Trailer Talk

Semitrailer Inventor August Fruehauf to Enter Automotive Hall of Fame

The semitrailer, Hemmings.com says, “triggered the wide-scale distribution of modern consumer goods."

March 29, 2017

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An early Fruehauf trailer is preserved in Detroit, where the man worked and his company was headquartered. Photos courtesy of Ruth Ann Fruehauf
An early Fruehauf trailer is preserved in Detroit, where the man worked and his company was headquartered. Photos courtesy of Ruth Ann Fruehauf

August Fruehauf, inventor of the semitrailer, will be inducted into the Automotive History Hall of Fame, Hemmings.com reported on March 29. The online newsletter of Hemmings Motor News and other publications for collector-car enthusiasts said the induction would be later this year.

Two years ago, in Hemmings Classic Car, author Jim Donnelly wrote an article about Fruehauf, who “’pioneered, in great measure, the modern long-haul truck’ by inventing the tag-along semitrailer.” This, the newsletter said, “triggered the wide-scale distribution of modern consumer goods.

August Fruehauf, a German immigrant and blacksmith, found inspiration for the semitrailer from the horses he shoed
August Fruehauf, a German immigrant and blacksmith, found inspiration for the semitrailer from the horses he shoed.

“’A successful blacksmith and wagon builder in Detroit and the surrounding area around the turn of the [20th] century, Fruehauf built his first trailer in 1914 at the request of a boat owner who wished to transport his craft on dry land behind a Ford Model T.’”

Trailers -- latter-day wagons -- weren’t new, but a hitch that let a trailer’s nose rest on the frame of a beefed-up “T” and follow along behind was, Donnelly said. Of course, the hitch also eliminated the vehicle’s leading axle, and thus came the term “semitrailer.” Fruehauf promoted the idea as a way for a straight truck to transport three times what it could haul on its own, which was then how trucks were used.

It’s also been written that Fruehauf, a German immigrant, had noticed that the horses he shoed as a blacksmith were in better physical shape if they had been pulling wagons instead of carrying heavy goods on their backs. He reasoned that trucks would likewise last longer if they towed rather than toted loads.

He began building and selling semitrailers, and his company eventually became the dominant manufacturer of many types of the vehicles. But it failed in the mid-1980s after squabbling among Fruehauf’s descendants and general mismanagement financially weakened it.

The straw that broke the trailer’s back, so to speak, was a stock raid by an “arbitrager,” Asher B. Edelman. He took control of the company but found he couldn’t turn it around. So, he shut it down and made his profits by selling off its assets. They included trailer plants in the industrial Heartland and on the West Coast.

The arbitrage process eliminates floundering firms that have stopped contributing to the economy, students of business explained at the time. It's a commercial form of Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. I recall writing about this, with sadness, back then for HDT.

The semitrailer pioneer’s granddaughter, Ruth Ann Fruehauf, keeps memories of the man and his company alive with her Fruehauf Trailer Historical Society and its website, www.SingingWheels.com . She has published books about her “grandpa” and the company’s products.

Ruth points out that Fruehauf-brand trailers are still built overseas and in Mexico. Fruehauf de Mexico had a booth at last week’s big Mid-America Trucking Show, and plans to sell its trailers in the United States.

History often repeats itself, but this time a blacksmith isn’t involved.  

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Author Bio

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Tom Berg

Senior Contributing Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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