• Tue. Jun 21st, 2022

FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: Winton Motor Carriage Company Built America’s First Truck and Semi-Trailer

ByJanice K. Merrill

Apr 20, 2022

Trucks have been around for quite some time, shortly after “horseless carriages” arrived in the United States in the 1890s. In fact, the first tractor-trailer was built before 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.

Alexander Winton.  (Photo: intrans.iastate.edu)
Alexander Winton. (Photo: intrans.iastate.edu)

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

Early Winton Automobiles

Winton produced two fully operational prototype automobiles. His first automobiles were hand-built; each had painted sides, upholstered seats, a leather roof, and gas lamps. Tires for automobiles were made by BF Goodrich.

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

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

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

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

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

An early advertisement for a Winton.  (Photo: automotivehistory.org)
An early advertisement for a Winton.
(Photo: automotivehistory.org)

The first semi-trailer

Winton wanted to deliver their automobiles directly to their buyers, but without putting miles or wear and tear on the vehicles. To solve this problem, Winton designed a car transport unit that could be pulled by a truck. Winton’s auto transporter 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 transporting goods on an attached trailer.

Consequently, Winton built the first auto transporter in America. By 1899, the company was manufacturing the transporter to transport the automobiles it sold. Winton sold its first semi-trailer made in 1899. Soon other automakers were buying up Winton’s truck-trailer sets.

Winton is therefore considered the inventor of the first semi-trailer/truck combination. Although not the 18-wheelers of today, Winton’s vehicle served its purpose.

Winton's semi-trailer.  (Photo: vintage.es)
Winton’s semi-trailer. (Photo: vintage.es)

What is a semi-trailer?

Many people talk about “seedling” without really understanding what the term “semi-trailer” really means. A semi-trailer has no front axle and is therefore different from a trailer, which has a front axle.

The weight of a semi-trailer and its contents is partially supported by its wheels and tires, with the rest of the support usually coming from the tractor pulling it. It can also be supported by a dolly or the back 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 principles and the first design used by the Winton Motor Company nearly 125 years ago. Additionally, the design is also used by the travel industry, where cars and trucks transport camping trailers using the same principle.

Flatbed trucks move on the road.  (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Flatbed trucks move on the road. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Winton’s success continues

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

Advertising on Winton automobiles generated additional sales. In 1901, the fact that Reginald Vanderbilt and Alfred Vanderbilt purchased Winton automobiles gave a huge boost to the company’s image. Winton had two models that year – a two-passenger Runabout with a single-cylinder engine that delivered 8 hp, and a four-passenger touring and mail delivery van that was also equipped with a single-cylinder engine that produced 9 hp.

Illustration of the Winton Motor Carriage Co. plant and assembly buildings.  (Image: historicstructures.com)
Illustration of the Winton Motor Carriage Co. plant and assembly buildings. (Image: historicstructures.com)

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 Cleveland land speed record of 70 mph. The Bullet was beaten by another Ford driven by the famous Barney Oldfield, but Winton built two more Bullet racers.

Dr. Horatio Jackson made the first successful automobile cross-country in 1903. After betting $50, he bought a Winton two-cylinder 20-horsepower touring car and hired a mechanic to travel with him .

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

There were only 150 miles of paved road in the whole country in 1903; all were within various city limits. There were no road signs or maps. Along the way, they followed rivers and streams, transcontinental railroads, sheep trails, and dirt side roads.

Horatio Jackson Nelson in his Winton, the "Vermont." (Photo: University of Vermont Collections.
Horatio Jackson Nelson in his Winton, the “Vermont”. (Photo: University of Vermont Collections.


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

The Winton Motor Carriage Company continued to sell automobiles to high-end consumers throughout the 1910s, but the company’s sales began to decline in the early 1920s. The very conservative nature of the business – both in terms of technical development and styling – was the main cause of the decline. Only one sports model was offered – the Sport Touring, with the majority of Wintons featuring tourer, sedan, limo and city car styling. As was the case with many early automobile manufacturers, the Winton Motor Carriage Company ceased automobile production on February 11, 1924.

An early Winton "a truck." (Photo: thehenryford.org)
One of Winton’s first “trucks”. (Photo: thehenryford.org)

Winton Engine Company

Independent of its automobile production, Winton had begun manufacturing diesel engines for stationary and marine use, as well as heavy-duty gasoline engines in 1912. The subsidiary Winton Engine Company remained successful while Winton’s automobile sales declined. The subsidiary survived the Winton Motor Carriage Company. Winton Engine Company became the main supplier of engines for internal combustion electric wagons in 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 first diesel locomotives of Electro-Motive Corporation, which was another subsidiary of GM at the time. The engines were also used to power United States Navy submarines.

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

The cover of a Zephyr brochure.  (Image: chicagology)
The cover of a Zephyr brochure. (Image: chicagology)

Marine engines

Winton and Cleveland engines were used extensively by the United States Navy during World War II, powering submarines, escort destroyers, and many auxiliary vessels. However, the Winton engines were routinely replaced by the more reliable Cleveland engines during refits.

The USS Drum, which is now on display in Mobile, Alabama.  (Photo: USS Alabama Battleship Commission)
The USS Drum, which is now on display in Mobile, Alabama.
(Photo: USS Alabama Battleship Commission)

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