Tracking the Truck: Early Motor Truck History
Tractor companies heavily influenced the development and history of trucks.
This old Avery truck, thought to be a 1910, 1911 or 1912 model
Logically, early-20th-century tractor manufacturers might have been in the best position to understand the needs of farmers for harvest hauling – except that, prior to 1920, the concept of the truck was still in flux.
Often called 'motor trucks' at this time to distinguish them from the trucks, or platforms, on which many farm engines sat, trucks were labor-saving 'beasts of burden' for farmers, never more appreciated than during harvest time.
Because nobody knew a truck's best use on a farm at the time, early truck makers faced a dilemma: Should trucks be used strictly to haul loads around the farm – manure, implements or, most especially, harvested grain – or should they double as a tractor, as the early Allis-Chalmers tractor truck, first built in 1915, did?
The Allis-Chalmers was a half-track with artillery-style steel wheels in front for steering. It was powered by a T-head, four-cylinder, 68-hp engine, and was meant to plow as well as carry loads. Perhaps the dual use – compounded by the $5,000 price tag (almost 20 times what Henry Ford was charging for his model T truck at the time) – destined this truck to failure.
Avery trucks did better. The Avery Co. of Peoria, Ill., was well known for its steam engines and tractors, including the 8-16 and the 14-28. When the company ventured into the truck field in 1910, it was well situated in the agricultural field, with a dealer network in place to help let buyers know about the new product.
The Avery Co. described its motor truck as a "gasoline farm wagon" and "general farm power machine." The firm decided up front that its trucks would be most useful to farmers during the harvest season, so they included a large belt pulley that could be attached to the front crank shaft for powering grain separators and other belt-driven machines. Early Avery trucks also had cast steel wheels with holes into which wooden plugs could be driven, to give added traction; when the wood wore down, new wooden plugs were simply inserted.
Company advertising claimed the truck carried loads on its own body, pulled plows and other machinery in the field, and drove other machines by belt power: "You can do road work, field work or belt work, all with this one machine."
The 1-ton model was the most popular, but Avery also built 2- and 3-ton motor trucks with solid rubber tires. In 1921, the firm introduced a six-cylinder truck but went into bankruptcy shortly thereafter, leaving to speculation whether that model would have succeeded.
Deere & Co. entered the truck business in 1907 when they bought out the Clarkmobile Automobile Co. and moved that firm's machinery and equipment to Moline, Ill. There, they began building a 2-1/2-ton Deere truck with a horizontally opposed engine rated at 20 hp, a three-speed progressive sliding gear transmission and dual chain final drive. This truck didn't last either, probably due to a family-related conflict: Willard Lamb Velie, related by marriage to the Deere family, wanted to build trucks too. His trucks were called Velies, and their production began in 1911, after which the production of Deere trucks was stopped, so the vehicles wouldn't compete with each other. Velies were sold until 1929, except for the years 1925 and 1926.
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