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The world’s first truck

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September 5, 2006

The world’s first truck

The world’s first truck

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September 6, 2006 It was one of the greatest talents of inventor Gottlieb Daimler to find ever more applications for his engine. He came up with the motorcycle, the motorized handcar, a motorized fire-fighting pump, and – eventually and almost inevitably – with the truck. Back in 1896, he set up the first truck on iron-clad wooden wheels – a type of carriage without a drawbar but with an engine instead. But as all inventors know, all beginnings are difficult – not only for people who are ahead of their time. While it is true that the world’s first truck initiated motorized road transport as we know it today, it did not attract a single buyer in Germany. In the early stages, the truck had to overcome a great deal of resistance – much more than the passenger car. This story explains the early development and marketplace problems of the truck - the very first truck and a brand new category of vehicle.

Unlike the car, the truck had a hard time winning recognition in the early days. Whereas the high society had welcomed the car with open arms as an enrichment of their personal freedom, the truck came up against severe skepticism in industry: capital goods had to earn money. And of course, Gottlieb Daimler’s first truck was matured only to a limited extent – even though its time had definitely come.

Two-cylinder engine instead of a drawbar

It was one of the greatest talents of inventor Gottlieb Daimler to find ever more applications for his engine. He came up with the motorcycle, the motorized handcar, a motorized fire-fighting pump, and – eventually and almost inevitably – with the truck. Back in 1896, he set up the first truck on iron-clad wooden wheels – a type of carriage without a drawbar but with an engine instead.

Pragmatism was a hallmark of this vehicle with a coach-box, a vertical “cab” reaching up towards the skies, as well as with a platform with the logo “Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft Cannstatt” printed on the side. Strictly speaking, this was a converted horse-drawn cart whose chassis featured transversely mounted, fully elliptic leaf springs at the front and coil springs at the rear. This complex suspension was important not only because of the poor road conditions at the time but also because of the engine’s distinctive sensitivity to vibrations.

The rear-mounted four-hp two-cylinder engine called Phoenix had a displacement of 1.06 liters. It had been adopted from the passenger car, and operated in much the same way. The engine’s typical features included glow-tube ignition and spray-nozzle carburetor. Gottlieb Daimler quoted “the compactness and elegance of the design, the noiseless and jerk-free operation and the odorless exhaust gases” as the major advantages of the Phoenix engines which had been designed to operate on as many as three fuels: gasoline, coal gas and lamp fuel.

Pinion drive as a forerunner of planetary axles

The truck engine operated on gasoline – which, however, had to be bought at the chemist’s at the time. On the other hand, this vehicle already boasted a feature which was to become the trademark of New Generation trucks through to the SK at a much later stage and which is still indispensable in present-day construction site vehicles – an early type of planetary axle.

Belts transmitted the power produced by the engine, which was installed in an upright position underneath the rear end, to a shaft – with pinions at both ends – mounted transversely to the vehicle’s longitudinal axis. Each of these pinions meshed with the internal teeth of a ring gear which was firmly connected with the wheel to be driven.

Lack of interest in Germany

Despite of this, Gottlieb Daimler did not enjoy success with his first truck in Germany. Nevertheless, a buyer was found in the mother country of industrialization, in England. In that country, steam-powered vehicles had long since managed the step from rail to road – where these fossils did not become extinct before the 1950s. At the same time, however, England was a country in which coke and coal were particularly cheap – which is why a vehicle with a gasoline engine was hardly given a chance. On the other hand, it was on the British Isles that the Red Flag Act was abandoned in 1896. This was a decree with which the horse lobby successfully defended itself against the machine-driven means of transport for a long time. Until 1896, horseless vehicles were not allowed to drive faster than four miles an hour and had to carry a crew of three people: two for operating the vehicle and one for walking ahead of the vehicle, red flag in hand, to warn other road users.

Green light in the mother country of industrialization

It was a lucky coincidence that the Red Flag Act was abrogated in 1896. Daimler’s “Motorized goods vehicle order no. 81 ... for the transport of 1,500 kg”, as the entry in the order book of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft reads, was given the green light in the mother country of industrialization. It was nevertheless not before 1901 that a truck proved to be superior to the steam-powered truck, customary on the island at the time, in a comparative test in Liverpool.

It goes without saying that the engineering needed time to mature. Nevertheless, Daimler rapidly advanced into the five-ton payload category. The output of the first truck range launched soon afterwards ranged from four to ten hp, payload capacity from 1,500 to 5,000 kilograms. Shortly after the world’s first truck had been supplied to England, Daimler presented a range comprising as many as four models which he offered from September 1896. In the same year, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach moved the six-hp two-cylinder Phoenix engine, previously mounted at the rear in the style of an underfloor engine from Büssing, to underneath the driver’s seat, and the four-speed belt transmission equally moved to the front.

Decisive improvements as early as 1897

However, this solution still left a lot to be desired, especially as the belt transmission, which had proved itself in passenger cars, was suitable for heavyweights only to a limited extent. Therefore, as early as 1897, just one year later, the truck was finally given a face that clearly distinguished it from the car and paved the way towards ever greater output and payload. The engine found its traditional place right at the front, ahead of the steered axle, and transmitted its output via a four-speed gearbox and a full-length longitudinal shaft and pinions to the rear wheels which continued to be iron-clad. Inventor Gottlieb Daimler improved not only the powertrain but also the engine. The glow-tube ignition was replaced by a new low-voltage magneto ignition from Bosch, which ignited the gasoline/air mixture in the engine which had been enlarged to 2.2 liters. A completely new design principle was adopted for the radiator. In April 1897, Wilhelm Maybach had completed his groundbreaking tests with the tubular radiator which represented a decisive improvement of the cooling system – an indispensable precondition for a higher power output.

Practical testing in brickworks

But even Gottlieb Daimler must have felt somewhat scary in view of so many innovations in so short a time. For the time being, he proceeded somewhat more carefully before he launched a new five-tonner (in those days, the tonnage always related to the payload capacity, not to the gross weight). Without much ado, he handed over the truck, which was highly advanced by the standards of the time, to brickworks in Heidenheim, where its weaknesses were systematically identified in arduous day-to-day operation – and eliminated.

After that period, however, Daimler left no stone unturned in promoting his trucks. With his five-tonner, he set out to Paris to present this new truck alongside a four-hp belt-driven car. In this lively metropolis, a competition organized by the French Automobile Club was followed by a motor show in the Tuileries Garden, where Daimler exhibited his latest scions. “Large crowds, many vehicles of all kinds – our truck and taxi attract a lot of attention,” Daimler’s wife Lina noted down on June 15, 1898, pleased with her husband’s success.

Yet those with a doubtful view of the truck with combustion engine remained in the majority for a long time to come. It was generally assumed in Europe that combustion engines were right for passenger cars, and steam engines and electric motors for commercial vehicles. Fears were still too great. People were reserved not only because gasoline had to be bought at the chemist’s. Few people understood the engineering which, incidentally, was far from being able to cope with all the hardships the roads had in store for vehicles at the time. The buyers of Karl Benz’s first bus, for instance, returned the vehicle to him in winter 1895/1896 because they had difficulties negotiating the ruts carved by heavy-duty horse-drawn carts into the roads.

Preparing the ground for the truck

Another general problem was the fact that the spoked wooden wheels customary at the time tended to smolder or even catch fire under certain circumstances. The conventional combination of journal and bushing was susceptible to crushing at the edges, leading to burn marks on the hollow hub. To make things worse, iron wheels provided poor traction, while there was little to prevent solid-rubber tires from melting or crumbling under the impact of heat. And through to the 1920s, pneumatic tires were suitable only for light loads.

Nevertheless, the ground had been prepared for the truck. The industrial revolution gathered momentum, and mass products were pushing into the market. The demand for distribution was rising. The customs barriers within the German Reich had been torn down as early as 1871. The history of road haulage is more closely linked with the history of trade and road construction than is generally assumed. Road haulage flourished at the time of the Romans who used a well-kept network of routes for their trading activities. Trade declined when the routes were no longer maintained. Sectionalism and customs barriers also contributed to this development.

Precursors: Muscle, wind and steam power

In spite of this, attempts had time and again been made to build vehicles which did not depend on animals. As early as 1447, a vehicle was built in Memmingen (and in 1504 also in Pirna), which was propelled by the persons on board via a rotary mechanism. However, this vehicle made progress only on well-made paths. In 1599, Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin came up with a vehicle fitted with sails and driven by wind power. The Prince of Orange-Nassau, governor of the Netherlands at the time, liked to travel in this wind-powered car.

The French army commissioned the first steam-powered vehicle. Financed by the French Minister of War, the first steam-powered trucks were built between 1770 and 1801, designed by engineer Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. A vehicle still existing today – 7.25 meters long, with an enormous copper steam vessel at the front and a gross weight of eight tons – came at a price that is equivalent to some 400,000 euros. In its day and age, it was used to carry cannons; today it is one of the attractions of the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

There was no lack of inventors and fiddlers in other countries, either. A certain Major Isaak de Rivaz, serving in the army of the then Swiss Republic of Valais, used a gas machine as a power unit in the early 19th century. The gas mixture was electrically ignited in an upright cylinder, and the wheels were driven via cable and ratchet. In 1864, Siegfried Samuel Marcus, an electrical engineer born in Mecklenburg, put a first vehicle operating on gasoline and petroleum into operation.

The crucial criterion is economic efficiency

It was not before the end of the 19th century that truck engineering had sufficiently advanced to be considered a viable proposition. From then on, people became ever more aware of the disadvantages of horse-drawn carts. Animal power did, after all, have its drawbacks. At the time, a horse was available at the princely sum of 1,500 Marks. And a horse had to be curried and fed, no matter whether it had work to do or not. The grooming of a horse incurred annual costs of some 1,000 Marks – to be paid on top of the purchase price. By comparison, Daimler offered his new 1.5-tonner at a price of 5,200 Marks, while the five-tonner carried a price tag of 8,500 Marks.

It is therefore not surprising that contemporary cost calculations arrived at results which were by all means favorable for the truck. According to these calculations, a medium-sized transport operator using horses incurred costs of 20.8 Pfennigs per ton-kilometer, whereas transport by motorized truck cost only 13.8 Pfennigs per ton-kilometer.

In spite of this, Gottlieb Daimler made light of the aspect of fundamentally new technology when he advertised his motorized truck at the annual agricultural show of Württemberg in the fall of 1897. It was just as paradoxical as it was shrewd for him to display his truck in the same row in which the traditional draft animals were lined up. He also distributed pamphlets on which he listed all the jobs the truck could do just as well as a workhorse, pitting this against the diseases, the thirst, hunger and wayward behavior of animals – which would not be found in a truck.

Transport operators engaged in heavy-duty distribution were the first to discover the advantages of the new engineering for themselves: brickworks and breweries ranked among the first branches of industry, which bought trucks in large numbers. The new five-tonner of 1898 was particularly popular among the breweries. Seven of the nine five-tonners recorded in the order books were supplied to customers as “ten-horsepower beer carts”. And in 1912, when as many as 5,400 trucks operated on the roads of the German Reich, 43 percent of these were doing service for breweries. Of all the trucks registered at the time, 23 percent were used in goods transport, and seven percent were operated by mills and brickworks.

The truck gains momentum in the 20th century

However, long-distance transport remained the domain of the railways for a long time to come. The distribution of labor at a time when the truck was still in its infancy was like this: while the railways linked the industrial centers with each other, traditional horse-drawn carts and trucks distributed goods to smaller towns and villages. For the time being, truck sales developed rather leisurely. By 1901, there were as many as 16 manufacturers in the German Reich, but between themselves, they produced just 39 units in that year. From then on, however, the truck gained momentum. Truck production figures of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) rose to 140 units in 1903, for instance, and exceeded the 1,000-unit mark in 1910.

Nevertheless, it was not before the second decade of the 20th century that the commercial vehicle industry experienced a first veritable boom. This was not triggered by economic developments but by politics: from 1908 trucks were subsidized to create a reserve fleet for the German Army – to be drafted should the worst come to the worst. The armed forces paid a purchase premium of 4,000 Reichsmarks and a premium of up to 1,000 Reichsmarks as a contribution to the operating costs (for up to four years) to buyers of civilian trucks who were prepared to make their trucks available to the army in the case of war.

First boom starting in 1914

The army had issued clear and binding specifications for these subsidized trucks. Subsidies were paid only for four- to six-ton trucks with trailers and gasoline engines which generated at least 30 hp. Other conditions: chain drive, a track width of 1,700 millimeters, drum brakes and a top speed of 12 km/h with iron-clad wheels or 16 km/h with rubber tires.

As a result, production figures skyrocketed – especially during World War I. Whereas new registrations in the German Reich amounted to just 1,543 units in 1908, they had risen by as much as 625 percent to 9,639 units in 1914. And during the four war years, the German truck industry turned out over 40,000 vehicles, despite ever greater difficulties in obtaining raw materials.

However, this was accompanied by a certain degree of stagnation in technical development. And the boom during the war year became a boomerang after the end of the war: exports collapsed, and the market was congested by used trucks. There was virtually no demand for new vehicles. It was not before the 1930s that commercial vehicle engineering reached the required degree of maturity for trucks to become serious competitors for the railways over longer distances.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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