Tracking the Truck: Early Motor Truck History

Tractor companies heavily influenced the development and history of trucks.

| November 2002

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.