Image courtesy of Auto Truck Group

Image courtesy of Auto Truck Group

As Auto Truck Group celebrates its 100th anniversary, the upfitter is excited to share the company’s history with you. This first installment tells how Auto Truck survived the Great Depression by being ready for anything. Journey along with us as Auto Truck emerges from the U.S. Industrial Revolution.

The Beginnings of Auto Truck Group

One century ago in 1918, when the U.S. was the world’s leading industrial nation, the Auto Truck Steel Body Company was established. The shop was set up on Carroll Avenue in downtown Chicago, close to one of the nation’s most vibrant rail centers, where a metropolis of manufacturing giants was dominating Midwestern production. 

Imagine the sounds and smells of the busy facility — the rolling mills, forge shops, drawing mills, machine shops, and foundries where the No. 8 gauge steel plate was being shaped into truck bodies. Auto Truck was manufacturing, buying, selling and dealing all kinds of bodies to distributors. An early Auto Truck Steel Body Co. catalog shows the variations of its Model “A” Standard Body with optional mechanical hoists, tailgates, mudguards, chutes, sideboards, partitions, gravel spreaders, and more. 

Included on the catalog’s introduction page is the assurance to customers that the Auto Truck team of knowledgeable and experienced engineers could also build any design needed to meet their needs. In its earliest days, the Auto Truck values for responsiveness, workmanship, and design expertise were forged. 

Despite its best intentions, Auto Truck struggled through its first decade. Then — across a span of 90 years—four generations of the Dondlinger family would contribute to diversifying and expanding Auto Truck Group to become the leading upfit company it is today. 

Current Auto Truck President Pete Dondlinger owes the family legacy to his great-grandfather, Eugene James “Don” Dondlinger. In the mid-1920s, Don worked as an engineer in Wisconsin at a trader company. He had refined a mechanical hoist for dump trucks. He recorded a film of the hoist with its new technology in operation and began showing it around the country to generate sales to different dealers. 

Don’s travels brought him to bustling Chicago, and he came upon Auto Truck. With a passion for the automotive industry, Don joined the company and began building truck bodies while still selling his hoist to dealers on the side. Don was a talented engineer with an eye for innovation and a knack for marketing. The success of his hoist sales eventually caught the attention of Garfield Wood, founder of the Wood Hydraulic Hoist & Body Company in Detroit. Gar bought the hoist business from Don. Next Don designed another truck body and sold it to Heil Company, a Milwaukee, WI company that built garbage trucks. 

In 1928, after pulling together everything he was able to save from his income, from his hoist sales and from selling his truck designs, Don had enough to buy Auto Truck from the man who started the business. What he bought, however, wasn’t much. To make matters worse, the stock market crashed the following year. This sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors, which brought on the Great Depression. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped. This caused steep declines in industrial output and rising levels of unemployment as failing companies laid off workers. Auto Truck took the necessary steps to ensure the plant was operational and our employees stayed employed. Like many other manufacturing companies at the time, Auto Truck survived the Great Depression by thinking outside the box and fabricating anything in demand. 

Coming Back from the Great Depression

By 1939, manufacturing started a comeback. Much was needed to support the industrial output for World War II. By building hatch doors for Liberty (cargo) ships — first for the British and Soviet Union fleets and then for the U.S., Auto Truck found a niche. During this time, Don’s son Gene (or “Junior” by most of the old-timers) began following in his father’s footsteps by working afternoons at Auto Truck while he was a student at Lane Technical High School in Chicago. 

In 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, Gene enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Europe. The war ended in 1945; Gene returned home and to Auto Truck. For almost two decades, Don and Gene ran the company, which had returned its focus to trucks. Auto Truck faced a new challenge as the post-war steel shortage had a significant impact on production, but that’s a story for another time… 

This look back at Auto Truck’s first quarter-century is the start of a series to commemorate Auto Truck’s 100th anniversary.