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Thursday, 10 May 2018 16:02

Auto Truck Rebounds Through America’s Golden Age

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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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