Autocar Trucks - Firsts That Really Last

5/19/2012 10:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

NARVON, Pa. — The first insulated spark plug. The first drive shaft system. The first successful oil circulation system. The first electric truck. And first in the hearts of its legion of fans.

The history of Autocar trucks is ripe with these and other firsts. There is even some speculation that Autocar founder Louis Semple Clarke was responsible for positioning steering wheels on the left-hand side of cars and trucks. Clarke, according to legend, wanted the drivers of his vehicles to be able to see better than they could see from the right side, which is where many early cars and trucks had their steering mechanisms. Clarke’s insistence on seating drivers on the left led to the adoption of left-side steering by the entire automotive industry in America.

According to legend.

Which many Autocar fans are happy to claim as fact.

Tim Wanner (no relation to this reporter) has been one of those Autocar fans since about the time he could first say “truck.” Four years ago, when he was 12, he rescued a 1965 Autocar A75T that his dad, John Wanner, had decided to scrap. The younger Wanner had been keeping an eye on the truck as it sat neglected for a decade or so outside the milkhouse. It was a good truck, but it needed work, and there never seemed to be enough time to get it into shape.

“The rear part of the frame was broken, the back axle was loose and the drive shaft was busted out,” Tim Wanner said on a recent clear spring day on the family dairy farm. The farm is a two-family operation in Narvon, Lancaster County, Pa. Tim is the tenth generation of his family to live on the farm, which today is home to a 650-cow milking herd.

Wanner asked his dad if he could work on the truck, not just to fix it up, but to actually use it on the farm. He got a go-ahead to tackle the project, and this spring, for the first time, the resurrected Autocar was used to haul forage from the field to the farm’s bunker silos.

This was very much a learn-by-doing project, Wanner said, although he had a lot of help from Walter Kurtz, a fellow truck enthusiast and family friend who works on the farm grinding feed for the herd. The engine wasn’t much of a problem, Wanner said. He hooked up new batteries and the Detroit diesel started with no problems.

Wanner’s A75T (“A” stands for aluminum cab and chassis, “75” indicates heavy duty, and “T” is for tractor, he said) started duty as a milk truck. At some point, somebody lengthened the frame to accommodate a dump bed. And at another point, probably about 1981, a decade-and-a-half before Wanner was even born, somebody totalled the truck.

“It got a new title in 1982,” he said, “and the original Cummins engine was replaced with the Detroit.”

The original 10-speed transmission was replaced with a 13-speed.

The fenders are also not original. The fiberglass originals have been replaced with home-built round steel fenders sturdy enough to stand on. Squared-off fenders would have been a lot easier to build, Wanner said, but the rounded fenders are truer to the original look of the 1965-era trucks.

Wanner is a sophomore at Pequea Valley High School, helps out on the home farm and works part time at a local farm equipment dealer. He’s a busy guy who likes farm life and his A75T. The truck is no passing fancy.

“When I have some money, after working for many years,” he said, “I want to really restore it. This bed will go. I want a brand new shiny one. The wheels ... I want to convert them to aluminum, which means I’ll need new axles. I want to fix up the interior .... I’m pretty sure I’ll have this truck forever.”

Bill Urban is a retired truck salesman now living outside Philadelphia. He began his career selling Autocar trucks in Baltimore and has dealt with many clients who became attached to the Autocar marquee.

“It has a long and storied history,” Urban said in a phone conversation. “It began in 1897 in Pittsburgh then moved to Ardmore (Pa.) then Exton, Pennsylvania.”

The Autocar plant in Ardmore supplied some 50,000 trucks to the American forces in World War II, and continued doing a brisk post-war business until hard times hit in the early 1950s. In 1953, the Autocar business was bought out by the White Motor Co., which moved manufacturing from Ardmore to a nearby plant in Exton in 1954. The Ardmore plant made headlines in 1956, when it burned while being dismantled, in a fire so severe that it endangered the entire community. Ironically, many of the fire trucks that responded to the blaze bore the Autocar bow-tie emblem.

In 1980, the White Motor Co. assets were bought out by Volvo, and in 1987, the last traditional Autocar truck rolled off an assembly line in Ogden, Utah. Today, the Autocar emblem goes on trucks built by Grand Vehicle Works Holdings, LLC, in Hagerstown, Ind. On its website, the company asks collectors for pictures of, and stories about, the older trucks. In their appeal, they say:

“Autocar is the oldest vehicle nameplate in continuous production in the United States. And, although the current LCF model may not invoke the same nostalgic feeling as the historic vintage models, we at Autocar hold fast to our heritage.”

Bill Urban pointed out that those classic Autocar trucks were not mass manufactured. Each was made to fit a specific customer’s specs, which may account for some of the feelings owners have for their massive workhorses. And the fact that the trucks just keep going gives owners plenty of time to grow attached.

Urban recalled a particular truck that he sold new to a customer in Baltimore in 1973. That truck was later sold to an owner-operator who used it to haul asphalt. Meanwhile, Urban had moved to Lancaster County to work for a truck dealership. He got a call one day about the truck he’d sold in Baltimore, and found out it had changed hands once again to a buyer just down the road from where he was working at the time.

“It was an amazing coincidence,” Urban said. “And that truck looks as good today as it did when I sold it new.”

Urban got wind of the sale and called the buyer, curious about his plans, wondering whether or not it would be cut up for scrap. No, the buyer told him. Not only was he going to use it in his bulk commodities business, but he had another five or six Autocars on his lot that were either working or on their way to being restored.

The Friends of Autocar will hold their annual show and meeting later this fall at the Goshen Fire Company in West Chester, Pa., beginning at 9 a.m., on Saturday, Sept. 22. The meeting is open to all and there is no charge to attend. The Friends’ website is at http://www.waykool.com/autocar/.

Dick Wanner can be reached at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com, or by phone at 717-419-4703.


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