This section features an article from a recent issue of The Spirit, R.E. Olds Transportation Museum's quarterly newsletter. Subscription is free with membership. The Museum is always looking for volunteer writers and topic ideas, please contact the Editor, Dave Pfaff.
by Dave Pfaff
First some historical background on commercial truck use leading up to the introduction of Oldsmobile's first vehicle built specifically as a truck. Up until the period of the Great War (which we now call World War I) which began in Europe in 1914, most freight was transported by either railroad or horse-drawn wagon. The initial mass use of trucks began in the military during the chase of Poncho Villa, the Mexican rebel, when he was being pursued by General John Pershing in the U.S. Southwest in 1916. This operation demonstrated the superiority of motor trucks versus horse and mule pulled vehicles. One of the official observers of the military operation to assess the usefulness of motor trucks was Roy Chapin, who had worked for R.E. Olds during the curved-dash era and drove a curved-dash from Detroit to New York in 1901 to the New York auto show. This drive gave him a first hand view of the lack of roads and started him on his life-long campaign for improved roads in the United States. During the war he was head of the Highway Transport Commission and helped organize truck routes and procedures to supplement railroad freight. Chapin was also the head of Hudson Motors, a firm he co-founded in 1909.
When the United States entered the Great War in 1917 the Army had an inventory of 2400 trucks. In 1918, American manufactures produced 227,000 trucks! Manufactures supplied trucks of their own design including those from Ford, White, FWD, Nash Quad, Packard and Mack. A standard design developed by the Quartermaster Corps, the Standard B, also known as the Liberty, was made by several manufactures, with at least a prototype made by REO, although it is not known if actual production trucks were produced by REO. One of the favorites in Europe was the Mack, which originated the expression Abuilt like a Mack truck.
The experiences of the War carried over to civilian life when the soldiers returning home after the armistice in 1918 created a boom in truck usage and a supply of trained mechanics. In 1919 the Army undertook a cross country convoy of 65 trucks with 300 troops taking two months to cross from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. The trip emphasized the need for improved highways. One of the participants was Dwight D. Eisenhower who later as president proposed the National Defense Highway System, now known as the Interstate Highway System. Also in 1919 Roy Chapin and R.E. Olds served on a committee to promote the successful passage of a $50,000,000 highway bond issue in Michigan.
With the end of the War, the Federal Government gave more than 23,000 Army trucks to state and local governments in 1922, most for road construction. While this was a great promotion for the use of trucks, it also had a depressing effect on the new truck market, this on top of the loss of military production.
Truck Manufacturers in the United States
During the period of 1910 through 1919, 514 U.S. companies entered the truck business while during this same period 385 left the business! Most of these truck companies, following the pattern of the early passenger car makers, did very little manufacturing-- purchasing most components and assembling them into finished trucks. Many companies survived only a year or two.
With this volatile and declining market situation, Oldsmobile for some reason brought out the Economy Truck in 1919. Could the Economy Truck have been a design that Oldsmobile was developing for the Great War? The marketing of the truck for civilian use was possibly an attempt to recoup the investment in design and tooling that was already spent. GM was already in the truck business through General Motors Truck and Chevrolet.
As was usual for truck manufacturers during this period, the most common configuration leaving the Lansing factory was a bare chassis with a cab. The literature did list a factory installed express body, a style with a hard top and canvas sides. The installation of a body was usually the responsibility of the selling dealer or the purchaser. Hundreds of companies specialized in manufacturing and installing truck bodies in every part of the country, in every imaginable style for every purpose. This was a natural move from wooden wagons to wooden truck bodies for the former wagon and buggy companies and the skilled wood workers they employed.
During this period there were at least ten companies in Lansing listed as makers of truck bodies. One of the largest was Lansing Body Company, which originated as Lansing Wagon Works in 1881 and switched to truck bodies in 1917. Lansing Body was at one time the largest employer of wood workers in the area. Lansing Body Company had a special arrangement with Olds Motor Works to have the bare Economy Truck chassis driven to their factory on nearby Grand Avenue where a customer-ordered body would be installed. The completed truck would be returned to Olds prior to delivery to the purchaser. Lansing Body Company=s catalog illustrated thirteen different body styles. The various styles listed were panel (with variations), bus, hearse, hearse/ambulance, police patrol, fire, mail (Adesigned to Government specifications@), furniture, stake, and express. Optional features were also available such as fenders, running boards, side curtains, paint colors and door configurations. The body weights ranged for 350 to 1400 pounds. Lansing Body also built their bodies to fit various other truck chassis including REO and Studebaker. Advertisements show the same hearse body on both the Oldsmobile and REO chassis.
The ton and a half Economy Truck was made from 1919 through 1923 on a truck-only assembly line within the Lansing Olds Motor Works factory. The selling price was $1250 and up for the steel cab and chassis unit. The engine was a four cylinder over-head valve engine manufactured by Northway Motor and Manufacturing of Detroit, a division of General Motors. (This engine was also used in some later Oldsmobile passenger cars.) Features promoted by Oldsmobile in their literature included the Torbensen Internal Gear Rear Axle with internal gear reduction at the drive wheels for a great multiplication of engine torque (but with an automatically governed top speed of 22 mph). The 1919 literature also emphasized the heavy duty semi-elliptic springs and the large diameter external service and internal emergency brakes (brakes on rear axle only). AThe extreme importance of pneumatic tires was promoted over solid rubber tires. The literature sited the advantage of a nation-wide dealer network. For a complete description of the truck, see ASpecifications in this article..
Examination of Economy Trucks and the specifications reveal that these were real trucks, not passenger cars converted to truck application.
Economy Truck Production Figures
It has been reported that Oldsmobile was required to leave the truck business to allow G.M. Truck and Chevrolet to be the only GM truck manufacturers. This claim could not be substantiated. The decision may have been based only the economics. Each General Motors division had much more independence at that time than later on in GM history. The demise of the Economy Truck is perhaps as mysterious as the thinking involved with its introduction.
A fine example is owned by the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan.
SPEED-Automatically governed to 22 miles an hour
WHEEL BASE-128 inches
CHASSIS-Length over all, 177 3/4 inches. Width over all, 68 inches. Height over all, 88 inches. Dash to rear of frame, 135 inches. Back of front seat to end of frame, 92 5/8 inches.
DIMENSIONS EXPRESS BODY-98 1/2 inches. Width, 45 1/4 inches. Height, 54 inches. All inside dimensions.
ROAD WEIGHT-with express body, 3100 pounds; with cab and sills, 2720 pounds.
RATED LOAD CAPACITY-1500 pounds.
ALLOWABLE WEIGHT OF BODY-750 pounds
FRAME-Width of frame: front, 31 inches; rear, 34 inches. Channel section, 4 9/16 inches deep; stock 3/16 inch thick.
MOTOR-4-cylinder. 3 11/16 by 5 1/4. Valve in head type. Piston displacement, 224 cubic inches. S. A. E. Rating, 21.7 H.P. On block tests develops over 40 H.P. Crankshaft drop forged, chrome vanadium steel. Three bearings: Front, 2 11/16 inches long by 1 2 inches diameter; Center, 2 inches by 2 inches; Rear, 3 2 inches by 2 inches. Connecting rod drop forged, chrome vanadium steel. Connecting rod rearing, 2 1/8 inches long by 1 2 inches diameter. Wrist pin, 55/64 inch diameter.
WHEELS-Artillery type, second growth hickory. Timken bearings front and rear. Demountable rims.
TIRES-35x5 inches Goodyear Cord. All weather tread on rear and rib type on front.
SPRINGS-Semi-elliptic. Highest grade spring steel. Front, 37 inches x 2 inches. Rear, 50 inches x 2 1/4.
CARBURETOR-Zenith Model C. Double Jet. Air intake provided with a hot air tube with shutter. Strangler on dash for easy starting. Throttle control on steering post and foot accelerator.
IGNITION-High tension. Current furnished to battery by Auto-Lite generator which also furnishes current for lights and starting motor.
STARTING AND LIGHTING-Auto-Lite system, 2 unit, 6 Volt. Starting motor mounted on rear end of crank case. Bendix drive. 80 ampere hour U.S.L. battery. Two headlights with dimmers. Dash light and tail lamp.
COOLING SYSTEM-Forced water circulation by centrifugal pump mounted on front of motor. Belt driven fan. Oldsmobile type radiator. Water capacity 19 quarts.
GASOLINE TANK-Located under driver=s seat. Capacity, 12 2 gallons.
OIL CAPACITY-1 gallon.
CLUTCH-Leather faced cone. Adjustable spring plungers for easy engagement.
TRANSMISSION-Selective sliding type, three speeds forward and reverse. Gears carefully hardened and ground. Transmission case bolted in unit with motor.
DRIVE-Tubular propeller shaft with two dust proof universal joints from transmission to rear axle. Final gear reduction 6 2 to 1 at rear wheels.
REAR AXLE-Oldsmobile-Torbensen internal gear type. Bock roller bearings on pinion shaft and differential gear; also on pinion end of jackshaft. Dead weight carried on drop forged I-beam. Ring gear and pinion 3 2 per cent nickel steel, carefully heat treated.
BRAKES-External contracting and internal expanding. Both brakes 14 inches in diameter, 2-inch face. Very efficient and easily adjustable.
FRONT AXLE-Drop forged I-beam section. Yokes and spring pads integrally forged. Timken bearings.
STEERING GEAR-Double worm and split nut type. Spark and throttle lever controls on top of steering wheel, also horn button. Diameter steering wheel, 18 inches. Controls front wheels through a drag link equipped with spring ball joints, front and rear, and reach rods connecting right and left steering knuckles.
WINDSHIELD-Two-piece adjustable rain-vision.
TURNING RADIUS-23 feet.
ROAD CLEARANCE-10 2 inches under front axle, 12 inches under rear axle.
REGULAR EQUIPMENT-Dash lights, ammeter, electric horn, complete set of side curtains, seat cushion, extra rim, complete set of tools, including jack and tire pump.
NOTE-The Olds Motor Works reserves the right to make changes or improvements at any time without incurring any obligations to install same on cars previously sold.
*copied verbatim from an original 1919 Olds Motor Works publication
Military History Magazine, William Scheck, June 1997.
The Complete Encyclopedia of Commercial Vehicles, G.N. Geogano, Editor. Krause Publications, Iola, Wisconsin, 1979
The War Years Helen Earley and James Walkinshaw, Earley Enterprises, 1997
Setting the Pace@ Helen Earley and James Walkinshaw, Oldsmobile Division of General Motors, 1996
The Motorist January, February, March 1919
Roy D. Chapin, J.C. Long, Wayne State University Press, 2004
The St. Johns (Michigan) News, March 23, 1922
Thanks to Ed Stancek, Oldsmobile/GM History Center and Don Ely, R.E. Olds Transportation Museum for background information.