Innovators: Racing ahead of the pack

After installing tie-downs and other hardware, Western Distributing dedicated one refrigerated trailer for auto transport. Although it can transport only three vehicles rather than six, the trailer can be used to haul produce on return loads when no automobile loads are available.

In February 2004, Western Distributing Transportation Corp. was presented with a sudden opportunity for diversification. Most of the Denver-based carrier’s 210-truck fleet is dedicated to hauling produce in refrigerated trailers, although WDTC at the time owned a few small divisions involved in armored transport, flatbed and towing.

A personal friend of WDTC’s owners owned an enclosed automobile transport business and was looking for an exit strategy. The operation hauled high-dollar value automobiles around the country, and many of its clients were celebrities and professional athletes. WDTC took the plunge, buying the business and retaining its former owner, Leroy Koop, as its manager.

WDTC was faced almost immediately with some decisions, says Dino Guadagni, WDTC’s vice president and head of all the transportation divisions, including automobile transport. Perhaps the most important financial decision was what to do about the trailers, which were leased and in some disrepair. They were about eight years old and rusting badly, he says.

Guadagni looked at the standard equipment for enclosed automobile transport and was struck at how ill-designed it was for the task. “The trailers that everyone else uses are Kentucky dry vans outfitted to haul cars,” he says. “It’s not the most efficient configuration. They are basically drop-decks with sides on them.”

In addition to operating a trucking company, Guadagni’s father has competed in drag racing for about 18 years. For most of that time, the family has purchased its racing trailers from Competition Trailers, a custom specialty trailer manufacturer based in Henderson, Texas.

Guadagni quickly realized that the trailer the team used to transport its drag racer around the country was an ideal design for an enclosed auto transporter. The problem with the common drop-deck design is that it doesn’t maximize the available trailer height. With a standard trailer, for example, transporting a large SUV might reduce the total number of vehicles that could be hauled. That’s important, Guadagni notes, because luxury SUVs rapidly are becoming a vehicle of choice for the wealthy. Another limitation is the air ride suspension used in certain premium makes, such as Cadillac, Mercedes or Lexus. Those suspensions tend to flex, requiring more vertical clearance. “You need every inch of the drop belly,” Guadagni says.

So a month after WDTC acquired the auto transport business, Guadagni and Koop traveled to Henderson to begin work with Sam Harris at Competition Trailers on the first replacement trailer. In addition to maximizing interior height by taking advantage of the drop belly – as well as using smaller wheels and bigger brakes to accommodate them – the first trailer featured a hydraulics system that allowed the car racks to move all the way up and down and to be pitched at various angles. The hydraulics were powered by a generator, which was a common feature of racing trailers as significant power is needed for tools, computers and other devices.

The first 53-foot trailer was finished in June, and immediately Competition Trailers began work on the second. As work progressed on the second trailer, Leroy worked with the driver of the completed trailer to discuss possible enhancements. Modifications included changes to the ramps and a hydraulic rear door, among other changes.

The hydraulic back door, which replaced chains, allowed it to function as a ramp rather than as a flat platform. That helps with length just as the drop belly and hydraulic racks help with height. “Most people can’t get limos in a transporter,” Guadagni points out.

Work started on the third trailer once the second was delivered. Two major changes were the elimination of the generator and adoption of a cordless remote for the hydraulics. Because the racing trailers Competition Trailers previously had built required substantial power, it had not occurred to anyone previously that the hydraulics – the only power consumption by the auto transport – could be run off 12-volt power. Removing the generator saved considerable weight as well as maintenance.

The cordless remote was significant because previously drivers had to get out of the vehicles to adjust rack position to ensure proper clearance and to maximize space. That often meant entering and exiting the vehicles several times to move ramps with the corded control, thus increasing the potential for dents and dings in the door. A cordless remote allows drivers to adjust position while they remain in the vehicle’s driver seat.

The focus with the fourth trailer was to reduce weight. For example, WDTC and Competition installed a translucent roof to replace the metal one on which fluorescent lighting had been used. Instead of rubberized floor on aluminum sheet metal, Competition installed an aluminum diamond plated floor. The fourth trailer also has bigger brakes as well as a back-up hydraulics system to reduce the risk of downtime.

The six-car specialty trailers aren’t the company’s only option for WDTC’s auto transport operation. In addition to several smaller trailers for use where tractor-trailers are impractical, Guadagni has one refrigerated trailer dedicated to car hauling. With about $2,500 in modifications – principally tie-downs – WDTC can haul three cars in a reefer van. That’s half the payload of the specialized trailer.

So why do it? Guadagni notes that WDTC can’t always find vehicles in both directions. So a driver might haul beer or meat to New York and bring cars back. Or he might transport cars to Florida and bring produce back. Having freight in both directions offsets the reduced vehicle payload, and the carrier might not have a full load of cars anyway. In the early days of its operation, WDTC modified and used several refrigerated vans until the specialized trailers came online. Those trailers still are available if demand warrants, but only one is used routinely for auto transport.

Meanwhile, a fifth auto trailer is in the works, and Guadagni sees adding another two or three eventually. But modifications on these $180,000 units seem to be winding down. Says Guadagni, “We’re getting to where we’re running out of things we can improve on.”

Innovators profiles carriers and fleets that have found innovative ways to overcome trucking’s challenges.

If you know a carrier that has displayed innovation, contact Avery Vise at [email protected] or (800) 633-5953.