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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:


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…

Liberty

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.

Auto Truck Sets the Foundation for the Company it is Today

From post-WWII to the early 1970s, Eugene “Don” Dondlinger and his son Gene allowed Auto Truck’s second quarter-century to “boom,” as many U.S. industrial corporations were doing the same during the country’s Golden Age of Capitalism.

While under the leadership of Gene Dondlinger in the early 1970s, Auto Truck dropped non-truck-related fabrication work and pursued a market that was expanding full steam ahead: railroad trucks. First on the list was the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company, which was getting stock vehicles from a prominent Chevy dealership on North Western Avenue in Chicago that Zollie Frank owned. (Zolllie was also the co-founder of Wheels, Inc.—a Chicago-based fleet leasing and management company established in 1939.) The Illinois Central Railroad, the Milwaukee Railroad, the Rock Island Railroad, and the Santa Fe Railway were also customers during that era.

Meanwhile, two major political events in the 1970s challenged Auto Truck’s operations. In October 1973, members of OAPEC imposed an oil embargo that lasted until March 1974. After oil prices quadrupled, the stock market crashed and caused the first major economic crisis since the Great Depression. For Auto Truck, even though new vehicle orders continued to come in, no fuel meant no deliveries in or out.

The second crisis came late in the 1970s when interest rates for both mortgages and business loans were in the 18 percent range. Luckily, the Auto Truck facility on Carroll Avenue was productive. The railroad business was picking up, but there was no yard to store all of the finished vehicles, and because of the economy, moving to a larger facility was not an immediate option.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood at the time was tough. It was safe to park the trucks on the street during the day, but if you left them out overnight, they’d be gone in the morning. Whatever vehicles didn’t fit in the yard the crew pulled inside the shop for safekeeping. When that solution got tight, the team got creative. They used cranes to hoist the vehicles into the air and let them hang there overnight. Then there was room to store another truck on the floor below the hanging one.

Finally, in 1979, Auto Truck bought five acres of farmland on a single-lane street in Bensenville, Illinois. It was 20 miles west of the Carroll Avenue shop, which kept productive with steel fabrication until the Bensenville plant was operational in 1980. They chose Bensenville because a lot of the crew lived between Chicago and Bensenville, it was still close to the bulk of its customers in the Chicago area, and the land to the west side of the O’Hare International Airport was relatively cheaper.

With the new facility ready to accommodate the new growth of the company, the major players in the railroad industry that were key to the growth of Auto Truck no longer existed. By the mid-1980s, clients like the Missouri Pacific, the Western Pacific, and the Southern Pacific fell victim to a series of bankruptcies and consolidations that narrowed the railroad market to just a few large companies.

Here’s an example of the market consolidation and its effect on Auto Truck: 
  • The Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad operated freight and passenger services in the southeast United States for 132 years.
  • In 1982, the Seaboard Coast Line acquired the L&N Railroad
  • In 1986, Seaboard merged with the C&O and B&O railroads to become the Chessie System and was soon after renamed CSX Transportation. Auto Truck had the Seaboard business, but L&N and Chessie were with Fontaine Truck Equipment, who held the deciding power. Auto Truck lost the account. 
When the dust settled, Auto Truck was left with fewer railroad clients. If any one of them decided to take their business elsewhere, Auto Truck would go out of business. Just like the aftermaths of the Great Depression in the late 1930s and World War II in the mid-1940s, Auto Truck again faced a do-or-die situation. That’s when the company entered the fleet business.

This transition took form in a number of ways. First, in 1986, Auto Truck entered the ship-through business, by which the car and truck manufacturers deliver their vehicles directly to Auto Truck facilities. Auto Truck’s first ship-through facility opened in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Then the fleet business began to expand with customers like Pioneer Hi-Bred.

In 1988, Gene Dondlinger retired after 54 years of service at Auto Truck. Gene’s son Jim, a third generation Dondlinger, became the leader of Auto Truck, and the family tradition continued. Auto Truck entered the 1990s experiencing new growth in the fleet industry and the ship-through business. With this, Auto Truck bought an adjacent five-acre parcel in Bensenville and spread out the facility across the 10-acre parcel. From that point on, Auto Truck has yet to slow down its expansion.

A number of dedicated and inspired leaders joined Auto Truck during this era whose contributions to the company should not go unnoticed:

Dave Westen joined Auto Truck in 1972. He worked in purchasing, engineering and production and retired in 2014 as vice president of operations. He was one of many members of the Westen family who’ve worked with us.

Denny Jones started in 1986 as a general manager and was instrumental in establishing the company’s first ship-through facility in Roanoke, Indiana. He retired in 2016 as vice president of sales and marketing.

Gage McCotter began in 1979. He was involved in all aspects of the financial, accounting and information technology departments and helped shoulder many decisions that drove the company before retiring as CFO in 2012.

Chuck Lukritz joined Auto Truck in 1981. He began as a welder and progressed through many leadership roles in operations, including production manager and plant manager. Chuck is currently general manager of vocational facilities.

1990 Conrail mini
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