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FreightWaves Classics: Cassens Transport Company delivers cars nationwide

Overview

The Cassens Transport Company fleet delivers as many as 10,000 vehicles daily for 15 domestic and international automobile manufacturers. While the company delivers vehicles throughout the United States and the Canadian province of Ontario, its delivery services are generally concentrated in the Midwest, along the Atlantic seaboard and in Ontario.

Headquartered in Edwardsville, Illinois (about 25 miles northeast of St. Louis, Missouri), the company has served the automotive industry since 1933. Cassens Transport has approximately 1,800 employees, including more than 1,400 Teamsters drivers.

A Cassens carrier with Nissan vehicles. (Photo: Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)

Early history

The Cassens’ tradition of hauling valuable cargo can be traced to 1812, when Napoleon and his army were retreating from their defeat in Russia. Hans Wilkening, a 20-year-old German farmer, was among hundreds employed by the French to carry wounded soldiers across Germany and back to France.

Clockwise from left: Louise, Arnold, George and Albert Cassens
Clockwise from left: Louise, Arnold, George and Albert Cassens (Photo: cassens.com)

More than 100 years later (and in the United States), Wilkening’s grandson, George Cassens, had his first opportunity to become involved with automobiles. It was 1918, and 38-year-old Cassens became a sub-dealer for a Marine, Illinois-based REO dealership. Cassens sold a few REO automobiles to friends in and around the Illinois towns of Edwardsville, Hamel and Worden.

Two years later, Cassens was awarded a Hudson Motors dealership for its Essex line of autos. His only start-up expense was a garage. In the 1920s, cars were still a luxury for most, and the majority of prospects and buyers didn’t know how to drive. So Cassens not only had to sell the autos, he had to teach new owners how to drive them. At that time, most roads were not paved (or even covered with gravel) – just dirt. Selling cars did not happen from a showroom – Cassens went to customers’ homes (or their fields) to demonstrate the cars. By 1924, Cassens began taking his teenage sons Arnold and Albert along on sales calls.

Cassens was a capable salesman; in 1929 he sold 165 new Hudson-Essex autos. However, because of the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed, he only sold three cars in 1931.

Hauling commodities to make ends meet and expanding auto sales

To help make ends meet during the Depression, George Cassens and his sons entered the trucking business. They began hauling milk for a local dairy, and in 1931-32 they expanded, hauling corn, apples and potatoes.

Although auto sales were extremely slow because of economic conditions, there was still enough demand, so Cassens kept a few new cars on hand in his Hamel “showroom.”

In the early 1930s, most automobile dealers were responsible for getting their cars from the manufacturers. The majority of autos were shipped from assembly plants by railroad; dealers would take delivery of the autos from the railroads. Although the system worked, it was expensive for dealers. Cassens and his sons decided that they could save time and money by having their cars shipped directly to them via truck. Arnold and Albert traveled to Detroit by bus, each carrying a tow bar borrowed from a local garage. In Detroit, they rode in a streetcar to the Hudson Motors assembly plant. They took delivery of four cars, and each brother drove one car and towed another. 

During the winter of 1932, Dodge-Plymouth sought new Dodge dealers in the Edwardsville area. A Dodge representative thought the Cassens were a good prospect and that they might be interested. The new Dodge-Plymouth dealership opened in Edwardsville on June 22, 1933. Although it moved to a new location in 1996, it is still in business.

Soon after opening the Dodge-Plymouth dealership, George Cassons ordered a new four-car transport trailer so that money could be saved by bringing cars from Detroit without using the railroad or other carriers. The transport trailer included a two-ton Dodge truck and a four-car auto trailer. 

The first load of vehicles arriving in Hamel, Illinois on September 24, 1933. (Photo: cassens.com)
The first load of vehicles arriving in Hamel, Illinois on September 24, 1933.
(Photo: cassens.com)

Albert Cassens drove the Dodge truck and car trailer to Detroit. He bought bed sheets and wrapped them around the windshields to protect the glass from low-hanging tree limbs. On September 22, 1933, Albert left Detroit with the first load of cars for the Hamel and Edwardsville dealerships. He hauled two Plymouths, a Dodge and a Hudson Terraplane.

Using trucks instead of relying on the railroads, a load of automobiles could be delivered directly to a dealership, which reduced time, damages and unloading costs. It was a major upgrade in efficiency, and the Cassens were early adopters.

The ICC and incorporation

Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Motor Carrier Act in 1935, expanding the regulatory jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to the trucking industry in addition to the railroad industry that it had been regulating since the late 1870s. The ICC granted trucking rights based on where a company had been hauling prior to June 1, 1935. 

Because the Cassens had been hauling autos from Detroit to St. Louis, they thought it would be easy to be granted the authority to continue hauling on this route. When they went to Chicago to testify before the ICC, the size of the crowd amazed them. There were railroad representatives, as well as representatives of many other trucking companies. Nonetheless, Cassens Transport was the first auto hauling company to have an ICC hearing. More importantly, Cassens Transport was granted grandfathered rights to continue hauling from Detroit to St. Louis.

By that time the Cassens’ vehicle delivery fleet had expanded to six rigs. In order to protect the family assets, Cassens Transport was incorporated on December 28, 1936.

Cassens Transport trailer #57 parked at the Hamel terminal in the mid-1940s. Gilbert Honnerkamp was the truck's driver. (Photo: cassens.com)
Cassens Transport trailer #57 parked at the Hamel terminal in the mid-1940s. Gilbert Honnerkamp was the truck’s driver. (Photo: cassens.com)

World War II

The Cassens’ vehicle-hauling fleet grew to 35 transporters by 1941. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, auto manufacturers stopped producing new cars and switched to war production. The Cassens’ new car hauling revenue dropped – from $132,000 in 1941 to $58,000 in 1942. In 1943 it was $27,000 and by 1944, it was down to $2,400. 

The Cassens sold the 35 trucks, but did not sell all of the trailers. Instead, they stored most on an empty lot that they had recently purchased. 

When World War II ended, the Cassens traveled to Detroit for a meeting with Dodge. The Cassens had 28 trailers, but no trucks. The Cassens explained to the Dodge representatives that if Dodge would get them trucks, they would haul Dodge cars to the manufacturer’s dealerships. A deal was reached, and Cassens Transport was back in business. The family cleaned and painted the trailers and then mounted them to the new Dodge trucks. Because they had not sold the majority of their trailers, the Cassens had an advantage over competitors that had to wait for new trailers to be manufactured.

Post-war prosperity

By 1951, Cassen Transport generated over $1 million in revenue, a company milestone.

From August 21, 1954, until 1957, a family-owned Mercury dealership replaced its Hudson dealership in Hamel. However, because of the growing transport business, the dealership was converted into the transport company’s home office.

Albert, George and Arnold Cassens at a company Christmas party in 1955. (Photo: cassens.com)

Meanwhile, the Chrysler Corporation had purchased Dodge. It used 82 automobile carrier companies at that time; a cumbersome and inefficient system. Therefore, Chrysler held a “Carrier Retention Meeting” to advise its carriers which would be retained. Cassens was among the carriers that were retained.

In 1959, Chrysler was preparing to open a new assembly plant in Fenton, Missouri. Cassens Transport was awarded the contract to deliver the cars built at the factory, and was ready to ship the first load of automobiles that came of the assembly line.

The railroads fight back

The railroads began taking back much of the auto-hauling business they had lost to trucks over several decades. On June 10, 1960, the Frisco Railway introduced its “tri-level” railcar, which could carry 12 to 15 automobiles on a single 85-foot railcar. Truck trailers at that time were only capable of carrying six vehicles.

Cassens and its competitors lost most of their long-distance hauling business to railroads. For Cassens, that meant that the remaining jobs were short hauls of 200 miles or less from St. Louis. (Railroads were – and still are – inefficient on short hauls.)

Automobiles being loaded on a "tri-level" railcar. (Photo: trains.com)
Automobiles being loaded on an early version of a “tri-level” railcar. (Photo: trains.com)

Cassens Transport’s growth was seriously impacted by the railroads’ tri-level carriers. Annual revenue dropped from about $4 million to $1.5 million, and the company’s fleet shrunk from 225 trucks to 75. However, the company’s reputation for honesty and service helped during the difficult times.

In 1965, Chrysler was opening a new assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois. Cassens Transport convinced Chrysler executives that the company could handle deliveries to dealers from the new plant and provide good service. Cassens was selected to haul the plant’s new automobiles when it opened in September 1965. Nearly 57 years later, Cassens is still hauling new automobiles from the plant.

However, the volume lost to the railroads took its toll. In 1967 Cassens Transport closed its Detroit terminal and laid off 100 local employees.

International opportunities and difficult times

Looking for opportunities to increase its hauling volume, Cassens Transport hauled its first international load of autos on January 7, 1970, to the Canadian border. Although there were some labor issues regarding a cross-border haul, they were worked out and Cassens began hauling internationally.

From then until the end of the 1970s, Cassens Transport enjoyed robust growth. However, from 1979-1984 Chrysler Corporation had significant troubles. The company lost market share to imports and was later bailed out by the U.S. government. Efficient and visionary leadership from Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca saved the company from bankruptcy, but as the largest Chrysler direct carrier in the country, Cassens Transport was also negatively impacted.

Corporate revenue was $40 million in 1979, but dropped to $31 million in 1980. The company was forced to downsize again; the fleet was decreased from 365 trucks to 200.

Ten more new cars being taken to their destination. (Photo: Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)
Ten more new cars being taken to their destination. (Photo: Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)

New opportunities

The weather during the winter of 1979 was brutal in many parts of the nation. Nissan cars that had been transported by train from the West Coast were left stranded at a railhead in Naperville, Illinois, some 35 miles from Chicago. Nissan needed to get its new cars from Naperville to its dealers in the Midwest. Cassens Transport successfully hauled and delivered the Nissan vehicles to the dealerships waiting for them. Cassens also began hauling Honda automobiles from the railheads near Chicago. Hauling cars for Nissan and Honda generated new revenue for Cassens Transport, and also diversified its customer base. The new customers also provided exposure for Cassens with other companies.

The 1980s

On October 6, 1981, the Cassens formed a holding company that included all of the stock from the various Cassens’ corporations.

Although Cassens had been successfully hauling for Nissan since 1979, when Nissan opened its first U.S. assembly plant (in Smyrna, Tennessee) in August 1983, Cassens was not selected as its carrier. However, due to increased production volume at the facility, Cassens became a Nissan carrier in 1986.

Honda built and opened its first U.S. production facility in Marysville, Ohio, in September 1983. Cars built at the facility were hauled by Cassens Transport and several competitors. Because of competition from railroads and mergers, only Cassens Transport and one competitor continue to transport vehicles from the facility today.

This was followed by the opening of a Ford Motor Company production facility in Louisville, Kentucky. On September 5, 1984, Cassens Transport began hauling Fords  from the plant. Unfortunately, the contract ended after only three years.

Cassens Transport had been hauling vehicles to Canada since 1970, but the company did not open a terminal in Canada until 1986. The terminal is located in Windsor, Ontario.

Also in 1986 (and after 50 years), Cassens Transport outgrew the company offices in Hamel that George Cassens had built. On December 28, 1986, the company moved into a new headquarters building in Edwardsville.

Between 1987 and 1990, Cassens Transport began hauling vehicles for several other automobile manufacturers including American Motors, Hyundai, Mitsubishi and General Motors.

The 1990s

The growth that started in the 1980s continued into the next decade. Cassens began moving Subaru autos from Lafayette, Indiana, to Newark, Delaware. However, the company’s trucks were on the East Coast and having to deadhead back to the Midwest. Cassens contacted Chrysler about backhaul opportunities from Newark. Chrysler did provide some backhauls to the Detroit area, which helped to further expand the company’s business.

In April 1992, Cassens Transport began hauling inbound rail products at Sheffield Village, Ohio, for Ford. It had taken five years, but Cassens was once again a Ford carrier. When the assembly plant began the production of new vehicles, Cassens increased its responsibilities and service to the Ford/Nissan joint venture partners.

Cassens was selected as the carrier for Chrysler’s Sterling Heights, Michigan, assembly plant in 1994. The company added 150 new trucks to service the business.

Cassens continued its growth in 1999, adding two new shippers to its customer base. It began hauling for Toyota from a terminal in Princeton, Indiana, and for Saturn from Wilmington, Delaware.

The 2000s

The automotive business is cyclical. It experiences peaks and valleys and is very reactive to the overall economy. Therefore, over the past 20+ years, Cassens Transport has enjoyed the industry peaks and dealt with the industry’s valleys.

Despite the various economic cycles, Cassens Transport has persevered, achieving prominence in its industry niche. As noted on the company’s website, “the dominant attribute that has led the Cassens team from hauling milk in Hamel to transporting vehicles from automotive giants has been persistent hard work.”

Today, the company the company delivers for the following automobile manufacturers:

  • Chrysler
  • Ford
  • General Motors
  • Honda
  • Hyundai
  • Kia
  • Mitsubishi
  • Nissan
  • Subaru
  • Toyota
This Cassens transporter and its load are highlighted against a cloudy sky. (Photo:  Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)
This Cassens transporter and its load are highlighted against a cloudy sky. (Photo: Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)

The company’s terminals are in the following locations:

  • Illinois: Aurora, Belvidere, Edwardsville and Hegewisch
  • Indiana: Lafayette and Princeton
  • Kentucky: Georgetown and Georgetown
  • Maryland: Jessup/Annapolis Junction
  • Michigan: Detroit and Sterling Heights
  • New Jersey: Newark
  • New York: Niagara
  • Ohio: Marysville, Toledo and Warren/Lordstown
  • Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
  • Tennessee: Smyrna
  • Canada: London and Windsor

Author’s note: Information for this FreightWaves Classics article and most of the photos came primarily from the Cassens Transport Company website and/or Facebook page. The early history of the company was excerpted from “Humble Beginnings – The History of Cassens Transport,” which was recounted by Albert Cassens in 1996.

Sunrise or sunset? Regardless, another 10 vehicles are on the way to a dealership.  (Photo:  Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)
Sunrise or sunset? Regardless, another 10 vehicles are on the way to a dealership.
(Photo: Cassens Transport Company Facebook page)

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Cassens Transport (No. 81).