Daily Driver: Divco Milk Truck

1 / 8
The truck’s nameplate still shines even after being exposed to the weather for so long.
2 / 8
The Divco certainly wasn’t pretty when we got it hauled home, but it looked a lot better than it did surrounded by junk cars.
3 / 8
The “stand up and drive” cab shows the long, curved clutch lever on the left. The short lever sticking out to the right shifts the four gears of the transmission; the knob is used to control engine speed.
4 / 8
The little 38 hp 4-cylinder Continental engine fits snugly in the truck’s curved nose. It runs well and is good to power the truck to a top speed of 35 mph.
5 / 8
After headlights were installed (so it didn’t look blind), the truck looks pretty good, even though some white paint remains.
6 / 8
Apparently, all Divcos left the factory in primer with finish coats applied by the buyer. The flaking white paint on this truck was removed with my commercial steam cleaner, revealing good-as-new sheet metal almost everywhere.
7 / 8
This handsomely restored Divco truck (not the author’s) represents the face of milk delivery in the U.S. through the first half of the 20th century.
8 / 8
The unwanted old milk truck spent half a century in a wrecking yard. Amazingly, all windows were intact other than the windshield, which had one rock hole.

The 1930 census revealed, for the first time, that more than one-half of Americans lived in metropolitan areas. Up until that time, the U.S. was a nation of rural dwellers most living on farms. Subsistence farming was the rule from the founding of our country.

Slowly but surely, farmers were able to generate cash income from the crops they produced. By the early 20th century, marketing what they produced had become important. The growing cities needed farm products, so distribution methods were developed.

Since many things farms produce are perishable, prompt delivery was essential. Refrigeration as we know it today did not come about until after World War II in the 1940s. Even then, it was limited to large establishments. The home icebox was a stopgap method of extending food life span. It wasn’t until home refrigerators came into common use that perishable items could be safely stored for a short time until they were needed. 

The one commodity that was essential for almost every household was milk. A recently published article indicates it remains the number one item found in grocery carts today. Few food products consumed on a daily basis have as short a shelf life as milk. Back when the average home lacked any method to keep milk fresh and useful, the dairy industry developed daily delivery for its many customers.

Commercial dairies were established near every city. Even smaller cities and some good-sized towns had local dairies. The milk produced in those dairies was delivered daily to individual homes. The milkman – an American icon of sorts – delivered fresh milk along a route every morning before most people got up for the day. As time went by, other dairy products were also home-delivered.   

The grind of daily residential delivery

Looking back with the hindsight of almost a century, that period of time is often romanticized. What is often overlooked is the job of physically carrying milk products to the doors of hundreds of homes each morning 365 days a year.

Starting before sunrise, the milk deliveryman’s workday consisted of loading heavy glass bottles into his vehicle and then carrying bottles to each customer on his route. The weight of each quart of milk (minus the bottle) is about 2 pounds. Each delivery (which usually consisted of several bottles) would then weigh somewhat more than 10 pounds. Empty bottles carried back to the truck weighed less, but required carefully handling. The deliveryman was on his feet almost the whole work session, adding to the fatigue.

Do you think that wasn’t too difficult? Surprisingly, in World War II when 15 million men were in the military, women stepped in and did many jobs usually done by men. Almost every industry had examples of “Rosie the Riveter” making things work. The most amazing example of that is shown in photos of railroad workers who maintained the huge steam locomotives. Many pictures can be found of hardy women in coveralls working on the railroad.

Interestingly, however, there seems to be no record of women taking over milk delivery routes. In fact, late in the war, the U.S. government decreed that, because of the shortage of manpower, milk delivery would be curtailed to once every two days.

A good horse to pull the delivery wagon was about the only thing that could make the milkman’s job easier. It didn’t take long before a new horse learned the route and the driver barely had to do any driving at all. The horse pulled the wagon from house to house, stopped at the proper spot, stood patiently while the milk was delivered. When the deliveryman returned, the horse moved to the next stop. As great as that was, dairies had to maintain dozens, sometimes hundreds, of horses as well as care for and milk the cows.           

Divco steps up to the plate

When automobiles and trucks became available in the early 20th century (and in spite of the best efforts of the Horse and Mule Assn. of America), dairies slowly began to transition from animal power to vehicle power. Small companies sprang up, specializing in manufacture of “delivery trucks.”

The variety was extremely interesting, but is beyond the scope of this article. Nearly all of them added two additional requirements for the deliveryman. First, they had to be driven from house to house. Second, mechanical considerations meant that the entry and exit from the vehicle was higher, and required “climbing” in and out instead of just stepping in and out.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that a delivery truck came on the scene that came close to being universally accepted. In 1938, Divco-Twin Truck Co. introduced a streamlined, modern-looking truck with a “drop frame,” all-steel body and a snub nose: the Divco Model U. With entry close to the ground, the drop frame was a boon for deliverymen. Another revolutionary feature: The truck could be driven from either sitting or standing position (the latter was used in travelling from house to house, while the former was used in going to and from home base). 

Not only was the new Divco functional, it was cute. Designed on a clean sheet of paper, its style was universally acclaimed. For the next 48 years, that little truck and its look-alike successors were the industry standard. In fact, it may be the only automotive product that is universally known by its main job: delivering milk. For all practical purposes, the term Divco milk truck is the vehicle’s name.

Built extra sturdy, Divco milk trucks (Divco stands for Detroit Industrial Vehicle Co.) were designed to haul considerable weight. Early models had a load rating of 3,000 pounds. The route driver distributed that daily to his many customers. Claimed to have a life expectancy of 10 years (competitor vehicles usually lasted about five), the Divco cost more than its competitors. Delivery trucks were just a niche market, so even during the heyday of milk delivery, only several hundred a year were built, with the high point being 1948, when 6,385 units were sold.

Banished by the home refrigerator

The Divco milk truck as we know it had an amazingly long production run; the last one rolled out the door in 1986. Even though modifications and improvements were made from time to time (such as higher speeds, increased hauling capacity and the addition of refrigeration), demand fell off to almost nothing as home delivery disappeared from modern life.

Because of their relative scarcity when new, and the fact that most were used hard on a daily basis and worn out, few Divcos survive today. The one pictured here was used by a small dairy in southern Idaho from 1948 until the early 1960s, when it was retired to a wrecking yard. There it languished for more than 50 years.

Wrecking yards survive by selling parts, but the old Divco proved worthless for that since no one had another one needing parts. Recently, it was decided to crush it to gain space. This author happened to come along at about that time and expressed an interest in it.

Surprisingly, the yard operator could have sold the truck several times, but all potential purchasers planned to make a street rod out of it. (Comedian Jay Leno has one with a 427-cubic-inch Chevy V8.) Unwilling to let such a unique vehicle end up that way, the owners decided they would rather crush it. When I expressed the desire to refurbish it so it could be displayed and driven in parades, they sold it to me with my promise to keep it original.

Due to our dry climate the truck has only a few small areas of rust. Amazingly, the only parts missing are the personal heater, windshield wipers and steering wheel. Using our tried-and-true “bring engines back to life” techniques, it took only about a half day to get the little 4-cylinder 38 hp Continental engine started.

Today, the old truck runs well, the clutch is sound and I was able to drive it around the block standing up using my vise-grips to steer with. Improvements will be made as time goes by, but it will always remain a genuine Divco milk truck. With a top speed of 35 mph, it certainly won’t be a street rod. At least one unadulterated Divco needs to be saved for posterity. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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