Truck upfitting has come a long way since this early dump truck model upfit from 1918. (Photo courtesy of Auto Truck Group)

Truck upfitting has come a long way since this early dump truck model upfit from 1918. (Photo courtesy of Auto Truck Group)

The Auto Truck Group celebrated a very important anniversary in March 2018: its centennial. For more than 100 years, the Auto Truck Group has been making trucks into tools through the design, manufacture, and installation of truck equipment.

What’s the secret to the company’s success? According to Peter Dondlinger, Auto Truck Group president, it’s tending to the needs of others.

“While the success of the business can be attributed to many factors, there are two we feel are the most important: the employees and the customers,” he said. “Taking care of both has allowed us to have the success we have.”

A look back at the company’s history shows that a passion for meeting customer needs was at the heart of Auto Truck Group from the beginning. Through many eras of challenge and change, the company remained focused on caring for its employees as well. Between the two, Auto Truck Group has survived through even the toughest economic periods in American history.

“The Great Depression and the Great Recession were challenges for many businesses,” Dondlinger said. “During those times we relied on our entrepreneurial spirit to find work to keep the business moving forward.”

Over time, the company’s core values have persisted. In fact, as Auto Truck Group celebrates its 100th anniversary, it has taken time to celebrate with those who have made up the heart of the organization.

“During the first quarter, we’ve had celebrations at each one of our facilities thanking our employees. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it to this milestone,” Dondlinger said. “We also celebrated with our customers in Indianapolis at the Work Truck Show.”

Gallery: 100 Years of Upfits

The Beginning

The Auto Truck Group story starts in 1918 when Hervey R. Dailey incorporated the “Auto Truck Steel Body Company,” which would later become the Auto Truck Group. Located in Chicago, Auto Truck manufactured, bought, sold and dealt a wide variety of truck bodies to distributors. The company’s dedication to meeting customer needs was present even in its very first years in business: an early catalog states that the company’s team of knowledgeable and experienced engineers could build any design needed to meet their needs.

The first 10 years in business were challenging. But in 1928, Eugene James “Don” Dondlinger, a passionate and talented engineer, became President of Auto Truck, a move that would help the company not just survive the Great Depression, but thrive in the 90 years that would follow.

Prior to joining Auto Truck, Don Dondlinger worked as an engineer in Wisconsin and used his talents to design a mechanical hoist for dump trucks, which he sold to dealers across the country. These travels landed him in Chicago, where he ended up joining Auto Truck, building truck bodies and continuing to sell his hoist to dealers. Don eventually sold the hoist business and with those proceeds, as well as earnings from the sale of his own truck body designs, he acquired Auto Truck from Dailey. And then, the stock market crashed.

The Great Depression

When the market crashed, Auto Truck did everything it could to stay afloat and keep its team employed. To do so, the company relied on its roots of meeting customer needs and began fabricating anything that was in demand. By 1939, when the manufacturing industry was finally recovering, Auto Truck had found a niche building hatch doors for United States Liberty ships.

At the same time, a high school student began spending his afternoons at Auto Truck and lending a hand. That student was Don’s son, Gene, who, after going to war, would spend the next two decades running the company with his Dad, and eventually assume the role of President in 1962.

A Return to Trucks

During World War II, Auto Truck built military components to aid soldiers in combat. Finally, when the war ended in 1945, Auto Truck was able to get back to its original business of building truck parts and bodies. But the company still faced a serious challenge: access to steel. Gene’s sister-in-law spent all of her time on the phone trying to buy steel and was able to get a few pieces here and there. Eventually, the company began buying from mills, acquiring a form of metal that was harder than steel.

In the 1950s, Auto Truck started to see appreciable growth. When Don passed away in 1962, Gene took over the business. By the 1970s, Auto Truck had expanded its business to include the fabrication of power plant parts, railroad equipment, and equipment for railroad trucks.

With the growth in railroad equipment, the Carroll Avenue facility would soon run out of room. There was no yard or outside storage to hold inventory. It was time to find a new home.

Goodbye Chicago, Hello Bensenville

Gene opted to build a brand new plant in Bensenville, Ill., which was both close to Chicago and close to where most of the employees lived. By 1980, the Bensenville plant was up and running. Both plants remained operational until 1982 when Auto Truck sold off the Carroll Avenue operation. In 1984, Auto Truck added on to the Bensenville location and moved everything to that facility.

In the 1980s, Auto Truck was expanding its railroad business but acknowledged things were changing. Many of its rail customers had been absorbed in mergers with larger railroads, and, by the 1980s, a dozen customers had consolidated into three. This meant it was time to diversify — and that’s when the fleet business was born, which in turn led to the development of the ship-thru business as well.

In 1988 Gene Dondlinger retired after 54 years of service. Gene’s son, Jim, a third-generation Dondlinger, took over leadership of Auto Truck, continuing the family tradition.

Expansion & Acquisition

During the 1990s, Auto Truck’s fleet and ship-thru business flourished. In 1997, the company acquired Layton Truck in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 1999, Auto Truck opened Louisville Truck Equipment. And in 2004, the company opened another Layton Truck location in Denver to support a large customer base. More growth also necessitated another expansion. In 2009, a plant in Bartlett, Ill., was completed and the Bensenville plant was closed.

In 2010, Auto Truck Group was acquired by Holman Enterprises and merged with Fleet Body, while retaining the Auto Truck name. This new Holman subsidiary soon expanded into Canada to better serve the Canadian customer base, and, in 2011, Auto Truck Canada opened its doors.

Between 2012 and 2015, growth was exponential. Auto Truck opened facilities in Maple Shade, N.J.; St. Louis, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and two in Kansas City, Mo. The company also acquired Nelson Manufacturing Facility in Huntington, Ind.

“Over the last several years, the market has shifted to the European style vans,” Dondlinger explained. “Knowing this, we made several investments in the business and opened new facilities in Kansas City and Charleston to support this change.”

The Fourth Generation of Leadership

In 2016, Jim Dondlinger’s son, Peter, was named president, having already spent 18 years with the company learning the ropes and contributing to the company’s success. Before handing over the reins, Jim celebrated 45 years with the company. Peter’s appointment as president marked four generations of Dondlinger leadership.

Throughout its rich history, Auto Truck Group weathered many challenges, each time shifting its business to rise above them. Through it all, its commitment to customers and employees has remained steadfast.

“It’s not about how the company has changed, but more about how the company has stayed the same while the world around us has changed,” Dondlinger said. “Our greatest success has been the opportunities we’ve created for our employees and their families over the past 100 years.”

The Next 100 Years

Looking ahead to the future, Dondlinger said he’s looking forward to the integration of Kargo Master into the Auto Truck family, its latest acquisition. But the most important step, he said, will be to get back to the basics on which the company was founded.

“We feel focusing on manufacturing of product will be an important part of the company’s future,” he said.Looking back, Dondlinger said Auto Truck Group is humbled by the honor to make it to 100 years. When asked what it would take for Auto Truck Group to have another 100 years of business, Dondlinger said the very same core values that drove success, in the beginning, will continue to drive it in the future. 

Related: Auto Truck Group Celebrates 100 Years of History

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