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FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: Winton Motor Carriage Company built the first US truck and semi trailer

Trucks have been around quite a while, coming along shortly after “horseless carriages” arrived in the U.S. in the 1890s. In fact, the first semi-truck was built prior to 1900. 

How? Where? Who?

The Winton Motor Carriage Company was founded in 1896 in Cleveland, Ohio, by Alexander Winton, a Scottish-American designer and inventor. 

Winton began the Winton Bicycle Company in 1891, but changed from bicycle production when automobiles began to appear. He built an experimental single-cylinder automobile by hand before starting the Winton Motor Carriage Company. The company was incorporated on March 15, 1897. 

The first Winton automobiles

Winton produced two fully operational prototype automobiles. Its first automobiles were hand-built; each had painted sides, padded seats, a leather roof and gas lamps. The tires for the autos were made by B.F. Goodrich.

In May 1897, the 10-horsepower model achieved the astonishing speed of 33.64 mph on a test around a Cleveland horse track. However, Winton’s automobile (and automobiles in general) were still viewed with skepticism by many. To prove his automobile’s durability and usefulness, Winton put his auto through an 800-mile endurance run from Cleveland to New York City.

The Winton Motor Carriage Company was a pioneer in automobile manufacturing in the United States. Moreover, Winton was one of the first American companies to sell a motor car. 

Robert Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, became the first person to buy a Winton automobile on March 24, 1898. Allison had seen Winton’s automobile advertisement in Scientific American.

Later in 1898 the Winton Motor Carriage Company sold 21 more automobiles, including one to James Ward Packard, who later founded the Packard automobile company after Winton challenged a very dissatisfied Packard to do better.

However, the Winton Motor Carriage Company needed to deliver its first 22 automobiles. Most  of their buyers lived hundreds of miles from Cleveland.

The first semi-trailer

Winton wanted to deliver his automobiles directly to their buyers, but without putting any miles or wear and tear on the vehicles. To solve this problem, Winton designed a car-hauling unit that could be pulled by a truck. Winton’s auto hauler could be used to transport the vehicles. So without planning it, the Winton Motor Carriage Company pioneered the trucking industry. In 1898, the company built its first truck capable of carrying cargo on an attached trailer. 

Therefore, Winton built the first automobile hauler in America. By 1899 the company was manufacturing the hauler to transport the automobiles it sold. Winton sold his first manufactured semi-truck in 1899. Soon, other automobile companies were buying Winton’s truck-trailer combinations.

So Winton is credited as the inventor of the first semi trailer/truck combination. While it wasn’t today’s 18-wheelers, Winton’s vehicle served its purpose.

What is a semi-trailer?

Many people refer to “semis” without really understanding what the term “semi trailer” actually means. A semi trailer does not have a front axle, and therefore is different from a trailer, which does have a front axle.

The weight of a semi trailer and its contents is partially supported by its wheels and tires, with the remainder of the support usually coming from the tractor that pulls it. It may also be supported by a dolly or by the back end of another trailer in a tandem tractor-trailer configuration.

Millions of semi-trailers that follow Winton’s basic design are now seen on today’s roads and highways. Flatbed trailers, or “removable goosenecks” (RGN), are based on Winton’s principles and the first design used by the Winton Motor Company nearly 125 years ago. Moreover, the design is also used by the travel industry, where cars and trucks haul camping trailers using the same principle.

Winton’s success continued

More than 100 Winton vehicles were sold in 1899; the company was the largest manufacturer of gasoline-powered automobiles in the nation. This success led to the opening of the first automobile dealership in the United States. It was located in Reading, Pennsylvania and owned by H.W. Koler. 

Publicity about the Winton automobiles generated additional sales. In 1901, the fact that both Reginald Vanderbilt and Alfred Vanderbilt had purchased Winton automobiles gave a huge boost to the company’s image. Winton had two models that year – a two-passenger Runabout with a one-cylinder engine that delivered 8-hp and a four-passenger Touring and Mail Delivery Van that also was equipped with a one-cylinder engine that generated 9 hp. 

That same year, Winton lost a race to Henry Ford. Undeterred, Winton vowed a comeback and a win. He built the 1902 Winton Bullet, which set an unofficial land speed record of 70 mph in Cleveland. The Bullet was beaten by another Ford driven by the famed Barney Oldfield, but Winton built two more Bullet racers.

Dr. Horatio Jackson made the first successful automobile cross-country drive in 1903.  After making a $50 bet, he bought a two-cylinder, 20-horsepower Winton touring auto and hired a mechanic to make the trip with him. 

Jackson began his trip in San Francisco and ended in New York City. The trip took 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes, which included downtime caused by breakdowns and delays waiting for parts to arrive. Jackson and his mechanic often had to drive miles out of their way to find a passable road. They also had to repeatedly hoist the Winton “up and over rocky terrain and mud holes with a block and tackle, or were pulled out of soft sand by horse teams.” 

There were only 150 miles of paved road in the entire nation in 1903; all were inside various city limits. There were no road signs or maps. Along the way, they followed rivers and streams, transcontinental railroad tracks, sheep trails and dirt back roads.


The 1904 Winton was a five-passenger tourer equipped with a tonneau (a cover that protected the unoccupied rear seating compartment of the roadster). The automobile sold for $2,500. 

The Winton Motor Carriage Company continued to sell automobiles to upscale consumers throughout the 1910s, but the company’s sales began to fall in the early 1920s. The very conservative nature of the company – both in terms of technical development and styling – was the primary cause for the decline. Only one sporting model was offered – the Sport Touring, with the majority of Wintons featuring tourer, sedan, limousine and town car styling. As was true for many of the early automobile manufacturers, the Winton Motor Carriage Company ceased automobile production on February 11, 1924.

Winton Engine Company

Independent of its automobile production, Winton had begun manufacturing diesel engines for stationary and marine use, as well as gasoline engines for heavy vehicles in 1912. The Winton Engine Company subsidiary remained successful while Winton’s automotive sales went into decline. The subsidiary outlived the Winton Motor Carriage Company. Winton Engine Company became the main supplier of engines for internal combustion-electric powered railcars during the 1920s.

Winton Engine Company was sold to General Motors on June 20, 1930, and on June 30 was reorganized as GM’s Winton Engine Corporation. It produced the first practical two-stroke diesel engines in the 400-to-1,200 horsepower range. These engines powered the early diesel locomotives of Electro-Motive Corporation, which was another GM subsidiary at the time. The engines were also used to power U.S. Navy submarines. 

A Winton eight-cylinder, 600-horsepower diesel engine powered the revolutionary streamlined passenger train the Burlington Zephyr, the first American diesel-powered mainline train. The Winton Engine Corporation provided diesel engines for rail use until late 1938, when it was reorganized as the General Motors Cleveland Diesel Engine Division, which produced locomotive engines and other large diesels for marine and stationary use. 

Marine engines

Winton and Cleveland engines were widely used by the U.S. Navy during World War II, powering submarines, destroyer escorts and numerous auxiliary ships. However, the Winton engines were systematically replaced with the more reliable Cleveland engines during refittings.