A n enjoyable aspect of researching automotive history is the unexpected discovery of facts regarding legendary vehicles. Most documents and images are gleaned from manufacturer archives, museums, libraries and collections, but on occasion, a person who experienced history sends a gold nugget of data to shed new light on a production or experimental vehicle from days gone by.
This happened when Carl Voller contacted me about an article I wrote for another publication on the saga of Ford’s Gas Turbine experimental truck from 1964, also known as “Big Red.”
Voller wanted to share his experiences driving a prototype truck during the late 1940s that bore a striking family resemblance to the Big Red rig and could have been one of the origins that led to Ford’s towering prototype transporter some 16 years later.
When I interviewed Voller, I learned more about the vehicle in question and what it was like to be a young driver delivering truckloads of new automobiles to Ford dealerships.
Voller was 21 years old and engaged to his future wife, Alice, and employed by a division of the Ford Motor Co. called Dealers Transportation of Chicago. When I visited his home, he and Alice had recently celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary.
In 1946, Dealers Transportation deemed Voller and three other drivers the most skillful to test-handle a new tractor/trailer concept that would haul five cars instead of the traditional four.
Voller modestly said, “It wasn’t that we were better qualified than the other drivers, but maybe it was more about us being young and adventurous, especially to take on novel vehicles.”
He added, “The truck in question was called the DeArco, and it was the product of a joint effort between Ford’s Dealers Transportation and General Motors’ Arco Auto Transportation of Janesville, Wis.
“It was the blending of the two transport company’s names that led to the DeArco designation seen on the front of the raised cab.”
Voller told how two engineers from Ford and two from GM worked together on the project at a location near 91st and Halsted Avenue in Chicago, not far from the Ford vehicle assembly plant on Torrance Avenue. He said all Ford parts were used in the construction of the DeArco, except perhaps for the addition of a vertical front grille that came off a 1946 Nash.
“The DeArco’s chassis, engine and running gear were also experimental, developed for the 1948 Ford F8 tractor, including the 145-hp V-8 engine with a dual-throat carburetor.
“I do remember that the engine was mated to a heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission with a two-speed axle that offered ten forward gears, and there were power-operated 16×5-inch hydraulic brakes with double cylinders to bring the vehicle to a safe halt.”
Visually, the DeArco dwarfed the typical semi truck of that era, and with its bright red cab and streamline corrugated steel-clad trailers, it caused a sensation when seen traveling on the highways and byways.
Built into the sides of the tractor’s corrugated body panels were indented handgrips and steps that helped the driver scale up the truck and into the cab, which Voller estimates was approximately eight feet from the asphalt to the bottom of the cab doors.
“Getting down from the cab was something else. Instead of using the steps, I would lean over and leap off the running board ledge, landing with my legs bent to absorb the shock. It was fun to do, and never bothered me back then, but it explains why my knees are bad today.”
Because of the extreme height of the three-passenger cabin, mechanical components like steering, braking and the floor-mounted manual transmission needed custom lengths of linkage to connect with the powertrain below. Voller believes the speedometer cable alone was around 18-feet long.
Similar to conventional rigs, the DeArco used the two front wheels for steering, and the second row of wheels to receive the power. A third row of four smaller wheels on the rear trailer could steer in the opposite direction of the front wheels in an action accomplished by the pull of the frame.
“There was no ball or fifth wheel between the front and rear portions of the trailers,” Voller said. “The two sections moved together as a unit. There was a V-shaped gap between the hinged front and back sections that gave room for the rear trailer to flex over bumps.”
Located behind the top of the truck’s cab, peaking above the corrugated body wings, were two yellow saddle-type fuel tanks, which were normally positioned over the frame of a truck. A thin horizontal tank section connected the right and left containers, and the combined unit held 120 gallons of gasoline.
“I had a mechanical switch located by my foot to shut off one tank and open the other, and on the dash was a toggle lever that electronically operated the two fuel gauges,” Voller said.
Air horns and a spotlight crowned the cab’s roof, and screwed to the doors were a pair of extended California-type side mirrors, something new on trucks in Chicagoland at the time.
“Though the DeArco was cobbled together, it was actually a well-engineered vehicle, and once on the highway, it was not bad navigating forward,” Voller said. “But, as you can imagine, it was very difficult to see directly below the front of the cab and backing up.
“I did suggest glass panels be built into the lower section of the cab, about pedal level, for better frontal vision, and perhaps it would have been incorporated if the project had received the green light for production.”
Voller told about a trip he took to South Bend, Ind., in the DeArco, one of many where he assisted the engineers on the development of the prototype.
“It was in late fall when I piloted the experimental truck from Chicago to a Ford dealership in South Bend, transporting five brand-new Ford automobiles, one more than I could in the normal four-vehicle haulers. Following behind me were the manufacturing experts in a Ford company car.
“When we arrived at the dealer, the engineers and I unloaded the vehicles while discussing ideas to improve the design layout to better house the cars and methods to make the task easier for a lone driver.
“Once the cars were delivered and I was back in my perch behind the steering wheel, I needed someone to guide me onto the road because of the inherent blind spots, which were made even more perilous due to curious crowds that continually swarmed around the vehicle wherever I stopped.”
Next, the group headed to the Studebaker factory in South Bend, where they took measurements and made sketches while loading and unloading new Studebaker models on and off the trailers. This process was repeated with Chrysler Corp. products and others.
After returning from these excursions, the engineers would tear the truck apart and make necessary alterations to accommodate all automotive brands and models.
It seems that Ford and GM not only planned to use the futuristic DeArco car carrier to deliver vehicles from their own factories to retail outlets, but to build these rolling marvels and sell them to other vehicle transportation companies.
“I remember the first time I took the DeArco to the Ford yard in St Louis and got off of Route 66 to eat at a favorite restaurant for truck drivers,” Voller said. “When I was ready to get back on to the highway, I realized I positioned the truck too close to the access road and could not see if cross traffic was coming.
“So, I got out of the cab and stood on the ledge to look over the truck’s roof up and down the two-lane roads. When it looked clear for about a half a mile, I immediately jumped back in the cab and drove like hell until I reached good old 66.”
Another time Voller was taken off his regular delivery routes, which included driving the traditional four-vehicle hauler, he was asked to put a lot of mileage on the DeArco.
“Since Ford’s receiving and holding yards in Chicago and St. Louis were open 24 hours a day, I made deliveries back and forth for five straight days and put more than 3,000 miles on the vehicle that week alone,” he said. “In between runs, there were bunk beds at each location for drivers to grab short naps.
“Sometimes, while driving on the four-lane highways, cars would pull up alongside of the truck and stay parallel with it.
“At first, I thought the autos were having a hard time passing me due to the flat frontal design of the truck. Let’s be realistic, even though there were progressive features like side skirts on the trailers, the DeArco had the aerodynamics of a brick. Perhaps the cab’s shape was creating an air dam off the side of the tall tractor, making it difficult to pass.
“Finally, I figured it out ‘ it wasn’t a law of physics holding these cars back, but human curiosity.
“Since passing vehicles couldn’t see me sitting in the cabin above them, the cars’ drivers would hang back a while trying to locate who was at the wheel of the truck. Some must have thought the vehicle was operated by remote control.
“Eventually, the cars would pull ahead and the surprised passengers could then see the raised cab, and with wide grins, waved hearty up to me, which I replied to by a blast or two from my air horns.
“Night driving was wonderful with excellent visibility down the road in normal weather, and oncoming headlights were never in my eyes. But when I ran into rainstorms, heavy snowfall or fog, the visibility could become so bad from my perspective that the only resolve was to pull over and wait.
“As you can tell, this project lasted several years, never seeming to get past the prototype stage, and then one day, I was informed that the DeArco mission had been shelved due to events that rendered any further development superfluous.
“I believe there were several events that transpired parallel with the development of the DeArco that ended the project. Highway laws were changing, allowing the length of semi-trailers to be increased, and the growing use of the innovative head-rack structure over the truck cab allowed conventionally built tractors with a normal trailer the ability to transport five automobiles.
“Although there were some haulers as early as the 1920s that stacked five autos onto trailers, the industry norm was four cars before the advent of head racks.
“Further validating the use of head racks were new car models that featured lower rooflines, lessening worry about scrapping viaduct ceilings.”
Around Thanksgiving 1948, while Ford was experiencing a temporary slowdown, Voller took a leave of absence from the Dealers Transportation Co. with all intents to return and resume delivery of the brand-new1949 models.
Having a family to support, he secured a transitory truck-driving job in Crystal Lake, Ill., for a company called American Terracotta, which was to be for only a brief period, but ended up lasting for 45 years.
When I inquired, Voller didn’t know what became of the single DeArco prototype, but he said, “Though the 1940s DeArco was not as technically advanced as Ford’s fancier 1964 prototype, I feel, design-wise, there’s some ancestral connection to the more famous and publicized Big Red double-decked transporter.”
What do you think?