The Full History of Semi Trailers

Semi trucks carrying 53’ trailers seem as common as anything you could see on the road today. Regardless of your location, trailers are moving on every road at all times of the day. What may be lost on some of the younger folks is that it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, 53’ trailers were illegal to tow even as recently as 30 years ago. The history of semi trailers has been long and mostly glossed over. Semi trailers power the trucking industry, the backbone of the economy, so how has it looked throughout history?

 

 

Alexander Winton, a self-titled “horseless carriage maker” (now known as a carmaker), was a Scottish American man living in Cleveland in the earliest days of the automobile industry. Winton founded The Winton Motor Carrier Company of Cleveland just a decade after the first motor vehicle hit the dirt roads of the late 1800s. As customers began purchasing his vehicles from all across the country, he hit a metaphorical speed bump (pun intended) — how is he to deliver these vehicles to the other side of the country?

 

To tackle this problem, Winton began working on a prototype for a large truck capable of carrying his passenger vehicles long distances. In 1898, the “automobile hauler” was born with the world’s first diesel engine. He made the first trip to test the truck from Cleveland to New York City. The 800 mile trek took 78 hours, an average of 10.2 MPH. The sluggish speed seems cartoonish by today’s standards, but was astounding in 1898. If this machine was able to haul a vehicle cross-country, what’s to stop it from hauling other consumer goods? Thus, the trucking industry and semi trailers were born.

 

 

According to TruckInfo.net, there were only an estimated 700 commercial trucks in America. That number ballooned into over 416,000 by 1924. The spike, fueled by new companies like Mack Trucks, quickly showed that the future was no longer constrained to the confines of locality. In a matter of years, lumber, coal, and other raw materials were being transported hundreds of miles from where they were sourced.

 

The early stages of commercial trucking and semi trailers had its fair share of roadblocks. From strict local laws to unsafe and unpaved roads, it was not a friendly landscape by any metric. Most semi trailers were not semi trailers at all, rather elongated flatbed trucks of no longer than 24 feet. Early stage tanker trailers were also common, as the explosion of motor vehicles created much greater need for refined fuels. Box vans were rare, if not nonexistent, in most areas during the 1920s.

 

By the 1930s, box vans began to pick up in popularity, boasting of easier and safer transport of many commercial goods. There was no strapping, tarping, or fear of spilling product on the newly-paved highways. These new box vans were not “box” shaped by any means. Shaped like an Airstream camper trailer, the curved body helped reduce drag as truck speeds began to improve from the previous 15 MPH limits. Local and federal governments quickly introduced new legislation to allow for faster semi trucks and longer semi trailers. However, don’t get confused when we say “longer”. Semi trailers were typically regulated to range between 30 and 40 feet. This dimensional limit for semi trailers slowly increased over the years as truck hauling capacities improved.

 

The first refrigerated trailer was deployed in 1935 by Fred Jones. This refrigeration unit went on to be known as Thermo King, one of the most utilized refrigerated (or “reefer”) units on the road today.

 

As World War II took over the US economy, the trucking industry was given an unparalleled adrenaline shot. As the US produced resources and equipment for our allies across the world, efficient transportation of these products was essential. New equipment, such as the intermodal trailer, began to take hold. Ground transportation utilizing all types of semi trailers was a necessity to supplement the railroad industry and aid in the war efforts.

 

In 1983, a bill was passed that allowed trailers to increase in length to 48 feet. The ability of carriers proved beneficial for the US economy, while the public continued to be concerned about the safety of such large trailers. What followed were a series of studies to determine the risk factor involved with longer trailers. Studies typically concluded that, given proper training for drivers, public safety was not notably affected. Given this new information, individual states began introducing regulations that allowed for 53 foot trailers to be used in intrastate roles. In 1990, a truck safety law straightened out the state frameworks and paved the way for modern 53 foot trailers to operate across state lines without separate permits.

 

Today, there are dozens of trailer types and hundreds of variations. From dry vans, refrigerated trailers, flatbeds, tankers, and lowboys to custom trailers capable of moving entire Airbus airplane wings, there are very few things that aren’t able to be transported by a semi truck pulling a semi trailer.

 

Semi trailers were born out of necessity to transport goods. Today, there are even services available to transport the trailers that are used to transport things themselves. Oneway Trailers is the industry leader in trailer relocation services, used by large fleets, trailer owners, and trailer dealerships across all of North America. By leveraging an incredible pool of highly qualified carriers, Oneway Trailers can move trailers to and from any location in North America. Used to cut down on carriers’ bobtailing costs and balance trailer pools or deliver trailers to new owners,  we are proud to assist in driving the legacy of the incredible trucking industry into the future.

 

 

 

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