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Sunday, 14 January 2018 10:01

Auto Truck Celebrates 100 Years

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1923 Dump TruckAs Auto Truck Group celebrates it’s 100th anniversary, we are excited to share the company’s history with you. This first installment tells how Auto Truck survived the Great Depression by being ready for anything. Journey along with us as Auto Truck emerges from the U.S. Industrial Revolution...

This look back at Auto Truck’s first quarter-century is the start of a series to commemorate Auto Truck’s 100th anniversary. Look for these stories to be published throughout the year:

  • Auto Truck Rebounds Through America’s Golden Age Coal and oil truck bodies fuel the way into the railroad business
  • Let’s Talk Trucks! See the diversity of truck designs and patents produced as Auto Truck took root in the industry
  • Two Decades of Expansion Travel through Auto Truck’s strategic roadmap that includes entering into the Holman family of companies

One century ago in 1918, when the U.S. was the world’s leading industrial nation, the Auto Truck Steel Body Company was established. Shop was set up on Carroll Avenue in downtown Chicago, close to one of the nation’s most vibrant rail centers, where a metropolis of manufacturing giants was dominating Midwestern production.

Imagine the sounds and smells of the busy facility—the rolling mills, forge shops, drawing mills, machine shops, and foundries where the No. 8 gauge steel plate was being shaped into truck bodies. Auto Truck was manufacturing, buying, selling and dealing all kinds of bodies to distributors. An early Auto Truck Steel Body Co. catalog shows the variations of its Model “A” Standard Body with optional mechanical hoists, tailgates, mudguards, chutes, sideboards, partitions, gravel spreaders, and more.

Included on the catalog’s introduction page is the assurance to customers that the Auto Truck team of knowledgeable and experienced engineers could also build any design needed to meet their needs. In its earliest days, the Auto Truck values for responsiveness, workmanship, and design expertise were forged.

Despite its best intentions, Auto Truck struggled through its first decade. Then—across a span of ninety years—four generations of the Dondlinger family would contribute to diversifying and expanding Auto Truck Group to become the leading upfit company it is today.

Current Auto Truck President Pete Dondlinger owes the family legacy to his great grandfather, Eugene James “Don” Dondlinger. In the mid-1920s, Don worked as an engineer in Wisconsin at a trader company. He had refined a mechanical hoist for dump trucks. He recorded a film of the hoist with its new technology in operation and began showing it around the country to generate sales to different dealers.

Don’s travels brought him to bustling Chicago, and he came upon Auto Truck. With a passion for the automotive industry, Don joined the company and began building truck bodies while still selling his hoist to dealers on the side. Don was a talented engineer with an eye for innovation and a knack for marketing. The success of his hoist sales eventually caught the attention of Garfield Wood, founder of the Wood Hydraulic Hoist & Body Company in Detroit. Gar bought the hoist business from Don. Next Don designed another truck body and sold it to Heil Company, a Milwaukee, WI company that built garbage trucks.

In 1928, after pulling together everything he was able to save from his income, from his hoist sales and from selling his truck designs, Don had enough to buy Auto Truck from the man who started the business. What he bought, however, wasn’t much. To make matters worse, the stock market crashed the following year. This sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors, which brought on the Great Depression. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped. This caused steep declines in industrial output and rising levels of unemployment as failing companies laid off workers. Auto Truck took the necessary steps to ensure the plant was operational and our employees stayed employed. Like many other manufacturing companies at the time, Auto Truck survived the Great Depression by thinking outside the box and fabricating anything in demand.

By 1939, manufacturing started a comeback. Much was needed to support the industrial output for World War II. By building hatch doors for Liberty (cargo) ships—first for the British and Soviet Union fleets and then for the U.S., Auto Truck found a niche. During this time, Don’s son Gene (or “Junior” by most of the old-timers) began following in his father’s footsteps by working afternoons at Auto Truck while he was a student at Lane Technical High School in Chicago.

In 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, Gene enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Europe. The war ended in 1945; Gene returned home and to Auto Truck. For almost two decades, Don and Gene ran the company, which had returned its focus to trucks. Auto Truck faced a new challenge as the post-war steel shortage had a significant impact on production, but that’s a story for another time…


Auto Truck Rebounds Through America’s Golden Age

As Auto Truck entered its second quarter-century in operation, Eugene “Don” Dondlinger and his Auto Truck crew continued to support World War II by building hatch doors for Liberty (cargo) ships—while his son Gene was stationed in Europe, serving in the U.S. Army. When the war ended in 1945; Gene returned home and to Auto Truck where, for almost two decades, he and his dad ran the company together.

WWII Ended and the Golden Age Boomed

Following the war, the U.S. economy was strong and growing. This boom, named the Golden Age of Capitalism, closely paralleled Auto Truck’s second quarter century by spanning from 1950 through to the early 1970s. During this era, families across all economic classes experienced the prosperity of stable jobs and affordable homes.

Increases in manufacturing, demand for automobiles and new highway systems allowed Auto Truck to refocus on trucks by doing repair work on older bodies. At the same time, the G.I. Bill introduced a mass of well-educated men and women to the workforce. Union members whose wages had been restrained during the war demanded pay increases during this prosperity. The strengthening labor unions resulted in a wave of strikes.

The United Steelworkers of America strike against U.S. Steel and nine other steelmakers for wage increases lasted 53 days in 1952, and it had a big impact on Auto Truck’s production. Staff spent hours on the phone calling around trying to get even steel scraps to work with. Auto Truck’s shift at this time to acquire steel from mills coincides with the overall U.S. industry transition to using iron and steel scrap as feedstock, rather than iron ore — a process that produces a harder metal.

Progression to Coal and then Oil

Hoist and dump bodies were Auto Truck’s main products from the time when Don bought Auto Truck in 1928 until the war era when, the company made do by producing parts for war ships and conducting repairs. Following the war, houses and businesses were heated by coal, and coal companies became Auto Truck’s biggest clients. Don reconfigured his dump bodies to produce specialized trucks that could dump coal into basements.

In the 1950s, another U.S. industrial change offered new opportunities for Auto Truck — the coal market transitioned to the oil business. Auto Truck began building trucks with oil tanks. Other truck bodies produced at the time included patch trucks for repairing concrete on interstates, which expanded to concrete mixer trucks. Auto Truck grew a lot during the 1950s. Early in the decade, the big fabrication shop on Carroll Avenue was built. It was a dirty old shop with wooden floors. Inland Steel was a major East Chicago-based steelmaker specializing in cold-rolled sheet and strip steel, and Ryerson was its distributor. Ryerson relied on Auto Truck’s Carroll Avenue shop to produce some of its components using Ryerson’s raw materials and drawings.

1944 Coal Truck 1957 Oil Truck
1957 Oil Truck 2 1958 Ice Truck 3

Once Again Refocusing on Trucks

When Don passed away in 1962, the family business was passed down to Gene. Gene’s son Jim was already a well-known face at Auto Truck; he began hanging around the shop and starting to learn the business when he was just 10 years old.

By the early 1970s Auto Truck was as much of a fabrication shop as it was a truck equipment shop, with some of the outside fabrication having nothing to do with truck equipment. For example, the company had a number of contracts to build parts for nuclear power plants.

Seeing that it was time to refocus, Auto Truck saw an opportunity at this time to target an industry that would propel it into its third century of operation: RAILROADS.

In commemoration of Auto Truck’s 100th anniversary, this has been a recap of the company’s operations from post-WWII to the early 1970s. Look for a new installment next quarter to learn how:

  • Auto Truck operations move from Carroll Ave, Chicago to Bensenville, Illinois.
  • The consolidation of the railroad industry in the 1980s leads Auto Truck into the fleet business.
  • Gene’s son Jim, a 3rd generation Dondlinger, becomes the leader of Auto Truck.
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