The Marmon Motor Company set a new standard for luxury in the 1960s and became known as the "Rolls-Royce" of American trucking.  -  Photo: Chris Budke

The Marmon Motor Company set a new standard for luxury in the 1960s and became known as the "Rolls-Royce" of American trucking.

Photo: Chris Budke

Beginning in the early 1960s, an old-but-new truck marque appeared on North American highways. Marmon Trucks were a new take on long-haul trucking. They were low-production trucks that were virtually hand-made. Moreover, they were designed with the driver first and foremost in mind.

Indeed, luxury and comfort were so integral to the Marmon design and image, they were billed as the “Rolls-Royce of trucks.”

You’d need a flowchart to fully trace the history of Marmon Trucks. The company’s roots went all the way back to 1865, when a newly minted college graduate named Daniel Marmon became an equal partner in Nordyke Marmon and Co., a firm that manufactured milling equipment in Richmond, Indiana. An orphan, Marmon had worked for the company’s founder, Ellis Nordyke, since he was a small child.

Over time, Nordyke Marmon became one of the leading manufacturers of milling equipment. And in time, Marmon’s two sons, Walter and Howard, joined their father’s company.

Like many young Americans at the dawn of the 20th Century, the Marmon brothers were fascinated by new automobiles just starting to appear around the country. After several disappointing purchases with early, primitive, motorcars, the brothers decided they could build a better automobile and set about building their own models.

From the Indy 500 to Trucking

The first Marmon automobiles appeared in 1902. And in a precursor to the trucks that would one day bear the family name, Marmon automobiles appealed to wealthy customers who placed an emphasis on quality and dependability.

After years of searching, truck collector Chris Budke purchased this pristine 1987 Marmon 57P in 2019.  -  Photo:Chris Budke

After years of searching, truck collector Chris Budke purchased this pristine 1987 Marmon 57P in 2019.

Photo:Chris Budke

The Marmon Brothers had some serious gravitas backing up backing up their claims of quality. In 1911, the company entered its Wasp race car – a four-cylinder-powered Marmon 32 model – in the Indianapolis 500. The Wasp started 28th in the field and went on to win the race, taking the checkered flag in six hours, 42 minutes at an average speed of 74 mph.

To this day, no other car has won the race after starting so far back in the pack.

With that racing victory bolstering its reputation, Marmon became known as one of the premier, high-end, automobile manufacturers of the early 20th Century. Its future looked bright until disaster struck.

The Great Depression, which began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, dealt Marmon a blow from which it never fully recovered. Overnight, the market for expensive luxury cars vanished. The company found itself scrambling to survive.

Opportunity in Trucks

Salvation arrived in the form of Col. Arthur Herrington.

Herrington was a retired U.S. Army officer and engineer who specialized in designing all-wheel-drive trucks for military applications. With this talented designer on board, Marmon, now the Marmon-Herrington Company, began building trucks for the U.S. Military. Eventually their tough and dependable trucks would serve all over the globe during World War II.

Marmon Herrington lasted until 1963, when it was sold to new owners who were interested in building high-end Class 8 trucks for the North American owner-operator market.

Now dubbed the Marmon Motor Company, Marmon set up shop in Denton, Texas, and began building one-off trucks made to exacting customer specifications. There was no assembly line. No unordered trucks were produced. Each truck was essentially hand-built from the ground up – although there was a trim level tier of sorts that allowed buyers to select increasingly more opulent rigs.

Cabovers still ruled the road in the early 1960s – and would for more than a decade to come. So early Marmon builds focused on cabover tractors with a wide array of sleeper options.

Early Marmon production featured a large percentage of cabover tractors. Eventually, long-nose conventional models become more popular.   -  Photo: Jim Park

Early Marmon production featured a large percentage of cabover tractors. Eventually, long-nose conventional models become more popular. 

Photo: Jim Park

There were approximately 24 base models to choose from. These included both cabovers and conventional tractors (which became much more popular in the 1980s when federal laws restricting tractor-trailer lengths were eased.)

Options included lightweight and setback axle configurations. There were also high- and low-roof versions, day cabs and short hood models. You could even spec an old school “butterfly” hood option – a retro offering before “retro” was a thing.

Models with an “F” designation were optimized for fleets (and some fleets did purchase Marmons). “P” models were premium rigs aimed squarely at the booming and somewhat glamorous owner-operator market of the day.

Engine and transmission offerings were standard for the time. A majority of the trucks left the plant with Caterpillar, Cummins or Detroit Diesel power and manual transmissions. All models featured a bright red Marmon M prominently displayed on the front of the truck.

The Most Truck for the Money

Marmons were fairly popular with a small group or drivers who praised their craftsmanship, attention to detail and comfort – from ride quality to cab and sleeper amenities. They stood out as luxurious vehicles in a time when most truck designs gave only passing attention to things like ergonomics and driver comfort.

Chris Budke is a former trucker and fleet manager out of Findlay, Ohio. Today, he’s in the truck parts business. But, more importantly, he’s an antique truck collector and the proud owner of a 1987 Marmon 57P. He says the quality of the truck is still impressive today.

“It’s the ultimate customer’s truck,” Budke says. “Each one was built exactly the way the customer wanted it spec’d. You don’t get that anymore. Now you pretty much have to take whatever they give you.”

Budke has researched Marmon’s history, and he says there's just not a lot of information out there. As best as he can tell, the OEM only built around 250 to 350 trucks a year – which really underscores how rare they are today.

“They’re so well built it’s amazing,” he adds. “Back then, buying a truck like this was a huge investment. And the people that were putting that money out wanted the most bang for the buck they could get. Marmon gave them a truck that was put together well and would last forever. This truck still rides better and is quieter inside the cab than most brand-new trucks today.”

Each Marmon was hand-built to exacting customer specifications. Estimates vary -- but production was limited to around 300 trucks a year.  -  Photo: Jim Park

Each Marmon was hand-built to exacting customer specifications. Estimates vary -- but production was limited to around 300 trucks a year.

Photo: Jim Park

But over time, larger, better-funded OEMs began to see the value in offering safer, quieter, more comfortable trucks to customers — and fleets began to see the value in putting drivers in those trucks. Over time, the “luxury gap” that had originally differentiated Marmon Trucks began to close. The company found itself competing with high-volume truck builders that could offer better and better trucks at much more competitive prices. Marmon’s low-volume, hand-built business model was doomed.

Marmon limped along until 1997 when its last truck was produced. The company sold its production facilities to Navistar’s Paystar vocational truck division.

Given its low production numbers over the company’s life, Marmon Trucks are extremely rare today. A few working models are still out on the road. Which means  your best chance to see one today is at an historic truck show.

Eventually time caught up with Marmon as larger, higher-volume OEMs began to produce more affordable trucks with comparable levels of quality and driver amenities. The company ceased producing trucks in 1997.  -  Photo: Chris Budke

Eventually time caught up with Marmon as larger, higher-volume OEMs began to produce more affordable trucks with comparable levels of quality and driver amenities. The company ceased producing trucks in 1997.

Photo: Chris Budke

But the Marmon name is still esteemed by many old truckers, who still remember the “Rolls-Royce” of trucking as a stand-alone in a time when style, comfort and quality were not priorities in commercial vehicle design. Marmon was a marque that really captured the swagger, lifestyle and mystique of owner-operators and life on the road.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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