Just like the quest to build a better mousetrap has been never-ending, the auto industry has never stopped trying to build a better car carrier. Automobile designer and semi-truck inventor Alexander Winton is credited with building the first ever car transport truck in 1898 by shortening the wheelbase of a touring car and attaching a small semi-trailer sized just right for an automobile. Ever since then, people have been trying to figure out how to make hauling more stylish, to cram more cars into less space, and to get cars and trucks to locations off the beaten path.
We’ve put together a list of some of the most bizarre — and fascinating — ways cars have been shipped in the past and in the present. You may be surprised by how much car transport has changed over the years, and maybe even inspired to ponder how it will change in the future! Below are just some of the ways vehicles have gotten from Point A to Point B in the past.
- 1 One at a time by “Trailmobile”
- 2 In a box
- 3 On a train… on a carrier
- 4 On a Vert-A-Pac or a Stac-Pac
- 5 On the backs of a team of porters
- 6 Or on the back of a custom Scarab Transporter
- 7 On a beast of a Mercedes
- 8 With 8,500 of its friends
- 9 On extra-long carriers
- 10 As cargo in a super high-end RV
- 11 On a Futurliner
- 12 In the air
One at a time by “Trailmobile”
Winton was looking for a way to get his own inventory to his customers when he invented the semi-truck, but his invention had one major weakness. Each of Winton’s automobile haulers (which looked less like today’s car transport carriers and more like a flat two-wheeled cart hooked up to a surprisingly bare-bones car) could only carry one vehicle at a time.
The same is true for John C. Endebrock’s Trailmobile — a very simple iron chassis mounted on wheels and springs that was designed to be pulled behind a Ford Model T. Sure, it made it easier for a single operator to hook everything up, but again the issue was that hauling one car at a time was only marginally more efficient than simply driving the car to its destination.
It was car salesman George Cassens who took the car shipping industry to the next level. He was, like Winton, inspired by the need to get cars to customers, but also wanted to do something about the high price of shipping by rail. His solution? The first ever four-car trailer. His robust two-tiered design was surprisingly similar to modern car carriers – especially given that one of the four vehicles rode directly over the cab of the truck.
In a box
In the 1940s and 50s, manufacturers were using boxcars to transport as many vehicles as possible. What’s bizarre about that? The fact that it was hugely inefficient. You could fit four full-sized sedans on a two-tier rack in a standard boxcar or 15 automobiles in one flatcar on tri-level auto racks, but you wouldn’t get close to the max allowable weight of either car. Plus, shipping by rail cost way too much and even after reaching the destination station, cars still had to get to the dealership or the customer.
And yet, even today about 70% of all new cars and trucks sold in the US travel some distance by train before they end up on the car carrier that will take them to a dealership.
On a train… on a carrier
As the years passed, people continued to look for ways to streamline car transport. One answer? Putting the cars into the car carrier and then putting the entire rig on a flatbed rail car. It may not have saved any money – you still needed the carrier and the space on the train – but loading and unloading took less time when you could load an entire piggy-back car carrier trailer (already fully loaded with its complement of four vehicles) onto a flatcar.
On a Vert-A-Pac or a Stac-Pac
Shipping cars by rail on open containers did have some obvious drawbacks. Vehicles could sustain weather damage and the dual threats of vandalism and theft were always present. Was there a way to address those concerns while also packing more vehicles into a single train car? It turns out there was, and the answer took the form of a rail car with a radically new type of auto rack designed by GM and the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Vert-A-Pac and Stac-Pac cars could pack a whopping 30 ready-to-drive Chevrolet Vegas (with engines designed for this unusual ride) in a vertical nose down position into a single boxcar. ￼
On the backs of a team of porters
No road? No problem, if you’re rich enough. Way back in the 1940s, if you wanted to get your new-to-you Mercedes to Calcutta, India from Kathmandu (the only city in Nepal with modern roads at the time), you’d hire a team of porters to literally carry it over the rocky trails and mountains between the two cities. Cars would be stripped of their wheels and strapped to small platforms secured to long bamboo poles.
In one photo taken by the German American photographer Volkmar Wentzel for National Geographic in 1948, a team of sixty-four porters is shown carrying an old German-made Mercedes over a narrow bridge across a shallow stream. It’s fun to imagine those porters trekking over the mountains shown behind them, heaving and hoeing their way from one country to another. Smaller cars could be carried by a team of 32 porters while larger cars needed 96 to make the journey.
Or on the back of a custom Scarab Transporter
You could transport your brilliant blue 1960 F1 Scarab racers in a basic enclosed trailer or you could move them in a sleek matching custom car transporter designed and built by Italian automobile company Bartoletti Motors. Lance Reventlow, the owner of those original Scarab racers, chose the latter option and commissioned one of the most beautiful car transport vehicles of all time for one of the most beautiful race cars of all time.
It could transport three cars on the open double-decker bed, the cab was spacious and well-appointed for its day, and it had shiny wood floors in its garage-like cargo hold. With its curvy body and shiny chrome, the whole rig looked more like a luxury bus than a utilitarian car transporter, and it tended to attract attention wherever it went.
On a beast of a Mercedes
To get giant trucks like a 363-ton CAT mining rig to the quarries where they’re needed, these hulking working machines are usually disassembled, shipped part by part, and then reassembled at their destination. That’s because these monster 250+ ton mining trucks are so large (think building-size) that they can damage roadbeds just by driving along them. But what happens when disassembling them isn’t an option? It’s a good thing that the Mercedes-Benz Actros semi-tractor has a max capacity of up to 250 tons – which is enough (with the help of two trucks, as you can see in this video) to move a monster miner without tearing up the streets.
With 8,500 of its friends
Efficiency matters, which is why some car manufacturers now move their vehicles over water on vessels bigger than some cruise ships. Cars, trucks, and SUVs are packed like sardines onto thirteen decks with just inches between vehicles on ships like Japan’s Andromeda Leader (which is the length of two football fields) and the Hoegh Trigger out of Oslo.
These ships are Panamax size, which means that they are as big as a vessel can get while still fitting through the locks on the Panama Canal. When it comes to international car shipping, moving vehicles on these vessels is about as efficient as you can get.
On extra-long carriers
Car transporters in China push the limits of the law with semi-trailers that extend 27 meters or more. That means truckers can cram 15 vehicles onto a single-level, single-row trailer. Is it legal? Technically, no. Semi-trailers in China are supposed to be no longer than sixteen and a half meters, but the ever–increasing demand for new cars has led to companies pushing against this limit dramatically.
As if 27 meters of car carrying capacity wasn’t enough, there are double-level, double-width trucks on Chinese highways carrying up to 30 vehicles at a time. Is that legal? Not in the slightest, but so far that hasn’t stopped haulers from using these monster trailers that are so big they have to be loaded and unloaded outside of cities because they’re too big for urban roads.
As cargo in a super high-end RV
Seriously! If you’re traveling the world in your sleek and stylish $1.7 million Volkner Mobil Performance S motor home, there’s no need to tow your Ferrari or your Porsche (where it might be damaged by weather or road debris). While you enjoy your ultra-luxe RV’s fully-equipped kitchen, specially heated bathroom, state of the art entertainment system, and surprisingly spacious bedroom, your car can ride safely below in a perfectly-sized electrohydraulic lift garage.
It goes where you go without racking up any miles, and the garage is fully enclosed, so you don’t attract too much attention on your high-end road trip. Just make sure your ride is extremely low profile because it looks like a Porsche 911 is about the tallest car it can handle.
On a Futurliner
The Futurliner, which was originally manufactured for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and then became a showpiece in General Motors’ Parade of Progress, was a beautiful bus-like vehicle with a stylized art deco body and a self-contained exhibition space. Only twelve were ever manufactured and some have been beautifully restored, but Futurliner No. 5 was converted into a custom flatbed hauler by auto enthusiast and restoration expert Brad Boyajian. He created a 29-foot bed (long enough for two vehicles) with a wooden load floor and clamshell-style loading doors.
Boyajian isn’t alone when it comes to creating car shipping vehicles out of other trucks. Creative people have converted just about every other large vehicle you can think of into car transport carriers, from school buses to campers to vans.
In the air
Thinking about shipping your car overseas? Most of us will never ride in a car or truck that’s been in the air, but VIPs’ vehicles frequently make the journey from one country to another via airplane. World leaders’ limos are sent from nation to nation on Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. Super exotic collector cars owned by the wealthiest auto enthusiasts are transported on planes, so they get to their destinations faster. The same goes for the top race cars and concept cars that travel to and from major auto shows around the world. And owners from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait will often ship their vehicles in Airbus A330s when they summer in London or in the States.
The price tag for this journey is steep – upwards of $25,000 for a one-way trip – but if you have a large fortune, you can pay a small fortune to have your favorite car nearby at all times.
A lot of the car transport methods described above are outliers. The fact is that by the end of the 1960s, the modern car carrier was in operation, the kinks had been worked out of delivery by rail, and vessels designed for RO/RO loading/unloading were transporting cars across oceans. What’s changed since then is largely the size of carriers (especially on the water) and the number of transporters in operation, along with new protective measures that have made shipping a car safer.
The next big change in the auto transport industry will probably involve fuel consumption, as environmental and economic issues could make moving cars and trucks in fossil-fuel powered vehicles prohibitively expensive in the not so distant future. Vehicles will always need to be moved from place to place, and chances are good that future innovations will make it safer, cleaner, and less expensive to get cars and trucks where they need to go.