“Knights of the Road.” You hear that term a lot if you’re in the trucking industry – usually in a wistful tone of voice, recalling another time when truck drivers were regarded as steady men doing a tough job – but still taking the time to watch out for and assist other motorists.
Because I grew up during the 1970s CB Radio/Trucking craze, I always assumed the term came into being then. Although, truth be told, the 1970s truck driver was more of a cowboy than a knight in shining armor, looking back on it.
But killing time on YouTube the other night, I stumbled across the answer. I was surfing around when I came across a film from the 1950s called “Wheels of Progress.” The short little movie was produced by Pacific Intermountain Express – better known as P.I.E., one of the earliest pioneers in coast-to-coast trucking.
(Editor's note: Scroll to the 11:30 mark in the film to see the Knights of the Highway in action.)
After World War II, America’s highway network was still primitive. The very concept of a Interstate highway system, for example, was still humming around in newly elected President Eisenhower’s head. But the country’s economy was booming. Cities were spreading out rapidly. And Americans, flush with victory after years of a Great Depression and the austerity demanded by total war, were spending money and buying consumer goods at an unprecedented clip. The sudden spike in production meant new ways were needed to move goods rapidly from coast-to-coast. And trucking stepped up to answer to the call.
But all of this was new. And so P.I.E. took it upon itself to make a short film to explain to Americans how, exactly, this new industry was needed and how it functioned.
Looking at it today, the film is an amazing time capsule – a look back at a long-gone, far more innocent time. The old trucks themselves are glorious to behold. And the segment on their maintenance would make any Technology & Maintenance Council junkie green with envy.
The logistics operations the film so proudly touts look utterly chaotic and inefficient by today’s standards. And the “brain center” of the entire operation looks suspect to me…. I know they were trying to keep up with where everything was going and when it needed to get there. But I’m not sure one guy at a desk being told the location of one truck or another was how it worked.
But it’s how everyone behaves in the film that struck me most. For better or worse, Americans just don’t interact with each other with that level of civility today. And nothing underscores that fact more than P.I.E.’s policy toward other motorists in distress.
As noted, our country’s roads were still fairly primitive. And those old cars – as beautiful as they are to see today – were nowhere near as reliable as even the cheapest economy car today. Breakdowns were commonplace. And, as the film’s narrator tells us, it was standing P.I.E. policy that any trucker who encountered a stranded motorist on his run – just like the captain of an ocean-going vessel – was required to pull over and render assistance, timetables and schedules be damned. And drivers were trained on basic automotive repair procedures.
P.I.E. wasn’t the only carrier with this policy. In fact, it seems to have been the industry standard at the time.
And so, there it is: The origin of the old “Knights of Road” moniker that still lingers over the trucking industry today, like an old ghost slowly fading away in the corner of a dark room. It’s funny how most Americans don’t have the slightest notion that truck drivers were once welcomed and hailed as force for good out on the open roads – but those traits are still carried on in our collective cultural memories.