How does one transport a vehicle that’s function is transportation itself? The automotive industry has not stopped innovating ways to transport vehicles (both foreign and domestic) since the first car transport truck was invented in 1898. Over the years, manufacturers and transport companies have shipped cars in a variety of weird ways.
Alexander Winton invented the first car transport truck. In the late 19th century, Winton shortened the wheelbase of a car and then added a perfectly car-sized trailer behind it. However, it could only transport one vehicle at a time, which is not exactly efficient. It’s not much more useful than driving the car to its destination. Twenty years later, in 1918, John C. Endebrock introduced his Trailmobile concept. The Trailmobile was an iron chassis that could attach to a Model T. The chassis mounted on wheels and springs. The Trailmobile was much more efficient than other vehicle transport methods at the time because one person could set it up, but it still only transported one car at a time.
In the mid-20th century, the only way to get from Calcutta to Kathmandu in Nepal was to fly or walk. New vehicles were sent to Calcutta by ship and then driven to Bhimpedhi. Once the cars were in Bhimphedhi, workers stripped them of any extraneous parts such as wheels and bumpers. Then, they attached the cars to bamboo poles and carried them up and over mountainous terrain to Kathmandu. This method of transport involved up to 96 porters carrying expensive cars to their wealthy owners. In 1956, the Tribhuvan Highway was constructed to connect the Nepalese capital to India, and the people-carrying method of car shipment was no longer needed.
Lance Reventlow was a 20th-century race car driver and entrepreneur, most known for building the first Formula One race car in the United States. He was also the heir to the Woolworth fortune as the only son of Barbara Hutton, a mid-century millionaire socialite. He commissioned a custom transport vehicle for his custom Scarab race cars. Reventlow’s car transporter was designed and built by Bartoletti Motors. It attracted attention anywhere he went: the transporter was bright blue and had lots of shiny chrome accents. The carrier could fit up to three race cars, and it even had wooden floors in its cargo hold.
Throughout the middle of the twentieth century, auto manufacturers shipped as many vehicles by rail as possible. The issue? Transporting cars on trains was incredibly inefficient at the time. Most standard-sized boxcars can fit four full-sized sedans. The weight of four vehicles doesn’t come close to the maximum amount of weight allowable on those boxcars. Fifteen cars can fit onto a flatcar with specialized racks, but shipping by rail was still costly. Even when vehicles reach their rail destination, they still need to be transported to a dealership or customer somehow. Even today, about 70% of all new cars sold in the United States travel by train between manufacture and sale.
As mentioned before, shipping vehicles by rail is expensive. The only way to fit as many cars as possible onto a train car in the mid- to the late twentieth century was to transport them on flatcars. This method of transportation is not ideal due to threats of vandalism, theft, and weather conditions. To solve this, General Motors and Southern Pacific Railroad designed an automobile rack in the 1970s that could fit thirty Chevrolet Vegas. The vehicles were loaded vertically, nose-down, inside of a covered car. The engines of the Chevy cars were specifically designed to withstand this type of transportation.
Wealthy motorists have the option of transporting their sports cars in a fancy motor home. The Volkner Mobil Performance S RV costs 1.7 million dollars and has space in its cargo hold to carry a personal vehicle. The electrohydraulic lift garage can fit a low-profile car such as a Ferrari or a Porsche. The garage is fully enclosed and protects the car from any weather or road damage. The garage also prevents owners from adding unnecessary miles to their vehicles on road trips. While this method of vehicle transport is prohibitively expensive, it’s certainly a stylish option for wealthy car owners and road-trip fanatics.
When world leaders such as presidents and prime ministers travel from one country to another, their limos are transported in cargo planes as a security measure. Wealthy motorists and car collectors often pay for their vehicles to be carried by aircraft. While shipment in this manner costs $25,000 and upwards, most people shipping their cars this way are millionaires. Concept cars and specialized race cars are also typically shipped by plane to protect them from damage commonly sustained during other modes of transportation.
The most efficient way to transport vehicles, especially from one country to another, is by sea. Most often, vehicles are packed together tightly onto ships that can be as large as two football fields put together. These ships are called “Panamax” ships because they are the maximum size that a vessel can be and still be able to pass through the Panama Canal without hitting the locks.
Many of the methods of vehicle transportation mentioned here are outliers. In the United States, vehicles are transported by modern car-carriers and have been since the late 1960s. The most significant difference between current and mid-century vehicle transport is the size of the carriers. Car transport vehicles are much larger now than ever before. For example, China has many regulations concerning the transport of cars, especially on semi-trailers. This doesn’t stop companies from ignoring those regulations and transporting vehicles on semi-trailers longer than 27 meters. Despite the length-limit of 16 meters, there have been instances of some double-wide, double-level trailers that fit 30 cars. These car-carriers cannot be driven through cities because of their size, so they’re often unloaded just outside of city limits.
The challenge that professionals in the automotive transportation industry are facing is fuel consumption. How can vehicles be transported in an environmentally and financially-friendly manner? Fossil-fuel powered transportation many become prohibitively expensive soon, so professionals are always on the lookout for ways to make vehicle transportation safe, clean, and efficient in the future.