another new model introduced in 1953 was the 4x4 WF-5844 Mountaineer designed to pull two semi-trailers, or what the Americans call doubles. It had a 58” BBC flat face cab with the radiator mounted at the rear of the cab and a Timken driving front axle. The larger cab WF-7564 model with 75” BBC was released in 1954. Freightliner sales continued to rise, with 430 trucks sold in 1955 and 955 by 1959.

Spec sheets from the 1950s show Cummins diesels as standard fitment with the option of Buda diesels, as well as the well-respected Hall-Scott overhead camshaft petrol and butane/propane engines, and as a result of the White tie up, even side valve White Mustang 390A/490A petrol engines were available as options.

Innovative transmission designs to appear in the 1950s that were optional on Freightliners were the single countershaft R series Fuller Roadranger constant mesh transmissions which offered 10 forward gears in a single gearbox with manual or air shifted range change.

Examples were the direct top R66 for 660 lbs/ft torque and R96 for 960 lbs/ft along with their overdrive top counterparts, the R660 and R960. Spicer introduced their 12-speed synchromesh 8125 Synchro-Master gearbox in the late 1950s. The 8125 had three forward gear positions, a range change and the ability to split every gear. To split gears the gear lever had to be moved to neutral and then put back into gear for every split to go through.

They had a separate lever or air control to engage reverse gears and there was also a constant mesh version, the 8125U. The main and auxiliary twin-stick gearbox combinations from Fuller and Spicer were still very popular with longer wheelbase units, but the new multispeed transmissions were especially useful for short wheelbase tractor units where there wasn’t too much space between the engine and the drive axle. The Maxi-Brake type spring parking brake and the Jacobs engine brake for fitment to Cummins diesels were also very welcome 1950’s inventions.

Freightliner personnel changes through the 1950s saw Tom Taylor becoming president in 1951 and Ken Self promoted to general manager in 1956. In 1958 Freightliner introduced what they referred to as the industry’s first successful full 90 degree tilt cab with the WFT-8164T model with an 81” BBC. By the late 1950s 80% of Freightliner sales were to private operators outside the CF group and 10 years later that number was at 96%. Sales numbers increased dramatically through the 1960s with 1,242 trucks sold in 1961, 2,822 in 1963, 4,592 in 1965 and 7,872 by the end of the decade – a far cry from the 30 units built in 1947.

Next month Hamish Petrie takes a look at Freightliner from the sixties to the present.