From the Annals of Road Transport: the Birth and Development of the Semi-Trailer

Coyote - History of the semi-trailer - Coyote Logistics

Next year we will celebrate its 100th birthday. But it may be older, it depends on which of the two most frequently given dates of its birth we consider valid. It is hard to imagine what road transport would have looked like if it hadn’t been invented. Since its inception, it has undergone a huge evolution and today we see it on the roads in many varieties. We are talking about the semi-trailer, of course. Here is its story.

The invention of the semi-trailer: two fathers, two dates of birth

Two American entrepreneurs are commonly associated with the invention of the semi-trailer. Their designs are 15 years apart, so we can say that the semi-trailer is almost a century old, but it can also be almost 115 years old.

The first invention of the semi-trailer is credited to Alexander Winton. At the end of the 19th century, Mr. Winton began to produce the first automobiles (still in the form of “horseless carriages”). Then there was a problem: these vehicles had to be delivered to customers who sometimes lived miles from the Winton’s plant in Cleveland, Ohio. It was out of the question for such distances to be covered on their own wheels, so as not to unduly strain the sensitive mechanisms of these early cars. Alexander Winton came up with the idea to develop a new type of trailer attached to the car. The vehicle was to be loaded on it, and then transported to the buyer. In this way, the first semi-trailer for transporting cars was created. The year was 1899.

Fast forward 15 years. The year is 1914. In Detroit, Michigan, the capital of the American automotive industry, Charles Fruehauf runs his blacksmith’s workshop, where he also produces carriages. This name is not anonymous to you, is it, our dear readers? But let’s not get ahead of the facts. Mr. Fruehauf is contacted by the owner of a local lumberyard who commissions him to develop something that will allow to carry more loads using Ford model T (yes, that’s not a mistake, we’re talking about passenger car here, by the way one of the most important in the history of the automotive industry). Fruehauf develops a single-axle chassis that can be attached to the Ford T in such a way that part of the trailer is supported on the car towing it. And so we learned the second date of birth of the car semi-trailer and the name of its originator (and the brand of the first power unit, which –as you can see –was not a truck at all). The name Fruehauf, as already mentioned, is not at all anonymous for people working in the logistics industry, because Charles Fruehauf’s design was so successful that its creator soon focused entirely on the production of semi-trailers under the Fruehauf brand. A brand that exists to this day and is still one of the most important semi-trailer manufacturers in the world.

Semi-trailer, so what exactly is it?

We already know to whom we owe the invention of the semi-trailer. So now it is time to explain what it actually is. We’ve covered it a bit above, but now let’s gather this information in one place. A semi-trailer is a vehicle used to transport goods. It does not have its own drive, so it must be attached to a motor vehicle to be able to move. In the tractor-semi-trailer set, the tractor is an active element (because it has a drive), and the semi-trailer is a passive element. The form of trailer connection with the vehicle is important here. Part of the semi-trailer (and thus the load) is being supported on the vehicle towing it. Such a vehicle is a truck tractor, and the form of connection of the semi-trailer with the tractor is called a fifth wheel coupling. Its inventor is considered to be Charles S. Martin, who developed this solution in 1915 and patented it a year later. The fifth wheel coupling designed by Martin was popularized by Charles Fruehauf, who used it in his semi-trailers (earlier he used a coupling of his own design). So, we surely can add Mr. Martin to the group of people who contributed greatly to the creation of the modern semi-trailer, right?

The semi-trailer is usually equipped with legs that can be lowered that supports it when it is uncoupled. The semi-trailer has an advantage over “traditional”trailers due to its bigger flexibility. It can be coupled and uncoupled to a tractor faster, which is also important in a situation where the truck breaks down and it needs to be replaced with another one. The semi-trailer also has only one turning point, which makes reversing easier. Above all, the semi-trailer allows a larger and longer load, because –compared to a rigid truck with a trailer –it has a longer, continuous load space.

Types of semi-trailers

A semi-trailer is a vehicle used to transport basically any type of cargo, because many specialized versions have been developed since its invention. Below are the most common ones found on European roads.

Standard semi-trailer. The standard semi-trailer has three axles, is 13.6 m long, has a load capacity of 24 tons and a cubic capacity of 90 square meters. It can be loaded sideways, backwards or from above. On the frames placed on the semi-trailer box, the material protecting the transported goods against weather conditions is stretched. Depending on whether the material is folded for loading or rolled up, we are dealing with a curtainsider or a tarpaulin.

Box semi-trailer. It differs from the standard semi-trailer in that it has fixed sides, which means that it can only be loaded through the rear door (sometimes a movable loading ramp is attached to it). The length is also 13.6 m, the volume is 90 square meters, and the payload is 22 tons.

Mega semi-trailer. It is distinguished by a height of 3 meters and a lowered suspension, thanks to which, with the same length (13.6 m), it allows the transport of loads with a volume of 100 square meters.

It is worth stopping at the mega trailer for a moment. Just like Alexander Winton’s invention, we owe the creation of the Mega trailer to the automotive industry. The first time a semi-trailer of this type entered the roads of Europe was in 1990 in the colors of the Ewals Cargo Care company, which was responsible for its design. The Megas were developed for General Motors and were initially intended to transport Opel Vectra/Vauxhall Cavalier components between GM factories in continental Europe and Great Britain. The dimensions of the chassis components of the new car meant that standard semi-trailers carrying these parts were partially empty. The Mega semi-trailer made it possible to use the cargo space more efficiently. Initially considered a semi-trailer intended only for the transport of automotive parts, today, more than 30 years after its creation, Mega semi-trailers have become very popular.

Frigo. A semi-trailer with a fixed side structure, which is designed to transport cargo in controlled temperature conditions (typically from -30 to +30 degrees Celsius). A constant temperature is maintained thanks to the operation of a refrigeration unit permanently mounted to the semi-trailer. Another type of semi-trailer for transporting cargo in controlled temperature conditions is the isothermal semi-trailer. However, it does not have a refrigeration unit, so it only maintains a certain temperature for some time.

Flatbed. Semi-trailer without sideboards and without cover in the form of a curtain or tarpaulin;it only has a flat loading platform. It is used to transport spatial loads that need to be secured for the duration of transport.

Of course, these are not all types of semi-trailers that are on European roads. We can also mention tankers (different for fuel, gas and chemicals transport purposes), silos for moving loose materials, walking floor semi-trailers, tippers, or semi-trailers for transporting cars and transporting animals. And that’s still not all.

The largest semi-trailer manufacturers

In Europe, the leading manufacturers of semi-trailers include Schmitz Cargobull, Krone and Kogel from Germany, Wielton from Poland, Schwarzmüller from Austria and SDC from Great Britain. China International Marine Containers from China is considered to be the largest manufacturer of semi-trailers in the world. Hyundai Translead is the largest manufacturer in North America.


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