Viable fuel sources have been in a constant state of flux since the first issue of CCJ appeared 100 years ago this month. But the magazine never has stopped helping its readers get a handle on new ideas and make them profitable.
America is a land of progress. And we are taught that progress is an inexorable march forward. The Wright Brothers flew. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.
But that’s not the sense one gets when flipping through dusty old copies of CCJ. Turn to any page in any issue from the first decade of its existence, and you get a sense that truck innovators, producers and users at the time – not to mention truck editors – didn’t have a firm grasp on what they were doing and where this new transportation technology was going.
The inescapable truth was it was all brand new, and there were many, many questions – some of which strike us as profoundly elemental today. How old should a driver be? What was the best way to drive a truck? Power a truck? Stop a truck? Could you run them at night? How many headlamps should they have? Should the headlamps be fixed in position, or was a searchlight on a swivel mount better? How much weight could they carry? How did one set up a pickup-and-delivery route? Were buses a good idea? How far apart should bus stops be placed?
What could you call these machines? Marketing was in its infancy, as evidenced by some of the truck manufacturers of the day: the B.O.E. (Best on Earth) Dreadnaught, the Grabowsky Power Wagon Company, The Four Wheel Drive Battleship, Old Reliable Trucks and the Locomobile, to name a few of the odder ones.
And, of course, there was the one big question that loomed over all the others: Could you actually make any money running these new machines?
Through it all, CCJ and its editors were converts. And as the old saying goes, there is no greater zealot than a convert. In the September 1911 issue of CCJ, editor-in-chief James Artman wrote, “In conversing with commercial car prospectives, it is quite common to find opinions expressed, showing a belief that machines are not yet thoroughly practical. As a result of this feeling, some who might otherwise be users (of commercial cars) are holding aloof with an evident intention of waiting for further improvements or developments.”
The rest of Artman’s column went on to argue that, for the good of this new-born industry, salesmen ought not to “knock” competitors’ cars and trucks to prospective clients, but instead work to build confidence in the machines and their usefulness in the public mind by praising the virtues of all makes and models of motorized vehicles.
So, it’s fair to say that even if our trucking forefathers didn’t know what they were doing, they did understand that they were pioneers. Through all those baby steps that seem so quaint to us today, there was one dominant theme that has followed since: efficiency.
Efficiency shows up in many forms in the annals of CCJ. But most often over the past century, its primary focus has been fuel – squeezing every last penny possible out of a gallon of gasoline or diesel.
In the beginning, fuel efficiency as a topic was far more basic than simply boosting vehicle mileage. The struggle was to determine exactly what power source was the most efficient for powering motor trucks. And there were a surprising number of choices at the time.
There was kerosene, which was popular as a fuel for farm “traction engines” and as Henry Ford’s first choice for powering his already successful Model T automobile. There was steam – already losing favor but still considered a possible long-term contender. Gasoline was an initial slow-starter due to infrastructure issues – but it quickly was becoming the fuel of choice.
And there was electricity – which was second only to gasoline in terms of popularity, and showed such promise that industry-leading manufacturers like General Motors and Studebaker, among others, were gearing up to produce electric trucks to complement their gasoline models on the eve of the First World War. Electrics were so common in trucking’s early days that CCJ devoted a monthly column called “In the World of the Electric” to keep readers abreast of electric truck advances.
In an article from November 1911 titled “The Electric Commercial Car: Logical Choice for Some City Services,” author William J. Johnson noted, “Another argument handed out by the user of electrics, and well-founded at that, is the absence of excessive vibration, shock, jar, stress, imposed on the power plant in stopping or starting. The electric user points out that when his car comes to a stop the unit is dead; he is not consuming ‘juice’ by allowing it to run idle as would be the case with a gas car, which cannot always be started on the spark.”
And Johnson touted the electric design’s simplicity and its ease of maintenance: “In many cities, the illuminating companies who are conducting a live electric campaign keep a close watch on the batteries, and many of them do all the repair work and recharging at a nominal rate. Like as not the customer is using current in his business anyway, and the illuminating company can afford to give him a low rate.”
In other words, why maintain a gas car when you could outsource your fuel and maintenance to the power company? That may seem like a quaint notion now, but the electric car’s recent revival – and new television commercials – seem to indicate that “illuminating companies” today are moving back into the consumer transportation market with charging stations after largely ceding transportation business to the oil companies nearly a century ago.
The debate over the best fuels has long fueled much of CCJ’s editorial coverage.
But CCJ’s and the country’s early infatuation with electric power didn’t last long. By 1915, the monthly electric truck column was no more, and the magazine increasingly turned its attention to gasoline engines as the prime choice for truck power.
Kerosene? Or gasoline?
In CCJ’s February 1914 issue, the “Information Bureau and Correspondence” page – which was essentially an advice column for “expressmen” – featured a steam-propelled fire engine in Boston and a letter from an “Albany Caterer,” which asked, “Does the lack of even one truck maker designing his motor to use kerosene indicate that this fuel or rather carburetors to use it are not practical at this time?”
CCJ’s editor responded, “Kerosene can be and is used on many trucks and in Southern California ‘distillate’ is a common fuel for motor trucks. For some reason not yet satisfactorily explained truck manufacturers seem backward about breaking away from gasoline.”
But kerosene had several problems, as CCJ reported during a 1916 fuel crisis that made it ultimately unsuitable as a truck fuel, including clogging at cold engine temperatures and condensation loading up in the intake and flowing back into the carburetor. “When the throttle is then opened, this excess fuel is drawn into the cylinders, as shown by clouds of smoke, and results in carbonization… The difficulty of starting the engine (using kerosene) is perhaps on the greatest. This requires gasoline or the use of some outside heating device for the purpose of vaporizing the fuel.”
Gasoline was the early fuel frontrunner for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t yet plentiful, but it was cheap and reliable – even if quality was suspect – and its thermal efficiency was unmatched at the time. In CCJ’s January 1914 issue, a reader wrote in complaining of poor gas consumption of 2½ mpg when he was promised double that by a salesman. The CCJ editor back in the day advised him that, “No two drivers will secure the same results in so far as gasoline consumption is concerned and probably this is the largest factor entering into your difference. Your make of five-ton truck has never averaged as much as 5 or 6 miles per gallon but with a competent driver you should secure at least 4 miles per gallon. The difference between city and country running will effect the consumption.”
This was at a time (1916) when a new Mack 3½-ton truck engine was producing 40 horsepower. (For comparison purposes, keep in mind that a late 1960s-vintage Volkswagen Beetle engine produced around 54 hp.)
In 1916, with the First World War raging in Europe, CCJ readers were confronted with a shortage of cheap gasoline. Fuel prices had spiked at 16 cents a gallon – which doesn’t sound like much, but adjusted to today’s prices, 16 cents in 1916 worked out to more than $3 today. So fleets’ concerns about rising fuel prices were justified.
The situation was so dire, in fact, the magazine warned in May of that year, “There is no more important subject confronting the motor truck makers than that of the cost of gasoline. The increased demand on the refiners has been so great, owing to the increase in the number of trucks and pleasure cars and also due to the incessant demand for fuel by the European nations, that the supply is gradually but surely being exhausted … Unless permanent remedies are applied within a few years, it will be impossible to supply the gasoline necessary for the automobile industry.”
Diesel’s day arrives
But, of course, the fears of a gasoline shortage were short-lived. The war ended. New oil fields were discovered. Oil companies vastly boosted production to meet surging demand, and gasoline-powered trucks dominated the industry throughout the 1920s.
But as good as gasoline was, a few innovators felt that an even more efficient fuel and engine were available: diesel.
Diesel engines weren’t new; in fact, they had been around since the dawn of the internal combustion engine. The engine is the namesake of German-born Dr. Rudolf Diesel, who first demonstrated a successful diesel engine that ran on peanut oil (essentially what we consider biodiesel today) at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.
By the 1930s, diesel engines were considered industrial engines – fine for running factories or large ocean-going vessels, but far too large and cumbersome for road transportation. Clessie Cummins thought differently, though. His fledgling namesake engine company was manufacturing small diesel engines for farm applications. But the engine line wasn’t profitable, and Cummins and his business partners knew they needed to expand their customer base.
In 1929, Cummins purchased a Packard limousine for a high-profile drive from Columbus, Ind., to the New York auto show in Manhattan. The Packard, as luxurious as it was, wasn’t a vanity purchase. Cummins selected the make because it had the largest engine compartment of any automobile then on the market. Working diligently, Cummins and his engineering team managed to cram one of the company’s smaller marine engines into the car (legend has it they had only 3/8-inch of free space to spare when they were done) and took off for the Big Apple.
Cummins completed the trip on only $1.39 in fuel – an efficient-enough demonstration of fuel economy that CCJ editors immediately sat up and took notice. The lead feature story in the March 1929 issue, “How the Diesel Engine Works” (see p. 100), was a look at a new technology poised to revolutionize the trucking industry.
“A diesel engine,” CCJ’s editors explained to their readers, “like a gasoline engine, is an internal combustion engine burning petroleum distillates or similar fuels within its cylinders. The diesel engine operates on a somewhat different principle, however, which enables it to use heavier and cheaper petroleum products than gasoline, and also to burn these fuels more economically. Since this heavier fuel costs considerably less per gallon than gasoline, and since less of it is used, the fuel cost is cut down considerably. Incidentally, the fuel economy does not fall off materially at small loads because a diesel engine operates at constant compression irrespective of the load.”
Four years later, in March 1933, CCJ introduced its readers to the first production diesel truck engine. The article’s introduction assured readers that, “although the Cummins diesel engine operates on a different principle from that of gasoline engines, mechanics need not fear the transition to servicing diesel engine repairs.”
In the same issue of CCJ, editor Joseph Geschelin made a compelling argument for fleets looking to adopt diesel technology in a profile of San Francisco-based Intermountain Motor Freight, which was saving $2,000 a month in fuel costs running four Cummins diesel-equipped trucks on a 1,616-mile round trip over a mountainous route. At a per-gallon cost of 5.2 cents for diesel and 21 cents for gasoline, and fuel economy of 7.0 mpg for diesel compared to only 3.4 mpg for gasoline, the fleet cut its fuel costs from $99.75 to only $11.96.
By the 1930s, trucking was a well-established industry absolutely vital to the nation’s economy. And the diesel engine was a complete and total bolt from the blue that almost instantly turned the status quo upside down. It was a game-changer – and that train of thought was apparent to CCJ’s editors from the outset.
By the middle of the decade, other engine manufacturers, most notably Mack, were producing their own diesel engines, and there was no looking back. Diesel almost immediately began taking market share away from gasoline engines. And America’s entry into World War II only accelerated the diesel’s acceptance and eventual domination of the global transportation industry.
The more things change …
The diesel engine held undisputed sway over the trucking industry for the next 70-odd years. Even today, it is the automatic first-choice engine for heavy-duty trucking applications.
As CCJ marks its 100th anniversary, the quest for better fuel economy remains a primary concern for fleet executives. Escalating demand for a dwindling supply of crude oil coupled with geopolitical unrest led to unprecedented fuel price spikes in the 21st century’s first decade that crippled and even killed off many well-established carriers.
As a result, fleet managers today find themselves considering many of the same problems and choices faced by their predecessors 100 years ago: What is the best way to power their trucks and get the job done in the most efficient and cost-effective manner?
After lying dormant for nearly a century, electric-powered trucks are making a small but interesting comeback. New hybrid technologies combining the best traits of electric and diesel (or gas) power show tremendous potential for solving transportation problems.
And while kerosene and steam have yet to reappear in the pages of CCJ, new natural gas-powered trucks, using compressed or liquefied versions of this cheap plentiful fuel, are starting to take their place in the spotlight as fuel prices begin to creep up past the $3-a-gallon mark.
Additionally, new experimental drivetrains and startling advances in aerodynamics are taking hold, most notably on the new “SuperTruck” program – a research and development effort conducted jointly by the federal government and private-sector truck and component manufacturers that promises to dramatically alter the way heavy-duty trucks look, operate and perform in the near future.
As CCJ embarks on its second century of covering the trucking industry, it’s clear that this market is in a constant state of evolution, just as it was in March 1911. And now – as then – CCJ is here trying to make sense out of often chaotic advancements and issues – and always doing its part to help expressmen of any era do their jobs cheaply and more efficiently.