A little more than 93 years ago (July 1, 1928), two of the largest truck trailer manufacturers in the United States merged, becoming the Trailer Company of America (TCA).
TCA’s early years
The two companies that merged were the Trailmobile Company, which was headquartered in Cincinnati, and Lapeer Trailer Corporation, which was headquartered in Lapeer, Michigan (about 50 miles north of Detroit). The newly formed company was headquartered in Cincinnati. Both Trailmobile and Lapeer offered their own version of the automatic fifth wheel or trailer coupler.
The announcement of the Trailmobile-Lapeer merger stated that both companies would continue to “operate as separate manufacturing and selling organizations.” However, by 1931 the smaller Lapeer plant had been shut down and the two firms’ once-independent Midwest sales and service depots had been consolidated under the Trailmobile brand.
Therefore, by 1931, Sidney B. Winn (who had been the head of Lapeer) and was a TCA board member, realized that the merger had been a thinly disguised takeover scheme, and he resigned and established a new Lapeer-based company – the Winn Trailer Corp.
TCA acquired the Highland Body Manufacturing Company in 1932. With this acquisition TCA began producing complete trailers with truck bodies. These new vehicles made the company one of the first integrated truck and trailer manufacturing firms.
The vehicles’ capabilities were highlighted in a November 1932 article in the Cincinnati Examiner. The article reported the purchase of a fleet of TCA’s trailer-trucks by Kroger, the major supermarket chain that is also headquartered in Cincinnati. According to the article, “The trucks and trailers, built for high speed work delivering food products to Kroger stores, are the very latest developments in automotive design and construction. Built with all-steel bodies throughout and equipped with all known safety devices, the units will be among the most efficient transportation equipment in use by the Kroger Company.”
Trailmobile’s early history
In 1835, Daniel M. Sechler became an apprentice carriage-maker in Milton, Pennsylvania. In 1839 he started his own carriage shop, and his business grew. In 1845, Sechler moved his business to Ohio, settling in Cincinnati in 1858 after living in several other towns.
He engaged in various iron industry enterprises, but went back to manufacturing carriages full-time in 1877. He incorporated his business as Sechler & Company in 1879. It became the world’s largest producer of all types of horse-drawn vehicles and was the largest exporter of carriages in the U.S., shipping products to Europe, South Africa and other foreign markets.
The company’s direction was changed dramatically by John C. Endebrock. He began working at Sechler & Company in 1889 and rose through the ranks to be the foreign sales representative. More importantly, around 1910 he predicted that the company’s future was to build “truck trailers,” because the days of horse-drawn wagons were ending.
The first truck was built in 1896 (similar to what is known as a straight truck). However, most commercial trailers were still heavy four-wheel models pulled by horses, because a device to couple a trailer to a truck had not been developed.
Endebrock began to focus on a trailer that could be pulled by a Ford Model T. A totally new trailer was designed using the principles of automobile dynamics. It featured an “angle iron chassis frame with cross-members, horn-type front spring hangers, a knuckle-type front axle, automobile springs, artillery wheels, roller bearings, and a draw bar with housed spring sections.” In 1915, Sechler & Company introduced the “Trailmobile.” That name was chosen because it would “trail” an automobile. The success of these automotive trailers led Sechler & Company to change its name to The Trailmobile Company.
World War I began in Europe in August 1914. The war led to a need for special types of trailers, such as “gun-mounts, searchlight carriers, quartermaster tanks, ambulances, field kitchens, water tanks, baggage and ammunition trailers, Air Corps transports, and airplane carriers.” The Trailmobile Company built more than 10,000 units of various types for the U.S. Army – more than the combined efforts of all other manufacturers.
During World War I Endebrock worked to make the task of coupling and uncoupling semi-trailers easier. At that time it took three men with jacks to lift a trailer from its coupling. Using a railroad coupler as a model, during 1918-19 he developed a jaw coupled with a spring-plunger locking device, mounted on a “lower fifth wheel” plate attached to the tractor frame. The fifth wheel mechanism locked into a “kingpin,” which was located at the bottom of the front end of the semi-trailers. With this innovation it only took one man to couple and uncouple the automatic trailer. Endebrock’s prototype fifth wheel, which he patented in 1919, differed very little from current fifth wheels used on semi-trailers.
Lapeer’s automatic coupler was designed and patented by its president, Sidney B. Winn. Winn was a Detroit native who started his career with the Hupp automobile company. In 1912, he was named general manager of the Hupp-Yeats Electric Car Company, which was based in Detroit.
In 1916 Winn designed a gasoline-powered combination truck-tractor to pull the new heavy-duty trailers that had been manufactured by Fruehauf and Sechler. With several investors, Winn founded the Lapeer Tractor Truck Company.
Production of Winn’s 5-ton Lapeer Tractor Truck began in 1917. It was powered by a 4-cylinder engine coupled to a heavy-duty 3-speed transmission. The Lapeer was built with a completely enclosed cab, which was quite rare for trucks built at that time. The Lapeer tractor truck did not sell that well, but its innovative coupling system survived into the 1920s, and was used on the company’s trailers (which became its main product when it was reorganized in 1920 as the Lapeer Trailer Co.).
The Winn-designed Lapeer fifth wheel’s coupling method was different from Trailmobile’s system; however, the results were the same. An article in the October 4, 1924 Oakland Tribune described Lapeer’s fifth wheel system: “Thousands of Lapeer trailers are in use throughout the country. Railroads are using them for transportation across cities and for short-haul business.
“The Lapeer trailer fits any tractor equipped with a Lapeer unit. All that is necessary is to back the tractor to the loaded trailer, throw a lever on the tractor, hook on the trailer and be on the way with the load. It is a well-known fact that a load can be pulled with less power than carried. That is the principle of the tractor-trailer combination.
“By the use of trailers, tractors can be in use at all times. One trailer can be loaded, one in transit and the third unloading at the same time. Many of the large hauling concerns are using this system of hauling and more are planning tractor-trailer installations.”
Around 1920, Winn licensed his fifth wheel system to Detroit’s Fruehauf Trailer Co. However, by 1927 he was unhappy with the arrangement. Moreover, the company needed money for expansion, so Winn began talks with Fruehauf’s main competitor (Trailmobile) regarding a merger.
When the merger occurred in 1928, Winn terminated his licensing agreement with Fruehauf. Fruehauf ignored Winn; it continued to use his fifth wheel on its trailers. This led to Winn filing suit against Fruehauf for patent infringement.
Winn/Lapeer eventually won the case. However, Winn was no longer associated with Trailmobile; he had established another company, the Winn Trailer Corp. in 1931.
Winn produced trailers and fifth wheels at his small Lapeer factory into the late 1940s. When he retired Winn held 57 patents directly relating to trailers, tractor trailers, trailer jacks, draw bars, fifth wheels and trailer couplers.
World War II
By the end of the 1930s, TCA began to shift its production from commercial models to military units. The shift was complete after the U.S. entered World War II on December 8, 1941. TCA manufactured almost 40,000 vehicles – ranging from flatbed trailers to mobile offices, tank retrievers, mobile machine record trailers, M-5 bomb carriers, vans and platforms. TCA’s efforts earned the company an Army-Navy Award for Excellence (“E”) in War Production.
In November 1944, TCA and its various units were reorganized as the Trailmobile Company. This was the name of one of the original companies that had formed the Trail Company of America 16 years earlier. The decision was made to rename the company Trailmobile because many of the company’s vehicles were called Trailmobiles, a testimony to the lasting impression of the name and brand. The Trailmobile name was deeply respected within the trucking industry.
Post-World War II
Unfortunately, expected post-war prosperity did not occur. As the nation switched from manufacturing tanks, ships, airplanes, and other war materiel, most of the country’s output of steel and aluminum was sold to Detroit’s automakers between 1945 and 1947. Although there was a postwar demand for Trailmobile semi-trailers, the company was unable to match demand because of shortages of material.
This led to the sale of Trailmobile’s truck cab building operations in 1948. A group of former Highland Body Company employees bought that part of the company and it became the Truck Cab Manufacturing Company.
In 1949, Trailmobile’s owners hired George M. Bunker to head the company as its business continued to decline. With the financial backing of the Mellon family, Bunker turned Trailmobile around; sales doubled to $52 million and its stock value increased by 400%.
Acquisition by Pullman
Two years later (in 1951) Bunker brokered the sale of Trailmobile for $41.5 million to Pullman, Inc., the Chicago-based railcar manufacturer. William A. Burns, Jr. became Trailmobile’s president, while Champ Curry, president of Pullman Inc., was named as Trailmobile’s chairman. Bunker left the company and was named president of Martin Aircraft Co.
Following the acquisition, Trailmobile was a stand-alone company within the Pullman group. It retained its own staff and manufacturing facilities. At the time of its acquisition, Trailmobile had 63 branches and distributors in 35 states and 10 outlets in Canada.
James J. Black was Trailmobile’s chief trailer designer and engineer; he was responsible for Trailmobile’s distinctive “round-nose” semi-trailers that came to market in the late 1930s. Black had started working for the Lapeer Trailer Co. in 1922. He was named Trailmobile’s chief engineer in 1932, when the Lapeer and Trailmobile engineering departments were consolidated. Black joined the Trailmobile board as vice president of engineering in 1944. He was elected to the Pullman board of directors as its vice president of engineering following the acquisition.
Prior to its acquisition by Pullman, Trailmobile built and sold flatbed, lowbed and dry, insulated and refrigerated van trailers. With Pullman’s backing, Trailmobile expanded into a number of new trailer-related fields. The company began producing auto carriers; bulk cargo; livestock; cement, gravel and asphalt hoppers; dump, side-dump and bottom dump; grain; milk, fuel and bulk liquid tank trailers.
In the early 1950s Trailmobile also pioneered aluminum outside post bodies and all-steel integral post bodies for semi-trailers as well as straight trucks. The company’s use of aluminum continued throughout the 1950s; it culminated in 1960 when it introduced an extruded aluminum bulk-liquid container.
Expansion in North America
Canadian Trailmobile Ltd. had been established after World War II to market the company’s trailers. A sales office was established in Toronto and a small manufacturing facility was located in Scarborough, Ontario. Trailmobile sold a controlling interest in Canadian Trailmobile Ltd. to the National Steel Car Corporation Ltd. in 1956. That company later purchased the remainder of the Canadian company.
The Trailmobile Finance Company was begun in 1955. That year the company produced a record 12,000 trailers and van bodies and was able to increase revenue with the new financing arm.
Trailmobile returned to the Canadian market in 1962. It purchased the Brantford Coach and Body Co. When Brantford was acquired it was Canada’s largest truck body and semi-trailer manufacturer. It was reorganized as Pullman Trailmobile Canada Ltd. and was headquartered in Brantford, Ontario.
Trailmobile also established Pullman-Trailmobile de Mexico S.A. C.V. The Mexican manufacturing facility built semi-trailers for the growing Mexican trucking industry. It was merged into ETA Pullman Mexican operations in 1969.
Intermodal brings a new market
Pullman-Trailmobile began manufacturing intermodal containers in the early 1960s. The move to intermodal containers had begun in the mid-1950s due to Malcom McLean and his Sea-Land Corporation. The Pullman and Trailmobile (PAT) intermodal container system was designed for use in sea, land and rail transportation using Trailmobile-built semi-trailers loaded onto 50-ton Pullman-Standard trailer railcars.
The PAT system containers and trailers were popular with transportation and manufacturing companies, and were either purchased or leased from Pullman. By the 1970s, intermodal containers dominated the international shipping business and their use today is pervasive.
Trailmobile started to produce fiberglass reinforced plastic truck bodies in 1972 at its new Charleston, Illinois manufacturing facility. Production was consolidated at the Charleston plant during the 1970s; the company’s Cincinnati facilities were closed. During most of the 1980s Trailmobile was able to successfully compete against Fruehauf and Great Dane (its two primary competitors).
Market troubles and a new owner
However, by 1988 Trailmobile’s sales trailed its competitors. This led Pullman to seek a buyer for Trailmobile. The Gemala Group, an Indonesian conglomerate, bought Trailmobile in 1989 for $20.5 million. Among its first moves was the shut-down of Trailmobile’s manufacturing facility in Brantford, Ontario. All North American manufacturing operations were consolidated at the Charleston, Illinois facility.
Under its new ownership Trailmobile began a building program. In 1994 a new dry van assembly facility was opened in Jonesboro, Arkansas. This was followed in 1999 by a refrigerated trailer assembly plant in Liberal, Kansas. Trailmobile also went back to Canada, acquiring 54% of Mond Industries, which was Canada’s second-largest manufacturer of dry van trailers.
Unfortunately, the expansion program did not work, and within 18 months Trailmobile was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (December 14, 2001).
Trailmobile’s Jonesboro, Arkansas and Charleston, Illinois manufacturing facilities were sold to Great Dane in a deal authorized by the Chicago Federal Bankruptcy Court. However, Trailmobile’s 120,000-square foot manufacturing plant in Ontario, Canada was not impacted by the bankruptcy; it continues to manufacture Trailmobile trailers as Trailmobile Canada Ltd.
At this time, the reorganized Trailmobile no longer manufactures trailers in the United States. However, the company distributes Canadian-made Trailmobiles as well as trailer parts for Trailmobile and other trailer manufacturers. Trailmobile has six factory branches in the U.S. and five in Canada. It distributes Trailmobile products and parts through 75 independent dealers in the U.S. and five in Canada.
FreightWaves Classics thanks Coachbuilt.com and Trailmobile for information and photos that contributed significantly to this article.